Honestly, Why Can’t Leaders See That The Truth Really Doesn’t Hurt?

Not for the first time, Google has got itself into a communications mess. According to widespread reports, its bosses are stifling internal debate and open discourse to try to keep the troops in line. After a series of messages on internal platforms, employees are going to be disciplined if they issue political ‘statements that insult, demean and humiliate’. How ironic that the chief enabler of our digitised open democracy should be censoring internal debate about Google policy, culture and decision-making. Doing no evil, indeed.

I wonder if my own recent experiences point to one reason why Google’s leaders, particularly Sundar Pichai, have got it so wrong.

The more I’ve worked with brands, CEOs and their marketing teams, the more I’ve come to realise that the most important skill a consultant needs is the ability and courage to be honest.

Just as the best thing about being a journalist is being paid to argue, the best thing about being a consultant is being paid to offer an honest opinion. The more you’re right, the more successful you’ll become. Just as the more persuasive your arguments, the more successful a journalist you become.

However, as I discovered last week, there is a flaw and the experience taught me a lot about the difference between the way leaders and their teams embrace truthful openness.

The company in question will be known to most British consumers. Even though it’s well established, the brand lacks identity, it has lost its once-formidable connection to consumers and years of cutbacks have sapped its staff of creativity, desire and teamwork.

I was brought in to help the business and those who work for it to tell better stories, internally and externally. Stories about what they do, who do they do it for, what their purpose was, is and should be.

We all took part in a fantastically inspiring series of workshops – the collaborative nature of these sessions means it doesn’t feel like training. We solve problems together, constantly listening to each other. Many of those involved were further down the corporate ladder and part of my task was to make them feel less neglected, whilst giving them the confidence to express themselves in more dynamic ways.

And it worked. They know the trouble the brand is in and were open about the steps required to repair its reputation. My honesty about how to improve their work and why it had, on occasions, underwhelmed was appreciated. Indeed, they demanded I was honest. Sometimes being at the coalface can help you to see things with crystal-clarity and readily accept constructive criticism. Survival depends upon it.

Then I went upstairs. The CEO, aware of my work, wanted an honest assessment of how the brand was performing and what new measures – if any – needed to be adopted. That ‘if any’ set off my internal alarm but, since I was being paid for my honesty, I went ahead with my assessment.

Diplomatically, I ventured all of the above faults and suggested that focusing leadership on addressing these issues could transform the way the brand is viewed by those who work for it and consumers who engage with it.

I was met by a blank stare. ‘Well I don’t really recognise your summation, Grant. Yes, we’ve had some difficult times but we’re changing things. We’re in a much better place.’ And there the conversation abruptly ended. Despite my success with the teams lower down the leadership food chain, I’m not sure if I’ll be asked back. My honesty both worked and failed.

Which brings me back to the truth-flaw. Honest advice and opinion is as vital a commodity when you’re dealing with the CEO as the marketing intern. They both need it but, for some reason, when certain leaders reach the pinnacle, they start to only want to hear certain things. Their listening skills got them to where they are and then they abandon them.

In my experience, newsrooms are crucibles of creativity because even though everyone thinks they have the answer, they’re desperate to hear alternatives. The best journalists and editors want to listen, even if they might disagree. That listening process, encouraging truthful expression, makes for a more productive working environment.

It’s wholly depressing when leaders think they must be right simply because they’re leaders and I wonder if that’s what is happening at Google. I had always imagined that doing no evil rather depends upon listening to what people think that doing evil actually represents.

Or, in the words of one of my cricketing heroes and a superb leader of teams, Michael Atherton: ‘Leaders must never fight shy of surrounding themselves with people who will hold them to account and tell them things they may not wish to hear. It’s so valuable.’

Maybe it’s time to dust off those pads, Sundar.

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Not for the first time, Google has got itself into a communications mess. According to widespread reports, its bosses are stifling internal debate and open discourse to try to keep the troops in line. After a series of messages on internal platforms...