One Stealth Practice of Today’s Best Leaders: Radical Transparency

If teammates don’t know what’s going wrong in a team, how can they possibly help a leader fix it? After studying hundreds of modern teams for our new book The Best Team Wins, we found a common practice in the best: Radical transparency.

Danaher Vice President Melissa Aquino told us recently that she’s tried to implement this in her teams, with benefits for all, but most especially for her younger employees. Aquino said, “Boomers want to be honored for their legacy and what they know,

Millennials want information. They are used to living in a world of perfect information and, if it’s not, they often don’t get started. I’d estimate this generation can give twenty percent more productivity than any generation if they have the right information to get started.”

So, she tells her new hires to not be intimidated but to seek out knowledge. “I give each of my new people a list of five people they need to meet and the core knowledge those people have. They are supposed to set up meetings, meet with them face-to-face, and interview them. Then they come back and give me a summary of what they learned. That’s led to some really rich discussions.”

Aquino is among the team leaders who are transforming their teams from need-to-know cultures to need-to-share—where privacy is being replaced with a radical transparency. In our personal lives, most likely because of social media, more of us are living in the open than ever before, and this is transferring rapidly into the work world. Secrecy, once considered the accepted norm in business, is now largely anachronistic. Who would have ever believed that employees would get to rate their bosses in public, which they can on Glassdoor—or even rate their customers—encouraged in places like Airbnb and Uber.

More members of our workforce have grown up with the belief they have an inalienable right to speak up, and smart managers are encouraging it, and it’s leading teams to be more collaborative as a result. And other benefits abound: Participating in decision-making tends to reduce stress, increase trust, andcreate a culture where people are more likely to own challenges and solutions.

We instinctively know how important this kind of transparency is in our personal lives. We wouldn’t fall in love with someone if they failed to disclose as we got to know them better. As hunky as James Bond might be, most women would not put up with his clandestine behavior for long. Similarly, in our work lives, we don’t create a connection with a manager who keeps everything close to the vest.

A few questions a manager might ask herself about the amount of transparency she’s fostering in her team are:

  • Do I share everything about our team performance, goals, and challenges with my employees, or do I find myself keeping information secret that doesn’t need to be?
  • Do we have a very clear way to post our team goals and current performance levels for all to see?
  • Am I consistent about involving my people in decision-making with issues—especially those that affect their work?
  • Do my employees have a say in setting goals that are important in their jobs?
  • What avenues do my team members have to voice their ideas and concerns?
  • How do I show my employees their opinions and ideas are appreciated?

One of our favorite stories of transparency comes from Quicken Loans, where a handful of the 10,000 employees accidentally call CEO Bill Emerson every month. He doesn’t mind. He has given his personal cell-phone number to each employee, and he expects a few pocket dials now and then. “It’s an open culture,” he says. “I encourage leaders to be accessible because it breeds an inclusive culture.” And as the culture’s senior-most leader, Emerson realizes he must model the behavior. He says he only receives a handful of real calls from employees each month (even some from brave interns), and most are about regular business. He has not yet received any prank calls.

Still, he does remember a few unusual moments.

During one new employee orientation session, new hires were given an awareness quiz, which came soon after Emerson and founder Dan Gilbert spent a ten-hour day going over Quicken’s ISMs (values) and culture. In the quiz, one of the questions was, ‘What color are Bill Emerson’s eyes?’ “I got like six phone calls from people asking if I would answer the question for them. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t answer that; it’s an awareness quiz!”

So, we find with a smile, there may be a few times when it’s not good to be too transparent—even in the most transparent of cultures.

As always, we love to read your thoughts. How do you think transparency is created and maintained within a team? Is it important?

 © 2018 Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton  All rights reserved.


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