You may recall reading about St. Thomas Becket in your history classes years ago. He was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170 and is venerated as a saint and martyr by the Catholic Church. He engaged in conflict with Henry II of England over the rights and privileges of the Church and was murdered by followers of the king in Canterbury Cathedral. Soon after his death, he was canonized a saint by Pope Alexander III.
There is much we can learn from the courageous defense of truth and justice that cost St. Thomas Becket his life. But, there is something else of significance that this saint from the 12th century can teach us, especially those of us in business leadership roles. Reflect on these words of St. Thomas Becket to a friend on the way to his ordination as Archbishop of Canterbury: “Hereafter, I want you to tell me, candidly and in secret, what people are saying about me. And if you see anything in me that you regard as a fault, feel free to tell me in private. For from now on, people will talk about me, but not to me. It is dangerous for men in power if no one dares to tell them when they go wrong.”
I am drawn to the last sentence in particular: “It is dangerous for men in power if no one dares tell them when they go wrong.” Over my 25 years in business, I have noticed the consistent frequency with which business leaders lose the candid voices in their lives as they climb the corporate ladder. It is a common scenario for these professionals to reach a senior leadership position where people who were once peers and co-workers become followers. They find it difficult to receive honest feedback and open dialogue with their team is rare. To make matters worse, bad news is often diluted or kept from them. These leaders understandably get frustrated when very little changes after they repeatedly ask for candor and begin to recognize they are, to some degree, flying blind without a reliable compass. Lack of candor on a team or in the larger corporate culture also stifles productivity and innovation, ultimately having a negative impact on business results. What can these leaders do? Does this describe you or someone you know?
On the Inside
It is very difficult to change human nature. You may never fully overcome the fear, politics and self-protective behaviors exhibited by the rank and file in your organization, but the effort must be made. Leaders should always work diligently to build trust and create opportunities for safe and open dialogue with their team members. First, let’s consider an inside the company approach. Here are five suggestions:
Teach. Teach the team what you are seeking, appropriate ways to share it and most importantly, tell them why. The Millennial generation in particular will want to understand the reason. Also, make it clear you won’t shoot the messenger…and really mean it!
Model. It is imperative that leaders model the desired behavior. A starting point might be to bring up difficult issues in meetings, even if they reflect poorly on you, and deal with them openly in front of the team.
Praise. When you do observe sincere efforts to share ideas and honest feedback, praise this behavior in front of the rest of the team. Do it frequently, consistently and in public.
Ask the New Folks. If you want a refreshing viewpoint of what is going on in your organization, seek the opinions of employees who have been there less than three months. Engage in low-profile discussions away from the spotlight with new hires and you will be amazed at what you will learn.
Restrain your Ego. All of the above may sting a bit if you have been surrounded by the “yes” crowd and are not used to criticism and honest feedback, as much as you desire it. Remember that humility and vulnerability are the hallmarks of good leadership and these actions will help you grow as a leader (and deepen the engagement and commitment level of your team if you are sincere).
St. Thomas Becket realized the dangers of living in isolation and implored a friend to be a candid voice in his new role as a powerful Archbishop. Business leaders should follow a similar path. Have enough humility and self-awareness to realize you will make mistakes and don’t have all the answers. Invest in your own personal growth and don’t become complacent, surrounded by people who agree with everything you say and refuse to challenge you to become better at your job.
Where else can you find the necessary candid voices? Outside of your company are numerous professionals with talent and great ideas that can help you grow, if you know how to find them. You have at least three viable options and a blended approach using all of these is typically the best approach:
- Seek out a mentor. Seek a senior executive from another organization who has successfully done what you are hoping to do with your career, has had experiences you wish to learn from or possesses values you admire (I suggest getting referrals from people you trust to help in finding the right person). After you get to know the person and go through your own vetting process, humbly ask them if they will consider being your mentor. Finding the right person can take awhile, but the journey is worth it. I have had mentors in my career and the experiences were invaluable. Don’t be surprised by what you can learn from someone who takes seriously the role of mentor. This is only effective if you are willing to humbly listen and follow their helpful advice.
- Enlist a personal board of advisors. Go to business leaders you know and trust in different companies and ask them to be part of your inner circle of advisors. This isn’t necessarily a formal meeting, but a small group of people who have nothing to lose by being absolutely candid and objective with you. View them as your accountability partners, which is completely different from a mentor relationship. Don’t select close friends for this group but instead seek people who will challenge you.
- Find an executive coach. This person should be objective, direct and not be limited by the challenges internal employees of your company face in being honest. Interview a number of coaches, check references and select one who can be your candid counselor and help you stay on the right path. Great coaches will always tell you the truth, even when it is painful.
St. Thomas Beckett had it right and knew he needed candid voices in his new and powerful role. Don’t be lulled into an unfounded self-confidence because you only hear positive feedback from those around you. Also, remember the absence of feedback from your team does not constitute a positive endorsement of your work. My most successful executive coaching clients utilize most of the options I have laid out and despite their positive business results, they always assume there is room for improvement and actively seek honest feedback to help them grow and stay on track.
Who are the candid voices in your life?