The Executive Toolbox: Open and Honest Communications

Why is it important to an executive to build a team that practices open and honest communication?

  1. It prevents the phenomena of The Emperor Has No Clothes.

We all know the story: no one in the emperor’s court would tell him the fine suit he’d had made, and thought he was wearing in a parade, was non-existent ‒ until a child yelled it out for everyone to hear.

Everyone who was watching already knew it, but no one had the courage to say it ‒ for fear of retribution.   Teams whose members believe they will face threats and retribution if they voice their concerns or challenge the leader’s beliefs or approach, learn to keep their thoughts to themselves.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that every team meeting has to include a series of public challenges to the leader or to each other, yet this is what is often viewed as open and honest communications.

Open and honest communications start with the executive building a relationship with each team member. The most effective executives I’ve worked with meet privately with each of their team members on a weekly basis. In that private setting, the executive invites honest commentary on issues from her subordinate, considers the input, asks clarifying questions, and provides honest feedback in return.

  1. It reduces the amount of time and energy spent “politicking”.

In organizations where team members don’t have the opportunity to communicate openly and honestly, members often spend an inordinate amount of timing politicking and building coalitions.

There’s certainly an advantage to team members seeking each other’s counsel when looking for a solution to an issue; however, when they’re attempting to gain an advantage by undermining other team members through this practice, it hurts the whole team.

Often I’ve found active campaigns in progress to either discredit an executive or assign blame to another department to account for the failures of the organization.   I’ve been told: “Our problem is the Sales Organization. They continually make promises we can’t meet to get the sale.” When I talk with the executive leading the Sales Organization I hear, “Our problem is the Production Organization. They consistently don’t deliver on their commitments.”

As an executive and leader it’s essential that you teach your team to work with, rather than against, each other.   Setting clear expectations and providing the tools so that when one department has an issue with the performance of another the two department heads know they own getting to the root cause of the problem and resolving the issue is the executive’s responsibility.

That doesn’t mean the executive should just get the two together and issue an edict that “the two of you need to go work this out.” The executive needs to set the expectation that the two will provide objective evidence that the issue has been resolved, and a date when that will occur.

  1.  Open and honest communication moves a team beyond the possibility of Group Think.

The infamous Lemmings Super Bowl commercial in 1985 showed a blindfolded line of executives following each other off a cliff which is the picture that always shows up in my mind’s eye when I picture the dangers of Group Think.

One trait of being a leader and a senior executive is to always be looking for solutions to roadblocks. However, if the leader always develops the solution or leads the team through developing a solution, the team can get into the habit of subordinating their individual ideas to his.

If the team has agreed upon a goal or set of goals, and agreed upon the way they will measure their progress against their goals, the leader of each organizational entity should be accountable for developing her plan and presenting their approach to the rest of the team.

  1. It increases the probability a team will make necessary mid-course corrections to reach their goal. 

Teams start projects and initiatives with less knowledge then they will have as they move toward their goal. Each week as they meet and review their progress they will have additional information that can be leveraged to help them succeed, including opportunities for acceleration and the discovery of barriers that need to be overcome.

Teams who practice open and honest communications can take advantage of those opportunities for acceleration and/or address barriers.


Published by Leah Ward-Lee

Leah Ward-Lee, the author of "$1,000 Start-Ups", is a serial micro-entrepreneur. She opened her first business at ten after lobbying for and receiving a shoe shine kit for Christmas. She pulled her wagon through the neighborhood, going door-to-door, offering to shine her neighbor’s shoes for twenty-five cents a pair. Once her wagon was full, she took the shoes home and polished them. Unfortunately that business was short-lived. She hadn’t tagged the shoes and couldn’t remember whose shoes were whose, so her dad went with her to retrace the route until every pair was returned. Since then she’s had businesses developing and teaching college courses, instructing aerobic classes, owning half a plane that was rented to a flight and maintenance school, and renting homes. She’s also owned a consignment store, a gift shop, a gift basket business, a consulting firm, hosted The Executive Toolbox (a weekly radio show), and a publishing company. She also spent twenty years in the US Army, served as the Chief Information and Technical Officer for two major insurance companies, and has a second career as a management consultant. Leah resides in Dallas, TX and on Amelia Island with Sammy and Goliath, her two rescue dogs.


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