It can feel lonely at the top, especially in an uncertain economy. But it doesn’t have to be. Some CEOs believe it is their duty to single-handedly shoulder and navigate all the company’s problems. This way of thinking can drive a company straight into the ground. Small problems snowball, employees don’t feel their insights are valued, trust is broken, and respect is lost.
Instead, transparent leadership gives CEOs and employees a united foundation for problem-solving. The following are best practices I’ve seen great CEOs employ to lead transparently during uncertain times:
1. Create a regular cadence of clear and consistent messaging
This might be in the form of monthly or quarterly business updates on how the company is tracking against its goals. Employees deserve to know how their company is performing, what roadblocks they are up against and the reason behind decisions that could impact them. This doesn’t simply entail reading off the numbers without context or strategy. Great leaders communicate a strategic plan to remedy any issues and then commit to providing regular updates on progress.
2. Share the bad news with the good
Although transparency is always important, it becomes crucial in times of turmoil and strife. Some leaders worry that sharing bad news will deflate employees. But being forthcoming about challenges eliminates rumors and gossip and creates a unified team that can work in alignment to find solutions. Transparent communication does not mean playing out all the possible worst-case scenarios with the team — it means providing an honest roadmap of where the company is today, where it’s going tomorrow and the plan to get there.
3. Empower accountability
I had a track coach in high school who encouraged me to write down my goals and stick them on my refrigerator. Putting goals on public display creates a level of transparency that drives accountability. When great leaders communicate specific company goals and KPIs, it allows innovative ideas and solutions to surface. Some CEOs may see risk in setting a high bar for success because morale could be negatively impacted if the goal isn’t reached. But it actually has the opposite effect, challenging teams to rise to the occasion. Employees feel everyone is in it together and are motivated to do their part.
4. Allow space for ideas to flow upward
The best leaders stay vigilant in developing their people and processes in even the most difficult times. Breaking down the hierarchy by ensuring all the levels of the organization understand strategy and performance cultivates mutual respect. When you foster a culture in which employees feel valued, they don’t jump ship at the first sign of a storm — they help batten down the hatches and get to work. I look forward to the follow-up emails in which employees pressure test my thinking. I feel energized seeing employees step outside of their day-to-day roles to think about the big picture. And I actively seek employees who are willing to hold their leaders, and themselves, accountable.
5. Anchor to the mission, vision and purpose
Great leaders always look to their mission, vision and purpose as guiding principles for decision-making. Cascading these strategic principles to the team creates space for everyone to think about the business in a way that’s aligned and allows companies to stay close to customers’ needs. When leaders are dedicated to their purpose even in challenging times, it creates a culture of transparency and respect. And the resulting alignment allows CEOs to dedicate their full attention to strategy, culture, organization, results and execution.
6. Hire for perseverance and resilience
Successful leaders seek out resilience from the outset by asking interview questions that will shed light on whether the prospect is a problem-solver or someone who plays the victim when things turn south. Great leaders build a team that’s not afraid to manage up and down or roll up their sleeves and step outside of their lane if a situation calls for it. Hiring entrepreneurial-minded individuals who are committed to a life of learning and sharing new ideas and solutions will benefit an entire organization, especially in times of hardship. When employees persevere toward goals and still believe it’s possible to win, even if they’re behind, it creates a culture of resilience and inspires the team to move forward to face any challenge.
Leaders thrive on sharing inspiration and positivity. We ride on the highs of motivating employees to surpass new milestones and congratulating teams for hitting new benchmarks. An “open-door policy” is easy when things are going great. But a true leader knows the measure of success lies in how you address the hardships.
Despite its clear benefits, it can be difficult for CEOs to really lean into the strategy of leading transparently. CEOs can become derailed by feeling like they should already have all the answers. They may want to insulate their team from harsh realities or worry that the team will start to gossip and lose focus on their day-to-day responsibilities. The problem with this line of thinking is that it does not respect employees as dedicated and innovative individuals, and it fails to consider the fact that the team was hired to help uncover solutions even in the most challenging times.
Transparent leadership is an effective tool for eliciting creative problem-solving and promoting a culture of honest and open communication. It shines a light on the power of trust. When CEOs trust their teams to be a part of the solution, employees can in turn trust their CEOs’ decisions. It is only with that level of mutual trust (and the resulting camaraderie) that teams can truly face uncertainty and volatility.
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