Saying things you think you cannot say

Claire Hughes Johnson, in her book Scaling People, said something interesting about good managers “say the things you think you cannot say.”

It is a fascinating way to describe communication as a manager.

It got me thinking about a story from venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s post titled “Leading from the Heart.”

One of my favorite stories about this comes from a particularly difficult moment in my career where I had to transition a founder out of the company they started. It was the night before the all-hands where the CEO transition was going to be announced. I asked the founder if they were going to attend the all-hands and the founder said no. I then asked the founder what I should tell the team. The founder said, “tell them you fired me because that is what happened”.

The next day I stood up in front of the entire company and told the team the Board had asked the founder to leave the company they started and that the Board had asked a member of the team to step into the CEO role.

After the all-hands ended, there was a line of about twenty or thirty people long to talk to me. And every single one of them waited in line to tell me the same thing which was “thank you for telling us the truth.”

It was a powerful lesson for me. And like most of the lessons I’ve learned in business, I learned it from a founder and their team.

If you are struggling to build the level of trust you want with the team in your company, try a little more transparency, vulnerability, and honesty in your communication style. It will pay dividends.

As a recipient of many messages from leadership over the years, I’ve learnt that I prefer the truth. Plain and simple. No dressing required.

It is often there to see anyway. The camouflage just gets frustrating after a point.

It is why Claire’s idea and Fred’s story resonate deeply with me. I love the idea of saying things that people don’t normally say. And I think Fred is spot on about communicating with more transparency, vulnerability, and honesty.

It doesn’t mean it always works. There are many instances when it has backfired for me.

But, in the long run, I think it creates better cultures and higher trust environments. And that makes the juice worth the squeeze.