Steven's Blog

truth

The Unwanted Truth

A highly successful Japanese CEO I know who had just taken a new role leading a deeply troubled company in Japan asked me, “What are the top three things I need to do to turn around a business?”

“There’s only one,” I told him. “You need to be brutally honest.”

I’ve known a few turnaround expert CEOs who have made a career out of resuscitating failed businesses. All of them are affable people—calm, at times even spiritual, empathetic, communicative, and compassionate—contrary to the no-nonsense, steely-eyed, unfeeling, dictatorial leader image that the role often evokes.

None of them are soothsayers though. All of them speak uncomfortable truths without hesitation or alarm to people who most don’t want to hear these—even those who hold a degree of power over them—employees who are needed to make the business work or the business owners who hired them and presumably can fire them just as easily. After all, anyone who is incapable of hearing what is needed to succeed will certainly be of little use in doing what is needed to succeed.

To speak candid truth to those who don’t want to hear is what leadership looks like, and not just the province of turnaround projects. One relatively young CEO-owner of a thriving business in Japan recognized long before others that the business model which had served the company well for decades was no longer a viable path to success. Yet he hesitated speaking about the needed change, much less doing it, for fear of reaction from board members and employees, to say nothing of the possible reaction of customers.

Would there be negative fallout from speaking the brutal truth? Yes, and there was when he was brutally honest, but in the end nothing fatal. Yet avoiding the bitter truth or otherwise diluting it certainly would have been.

This CEO saved the business from a plodding painful decline and death. Of that I am certain. Was there no resistance, no pain, no false starts and stops, no unpleasant surprises? Naturally, all of these and more, but no matter. The company can now grow and thrive.

I am paid to give my advice and sometimes people don’t like what I have to say. At times I can see my CEO clients wince at my advice, but most take it in stride much like ripping off a band-aid. Some disagree and choose ignore my advice. That is of course their prerogative, but they do so at their own peril—and I tell them so. No one likes to hear that from me either.

On occasion, a CEO has reacted angrily to what I say. That’s OK. We humans are emotional beings. I would not have it any other way.

Even so, those who disagree with what I have to say, listen nonetheless. They engage me again and again. They see I tell them exactly what I think even if I believe they won’t like it. How many people in your orbit have the courage to do just that? And what about you? For how many people ought you be doing the same?

Truth always comes out. Better it come from you early on rather than when it is finally apparent to everyone after damage has been done. That’s what leadership looks like.

Truth always comes out. Better it come from you early on rather than when it is finally apparent to everyone after damage has been done. Click To Tweet

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