Now for the really bad news. Even though candor is vital to winning, it is hard and time-consuming to instill in any group, not matter what size. “ Hard because you are fighting human nature and entrenched organizational behaviors, and time-consuming, as in years and years. At GE, it took us close to a decade to use candor as a matter of course, and it was by no means universal after twenty. Still it can be done. There is nothing scientific about the process. To get candor, you reward it, praise it, and talk about it. You make public heroes out of people who demonstrate it. Most of all, you yourself demonstrate it in an exuberant and even exaggerated way-even when you’re not the boss.
Imagine yourself for a second at a meeting where the subject is growth and how to get it at an old-line division. Everyone is sitting around the table, civilly talking about how hard it is to win in this particular market or industry. They discuss the tough competition. They surface the same old reason, why they can’t grow and why they are actually doing well in this environment. In fact, by the time the meeting ends, they’ve managed to pat themselves on the back for the “success” they’ve enjoyed “under the circumstances.”
Inside your head, you’re about ready to burst, as you tell yourself, “here we go again. I know Bob and Mary across the room feel the same way I do-the complacency around here is killing us.” Outside, all three of you are playing the game. You’re nodding. Now imagine an environment where you take responsibility for candor. You, Bob, or Mary would ask questions like: “isn’t there a new product or service idea in this business somewhere that we just haven’t thought of yet?”
“Can we jump-start this business with an acquisition?” “This business is taking up so many resources. Why don’t we get the hell out of it?” What a different meeting! What a lot more fun, and how much better for everyone. Another situation that happens all the time is a high-growth business with a self-satisfied crowd managing it. You know the scene at the long-range planning meeting. The managers show up with double-digit growth-say 15 percent.-and pound out slide after slide showing how well they are doing. Top management nods their approval, but you’re sitting there knowing there’s a lot more juice in that business. To compound matters, the people presenting the slides are peers of yours, and there’s that age-old code hanging in the air: if you don’t challenge mine, I won’t challenge yours.
Frankly, the only way I know of to get out of this bind-and introduce candor- is to poke around in a nonthreatening way: “Jezz, you’re good. What a terrific job. This is the best business we’ve got. Why not put more resources into it and go for more?” “ With the great team you’ve put in place, there must be ten acquisitions out there for you. Have you looked globally?” Those questions, and others like them, have the power to change the meeting from a self-congratulatory parade to a stimulating working session.