I can easily think of a dozen cringe-worthy times in my career when I look back and say, “wow, I must have appeared to be a self-righteous idiot when I said thing X.” Let me thank anyone on the receiving end of those statements for their patience. I now get it; I understand.
Look, I’m all for passion in business. I’m all for speaking up. One day I’ll write a book called “Management by 1970s Bumper Stickers” and the first chapter will be on this sticker:
I enjoy questioning authority — ask any of my old bosses. As CEO, I like being questioned. Good CEOs don’t fear questioning because you typically end up in one of two cases:
- The point raised has already been considered in making the decision, and explaining the rationale behind that helps the organization understand the decision and increase buy-in to it.
- The point raised has not already been considering in making the decision and results in either changing or not changing the decision. Either way, the decision is better because we either find a better decision or another reason to support the existing one. (As long as you beware confirmation bias.)
As CEO, your job is to get the right answer and make the best decisions, not to think everything up yourself. Pride of authorship should have no place in CEO decision making.
Most people get questioning correctly. They don’t assume things. They’re not accusatory. The simply ask the question that’s on their mind without a whole lot of overtone. Every once in a while, however, I find someone who gets it all wrong and appears, as I did back in the day, to be self-righteous and dumb.
Let’s start with an example from one of my favorite old sci-fi movies, Soylent Green.
What a great scene. But imagine if everyone knew that already. Imagine how stupid you’d sound if you were delivering all those messages with all that same drama.
Imagine Hatcher saying, “Yes, yes, Detective Thorn, everybody knows that. And boy are they tasty.”
You’d look pretty self-righteous. And you’d look pretty dumb. What rock did he crawl from under? Everybody knows that Soylent Green is made out of people.
So what’s the best way to question authority? Here are some tips.
- Assume there is information that you can’t be told. “We need to buy company X, why can’t anyone else see how critical that is, why won’t anyone listen to me?” Now imagine the company tried to buy company X last quarter and they wanted 3x more than we could pay. But no one can tell you that because the whole thing is under non-disclosure agreement. Should you raise the point? Sure. Ask the question respectfully and lose the assumption (and overtone) that you are being ignored.
- Assume there is personnel information that you don’t know. “The HR department is failing and nobody over there can get the job done — why isn’t anyone doing anything about this, and why won’t anyone listen to me.” Now imagine that the HR manager is already on a performance plan and 30 days from being terminated. No one could ever tell you that.
- Assume there is a bigger picture conversation that you’re not privy to. “Why are we giving the new head of Engineering control over Product Management and making the job EVP of Products instead of SVP of Engineering? Product Management was working fine, we don’t need to make this change, why won’t anyone listen to me.” Now imagine the company has been struggling to hire a new head of engineering, the CEO is under big pressure to do so, and an extremely well qualified Engineering candidate won’t join unless he also gets Product Management. No one’s going to tell you that in a Q&A forum.
- Don’t ignore constraints. Some of the most self-righteous rants I’ve heard completely ignore practical constraints on the business like a lack of talent, a lack of money, the need to keep paying customers happy, or product constraints related to compatibility. Now, yes, sometimes great breakthroughs happen when people challenge constraints — but never pretend they don’t exist. It’s not a great strategy for our company if we can’t execute it. Maybe it’s a great strategy for some other company, maybe not.
- Don’t trivialize execution. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. So when asking questions about ideas, don’t act as if they are free or if we could just get started with two people. Yes, sometimes, great things start out with tiny investments — a $60K outsourced Twitter connector ended up serving as the genesis of Salesforce’s huge Social Enterprise strategy. But often projects just end up dead because they were never properly resourced in the first place. Execution is hard.
- Don’t forget biases introduced by your personality type. I stumbled into this great post the other day, What Everyone Desperately Wishes You’d Stop Doing, Based On Your Myers-Briggs Personality Type, and I just love the entry for ENFP — “Expecting everyone to be as excited as you are about today’s new BIG EXCITING PLAN when we all know you’ll have forgotten all about it by this time tomorrow.” Look, some people are natural executors and others are natural idea generators. Know which you are in assessing if you’re being ignored. Is authority refusing to be questioned, or do you just have 10 ideas a day in a startup environment when the company needs to focus on one or two?
- Don’t be naive. Bob Waterman, co-author with Tom Peters of the legendary In Search of Excellence, was on our board at ASK, and one day he came down to hang out with the troops at the Friday beer bash. I remember asking him (before I got my MBA) something akin to, “do you really believe all these green Harvard and Stanford MBAs should run companies or would businesses be better if everyone worked their way up.” The man had an MBA from the Stanford and worked at McKinsey. He must have thought I was the biggest idiot on Earth. My spider-sense told me I’d done something wrong. It was right. He muttered something and walked away. An opportunity wasted due to naivete.
I’m a big believer that the more someone knows about how a decision got made, the more they will agree it. That’s why, as part of my management style, I spend a lot of explaining decisions to people.
That dumb corporate decision to prioritize X over Y might make more sense to you if you knew all the circumstances about how it got made. Sometimes there’s a missing piece to the puzzle that makes everything make sense. Sometimes you can be told about that missing piece. Other times, you cannot. But don’t assume it doesn’t exist, nor trivialize matters of focus and execution.