As an executive leader, who tells you not just what you want to hear but what you need to hear? Very few executive leaders are willing to risk having an honest broker as a part of their inner circle. Few employees are prepared to be brutally honest with their immediate supervisor let alone the CEO of the company or the Executive Director of the organization. As a result the entire organization suffers. If you’re one of those leaders who doesn’t have an honest broker in your inner circle it’s costing you leadership capital, it costing your organization money, emotional energy, synergy, alignment, and momentum.
That point was brought home to me in a very powerful way working with a client. One of my brand promises as a consultant is that I’m going to be an honest broker. A large nonprofit had contracted my consulting services for a division that had some significant challenges. As I began my work, I discovered the challenges were far greater than I or the top executives in their regional office realized. As I worked to collate all of the data I had gathered into a final report with recommendations I found myself wrestling with a big question, “How honest was I going to be in terms of what I included in my report by way of information and the corresponding recommendations I felt were appropriate to address the deep systemic issues that threatened to undermine not only this division but the brand reputation of the entire organization?” With some fear and trepidation I chose to be the honest broker - to tell them what I felt they needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear.
Nearing completion of my report, I received an email from my contact informing me that he and his boss were going to be in town and wondered if I would have the report ready to discuss over breakfast. I assured him that both would be possible. The night before our meeting, I forwarded my report and recommendations to them and then nervously awaited our meeting. I had never met my contact’s boss so I was unsure how he would respond to my report. His first comments did little to calm my nerves. “This is the most direct and forthright report I’ve ever read.” I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. He went on to say, “We knew we had some challenges but we didn’t know they were this serious.” That led into a significant and meaningful conversation about the nature of the issues and some possible steps they could take to address them in a proactive and productive way.
I left that meeting unsure as to what they would do with my report. I quickly discovered that the report made its way to their national headquarters where it was thoroughly scrutinized and reviewed. That initiated a more thorough internal audit of this particular division. What they discovered in the audit were systemic gaps that were far more serious than any of us had imagined. They discovered unaccounted for revenues lying loose in an office safe that represented 30 times what they had paid me in consulting fees. Some of those revenues in the form of unwashed cheques had been there for more than 90 days. Ironically the person responsible to track these revenues and ensure they were deposited in the organization’s bank account was one of the people I had recommended should be replaced. What was even more ironic is that there were no systemic checks and balances in place to help uncover these gaps.
The Cost of Having An Honest Broker
I can assure you that the two men I had breakfast with did not feel very good about the report they received from me. But they were willing to take the contents of that report seriously and do something proactive to act on the recommendations. That took a whole lot of courage and humility and speaks to the character of their leadership when faced with the brutal facts. As I have continued to work with them, I know that it has not been easy for them. They have each had to answer to their respective bosses for these broad systemic gaps which impact not only the division I was working with but the organization as a whole! But they are getting to the bottom of the situation and they are making positive changes that will position not only that division but the entire organization for a much healthier path moving forward.
Having an honest broker in your inner circle costs you something. Sometimes the greatest cost is your pride. Sometimes you have to hear that as the leader you’re part of the problem. If you’re willing to swallow your pride and invite that kind of feedback, you’ll become a better leader, you’re team will become stronger and the results will always reflect on your bottom line, credibility with your customers, and delivery on your brand promise!
The Cost of Being an Honest Broker
Being an honest broker costs you something too. I had to risk being unpopular at the expense of being honest. Most of us have a deep need to be liked. Sometimes that need is acute among consultants! But for me, my commitment to honesty over-rode my fear of being unpopular and at the end of the day I could look myself in the mirror and know that I had done the right thing.
The pay off for me? They’ve contracted me to work with their executive leadership team to implement the recommendations of the report. But that’s not all. They’ve contracted me to work with another of their divisions that’s experiencing similar challenges to bring about some substantive positive change so that the organization can deliver even more social value, bring about more social good through the programs and services they offer.
A Couple of Questions
Who’s you’re honest broker? If you don’t have one, who could you ask to fill that role in your life as a leader? What’s it costing you to not have one?
Who could benefit from you being an honest broker with them? What’s stopping you from filling that role in their life as a leader?