Avoid Being a Pollyanna CEO

Children’s literary character Pollyanna is supposed to teach the value in maintaining a super sunshine-filled attitude. The lesson echoes, perhaps, the notion that “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

Social pleasantries aside, this is probably no way to run your business. And in a recent blog post, VC Ben Horowitz agrees, cautioning CEOs against falling into the trap of being too nice and too positive. “Tell it like it is,” he advises.

Horowitz describes his own decision to stop being too positive as his “single biggest personal improvement as CEO.” He shares some of his early experiences leading a company, recognizing the pressures that he felt and the way in which he tried to shoulder the burdens of business setbacks himself, rather than transferring some of that burden to his employees. Thinking that that would make the problems worse, “I thought I should project a positive, sunny demeanor and rally the unburdened troops to victory. I was completely wrong.”

Employees, contends Horowitz, have a pretty nuanced understanding of the reality of situations. By “blowing sunshine,” he was actually doing more damage than good. By keeping negative information to himself, he was failing “to give the problem to the people who could not only fix it, but would be personally excited and motivated to do so.”

Horowitz lists three reasons why it’s imperative that CEOs be honest and transparent.

1. Building Trust

If you trust someone, then you don’t really need additional explanation or justification for a particular course of action. But if there’s no trust, then no amount of communication or reasoning can really make an impact. And “without trust,” writes Horowitz, “communication breaks.” As communication gets to be increasingly challenging a company grows, Horowitz argues that it’s vital a CEO develop the employees’ trust. “A CEO’s ability to build this trust over time is often the difference between companies that execute well and companies that are chaotic.”

2. Deploying Your Company Brainpower

In order to build a tech company, you have to hire a lot of smart folks. And it’s a waste to not take advantage of that brainpower to solve companies problems. “A brain, no matter how big, cannot solve a problem that it doesn’t know about.”

3. Building a Problem-Solving Company Culture

Bad news travels fast, as the old adage goes. Good news tends to travel a lot more slowly. As a result, employees at failed companies often have known about the fatal problems long before companies have floundered. But, as Horowitz observes, the company culture in these situations frequently discourages people to spread bad news – and by extension, to address the problems. A healthy company, on the other hand, encourages people to discuss problems openly and freely. “Build a culture which rewards – not punishes – people for getting problems into the open where they can solved.” This may involve countering some old management maxims such as “don’t bring me a problem without bringing me a solution.”

Horowitz admits that there are “overwhelming psychological pressures to be overly positive.” But he encourages CEOs to stand up to these pressures and to be honest – even if it means sharing unpleasant news.

Credit: Audrey Watters

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 10:45 pm  Comments (3)  

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