In the early days of the Internet, while working as reporter for a legacy newspaper, I emailed a couple questions to dot-com multimillionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. I was astonished when, seconds later, he replied.
The next day, intrigued by Cuban’s response, I sent an email to then-NBA commissioner David Stern. Stern, as would be expected of the leader of a multibillion-dollar sports enterprise, was notoriously difficult to get hold of by telephone. Minutes later, he answered.
Hey, I’m onto something, I recall thinking. Two stories in two days with just two emails. What I was onto, we all now know, was the vanguard of a then-new way of interfacing with the world. Access and engagement were in. Intermediaries, camouflage, were out.
It’s a trend that has continued apace but lately it appears to be finding amplification. Today, tech and startup CEOs appear to be blazing a trail when it comes to engagement, openness and communication with their employees, customers and the media. Not only do they use social media, write blogs and answer email. They do frequent interviews, are relatively accessible and they’re not shy about being celebrated as media and online rock stars.
And it stands to reason. Tech businesses are predicated on the disruption of existing products and practices. It only follows that they should also be disruptors of company culture and CEO behaviour. More often than not, that new culture is one of openness and transparency. The modus operandi is to share with other companies rather than conceal, celebrate their competitors’ successes rather than denigrate.
“The new guard is very collaborative,” said Chris Reid, CEO of Waterloo Region-based startup Sortable. “It’s a very healthy thing.”
The culture that’s being replaced is, infamously, something else again. Big bank presidents and the like were notorious for interfacing with the hoi polloi only at annual meetings. Public statements were (and are) issued only through PR departments after careful vetting. Call or email a CEO and expect a response? Good luck. The default was often to conceal, hide, obfuscate. In part, that default seems connected to a belief that power and relevance are rooted in the notion of being unavailable.
“Hubris,” Sortable’s Reid calls it. And once it’s baked in to a company’s culture, it’s extraordinarily difficult to weed out. In many cases, a culture of concealment proves to be a short walk from a less-than-ethical business practice. Look no farther than the recent Volkswagen diesel emissions saga, the FIFA corruption scandal, or the Toshiba accounting scandal.
A culture of risk-taking might be the antidote to hubris. A company that encourages risk is by definition encouraging a culture of open-mindedness. And risk is the calling card of the entire startup ecosystem, the golden arrow that brings down and disrupts existing industries.
But in order for risk to be an effective hubris-killing tool, a culture of disclosure, a willingness to look in the mirror, needs to accompany it. As brand guru and former Nike executive Scott Bedbury recently told Communitech’s Nibble Hippo Radio, risk has to come with transparency.
“The ethos at Nike was go ahead (and take a risk),” said Bedbury. “Because you have to evolve, and if you make a mistake, that’s fine.
“But here’s the rule: You can’t hide (the mistake). You have to share it. You have to stand up, you’ve got to own it. You have to immunize the herd (from your error).
“The only career-limiting move (at Nike) is to hide it and let someone else find (or repeat your mistake).”
Certainly tension has been generated as a culture of concealment is replaced by one of openness. CEOs comfortable with anonymity and a low profile have suddenly found themselves thrust into the public spotlight, in some cases dragged there by social media lynch mobs after a sudden eruption of outrage over a particular business practice. And concerns about privacy and data protection regularly butt up against calls for transparency and disclosure.
But surely resistance is futile. In an era of big data and the Internet of Things, with unlimited information a few clicks away, is not the best option – perhaps the inevitable option – for everyone to, figuratively speaking, disrobe and disclose all? Call it mutually assured nakedness.
“In a book called Creativity Inc., the co-founder of Pixar wrote that if there’s more honesty at the water cooler than in the conference room, you have a problem,” said Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst in Forbes Magazine in 2015. Red Hat is an open-source software company.
“We have found that for the best ideas to win, people need to be very frank and open,” and willing to face hard truths internally and externally.”
Whitehurst, 47, published a book last year called The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance. He walks the talk. The source code for his company’s main software product is open. His employees play an active role in deciding company strategy and they are encouraged to disagree with strategy.
“When I first joined Red Hat, we were discussing our technical direction in an area called virtualization,” Whitehurst told Forbes. “I was getting a briefing from the senior engineering team and someone much more junior completely and totally disagreed with the direction we were going and, in front of me, explained why. We ended up changing direction and acquiring a company nine months later that helped us build our position in virtualization.”
Obviously there are times when a CEO or company has to play cards close to its vest and can’t be completely transparent or be available. But as a guiding set of principles, open and accessible just kind of feels … right. After all, it’s the foundation of a healthy democracy.
And sometimes it all starts with a single email.
View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.