The Most Valuable Colleagues

Pat Summit was a renowned basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. She had an amazing record. Like all great coaches, she knew the elements of success. There is a lot we can learn from great coaches. One of the things Pat said that resonates with me the most was, Value those colleagues who tell you the truth, not just what you want to hear.”

It was the thing I missed the most when I left the law firm at the end of 1995. At the firm, people cared enough to tell you the truth, perhaps mainly because they cared about the quality of representation we provided to our clients and they cared about the reputation of the firm. But outside of the environs of the firm, I rarely encountered colleagues who cared enough to tell the truth.

It’s understandable, I suppose. As a manager, I would try to tell others the truth about their performance but, most of the time, I came away with the impression that people would prefer to have the news sugar-coated. Few seemed to appreciate the truth even though the motivation was to help them perform to their abilities and the needs and expectations of the organization. In other words, based on my experience I don’t think most people agree with Ms. Summit’s statement.

I would try to foster a culture of openness, where people could share with each other honest and frank opinions, but it was always an uphill battle. Rarely if ever did I receive meaningful, frank openness. Which is one of the reasons I dislike the hierarchy present in most organizations. I suppose that’s one of the reasons there was more openness in the law firm: we had little in the way of hierarchy. Partners were partners.

Hierarchy doesn’t foster openness. It’s deemed to risky, with no upside. The so-called superior may not like what he or she hears from the so-called subordinate. And retaliate. Perhaps overtly. Perhaps subtly. The best protection for oneself and one’s career may be to keep one’s thoughts to oneself. At least that’s the common perception. Which is a shame.

That’s not how you create an excellent organization and it’s not how people reach their potential. Yet it’s common. I think it’s one of the reasons there are so many poor and mediocre organizations out there.

If you can ferret out an organization that practices radical honesty and transparency, you’ll grow more, Vera, and become better at what you do. But it takes effort. There are few such organizations.

No matter where you are, you may want to foster an environment that makes people feel secure in sharing the truth with you. I wonder what I could have done different to foster more radical honesty and to help overcome others’ reticence in sharing the truth.

It’s not that it never occurred. It’s just that it never occurred widely and never occurred with some of the people whose opinions would have mattered the most.

I don’t want to mislead you, however. Radical honesty and transparency can be harmful to your career in certain organizations. There are superiors who simply can’t handle it. They’re insecure. And they won’t countenance honest feedback or contrary opinions. They prefer homage and to be surrounded by yes-men (or women). Be careful with such people. You might be better of avoiding them if you can.

There are different ways to navigate life and one’s professional career. But after 63 years I’m pretty sure of one thing: Pat Summit was right. Which is one of the reasons she excelled. And we know who she was. Long after she won her last game.

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