Which is better: stated commitment or honesty?

Have you noticed that many senior executives aren’t really committed to their companies or employees? They say they are. They talk about passion, vision, mission, and commitment. They talk about how important their employees are.

But once you get to know them (or read about their actions in the business press), you see that their goals are mostly about their own success and fulfillment.

I was a bit naive when I first started out in coaching and consulting, and thought that top executives got that way through self-sacrifice and a focus on the team. Then I had lunch with renowned executive coach Marshall Goldsmith and he set me straight: “Most executives could care less,” he shared. “They are thinking about themselves first, always.”

I chewed on his assertion for a while, thought about my clients, and it hit me that he is right. In general, executives are out to get rich, get famous, or stay secure/safe.

For this reason, I put more stock now in honesty than in commitment. I’m much more interested in having honest conversations with executives about what really matters to them, and that match their actions. Then we can get some results.

Here is an example: I worked with the executive team of a national consulting team that claimed that they valued their people and wanted to create a collegial and fun place to work.

But when I interviewed the “people” in question, the findings told a different story. The consultants in the firm painted a picture of a consulting “sweat shop,” paying good but not top wages in exchange for 5 days of travel per week, long days and nights, and little loyalty in return. People felt used up and rapidly burned out. Women saw no path to having a family and rising to the top of the firm. To rise up in the firm, you had to develop business and “eat what you kill.” And partners tolerated other partners who used abusive language or didn’t develop their people. No wonder turnover exceeded turnover at average consulting firms by more than 50%!

So I gave them a choice, to either stop claiming that they valued their people and wanted to create a collegial and fun working environment, or to start matching their actions with their words.

It turns out that, when they were really honest, the weren’t committed to their people. They were committed to growing their company as quickly as possible and then selling it. They wanted to have their employees stick around long enough for a company to buy them out. And what they valued most were employees who were aggressive and could quickly develop business.

Once they were honest, we could craft a strategy to find and groom people who didn’t mind working in tough conditions, and who liked the “eat what you kill” environment. The firm targeted a different type of new hire, and focused on training people to develop business. They also adjusted their compensation system to pay people for growing the firm, and — once they found a buyer — a retention bonus just for staying around.

Honesty is much more important than one’s stated commitment. Honesty discloses one’s real commitment, even if it is politically incorrect, and let’s a person craft a strategy to achieve what really matters to them.

The above details are not necessarily romantic or noble, but they get results! Don’t force people to adopt your own views about mission, vision, passion, etc.  Listen to where people are really at, and craft a strategy that supports what is true for them.

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