Frank talk from the CEO benefits everyone

This week I had a unique experience. An agency CEO told me he had got it wrong.

This week I had a unique experience. An agency CEO told me he had got it wrong. The details don't matter as such, but the conversation related to the firm's strategic direction. Now, several years after initiating the shift in focus, he is resetting the agency's course and unwinding aspects of its operations that weren't working anymore.

His candor surprised me, not because of who he is, but because it's simply not common to hear business people, including PR agency leaders, openly admitting they didn't get it right. Companies admit errors, sure. Some, like Toyota is painfully reminding us, don't do it quickly or credibly enough, but there is no shortage of corporate mea culpas out there, including big names like Coca-Cola and GM.

But it is unusual for CEOs to admit their own fallibility as individual strategists within their own organizations. And yet the response when one does so is often extremely positive. On a micro level, we see this every month with Don Spetner's “Last” column. As a senior professional, who has served in both agencies and corporations, his willingness to admit to his biggest weaknesses and mistakes has earned him universal praise from a coterie of corporate readers. I know this because they keep sending letters in telling us how much they love his column.

That speaks to a general hunger for frank dialogue about the difficulties that come from running an organization, large and small. We all hide behind corporate speak that positions any errors, operational or otherwise, behind the ubiquitous “We,”—as in, “We deeply regret the errors.”

When we're talking about issues that involve multiple functions working together to create an ideal customer experience, “We” might make sense. But when it comes to forging the strategic road ahead, there is no team in “I.” Leaders must be prepared to embrace responsibility on a personal level, so that stakeholders will believe he or she is truly driving the way forward. And that, as they say, is why you get paid the big bucks.

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