Don’t miss your “Moment of Truth” with those you lead!

by Didier Marlier on Friday February 19th, 2016

Jan Carlzon was C.E.O. of S.A.S., the Swedish national airline, which he has been widely credited for saving. One of his most famous legacy was the concept of identifying and performing on the “Moments of Truth” that S.A.S. employees would have with their customers. Following him, the company had 50’000 such moments/day.

We, as leaders, are presented with such crucial opportunities, with our clients and customers but also with our subordinates.

I remember having failed miserably at such a unique moment, when I was the Chairman of the Board of the Tourist Office of the ski resort where I live. One of my famously inappropriate jokes had in fact the potential to be taken as sexist and had been felt as such. When I left my office, I confusedly noted a sort of cold wind blowing but didn’t pay attention. It is only when I got home that my then wife, a bit upset by his boldness said: “Your first year apprentice, Vivian, demands that you call him back immediately… Maybe should you explain to him that you are the Chairman…” I called him back: “You f…… up again!” he said. “Do you realize what you said and how it came across?” I fell from my chair, realizing my mistake and the damning impact it had had. I discussed with him of a meaningful way to recover and profusely thanked him. The 1st year apprentice saved the Chairman of the Board on that day (and many times after;)

I never forgot an incredible meeting in a Nordic country. Traditional boardroom (intimidating with a long oval table), all executive board members present and a bit of a condescending moment in the middle of a long day: “Let’s invite some of the youngsters to present their projects. It will motivate them and reduce the Power Distance”… You bet! The timings were not respected so we started their session two hours late, meaning the young employees did not even have lunch. When the first one started, a forest of opened laptops suddenly blossomed in front of him. No questions were asked and the project was adopted. The next two passed, desperately trying other tactics (aggression, provocation, silence) without getting neither respect nor attention. I let you imagine what they shared with their colleagues about their Moment of Truth with the Board…

I remember a mini MBA I was delivering for a large multinational, years ago. The head of the Corporate University was adamant that there should be “project work” during those two weeks to be presented in front of the Board during a closing event… For those of you who still undergo such kind of programs, my deep sympathies and to those designing them: you are not original at all. IMD has invented this more than 40 years ago and this is completely passé!!! During the 5 years I ran that program, I have failed to convince both the Director and the Board to let go of these ridiculous “school masters vs school boys and school girls sessions” where an amazing amount of time was lost, not learning, sharing or building but preparing PowerPoint and other Excel simulations… And when the D Day came, the anxiety, the fear, the distance between the hierarchical ranks were such a value destruction that it felt like we were ruining the whole program investment! Those Moments of Truth could have been so different!

Honesty, transparency and fearless environment emerge through the uncompromising behaviours of the leaders. But a few processes may help. A relatively old H.B.R. article (2002), written by a C.E.O. (Ginger Graham) suggests that “If you want honesty, break some rules”:

  • Get rid of your costly and bureaucratic employees surveys: What about getting real information in real time instead? In her practice, each executive was assigned a coach from “deep inside the organization. These coaches were trained to ask questions and gather very specific information about executives openness and honest communication”. Those coaches would encourage those employees talking to them to join them in a discussion with the executive in question.
  • Trade truths for solutions: Rather than a potentially threatening (for both sides) “Let’s clean the dirty laundry” session (read feedback session) between an executive and an audience, what about the senior sharing “what prevents them from sleeping” and ask participants for their ideas and solutions. Sometimes a feedback session between an exec and a crowd may turn into accusations/retaliation, “rebellious child vs parent” attitude. But when an executive is honest and transparent about “what prevents him from sleeping” and invites his colleagues to share their thoughts and solutions, rapidly the ambiance changes to an adult-adult dialogue.
  • Stories are more powerful than data: Because “Nature abhors a vacuum”, stories will rapidly fill the gap. As Tim Wilson, a University of Virginia psychologist says, “Stories are more powerful than data…because they allow individuals to identify emotionally with ideas and people they might otherwise see as ‘outsiders.” Now this can also play against us when stories are negative. Each “Moment of Truth”, is a stone to the story which will be built about you. We can not prevent nor control stories that are spread about us. We can only build “counter stories” through our honest, transparent and fearless behaviour.

Going back to our young apprentice who, aged 17, courageously decided to “take on the chairman” for his own good, how many Vivian are we preventing to speak to us honestly, about our shortcomings and blind spots? It is only by lowering our guard, show a certain vulnerability, reducing the distance that we will encourage them to support us!

I hope you will try one of Ginger’s Graham recipes… Enjoy the “Moments of Truth” of your Leadership Journey!

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