How to be an effective CTO

A CTO’s job combines Culture, Technology, and Operations. Each of the three is necessary; a field of knowledge, experimentation, and learning in itself; and interdependent with the other two. To be successful as a CTO, you need to work on and continually master all three areas. If you’d like to see the responsibilities of a CTO as a picture, here is a mind map illustrating things CTOs are responsible for.

Culture

Culture, as the first part of a CTO’s job is the answer to who you are you as a team. A CTO’s role starts with the culture they develop, evolve, and lead by example.

Culture can be described as people, knowledge, and behaviors in a community connected by relationships, norms, and purpose.

The people in a CTO’s job include internal stakeholders and colleagues, engineering and product teams, partners, and external customers. As CTO, it is your job to foster constructive collaboration among them.

Regular sharing of knowledge among members and teams is essential for a culture to be developed, sustained, and evolved. As CTO, you are accountable and responsible for compiling, updating, and sharing knowledge among your teams, stakeholders, and customers.

Observed behaviors describe your culture as it really is. Talk is hollow if you and your teams don’t walk the walk. If you are in a leadership role, people observe what you do, and learn from and emulate what you do, far more than from what you say.

An article in the New York Times about Google’s findings on what makes teams effective reports: “Norms are the traditions, behavioral standards and unwritten rules that govern how we function when we gather: One team may come to a consensus that avoiding disagreement is more valuable than debate; another team might develop a culture that encourages vigorous arguments and spurns groupthink. Norms can be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence is often profound. Team members may behave in certain ways as individuals — they may chafe against authority or prefer working independently — but when they gather, the group’s norms typically override individual proclivities and encourage deference to the team.”

I recently participated in a week-long Design Thinking workshop hosted by Matter.vc that used various activities to reinforce the critical importance of having norms in a team. The Matter boot camp is valuable because it brings many best practices in product development from successful startups to traditional media companies wanting to embrace lean and agile product engineering. The path to mastery is to practice, test, and learn.

The path to mastery is to practice, test, and learn.

As CTO, you need to appreciate, learn, and apply cognitive science, behavioral psychology, and social science with integrity and in ethical ways to develop a culture of excellence. You must not let a mentality of us-versus-them take root between technology staffers and other parts of the company. Remind yourself and your team members that your allegiance to your whole organization is not less than that to your department or team.

For example, if as CTO, you are resentful of the marketing department and you mock the Chief Marketing Officer and her team, then your team will absorb this poisonous behavior from you. If you disparage your boss behind her back while pretending to be loyal in front of her, your team will learn to do the same to you. If you put the needs and desires of the technology organization ahead of those of the overall organization, then the teams that report in to you are going to act similarly towards your overall technology team. To be a good corporate citizen and team player with your peers is not only the right thing to do, but is also in your self-interest.

A mistake that CTOs sometimes make is that they organize their team and prioritize their work based too much on what they think is best for the company mainly from the perspective of technology.

A mistake that CTOs sometimes make is that they organize their team and prioritize their work based too much on what they think is best for the company mainly from the perspective of technology. This results in their stakeholders not seeing eye to eye with the tech team, and stakeholders complain that “things here take forever to get done.” Whenever you hear something like “work takes ages to complete,” there is a deeper problem underneath: The real problem is that engineering and stakeholders are not on the same page about priorities and are not communicating sufficiently with each other about value, progress, problems, and risks.

You can implement the most suitable rapid development practices (e.g. continuous delivery, agile, and lean startup methodologies) and use the best modern techniques, tools, and technologies (e.g. microservices, machine learning, and magic :-)  ), that deliver projects with great speed, scalability, and success, but if you and your stakeholders are not in sync, things will be perceived as too slow, stubborn, and substandard.

Without a good culture, technologies and products decay and operations fail because people do not do the right things towards the shared mission.

Technology

Technology, as the core part of a CTO’s job, is the answer to what you do as a team.

Technology includes engineering, architecture, data, infrastructure, scalability, reliability, trust, security, privacy, and other ingredients. The specific areas of technology in a CTO’s purview vary based on the organization, its scale, and condition. Here is an example of an organizational structure that worked well for a smaller media company and another that helped a larger media company be successful.

Even though most CTO’s job duties do not include writing code yourself, to be a credible CTO, you need to not only know how to write good software code, but you should also enjoy doing it as a hobby. You must have a passion for many areas of technology combined with a perpetual desire to keep learning as technologies progress.

As CTO, you are the head coach, mentor, and guide to the technology staff. You preside and govern, not dictate or micromanage. You are not a middleman requiring every communication, decision, or solution to go through you. You are sincerely interested, engaged and involved in the work your teams do but you are not an obstacle. You are a connector who links the technology staff with other members of the organization.  You remember that you have two ears and two eyes but only one mouth, so you listen and observe more than you talk. You respect the makers and the managers who report in to you because you are both their teacher and their student.

Without good technology, operations are inefficient and have trouble overcoming roadblocks, resulting in undesirably slow progress and heavy costs. With good technology, there is a strong sense of pride and that helps develop a culture of excellence where recruiting, retention, and productivity flourish.

Operations

Operations, as the integrating part of a CTO’s job, is the answer to how you do your job as a team.

Operations can be described as how and how well things get done and are delivered. Operations span how resources (including costs) are allocated and managed, how processes and systems work, and how trade-offs should be made. They involve managing the portfolio of projects, products, and services; prioritization; and decommissioning and letting go of products and projects.

Any team that does product development, infrastructure engineering, or provision of services needs to be operationally effective. For this, you and your team need to track progress, record data, measure results, report results, compile lessons learned, and implement improvements. Continuously.

Operations are critical to every organization’s success. This is where the rubber hits the road. You can have a wonderful culture and innovative technologies, but if you don’t get projects done successfully, you won’t have the other two for long.

To put the above in context, I am sharing some tips from my recent talk at the Fastly 2016 Summit.

5 Lessons I learned as a CTO in major media companies

To succeed as a CTO or head of engineering, you need to work with the APIs of your fellow human beings

1. Instead of trying to be salesperson, be a friend

  • It is better to win people over, than to sell them your idea
    • Don’t push your solution. Draw others to your solution
    • Don’t pander either. Win over
  • Don’t make B.S. claims about future benefits of the project. Instead, emphasize the purpose and passion
  • Don’t try to falsely attach your infrastructure project to a product development the business has asked for. Present it on its own merit
  • Don’t spend your time as a technologist writing a business justification. Partner with a finance or business analyst to do that
  • Empathize with your business colleagues and help them empathize with you

2. Speak to the heart, not just to the brain

  • Go beyond making a rational business case. Generate excitement about the engineering work
    • Getting true buy-in requires evoking emotion and passion
    • Identify an external enemy
  • Share your genuine fears about potential losses resulting from getting hacked or systems crashing.
    • We are all averse to losses
  • Make it “our” project instead of “my” project. Request business stakeholders to talk about the project to their colleagues’ stakeholders, and bosses. Encourage them to include it in their presentations.
    • By doing this, they make a public commitment to it

3. Leverage reciprocity

  • Deliver successes to the business to build credibility first
    • Before you pitch a major infrastructure project
    • As a new employee, don’t use up your honeymoon credits on a project whose benefits to your stakeholders aren’t as clear
  • When your colleagues ask for something that you don’t value as much, be open minded to them
    • Your colleagues will reciprocate by embracing your ideas if you embrace theirs

4. Don’t be a “middleman.” Be a connector

  • If you are a CTO or senior manager, it is in your interest that your business colleagues know, appreciate, and have direct connections with your teammates
    • Their expertise supports and complements yours
    • They bring additional credibility
    • You make a stronger case as a team

Invite business colleagues to select gatherings of the product engineering teams

5. Regularly discuss your projects and their value with your colleagues

  • Never assume that your business colleagues won’t understand or appreciate technical stuff. Be a translator
  • A critical part of your job as a technologist is to regularly describe what you do and its value to your colleagues
  • …and vice versa. Take an interest in what they do

Where to go from here

So you are about to or have just started as a CTO or other technology leadership position. What’s a practical way to proceed? Here is a template for a 90 Day Plan for a CTO in a New Job.


This article is mirrored at LinkedIn.

Rajiv Pant is managing partner at Solutions at Scale, a technology leadership and management consulting firm that advises established companies and startups. Prior to this, as CTO at The New York Times, he led the development of numerous acclaimed products during his four year tenure. His leadership experience includes Conde Nast, Reddit, and Cox Media Group. Rajiv was honored as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

Suggested Template For Requesting a Meeting

Every time someone calls a meeting, they should consider using this simple template.

[ meeting-invitation-template begins ]

The desired outcome of this meeting is:

  • e.g. Come to agreement on solution for issue X
  • e.g. Make a decision about Y.
  • e.g. Share announcements about topic Z.
  • e.g. Continue to grow a good working relationship with each other by socializing in person.

Note: Explain what this meeting is meant to accomplish, instead of providing a description of the meeting. Focus on the desired result of the meeting. A meeting should accomplish one or more of three things:

  1. Solve problem(s)
  2. Make decision(s)
  3. Share knowledgeand agree to act on it and/or make it a practice
    • Knowledge, as in: data –leads-to–> information –leads-to–> knowledge –leads-to–> practice

You should come to this meeting because:

  • e.g. You are likely to have input into potential solutions for issue X
  • e.g. You are one of the folks who has a viewpoint on what decision to make regarding Y.
  • e.g. It would benefit you from hearing the announcements in this meeting.
  • e.g. This is your opportunity to ask questions about topic Z.

Note: Give the attendees at least one good reason to attend. Sometimes attendees have no idea why they are invited to this meeting. Don’t be seen as a waster of others’ time.

The guidelines for participating in this meeting are:

  • e.g. Please come prepared having read the document about ChaosMonkey.
  • e.g. Laptops & mobile communication devices are considered contraband during this meeting. If it is critical for you to have a computer during this meeting, bring a desktop computer :-)

Note: Set the expectations of the participations.

[ meeting-invitation-template ends ]

Further Reading & Thoughts:

Templates for Replying to Meeting Requests & Polite Ways to Decline Meetings

By default, we should only attend meetings where we are active participants, not passive attendees with not much to contribute to the desired outcome of the meeting. There are some exceptions to this like training sessions, educational presentations or others where the purpose for attendees is to learn something.

When I receive a meeting request, I often reply with the following text.

May I please request the following information in advance of this meeting? It will enable me to prepare, participate and be productive in the meeting.

  1. What do you recommend I should prepare in advance of this meeting?
  2. What decisions do we need to make at this meeting?
  3. What problems do we need to solve at this meeting?

Thank you in advance,

Time Management Tip: When you receive an invite for a meeting at work where you believe you may not add much value, reply to the invite with a polite message like:

Thank you for inviting me to this meeting. It seems from the subject, agenda, and attendees list that I’m not a required participant for this meeting. If I’m mistaken and my presence is required in this meeting, please accept my apologies and let me know that I should attend.

This is preferable to ignoring the meeting invite or declining without comment that may come across as rude.

To save time, you can save the above templates as text snippets to be inserted via a keyboard shortcut/macro or in a place from where you can quickly and easily copy and paste.

Discussion about declining meetings: https://plus.google.com/107443707510532643538/posts/inUkYy1Ufg7

When to have and when not to schedule meetings

Companies should, by default, avoid scheduling meetings that start before 10am or end after 5pm. If an employee comes to the office at 8am on some days, it is often to use the two hours of the morning before meetings to catch up and/or get a head start on the day. Meetings that start before 10am are often harmful overall since they put the attendees in reactive catch up mode for the rest of the day. Similarly, meetings that go on beyond 5pm (or worse, start after 5pm) take away valuable time from employees that they use to absorb information and events of the day, catch up with replying to email and get ready for the next work day.

i.e. Companies should consider any time outside the 10am to 5pm window to be not available for meetings and definitely not any weekly recurring meetings.

Preferably, employees who are ‘makers’ should have one 4-hour continuous block of time each day when they are free from meetings. (‘Makers’ differentiated from ‘Managers’)

50/25 Meeting Format

If you manage a team, value your team members time and want to improve productivity at your workplace with a simple change, consider implementing the 50/25 Meeting Recommendation that some companies are embracing. You can communicate something like the following to your team:

Dear Colleagues,

We deeply value your time, your productivity and your comfort at the workplace. As a part of our initiative to make your workday more productive, less hectic and better manageable, we recommend a 50/25 meeting format. It is simple concept: As much as possible, let us take all our meetings that are 1-hour long and shorten them to 50 minutes. For our meetings that are half-hour long, let us limit them to 25 minutes.

You will find that a 50 minute meeting will accomplish no less than a 60 minute meeting did and a 25 minute meeting will be as productive as a 30 minute one was. In fact, by having clear 50 minute and 25 minute deadlines, our meetings are likely to be better focused, on topic and more attentive. (For example: Since you will have time after the meeting to check email, there is likely to be less temptation to check emails during the meeting itself.)

The extra 10 and 5 minutes will give you valuable time back that could be used for many useful activities: Getting in the frame of mind for the next meeting or task; checking your messages to see if there is something urgent that needs your attention; or simply taking a bio break.

Please note that this not a mandate, but a recommendation. We realize that you may not be able to do this for every meeting. What we ask is that you consider doing this for meetings that you organize or can influence. As a result, we will make our great work culture even better, less stressful and even fun.

Further Reading & Thoughts:

  • NYTimes article about Larry Page, Google’s founder and new CEO instituting the same 50/25 meeting recommendation at Google:
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/technology/googles-chief-works-to-trim-a-bloated-ship.html?pagewanted=all
  • If a meeting accomplishes all its goals in even less than the 50 or 25 minutes, please, by all means end the meeting even sooner.
  • We suggest that you do book the full hour or half hour in the calendar even as you implement the above so that others don’t schedule over the “10 minutes left over” in your calendar.

Thank you for considering this,

[Signature]

A discussion about this 50/25 Meeting Format: https://plus.google.com/107443707510532643538/posts/AtYgnmbhtqc

Using Laptops or Smartphones in Meetings

You might think that no one is noticing when you are using your phone if you try to hide it below the table surface, but you’d be mistaken. It is like picking your nose: Your being oblivious of others doesn’t make you invisible to them. Photo Credit: Brad Kagawa

Using smartphones — or worse, laptops — during in-person meetings diminishes productivity, is disrespectful to others and decreases your brainpower. Yes, scientific evidence indicates that multitasking makes people less intelligent.1

When you are  doing something unrelated on your phone or laptop in inappropriate situations (e.g. during business meetings), you lose out because you become oblivious to the environment, people, and subtleties around you.

However, there are a few situations where it makes good sense to use a laptop or smartphone during in-person meetings.

  • When you are the designated note-taker for this meeting.
    • Taking notes on a computer or smartphone saves time, and is more accurate than taking paper notes and digitizing them later.
    • Notes on paper can’t be searched easily, pile up as clutter and are less environmentally friendly.
    • It is more secure than taking notes on paper that can be forgotten and read by others who should not have access to the information.
    • Meeting notes and action items can be automatically saved in real time and shared quickly after the meeting.
    • There should be only one person taking notes during a meeting. If it is a negotiation between two opposing sides, then there should be no more than one note-taker per side.
  • When you need to quickly look something up that is relevant to the discussion and is either necessary or helpful to the meeting in progress.
  • Entering action items that come up during the meeting into your to-do-list so that you can focus on the meeting. This is useful for people who use the GTD system with a tool like OmniFocus.
  • Quickly and discreetly asking a question, or sharing an opinion or information over instant message without disturbing others in the meeting.
  • The distractions on the device could be managed if the user is disciplined and remains focussed on the meeting, perhaps even using the laptop to participate more actively in the meeting. After all, even a person using pen and paper can be distracted doodling or daydreaming.
  • This is the digital age.

Tip: When you bring a laptop to a group meeting or one-on-one meeting, each time respectfully explain to the others beforehand that you will use the laptop for taking notes and recording action items in your to do list only. Inform them that you will be focusing attention on the discussion and that the laptop is simply your digital notepad.

There are also many reasons against using laptops or smartphones during meetings:

  • It comes across as disrespectful to some other meeting attendees, especially those with traditional styles of working.
  • The laptop screen creates a “wall” between you and the people sitting across you.
  • The laptop does make it easy to get distracted into reading your email or other online activities. (A tablet like the iPad that lies flat on the table like a writing pad does not have this problem.)

Tip: At the start of your meeting, announce that if anyone needs to use their phone or laptop, they should step out of the room, use their device outside and return when done. This way, attendees have the freedom and won’t feel constrained.

In most situations, the drawbacks of using a laptop or smartphone during an in-person meeting far outweigh the benefits.

Tip: Provide a mobile phone charging area in your meeting rooms to encourage attendees to put away their mobile phones and participate.

What do you think? Here is link to a related discussion about using laptops, smartphones and other communications devices in meetings.

(Updated: 2014 July 26)

  1. The High Cost of Multitasking: http://blog.fuze.com/the-high-cost-of-multitasking-infographic/  []

Ray Dalio, Randall Munroe and I Think Alike – Culture of Courage & Candor

On the matter of bad behavior of complaining against others behind their backs, Ray Dalio, Randall Munroe and I share the same viewpoint. This article starts with Randall’s cartoon, Ray’s and my quotes on the subject and then discusses the causes of and solutions for this problem. Please note that this article is not about ethical whistleblowers, people who have no choice but to complain secretly about someone in a position of great power and formal authority above them engaged in wrongdoing. Backstabbing (the subject of this article) and whistle-blowing are two completely different things.1 This post is about someone complaining against his peers, those he sees as  competition or those who may be in his way.

Cartoon from XKCD by Randall Munroe

Ray’s quote:

I learned that I want the people I deal with to say what they really believe and to listen to what others say in reply, in order to find out what is true. I learned that one of the greatest sources of problems in our society arises from people having loads of wrong theories in their heads—often theories that are critical of others—that they won’t test by speaking to the relevant people about them. Instead, they talk behind people’s backs, which leads to pervasive misinformation. I learned to hate this because I could see that making judgments about people so that they are tried and sentenced in your head, without asking them for their perspective, is both unethical and unproductive.2 So I learned to love real integrity (saying the same things as one believes)3 and to despise the lack of it.4

— Ray Dalio, an American businessman and founder of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates. Bridgewater is the world’s largest hedge fund company with US$122 billion in assets under management (as of 2011). In 2012, Dalio appeared on the annual Time 100 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2011 and 2012 he was listed by Bloomberg Markets as one of the 50 Most Influential people. Institutional Investor’s Alpha ranked him No. 2 on their 2012 Rich List.
Quote sourced from Principles by Ray Dalio. Emphasis mine. Brief bio of Ray Dalio from Wikipedia. Thanks to my colleague Leon Shklar for introducing me to Ray’s philosophy.

My quote:

When someone complains negatively about a problem, person or situation it often indicates a lack of courage, skill, desire & collaboration required to solve it. Worse, it may be for nefarious reasons.

Senior executives should listen to and reward employees who focus on solutions and support their coworkers. People in leadership should be wary of people who habitually complain about others. Since complainers misleadingly pretend to be smart or helpful, you should always question their motives, challenge their statements and let them know you will ask for others’ viewpoints.

Once you know about such behavior, you should strongly discourage it. The first step is to make sure you don’t reward it. When a senior executive simply listens to a complainer and does not challenge their statements and does not tell they will solicit others opinions as well, the complainer may feel rewarded with the executive’s attention and implicit approval. Things an executive hearing the complaints can say:

  • What did [the target person] say in response when you told them this?
  • Have you spoken to [the target person] about this clearly, honestly and comprehensively? I will reach out to them to understand their viewpoint. (This makes it clear to the complainer that they can’t get away misrepresenting things behind another’s back.)
  • Do you have a collaborative solution to offer that makes it a win/win for both you and [the target person]?

— Rajiv Pant
Quote originally published on Rajiv’s Google+ Page

Why badmouthing others behind their backs is bad for business…

Its toxicity kills productivity. Robert I. Sutton, Professor of Management science at the Stanford Engineering School and a researcher in the field of Evidence-based management writes: [emphasis mine]

… if you want people to think you are smart, apparently you can feed their stereotypes by demeaning others…  I should also warn you that although unleashing your inner asshole may help persuade people of your intellectual superiority, we also show in The Knowing-Doing Gap and Hard Facts that the climate of fear created by such nastiness undermines team and organizational effectiveness.  Potential victims become afraid to try (or even mention) new ideas and hesitate to report mistakes or problems out of fear that the resulting anger and humiliation will be aimed at them.

It creates distrust among coworkers which hurts collaboration and productivity. It distracts focus away from productive work to “watching your back”. It lowers morale at work, which is also bad for business.

On the perpetrator’s side, it diverts creative energy away from business innovation, solving problems and achieving greatness. Instead the perpetrator’s talents, time and tricks are applied towards crafty, cunning and cruel behavior that only hurts the organization.

At its worst, when it becomes a rampant problem, it can lead to costly lawsuits against the organization. When you develop a habit of badmouthing someone behind their back thinking your accusations will remain secret, and you keep getting away with it for a while, you are likely to start saying things that cross the line.

 

Why it happens…

So why do people engage in smear campaigns? Simply because they have found them to be useful for their benefit in the past. There is ample evidence in multiple fields ranging from election campaigns to organizational behavior that despite being immoral, unethical and unfair, smear campaigns can sometimes be highly effective for the perpetrators. At least for the short term. In an organization with a bad culture it benefits the perpetrator every time they do it and there are minimal harmful consequences to the perpetrator.

I asked my friend Professor Jeffery Pfeffer, a well-respected guru of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business why such behavior exists. He explained that “It persists because it often works, and it often works because negativity and criticism seem more profound than positive statements.” He pointed me to his5 article The Smart-Talk Trap published in Harvard Business Review and the article Brilliant but Cruel by Teresa Amabile, now a professor at Harvard Business School. (The word “brilliant” here alludes to a pretense of brilliance, not the real thing.) Those two articles explain that people who disparage others or the work of others falsely appear to look smart and competent, even when they are not so in reality. Basically, it is a cheap trick that works until it is exposed.

The false feeling of being honest (when in reality they are being dishonest) in supposedly exposing  the flaws in others and/or other’s work provides misguided gratification to the perpetrators. When the important person to whom the clandestine complaint is being made to (and it is usually an important person) listens to the complainer in private and engages in that conversation, the complainer sees that as a reward. This encourages more of such bad behavior.

An even bigger mistake a person in a position of power can make after hearing a one-sided complaint is to substantially reward the complainer. By a substantial reward, I mean giving a promotion, power or pleasure of winning. That is not only unjust, unfair and unwise, but a display of poor judgement.

A root cause of this problem is lack of courage. Another is insecurity. It takes courage to walk up to someone you have a problem with, to tell them that on their face with candor especially when you are insecure inside that your accusations will be able to sustain to a fair trial. It is much easier to be a coward and do it hoping the accused will never find out, at least not until it is too late.

Insecurity and an inner lack of confidence in the merits of their accusations are behind complaints that are supposedly backed by unverifiable sources. When someone complains about another and says “others have also complained about [the target person], but they confided in me privately and wish to remain anonymous,” the listeners’ alarm bells should go off. This method of trying to sully someone’s reputation by adding the supposed support of unidentified others is weak at best and disingenuous at worst. There is no way for the leader to know what the unknown people actually said, and if they did complain in what context and what state of mind it happened. Worse, this perpetrator could have baited them unwittingly into speaking negatively about someone they otherwise wouldn’t have. Remember that the complainer is not an unbiased journalist with integrity writing an article citing anonymous sources (and even they have to verify their sources to an Editor), but is most likely an opinionated person with an agenda. If you are a leader, think like a judge or a journalist. Don’t just believe what you hear, especially this type of BS.

On the leader’s side, the one to whom the one-sided complaint is brought, the problem is also a lack of courage. It takes courage to tell someone who is seemingly confiding in you and appears to be trusting you that you do not entertain such bad behavior and that you will put this person and yourself in a deeply uncomfortable position by bringing the accused in to the discussion.

Especially in this day and age of political correctness, being sneaky, disingenuous and cowardly is much easier than being open, honest and courageous.

Unless your organization has a great culture.

…and how to discourage it

So how should executives in an organization discourage such bad behavior? With a culture of continuous and consistent fairness.

In many cases, complaining behind others’ backs also badly backfires. I mentioned earlier that it is cheap trick that works until it is exposed. An effective way to hinder such behavior is to spread awareness about it, for example, by sharing this article. By making it a well-known fact in your organization that such behavior is bad for the business and backfires for the perpetrator, you eliminate its effectiveness.

People for whom such behavior has backfired, causing them harm instead of benefitting them, learn to not do it anymore, provided they quickly realized that it was their bad behavior that hurt them. The human mind learns best when the feedback is immediate or comes soon after.

Therein lies the key to solving this problem in your organization.

Senior executives should build and maintain a culture holds open courts. What does that mean? This:

  • There are no trials held in private. Both parties must be present when any arguments are made in front of the judges (deciders, people with power). In other words, senior executives never entertain clandestine complaints made secretly behind the accused’s backs.
  • The accused always gets a fair hearing. If the accused does not have the debating skills to defend their case, the senior executives should assign someone strong to support them in a public-defender-like role. Winners should not be decided on the basis or their ability to win debates, but on the merits of their case.
  • Senior executives should be careful to never reward this bad behavior, and not even give the complainer the pleasure of indulging them in such a conversation.
  • Most importantly, senior executives must model good, desirable and fair behavior themselves.

The last point is especially important. People look up to successful, effective senior executives. People copy the behaviors they see emanating from the successful person. If senior executives badmouth other people behind their backs, people who look up to them are likely to emulate that behavior. If they see senior executives as respectful, supportive and caring of others, they will learn that. Mirror neurons in action. Which reminds me:

Look in the mirror.

Further Reading

Some neuroscience research related to this

(Shared by Cameron Brown)

 In person learning

badmouthing-behind-back-bad-for-business-cover-slide

  1. For whistle-blowing, there are formal established means. For example, speaking with legal authorities, human resources, or journalists, depending on the situation. []
  2. It is unethical because a basic principle of justice is that everyone has the right to face his accuser. And it is unproductive because it does not lead to the exploration of “Is it true?” which can lead to understanding and improvement. — Ray Dalio []
  3. I do not mean that you should say everything you think, just that what you do say matches your thoughts. — Ray Dalio []
  4. The word “integrity” is from the Latin root “integer,” which means “one” i.e., that you are the same inside and out. Most people would be insulted if you told them that they don’t have integrity—but how many people do you know who tell people what they really think? — Ray Dalio []
  5. co-authored with Bob Sutton  []

Productive Business Meetings

Here are some suggestions for making business meetings more productive, efficient and effective.

Based on readers’ feedback, I have split this article into the following separate blog posts.

(Updated May 29, 2014.)