Two Progressive Leaders Tell How Transparency Has Led to Success

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Each month, Mathilde Collin, CEO and co-founder of collaboration software provider Front, gives a presentation to the entire company where she shares how things are going. "It's important that everyone knows everything," says Collin in an article on Fast Company. "Our product is aimed at sharing as much as possible. In-boxes are public, and everyone can see every support request or customer review. People know the good and bad."

At a company-wide meeting every Monday, employees can submit questions anonymously. "I answer every single question," says Collin. Dashboards highlight all of the company's metrics, from churn rate to revenue. She also shares the company's challenges and opportunities when interviewing new candidates. "Most companies tell all the good stuff but not challenges. That creates a lose/lose situation."

Transparency has become a bigger trend for organizations over the last couple years, and for good reason. I recall working at the Newspaper Association of America about 15 years ago when we were told nothing at our monthly meetings except for mostly fluffy stuff like birthdays and minor personnel changes. It was frustrating, and it didn't end well.

Last year I asked Dan Fink, managing director of Money-Media, a Financial Times company, if he's transparent with his staff. He said that, "when it comes to how the business is doing, yes. It creates accountability and keeps people on the same page. Culturally, it's also an important element, and it's good to preach open discussion. Some things are sensitive—we don't talk about exact spend of individual clients, for example. But overall revenues, expenses, trends, profits, quarter to-quarter results, we are very open about—in a way that won't put journalists where they're not comfortable."

The subject also came up recently on the SIPA Forum in respect to sales commissions. Addressing those who may not be as transparent as he is, Fink advised that they find "a different system to motivate people because the entire goal is to get everyone to understand where the company is and what they have to do to get the company over the goal. If you can't share those numbers, it defeats the purpose a bit. As well, staff gets emotionally connected to getting the payout and could become skeptical if they are told they don't get the payout in a given quarter, but don't see any numbers to back it up."

It makes sense, probably even more so with younger employees who have grown up with so much more available information. Another positive is that with transparency often comes empowerment. Employees feel more connected to the company and thus want to stand up more—and have more motivation to do so.

"As much as you can in your business, empower people," Heather Farley, COO of Access Intelligence, told us last year in a session on retention. "People are also happier that way. Their stress level is lower. [It's saying,] 'I trust you, I trust your judgment to make the right decisions and handle situations.'"

Minutes later Brittany Carter, president, Columbia Books & Information Services, echoed Farley's advice. "Empowering people and giving them the opportunity to make the decisions makes a huge difference. You'll see people step up who you never thought would."

Carter was talking about the product teams that Columbia Books has and the importance of finding strong leaders for those teams. But the lessons from her and Farley focused on the need for your entire organization to be customer-centric. "...the relationship [with customers] may begin with sales but it extends to your whole organization," Farley said.

That's seems to be what Collin and Fink are aiming for. Interestingly, both spent time in sales early in their careers. Collin said she got frustrated when transparency was nowhere to be found. "They lied to us about how the business was doing. They wouldn't share revenue, or they would say we were doing amazing... I could see we were not adding much money. It was traumatic when I learned the truth."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…