People often ask me what keeps me up at night. I don’t worry as much about failure as some people might expect. I have learned to be pretty comfortable with uncertainty. I even appreciate having competitors who push the industry forward.
My biggest fear is that there is something going wrong in my organization and I don’t know about it.
This isn’t about mistakes or malice. I’m talking about widespread acceptance of the wrong idea. Something I could have corrected if I were sufficiently in touch to know it was out there. Have you ever seen footage of an executive called in front of Congress and asked incredulously, “how could you have not known this was going on?” I know how. In an enterprise of any meaningful complexity it is entirely possible.
It is also preventable. I think.
The first ounce of prevention is culture. While this should go without saying: ethics are non-negotiable. We do not “win at all costs.” We want to compete on a level playing field and win on merit. When we face challenging decisions we have rigorous, transparent debates to ensure all things are considered. The culture must make it safe to raise any and all concerns. At the most extreme, there are things like whistleblower hotlines but more conventionally we use discussion groups. It isn’t enough to have the groups that allow for dissent; management has to actively encourage and reward it. When employees reach out directly to management with a concern, they must find a receptive audience.
The second ounce of prevention is process. There must be systems that allow you to stay in touch with your team at a deeper level. Things like skip level 1:1s, brown bag lunches, taking regular surveys and reading every line collected, and staying abreast of comments in groups. There also must be trusted leaders who are out of the chain of management who can triangulate feedback, in our case the HR business partners.
This fear is why I am a fanatic about communication and culture. It is why you can find me ten comments deep in subthreads at 1am sometimes. I just can’t stand the thought of a potentially misleading idea gaining traction. My peers recently told me they wondered how I had the energy to engage like that. I wonder how they manage to sleep without doing it.