“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. And no one is lying.”
Robert Evans (Hollywood Producer)
For business leaders, it is vital to seek out and find the “true truth” in order to make decisions based on facts rather than opinions.
What is the “True Truth?”
On July 12, 1998, Brazil lost to France in the World Cup final by a score of 3 – 0. Earlier in the day, Ronaldo, Brazil’s star and the best player in the world at the time, had suffered a seizure of some type. In any event, he played the game, but played poorly. After the game,
the Brazilian public and media could not believe that their favorites had lost. This led to a suspicion of foul play and corruption. As detailed in Alex Bellos’ book, Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, the Brazilian senate decided to investigate the event and determine why Brazil had lost. Ronaldo was, quite naturally, called to testify. He gave his opening remarks:
I also hope that my truth pleases you, because there are many truths, many truths. It’s up to you [the Brazilian Senate Commission] to decide which is the true truth and analyze it afterwards.
“My truth.” “The true truth.”
For our purposes of business leadership, Ronaldo hit it on the head. As a business leader, it is your job to seek out and find the true truth. You will hear lots of truths from lots of different people. You may call it their opinions, but to them it is not their opinions, it is the truth. It is their truth. As a leader, you will need to hear all these “truths” to determine the “true truth”, the “real reality.”
So, how do you go about finding the “true truth”?
- Seek out multiple viewpoints
Seek Out Multiple Viewpoints
This one should be easy, but it is not.
Be a researcher and a historian. Get the primary source material from the mouths of your customers and employees. This means direct engagement with the customer. This means developing relationships with people in your business below your direct reports. This means listening to other stakeholders.
Importantly, in any issue, dispute, or conflict, get the viewpoints of all sides. I would tell my General Managers that I would not fault them for making a wrong decision after getting the “truths” from all key stakeholders. But, I would fault them for not getting the “truths” from all affected stakeholders, even if they made the right decision in the end.
Listening is one of those skills where 90% of us rate ourselves as being in the top 10%. Alas, few business leaders listen well. We all know how to listen well; we just do not do it. As evidenced by this quote from Sir Francis Bacon, the advice on how to listen well has been the same for at least four hundred years:
Listen not to contradict and disprove, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.
We all know how to do it; we just do not do it. Some simple ideas that I have tried include:
- Physically force yourself not to be distracted. Move away from the desk and keyboard, put down the smart phone, remove the distraction
- Briefly summarize what the other person has just said
- Especially for meetings, create an “interruption fund” where you pay $5 to a quarter-end “cookout fund” each time you interrupt
I have one anecdote about interrupting to share.
In the early 1990’s, I had an excellent mentor at TRW. We were having a meeting, and I proceeded to interrupt him. He told me that I was interrupting him. So, of course, I interrupted him to tell him why I interrupt so much. His response was to interrupt me and tell me the following: “I don’t care why you interrupt because I don’t care about the “why.” It took me thirty years of psychoanalysis to realize that the “why” does not matter. What matters is to just not do it. So, do not interrupt.”
Another aspect of listening is to listen to and interpret the meaning behind the words. Most of us make the assumption (which is usually the case) that people are telling us the truth. But, they are always telling us “their truth.” We must first respect that it is their truth; that it is what they believe. More importantly, we must think about and reflect on their point of view and why they are saying what they are saying.
In his book The Management Myth, Matthew Stewart describes the listening style of one quite brilliant consultant as follows:
“He does not focus on what you are saying. Rather, he tries to figure out what you want to get by saying it. And then he tries to figure out why you think you want what you want. And then he tries to figure out what he can do about the things that make you think you want it.”
This consultant’s “third order” listening skills may be a little too deep for all of us. But, as a leader, trying to ‘figure out what the other person wants to get by saying something’ is sage advice.
Get out there and carefully observe the reality as it really is, not as you want it.
Most top executives are treated to Potemkin Villages when they go out and see the businesses they oversee. The expression “Potemkin Village” comes from a story in Russia in the late 1700’s. According to this story, a Russian minister, Potemkin, wanted to impress the Empress Catherine II during a state visit. So, he had hollow facades of villages constructed along the barren banks of the Dnieper River to impress Empress Catherine as her boat sailed down the river.
In my previous company, any announced visit by a top executive, a member of the Board of Directors, or a group of Wall Street analysts would result in a two week spruce up campaign on the facility sometimes to the tune of $30,000 or more. Having approved these expenditures on numerous occasions, I find it hard to fault anyone in the field for initiating such a spruce-up effort. But, the reality is that the top executives are not seeing the company as it really exists.
As a top executive, it is your job to side step the spruce-up campaign and look behind the façades of the Potemkin Village to observe what the business is like on a normal day. This can involve regular visits or surprise visits or just looking closely in the corners.
As an anecdote that encompasses seeking out multiple viewpoints, listening, and observing, I relate a sales call I made as a sales manager a number of years ago.
I often traveled with my salespeople to observe them in action and to interact with the customer. In the sales calls, I knew that my presence changed everything. When I was with the salespeople, they were on their game, organized, prepared, and with pressed shirts. The purpose of my sales management calls was to get the customer’s point of view and to see how the salespeople could be when they were on their best. I could usually accomplish these two things. What I could not usually get was the truth in how the sales people were on their normal days.
But on this sales call, I found out.
I was with a salesperson and he was putting on a good show. He was on his game, and I was impressed. The customer was engaged and asking good, if a little bit basic, questions. And the customer had a big smile on his face the entire time that the salesperson was presenting. In any event, as the sales call wound down, the salesperson had to get something from his car, so I was left alone with the customer. Not being the shy and retiring type, I asked him about the basic questions he was asking and his smile.
His response: “Please don’t tell Ken (I changed the name), but I am smiling because I am really impressed with how well he can present and sell when he has to, and I am asking these questions because we have never really talked about most of this stuff before. Usually, Kevin just comes in, we go immediately to lunch, have a pleasant non-business conversation, and he leaves.”
Ouch! Despite the odd bout of pain, it always pays to seek out and find the true truth.
p.s. In December 2001, the Brazilian Senate Commission published its findings about what happened at the 1998 World Cup Final. Their conclusion about Brazil was that “we lost because we did not win.”