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A young Uber programmer told us recently about the hiring of the company’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi: “Every leader we’ve had here has been a Slytherin,” she said. “Now we have our first Gryffindor, and it’s great.”

According to The New Yorker, “Uber’s previous CEO … had built the company into an extraordinary success. Under his leadership, it also acquired a terrible reputation, as the embodiment of a strain of Silicon Valley culture that values results above all else.”

After Uber’s Sorting-Hat chose Khosrowshahi, one of his first acts has been to focus first on building a positive culture, including developing a list of core values by soliciting ideas from employees.

Said the Uber programmer, her new CEO brought with him a new day of open communication. For instance, employees are asked to submit questions electronically and then the workforce votes on which they’d like to see answered in regular all-hands, televised town hall meetings. Talk about transparency.

In our study of today’s best teams, we’ve found such openness makes for a more meritocratic work environment where the best ideas emerge and debate can flourish. We’ve surveyed more than 850,000 employees over the past decade, and many of these people make it remarkably clear that a lot of modern managers give off the vibe:

“I just don’t have time for your input or questions.”

Modern Managers

Because of their harried schedules, or perhaps they don’t see the need, these Slytherin-style managers put the kibosh on employees’ willingness to challenge the status quo and speak up.

We had the unhappy experience of being part of a team led by such a manager. When a company we worked for years ago decided to create a cross-functional team to increase revenue in a new business unit, we thought it was a great idea. We went in to the experience with the highest of expectations, and we began in the first meeting to attempt to initiate open discussion and debate—with the executive in charge and others. We were confused as to why none of our peers was participating, but it became clear after this first meeting. The executive in charge stormed into our offices, shut the door, and let us know, in no uncertain terms, “You will never again contradict me in front of my employees.”

We did, but still.

Outbursts like that leave everyone confused. After all, isn’t hashing out different views the point of bringing cross-functional teams together?

In contrast, transparency encourages people to feel they are working, in the inimitable words of Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers, all for one and one for all. It helps team members work toward team goals collectively, especially if the goals are simple to understand, realistic, and the metrics for tracking them are well-devised.

We’ve seen this wisdom in action at Danaher, the $17 billion science and technology company, where the culture is built around continuous improvement and the open discussion of challenges. Says Angie Lalor, senior vice president, “Every team here sets stretch goals then tracks metrics on a very regular basis. We put these on what we call Bowler Charts (a nod to the similarity they bear to bowling score grids), which are displayed in each team. The charts have KPIs in red or green—we don’t like to use yellow. If a KPI is red, we go through a problem-solving process to get to the root cause and implement counter measures to address it.”

This is a process that’s seen as positive, exhilarating even. A leader or team with red KPIs doesn’t take it personally, but sees it as an intellectual journey to find root causes. “Ninety-nine times out of one hundred it’s not going to be related to a person’s failure,” Lalor said. “Looking at issues like this gives us freedom to be transparent in a safe environment. As a leader, I might have nothing but red on my Bowler Chart, but it’s not going to feel like a personal failure. It’s going to be an opportunity to find the root causes and counteract them. It injects a level of humility into the organization, which we thrive on.”

Humility and transparency. And does that kind of openness pay? Consider that since 1986, only Microsoft and Oracle have outpaced Danaher in return to shareholders. We’d say that’s a resounding yes.

The lesson we’ve learned is that no matter what your team does, it’s part of a manager’s job to create feelings of openness and affiliation with teammates by involving them respectfully in solving problems, sincerely recognizing their unique accomplishments, and ensuring all voices are heard.

As always, we love to read your comments. Is “openness” a value you seek in a leader, and if so, how do you foster it in your team?

it’s part of a manager’s job to create feelings of openness and affiliation with teammates by involving them respectfully in solving problems

Chester Elton

Author Chester Elton

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Mark Mehler says:

    Great article! So true. The best managers I’ve had throughout my career have been of the Gryffindor type. I’m curious to hear what others have to say

    • Don Stuckey says:

      Interesting and unusual way to look at Leadership. I had never thought of the Harry Potter School of Leadership. Thanks, Elton.

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