Many management books (for example, The First 90 Days, p. 45) suggest that you have structured interviews with your direct reports when you first join a new organization. Eugene Lee followed this advice when he become CEO 2.0 (that's how Ross Mayfield, one of Socialtext's founders, advertised the job on LinkedIn) for the collaboration/Enterprise 2.0 platform provider Socialtext. As suggested, he wrote down a set of questions like: how long have you been here, what are you most proud of in your career so far, what will you be most proud of having done when you leave Socialtext?
What's unique is how this process evolved. He'd scheduled these one-on-one meetings for 30 minutes each and knew that wasn't much time for people to be thoughtful about their responses -- so he posted the list of questions to the company wiki. (A wiki is a website where everyone in the company can post and edit information - and one of Socialtext's main products.) The idea was to give people a chance to think about the questions before their face-to-face meetings. Eugene didn't anticipate that given the company's culture and comfort with social software, like this wiki, that people would just start answering -- on the wiki for all to see.
Part of this picture is that Eugene hadn't come from companies with this kind of transparency. In fact, few companies today are this comfortable with public posts and discussions, and I'm guessing that Cisco and Adobe weren't during Eugene's tenure. This public response was a surprise to Eugene: unanticipated, and somewhat unnerving (though he notes that for the Socialtext crew, they wouldn't have thought of doing it any other way).
But here's the key: Eugene has systems savvy and quickly saw the value of the approach. He didn't immediately post a recall. He certainly didn't delete the posts. Instead, he added his own responses. The wiki posts ended up creating the vision statement (especially the question about what will you be most proud of having done when you leave). There was even a dynamic in that as people were contributing their thoughts, others were "gardening the wiki" -- making it a well designed document.
The whole process become something Eugene described as "Getting to Know You 2.0." Sounds like a beautiful Silicon Valley leadership story. At the time, Eugene notes that it actually felt:
So scary. I'd lost control of the process. How powerful to let that control go.... When you hit a tough spot and need people to do something hard... the trust is enormous... and we make software that helps that.
As a result of the process he was able to prepare a presentation covering: memes, themes, dreams, & seams... what was common, what the aspirations were, and where there were gaps. Getting to Know You 2.0 was a success. It took a combination of technology (the Socialtext platform), organization (a way of working that assumed openness and transparency), and people dimensions (Eugene being accepting of risk, even at this critical juncture with the new company). TOP Management.
This was 2007. Jump forward to the middle of 2009. Eugene got a copy of the book Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor. This book, and his Getting to Know You 2.0 story have become part of how he presents Socialtext's products to other senior leaders. ...and sometimes the transition is stunning.
He recalled a recent sales call with a C-level executive at a large, traditional (the kind of place where the conference room's mahogany cabinets had mahogany handles), East Coast organization. Some departments in the organization had been using Socialtext social software products and now the question was whether the platform should be offered to the whole company. The meeting was expected to be a private one with the exec and Eugene. Instead, the exec's staff crashed the meeting and were joined by a top IT exec. Possibly rough meeting, and started out very quietly. The C-level didn't say a word for 40 minutes, but the end of the presentation he says, "I think we should do this." The IT exec posed concerns and implied that while this might be good for a California company... "what problem will it solve? Implementations fail when there isn't a problem being solved." Pause. The C-level then says "Employee engagement, cross department collaboration." Maybe this firm's conference rooms were formal, but this gentleman understood the value of transparency in modern organizations.
Eugene says this story has played out similarly in multiple firms. This transition to transparency is happening and technology is helping to manage the process. He sees this as a leadership issue, the technology is only enabling the interactions. Leaders need to consider:
What does it mean to you, the leader, in terms of not killing transparency? How open book is appropriate? How cross functionally transparent do you really want the culture to be?
Technology, organizations, and people -- designed together -- TOP Management. Additional material from my interview with Eugene: Budget as a Trigger for TOP Management: Examples from Eugene Lee of Socialtext