If you met the man who built one of the most successful companies in the world, you probably wouldn’t think he was the guy behind it all. Under Jack Welch’s management, General Electric’s value rose by 4,000%, and it was a top company worldwide in all its business lines by the time Welch left in 2001. Jack Welch only stands 5 feet, 7 inches, and he doesn’t have thick luxurious hair. In fact, he is bald, and even speaks with a bit of a stutter. Not having a natural born leader look or charisma, why was he able to get so many people to follow him and believe in him? Jack attributes it to “candor.”
Welch wrote in his book, Winning, that candor is a necessary element to any successful business. In fact, Welch has even gone on to say that lack of candor is the biggest dirty secret in business. Welch noted, “Lack of candor basically blocks smart ideas, fast action, and good people contributing all the stuff they’ve got. It’s a killer.” In other words, when people don’t speak up, any organization is worse off for it.
Speaking from a personal experience, some people view candor as something radioactive, which you should avoid and shield yourself from. Working at a bank in Washington DC, I had a precarious situation as a senior underwriter, because I believed my job was to shepherd through good loans and stop bad loans from being made. To my surprise, the bank had staunch factions that made this difficult to accomplish.
Lenders felt anytime someone stopped one of their loans, it was a malicious act by an enemy. On the other hand, the credit department counted their wins in how many loans they could decline. In my attempt to see good loans get made, my credit team thought I was working against them. But when I tried to stop bad loans from being made, the lenders thought I was working against their team. It left both sides wondering whose side I was really on, even though I thought I was ultimately trying to be on the “bank’s” side! It appeared that facts were inconveniently getting in the way of feuding departments trying to vie for greater control within the bank, and profitable decision making had taken a backseat.
In a more interesting situation, I was a Peace Corps’ volunteer in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine. I was invited to speak at a university, and told I could speak about anything I wanted. While still being young and naïve, I thought it would be a great opportunity to discuss how to reform education in Ukraine to reduce corruption. In fact, my whole argument was they needed to pay educators much more, so they can hold them more accountable and make the bribes seem petty and not worth the risk. After that event, I was blacklisted by the university. When I found this out, I naturally wanted to know why. I was informed it was because I acknowledged that corruption may exist in their institution.
Candor, which is defined as “the quality of being open and honest in expression,” is a tough quality to have. Candor might hurt someone’s emotions, or is unpleasant to hear. And, it isn’t uncommon for people to shoot the messenger, so nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news. But, good organizations value candor and encourage it. Welch knew this, and used his own candor and solicited the candor of others to transform GE into one of the best company’s in its day. Welch understood that all the facts can’t be dealt with unless they are all put on the table. Only in an environment where anything can be honestly discussed can the best decisions be made to build better companies.