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October 07, 2009

Live from World Business Forum: Is Your Company See-Through?

Not to be overly titillating, but the most successful company going forward may also be the most see-through. That's what Dennis Nally, global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers said, anyway, at today's opening presentation at the World Business Forum. 

He pointed out that investors wouldn't feel secure about risking their money if the company's results weren't transparent, and if those results weren't judged by consistent standards globally. To get to that place of transparency, he said collaboration between companies and government regulators, and between countries to set up uniform standards, would be necessary.  

I think that may be hard, if not unrealistic, because of the competitive, suspicious mindset at many companies. Many, it seems, have little interest collaborating with other companies as much as hunkering down and guarding their assets. Rather than a focus on collaboration, I've noticed a focus on suspicion and defensiveness in the corporate world. 

Never mind trusting other companies, countries, and government regulators, many companies aren't even willing to trust their own people enough to share news of budding business strategy. Instead of optimizing the talents and intelligence of their own workforce to make business strategy better, the norm at too many companies is to keep developing deals a secret to be sprung on affected workers after it's already a done deal. Yes, it's essential to keep certain information secret to maintain a competitive advantage, but why and how are companies employing workers they don't trust enough to share with them the kind of information they could use to help their company do better?  

Instead of concentrating on superficial cultural elements like dress and cubicle appearance (I've heard about that happening at some companies), a better approach would be to let such nonsense go, and concentrate instead on hiring and nurturing the kind of employees managers and executives can share business strategy with. A mid- or lower-level worker often has insights about the way business is done day-to-day that could make for better deals with new business partners. A conversation with a forum of mid-level employees, for instance, might quickly show the executive deal makers that a new arrangement with a supplier or a new acquisition isn't the best idea after all. "Oh, we haven't had a good track record working with them," or "Well, if we acquire them, we'll have our work cut out for us. In all our dealings with them, they seem very disorganized, and even unethical."  

If you can't trust your own people, how will you ever trust outside entities like government regulators and other companies?  Collaboration starts at home, so as workforce managers, I would try helping managers add a trust focus to the hiring process. If it already isn't one of your hiring criteria, ask managers to make sure they think about whether they can see themselves feeling comfortable sharing business strategy information with potential new hires. As they would for other hiring criteria, reference checks should include questions to reveal how trusted the employee was at his or her former company. "Can you tell me about a time when Gladys offered insight into a budding business deal or strategy?"   You could argue that no matter how low-level the employee, at least one example should come to mind from a former boss of a time when the job candidate was trusted with business news, and offered an enterprising suggestion to improve business. If a worker is both trusted and enterprising, those examples will spring to mind.

I had experience at a former company with a manager who was enterprising, but untrustworthy. Of course that doesn't do anybody any good. Even me, as a nearly entry-level employee, worried about sharing ideas with her. You never knew what she was cooking up in her corporate cauldron. At the same time, I have experience working with the archetype of the employee who's entirely trustworthy and entirely useless (hate to be mean, but true).  He would never share business information with competitors because he also would never come up with an enterprising business idea.

In times like these, you need both the trust and the enterprising nature of employees to get you through the day. I've had work days in my employment past when I wanted to become the Invisible Woman. I felt like conversations stopped and doors closed when I, or my co-workers, walked past offices. If your employees feel like they're playing hide-and-seek with their employer, how will potential business collaborators feel?  

Ghosts also are hard to see. Companies with a habit of conducting business in opaque ways may soon find themselves inhabiting the corporate graveyard. 


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