J. C. Faulkner remembers a very early source of advice about the value of honesty: “My grandfather—he was a coal miner—he said something about integrity and truth that I’ve never forgotten. He said that the very moment you feel like you have to lie; when you feel like you want to be untruthful; when you’re so scared to tell somebody the truth; when there’s that much at stake, that’s the very moment you have to tell the truth. The fact you feel like you want to lie validates how important the truth is. It validates that you are dealing with a real issue, something that is only going to get worse.”
Founders who say they value candor will eventually be tested as to whether they mean it. One of the sternest and most unpleasant examples of this is the common need to confront performance problems, to deal with team members who are not cutting it. Nearly every team, it seems, has a member or two who are not performing up to par, or who have burned too many interpersonal bridges, and whose struggles are commonly known and discussed throughout the venture (except when they are around). Mark Williams remembers the sinking feeling in his stomach when he fully realized that a key team member was no longer a good fit for Modality’s growth needs. After a period of agonizing about how to address the situation, he was able to candidly share his thinking with the person and negotiate a fair deal to transition him out of the business. As in many such cases, the exiting team member appreciated the integrity of the process and was somewhat relieved to no longer be straining in a role incompatible with his considerable strengths.
When it comes to open communication, you may find that your challenge as an entrepreneur is less about being truthful with others and more about ensuring that others are completely honest with you. With partners and team members, you will likely get back what you project. “I have found that when people see you doing something as a leader over time, that behavior becomes the expected norm,” says J. C. “It’s what people think they are supposed to do. When you as a leader are completely unedited and candid, about both good and bad things, that candor opens the door for them to follow suit.”
You can also increase your odds of getting the truth by explicitly asking for it and then rewarding it through listening and taking appropriate action. Bob Tucker remembers how J. C. set a tone for unvarnished feedback in their working relationship. “One of the first things that J. C. said to me was—and this is one of his favorite expressions: ‘I don’t know what I don’t know. If you see me doing or saying something that you think is a mistake or with which you disagree, then I want to know about it. I may not agree with you, but I want to know where you see it differently.’” J. C. backed up his request with actions over time, demonstrating that he really wanted to hear opposing views (his quick dismissal of Doug Crisp’s concerns about Home Free was a notable exception). For his part, Bob Tucker has seen his share of leaders who fail to walk their talk. “I can’t tell you how many times I have seen business leaders say it’s their objective [to promote candor] when in fact they do nothing to implement it, and I have seen many of them declare it and create the opposite effect, where anybody who disagrees with them gets shot down.”