Leaders Speak Out

People who speak out tend to be willing to volunteer bold ideas, even if it will put their credibility on the line.

If we hold back and play it safe to preserve our credibility, we can make mistakes.

I was part of a hiring committee for a non-profit leadership position once. One of the finalists, “Betsy”, had a cover letter and resume with multiple spelling and usage errors. She also didn’t present herself very professionally during the interview. For example, when asked the usual, “What questions do you have for us?” she responded with, “Man, I can’t think of anything. Knowing me, on the way home I’ll think of a bunch!”

There were other red flags, all pointing to the same thing: Betsy had a low commitment to professionalism and attention to detail.

When I spoke up in the committee about these concerns, I was teased for being a grammar snob, and for letting these “little things” get in the way of my judgment.

So, I clammed up and went with the majority. When we took the recommendation to the whole board, one member asked, “Weren’t you guys put off by all these errors in her application materials?” I stayed silent. I wish I hadn’t.

We hired Betsy and had to fire her after about 4 months – for unprofessional behavior. I stayed silent because I was new, and I was worried about my credibility and influence, and let those political considerations get to me.

Last week we talked about 2010 being a time when American Express, or any large financial services corporation, should have been avoiding attention and scrutiny.

You may have watched the video of the late Ed Gilligan speaking with pride about the OPEN team ramping Small Business Saturday up in three weeks. If you missed it, watch his Harvard Business Review interview here. (It’s a must-see.)

Who spoke up to the leadership at American Express? Susan Sobbott.

At the time, Susan was the President of OPEN, AmEx’s Small Business unit. Even though the prevailing mindset was to avoid attention, Sobbott spoke up and advocated for the opposite – to grab the attention of the public.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this kind of boat-rocking can cost a person in Sobbott’s position professionally. But that didn’t stop her. Had she held back on her point of view on the Small Business Saturday concept, it may never have gotten off the ground.

Read what Susan had to say about the success of SBS in 2010 here.

Leaders hold back at the right time, but speak out at the right times also.

Learn when to speak out, and even err in that direction in the early parts of processes.

Speaking Out is a leadership behavior that helps drive Boldness during the Vision process of the Work of Leaders.

To learn more about an assessment that measures and guides growth for leaders and potential leaders, start here.

To learn more by reading a great book, see the link below. Purchases made through that link may result in a small commission for me.

This is the fourth post in an 18-part series. Throughout the series, I’ll be providing real-world negative examples from a variety of settings.

For positive examples, we’ll look at one specific case study: the Small Business Saturday initiative from American Express. Small Business Saturday has become part of the holiday shopping lexicon (positioned between Black Friday and Cyber Monday) and reminds us to “Shop Small” and keep our dollars local. It’s been tremendously successful and is a huge initiative, but there’s a behind-the-scenes story that lifts up best practices in leadership we can all adopt; not every leader or team member involved is a high-level executive at American Express. In fact, much of the effort was a product of the work of a specific team at M Booth, a mid-sized award winning PR firm. Follow along to learn more. To start at the first post in this series, click here.

2 Responses

  1. Michael Albarracin
    | Reply


    I really appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts on leadership. I felt a strong connection with this article, given the conversation I had with my students regarding fears that affect them. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Alan Feirer
    | Reply

    Thanks for reading, Michael – keep meeting needs.

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