What to say when you are sworn to secrecy.

A leader recently asked for my help with a situation.  He was very concerned about a situation he found himself in that he felt was going to damage his credibility and his leadership with his people.  The organization is undergoing considerable change and he has knowledge of potential changes to his and other departments.  These changes will involve people changing departments and roles and may involve some headcount reductions.  His question to me was, “How do I keep my reputation for being honest and open with my people if I can’t tell them what is going on?”

This is a situation that many leaders encounter and it always reminds me of a great leader I had when I was a fairly young sales rep.  Our company was on the chopping block.  A couple of large multi-nationals were looking at us quite seriously, and as employees we knew it and we were scared about the potential repercussions. 

That’s the trick… when major change is happening, folks hear stuff.

The CEO stood up at our national sales meeting and made a very interesting speech.  Now he could have lied and pretended that all was stable and normal, he could have put on his politician hat and delivered a careful speech that said nothing, or he could tell us “the truth”.  He chose to basically say,

1.       There are some potential changes to our ownership on the horizon.

2.       We don’t know what those changes will be yet but I will let you know when I can.

3.       We don’t know what a new organization will look like, if we are purchased, or if we will all have jobs going forward.

4.       Remember that the organization only buys your time during work hours and that your life outside of work is far more important.

5.       Love your family and friends and try to keep your perspective.

6.       And if you love your job, the best way to keep it is to stay the course, implement the plans we have in place for this year, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by activity outside of your control.

I share this story often in my coaching and leadership learning sessions.  It resonates with leaders and I think it clarifies that we can be honest with people without sharing what we are not at liberty to share.  We can recognize that our people are smart and that human nature fuels a rumour mill that ensure that when change is happening, people already know something about it.  They often don’t know the truth, or the whole truth, and that can be uncomfortable for everyone.  The message from my CEO twenty years ago allowed me to go back to my job and focus on the day-to-day, and stop worrying about larger issues I did not control.  It also gave me confidence that this man could be trusted to look after the bigger picture and that he would keep me in the loop as best he could.  That’s strong leadership in a time of major change.