Complete transparency

Oct 16, 2022

Open up and embrace full company transparency, not just financial, to enhance your firm’s culture.

Financial transparency in the AEC industry is gaining quite a bit of traction these days. It makes sense: Help employees understand how they individually impact the numbers, and each can now help the team work toward common goals, not to mention fulfillment and stability within the company. By allowing employees to understand the finances of the firm and what those numbers mean, employees can understand their worth, make or suggest improvements and efficiencies, and see how to directly impact the company’s bottom line. With the success of financial transparency, then, what would an approach of embracing full company transparency (not just financial) look like?

At Choice One Engineering, we have found the real value of transparency goes farther when everything is transparent – not just the numbers. This broad sweeping transparency of culture, organizational growth, people development, etc., provides employees the knowledge to truly make an impact on the organization. Yes, it’s hard sometimes, especially when individual lives are impacted when an employee is let go or when a costly mistake is shared companywide so all can learn. But the benefits of dispelling rumors and helping employees feel confident in the direction of the company is worth the short-term pain of being transparent when it matters most.

Not sure about transparency? A common concern heard about making a shift from opaqueness to transparency is that now there is no “barrier” between leadership and everyone else. Leadership actually has to do what they say they are going to do, or actually have to care about the things that they say they care about. If that is truly a concern, we suggest not venturing into transparency quite yet. We would suggest a better place to start improving your organization would be to begin evaluating your leadership team to understand if they are sending mixed signals. Make sure you and your leadership team have clarity about your company priorities (management, culture, financials, etc.) and what each aspect means. Culture to you, for example, may mean something different than culture to your next level leader. That clarity will be important as you introduce it to the organization, otherwise there will eventually be ambiguity of goals or behaviors which will lead to frustration and stress for everyone involved.

A word of caution: To achieve a high level of impact with transparency, leadership needs to do more than just share information. Clarity needs to be provided around the information shared. The actual sharing needs to be done with intentionality, education, listening, and a sincere request for feedback from employees around a specific topic. This extra effort is the difference between being transparent and simply being “open” (think about it as being transparent versus translucent). Likewise, all of this commentary assumes you want to hire and employ people who care about their personal growth and the growth of the organization.

Let’s take a look at a suggestion of where to start: Your company’s professional management model. Whether you have a formal, documented model or not, you have a professional management model. That model highlights the areas of your business you focus on. Even if you don’t have something documented, your employees notice what is most important to your leadership and that has, over time, become your de facto model. Indeed, a common trap we as leaders fall into is believing that our employees know what we know. They have been around for two, five, or 10-plus years – of course they know what is important here. But ask them. There’s a good chance that if you have never explicitly sat them down and told them what’s important, they won’t be able to articulate it clearly. At Choice One, we follow a formalized professional management model known as the DOC Model. By being transparent with the professional management model we follow, employees know what is important to leadership and know how to help make the company better in those areas. If it is important to you as a leader, why wouldn’t you want it to be important to your people?

Once more transparency is established, what are the benefits? The following are outcomes we’ve experienced by being transparent companywide:

  • Trust. Simply being willing to be transparent shows employees absolute trust in using the information communicated appropriately. Being fully transparent will also create more trust among employees. Suddenly, when everyone has the same information, the concept of one team with one plan and one goal is driven home. The team has a common language, recognizes ways to be more effective, and then gets to see and share the results of their focused efforts. This trust also helps employees know where the company stands and how stable it is. No matter the success of your company on the surface, employees will still be wondering “how are we really doing?” Transparency helps address those questions and promotes commitments to make the company even better.
  • Personal responsibility. Once your communicated topic is well understood, you might be surprised at the passion employees have around furthering any initiative or important company aspect. Suddenly an employee who perhaps previously only focused on CAD design now understands what it takes to manage the company’s vehicle fleet or what was considered when a certain person was selected for a promotion or new position. This can help with understanding the “hidden” parts of running a business, what leadership/owners think about, and encourage appreciation among employees for jobs well done and situations well managed.
  • Worth. By giving sensitive information to all employees, regardless of level of experience or tenure, all employees feel valued in a similar way. When owners or a select few hold all of the information, there is a feeling of power, whether intentional or not, that creates a barrier between those who “know” and those who don’t. Remember when you were in third grade and your classmate told you she had a secret, and she wasn’t going to tell you? That may have made your feel less than you peer. The same things happen in businesses. By holding information over each other, we create a culture of “I know something you don’t know” that, due to our human nature, does not typically provide a positive environment.

In closing, it’s understandable to hesitate about being fully transparent – how can this go wrong? But think of the opposite: How can this go right? Consider showing your employees how much their work matters beyond a personal bonus or employee award. Show them the truth, with the story behind it, and open up your company’s culture to creating a more transparent, trusting team.  

Matt Hoying, P.E. is president of repeat Best Firm To Work For winner Choice One Engineering, a civil engineering, landscape architecture, and surveying firm in western Ohio. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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