The Emperor has no Clothes

Feb 12, 2001

Remember the story about the emperor who had no clothes? Everyone was afraid to tell him, though, so he paraded around in the buff and made a complete fool of himself. I see the same thing when it comes to leaders of A/E/C and environmental consulting firms. No one wants to tell them the truth about what they are doing or the mess the firm is in. As a result, the leaders continue to make fools of themselves. Why does this happen? There are several reasons. Some people, no matter how much you try to encourage them to speak up, are just afraid of the boss. They won’t ever be honest because they don’t think it’s their place to do so. In other cases, the people have decided it does no good. The leader is a know-it-all who just won’t listen and has to find everything out for himself. These leaders just don’t respect anyone else. Then there are the leaders who are actually vindictive. They do shoot the messenger, and as a result, everyone should be scared of them. But for the purposes of this discussion, the cause doesn’t matter. What’s important is the long-term impact of the staff’s inability to tell the leader the truth— problems such as: Overstated backlogs. No one wants to give the bad news that “the civil department is running out of work.” So when utilization dips to 52%, the problem is dire, and layoffs are the only choice. Project budget problems that don’t get addressed early enough. No one wants to say, “We’ve got trouble.” But when the budget is beyond recovery, it finally comes out. Clients who don’t pay and don’t get confronted. No one wants to say, “Your buddy the developer is ripping us off. I know you went to the Vineyard with him last summer, but the guy is a thief.” So when the AR is 182 days old, it’s written off. Poor performing staff members who are tolerated. No one wants to say, “Your servant, Sue, is intolerably lazy and won’t help anyone else out,” so other good employees quit instead. Business plans that aren’t working, but don’t get changed. No one wants to say, “It was a dumb idea to go into the interiors business. We don’t have a viable capability there, and we probably never will. Why do we tolerate a million-dollar loss over there year after year?” I could go on and on, but you get the idea. The real issue is how do you keep things going in a positive direction when you have a firm where this problem exists. Here are some ideas: Have as much information as you can publicly available. It’s easy for the boss to avoid any situation when no one even knows it’s going on. Use your intranet, use online reports, use e-mail with shared folders, and use your bulletin boards. Do these things, and you’ll see a lot less head- burying by the top people. They’ll have to acknowledge what works and what doesn’t. Hire an outsider, an “insultant” of sorts, to come in and tell the truth. Usually, the boss, if not provided with other choices, will hire someone who tells him or her what they want to hear. That’s why you need to come up with some other alternatives and make as many people in the firm as you can aware of what these other alternatives are. Look for strong, successful people with knowledge of your business who don’t need you as a client. They may be able to confront the boss when no one else can. Be a change agent yourself. I was reading an article the other day about the new CEO of American Express. He rose to the top of a stodgy company that didn’t tolerate a lot of disagreement by being a good internal salesman, being persistent, and demonstrating that he could get good results. That’s always key to establishing credibility with people who already think they know it all. It’s not easy to deal with this issue, I know. But it’s not impossible, either. Consider my advice, and let me know how it works. Originally published 2/12/2001.

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