Top executives in the corporate world are quite often heard interspersing their conversation with 'to be very frank' or 'to tell you very frankly.' And I find a lot of the time, when they say this, it is exactly then, that they are 'not very frank.'
Why do top executives shy away from being very frank, when there is need to be so? Why do they fight their own conscience and run away, trying to dodge the issue?
In my early days in the corporate world, I had started a market research group in the company – and, in a short while, it produced excellent ideas. Some of these ideas were converted into products and added to the company’s sales and profits. My boss, the sales director, was very proud of what was being done and felt that perhaps with a mid-30s senior executive, with a certain experience in market research, the company would be able to do better than managing with a group of a few 20+ stallions.
So, he selected a candidate from an American multinational that had closed down their consumer products division and, hence, the head was available for a new assignment. He had the new man appointed when he was on a two-month holiday in the UK, so that he would not have to confront the old team, which reported directly to him, and give them this unwelcome news.
The new head joined. He was introduced to all those in his new department by the managing director – and he began his assignment. Unfortunately, much of the work was technical, for which he had no background. The existing team did not feel like tutoring him all the time.
So, when I found a job opportunity, which gave me a similar position with nearly the same money – I quit. I did not even wait for my old boss to return from his holiday, before going away. (And I never met him again). This, in spite of having worked with him at close quarters and with a warmth of association over a few years.
Why didn’t John face the situation squarely? Why did he not explain the reasons for his decision truthfully to his team? Why did he keep it as a surprise to be sprung on, when he was away – so that he could avoid physically seeing the surprise and shock? Was there a pang of conscience, in taking such a decision? Was it an inability to convey, what may be construed as bad news, in a manner and language that he had not mastered – a quality essential for managing a top management job? Perhaps it was all of these! He could not be pleasantly frank!
When I was comparing notes many years later, I found that Anil had a similar experience. At 27 and already a marketing manager, his company was reluctant to promote him as marketing director at such a young age (this was in the 1960s). While the managing director was agreeable, the corporate HQs in the US thought, perhaps, they should have an older person as marketing director. So, young Anil was sent to a six-week management development programme to Agra, conducted by IIM-Ahmedabad.
When he returned, he found that the MD was away on tour for four days, that his cabin had been shifted down the corridor, and his original office was now occupied by the new marketing director. After deliberating on all this sequence of events, Anil, finally, decided to go and introduce himself to his new boss. The managing director too was unable to face the consequences of his decision. He did not have the ability to communicate openly the reasons for the decision. He was also uncomfortable with his own conscience.
He could not be very frank!
Anil was bright enough and had a reputation in the industry to find another assignment within just three months of this happening. So he resigned and gave three months’ notice. The MD was shocked – more humiliated than surprised. Now he wanted revenge. He asked Anil where he was going. Anil gave him a name, but wisely, as it turned out, not of the company that he was to join. A week later, he found that the MD had phoned the MD of this other company and had told him that he was making a mistake by hiring Anil, saying he (Anil) was highly overrated.
When he found that Anil had bluffed him with the earlier information, the MD was furious. He told Anil that he found he had bluffed him – but where was he actually going? Anil gave him another name – another bluff. The MD repeated the process, and again found that he had been misled. Now he was really upset and told Anil so. Anil told him that he expected the MD to spoil his chances and, therefore, he had not told him the truth. But he would definitely tell him a week before he left the company – which he did.
How can you explain an intelligent man like the MD to act so petty and phone prospective employers to reject his ex-employee? And if he is no good – should he not be glad to 'get rid of bad rubbish'? Would he expect the prospective employer to believe him? Why should someone in a top position be so petty? To spend time and energy in phoning other colleagues in the profession, to run down an ex-employee? Yet, he never gave up using the term - 'to be very frank.'
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest books are "5 Gs of family Business" with Dr Mita Dixit and "Marketing in a Digital/ Data World" with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)