Operation: Communication

Article by:
Darren Hicks, EO San Francisco
Darren Hicks
EO San Francisco

I dangled my feet off of a 1,000-foot cliff, squinted through a telescope and tried to make out the figures two kilometers away.

It was our fifth day of the mission. I was tired, hungry and I had only half a canteen of water left. The silence was eerie, boredom set in and deep thought was the only way to take my mind off of the discomfort. I remember thinking, “I need to do something else.

I need to get into business, make a bunch of money and live the easy life! I am a Navy SEAL for goodness sake; I can do anything! It will be easy.” That was six years ago, and as I sit at my desk writing this article—18 months into the worst recession since the Great Depression—I can’t believe how wrong I was.

In 2005, I decided not to re-enlist in the Navy and try my hand at the family business. The transition from nine years of the SEAL lifestyle seemed simple enough. I knew I would miss the action: Freefall parachuting from 26,000 feet, fast-roping onto rooftops, hanging out of helicopters that sliced through canyons. Yet I didn’t know I’d miss one specific aspect of the SEAL culture: How we communicated.

There are many leadership qualities that I took from the SEAL teams, but there is one thing that stands out more than the others. I did not see it as noteworthy when I made the transition, but in the past four years it has become the basic tenant of how I run my business. It is the issue of using candor when communicating.

In the Navy, your life depends on communicating effectively with specifics. A person’s ability to deduce the correct information, discuss options honestly and execute a decision could mean the difference between life and death. You must speak with candor— there is no other way. I was shocked to find that in the business environment, candor has been supplanted with political correctness, fuzzy language, false niceties and a general lack of frankness. I witnessed conversations full of flowery language, mantras and one-liners ending with no directional clarity or resolution. It was as if just having the conversation was enough to put a concern or idea to rest. It wasn’t until early last year, though, that this lack of candor finally smacked me in the face.

I was having some communication challenges with one of my managers, who happened to be an outstanding employee. She seemed overly defensive, and it was clear that I could not get my message across without her feeling immediately negative about our conversation. We had established a great working relationship, but at that time something was just not right. I encouraged her to speak her mind.

She said I was not respecting the amount of experience she had in the industry, and she felt I was trying to dictate how she conducted business. In short, she believed I didn’t trust her instincts and experience. She was right. She didn’t feel comfortable telling me this before because in her past job experience she was told never to tell her boss what she really thought!

After this meeting, I thought about all of the conversations that preceded this one and realized that we were talking past each other the entire time. Those meetings were a waste of time, and as any business owner can attest, wasting time is wasting money. I realized that my vision of a high-performing company simply could not happen unless we spoke from the heart, expressed honest opinions and told the truth. I had nearly ruined a relationship with one of my best employees because I didn’t establish a culture of communicating with candor. So, I set out to change that.

Here are the three ways I opened the lines of communication at work:

  • We Say What’s On Our Mind
    Candor became one of our core values. We have since created an environment where honest, clear communication is encouraged. There are still just as many disagreements, but being able to speak candidly has changed the way people feel about the disagreements and minimized the time it takes to reach solutions.

  • We Look for it When Hiring
    We discuss candor during the hiring process, and we set a huge expectation that if people come to work here, they will have to use candor and accept it from others. We found that it’s rare for people to accept this. But when we do find these people, they love working in an environment where candor and open communication are encouraged.

  • We Accept Candor from Others
    We had to accept that each of us will use candor in our communications. We work hard to avoid taking it personally when someone is telling the truth and being frank. This is not easy. When someone is updating you on a situation, it is sometimes difficult to avoid making excuses or assigning blame and instead take in the true details to plan the next step. And yet, by understanding each other, emotions are kept in check and works gets done.

When we use candor in the workplace, communication is quick, all of the details are exposed and solutions are found. An open and frank environment avoids red tape and produces results at a more efficient rate. In my company, we live by the saying, “There is no such thing as bad news; there is only the truth.” And when it comes to business, truth is what separates an ordinary company from an extraordinary one.


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