Being a straight talker

We all like to talk to people who tell it like it is.  We appreciate honesty, openness, and candor.  Who doesn’t?

Most of us want to be a straight talker too. You should treat others the way you want to be treated, right?

It seems like a simple enough thing; you just tell it from the bottom of your heart based on what you know or what you saw or how you felt, etc.  What’s so hard about it?

Well, it looks easy until you realize it’s not.

As I have interacted with hundreds of company founders, CEOs, executives, and managers in all ranks, I realize that being a straight talker is not just a matter of personal choice or trait.  You really need a sharp mind to be able to talk straight and build trust, while preserving the information you need to guard.  To put it simply, you need to know what you are talking about.

We all have access to some sort of private information around our lives.  You know your best friend’s secrets. You are planning a surprise party for your spouse. You know the blowout earning figures of the company you are running. These are rather obvious examples that you just typically keep to yourself and you’ll be fine.  But imagine a life of a CEO who runs a 1,000 employee company, interacts with dozens of partners daily, gets reports and tips from various sources like his staff, advisors, and personal friends.  The information quickly gets convoluted and you are prone to lose track of what can be shared with whom and when unless you really stay focused.

When I was working at a start-up in my early career, I enjoyed talking to my CEO.  He was very attentive and shared whatever he can from his point of view.  There were things, of course, that he couldn’t tell as a CEO.  But what I appreciated was the fact that he openly admitted he wasn’t at liberty to talk about certain things.  For example, when there was a rumor at my company that it was going to be sold to another company soon, I attempted to exercise my vested stock options, but my legitimate request was denied by the CFO for no specific reason.  I suspected that something was up, but the CFO wouldn’t even talk to me.  He apparently couldn’t discuss why he was rejecting my request, so decided to avoid the conversation altogether.  The next day, the CEO stopped by my office and explained the situation.  He said that he couldn’t really talk about the M&A rumor, but assured me that my options were safe and would be worth something.  I felt much, much better. He knew exactly what he could share (the fact that my options were intact) and what he couldn’t share (the pending M&A).  My start-up was sold within a month.

I have seen enough number of managers and executives who seem to be determined to not share anything with anyone in their work-related conversations even within the same team, same company.  They might have figured that it’s too complicated to sort through what they can share with whom, so perhaps just decided to close lips. When they are put on the spot for questions, they often beat around the bush, ramble, or even change the question completely in order to talk about whatever they want to talk about!  Well, I just don’t think their career would go far anywhere.  The smarter people tend to have a strong grasp of what they can talk about and what they can’t, depending who they talk to. Look at Steve Jobs.  He is the inventor of the do-not-talk-or-you-get-fired culture at Apple.  Yet, if you watch some of his press interviews, you’ll notice how he effectively shares his long-term vision and strategy with the public while guarding specifics about his next product.

As a VC, I get to meet lots of companies, work with them, and get to see their confidential information.  It’s an honor and privilege that comes with responsibility.  The more I do this job, the more I realize that being a straight talker requires significant effort and practice.  I try to be one everyday, but it will take some time.  Maybe it’s a skill that I need to hone over lifetime.  Until then, please understand if I beat around the bush, ramble, or even change your question completely.

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