When Leaders Let It All Hang Out

Organizationally Speaking, That Is

I heard an interesting interview last night with Ned Breslin, CEO of the nonprofit Water for People on American Public Media’s Marketplace radio program. Water for People’s mission is to provide safe drinking water all over the world. The interview explored the level of transparency that was created when the organization adopted their FLOW system, which measures the successes — or failures — of global water projects in a very public way. Here’s how transparent it is— people can take a photo or shoot a video of any location of an installed water sanitation system, upload it into the tracking system and measure its effectiveness (or lack thereof) immediately.

Interviewer Kai Ryssdal wondered how that level of transparency was working out for the staff of Water for People.  

Ryssdal: When you first brought this idea to your staff, did everybody jump up and say, “Oh man! Awesome idea!” Was it universally adopted?

Breslin: No. Not at all. I think it’s a real challenge for some people. And Water for People’s gone through a bit of a staff transformation over time. So we’ve had some staff leave . . . and we brought in a very rich and dynamic group of people who actually embrace and are quite inspired by this. And frankly, we’re a much more interesting organization as a result. But yes, there was pushback.

The CEO’s comments underscore what I think is a key reason that executives often hesitate to launch large-scale change. They are aware that the pain of the change (in this case, über-transparency) may cause dissension amongst staff members. That, in turn, may prompt employees heading for the door. And if the exiting employees are key contributors, it’s understandable that there may be second thoughts on the executive’s part.

It was probably a tough sell for Mr. Breslin to convince staff that allowing anyone to “rate” their organization in real-time was a good idea. That sort of transparency is scary. It would have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall, listening in to those first bumpy staff meetings. I applaud this CEO for not only leading his team towards transparency, but for openly acknowledging the challenging journey.  The quote above calls out a benefit of pushing the envelope:  he sees his team as stronger and more aligned to the organization’s goals.

There have been other payoffs as well— donors have been surprisingly supportive. Initially, there was concern that donors would withhold funding if they perceived water installations as ineffective. According to Mr. Breslin, the opposite has proved true. Rather than withhold funds for projects that are seen as “failures” due to real-time reporting, donors have instead provided feedback and access to resources to help improve processes. A solid demonstration that what is feared most in an organization often doesn’t come true.

This story provides an excellent real-life example of what happens when an organization, led by a capable leader, pushes ahead in the quest for transparency.  While “letting it all hang out” isn’t always wise advice for leaders, it appears that organizationally speaking, it may not be a bad idea.

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