Leading Blog


The Small Voice in the Room

Small Voice in the Room

ONE OF THE MOST challenging leadership problems is to get people to speak up, especially as it concerns realizing the value of the “small voice in the room.”

I had just come off my first CEO assignment with Pretty Good Privacy, Inc. a fairly notorious email encryption company both provoking concerns from the NSA but also putting privacy on the map as “the marketing gorilla of the Internet.” With this cybersecurity background, I was recruited to run another security company that had developed a clever computer card implementation of the emerging virtual private networking standard. With this impressive implementation, it had managed to enter into an agreement with a much larger, high-profile player in the industry. This partnership had the potential to put the startup on the map and create a high valuation for subsequent investment rounds.

When I joined the company, it was late delivering the hardware/software card to the partner. While I was able to secure a $6M investment from the partner, they were at the same time giving me increasing levels of grief for the delays. I had already completed some training in company principles and was pressuring the team to follow through on the “honoring commitments” part of the practices I had put forward. I had also discussed the “speaking up” practice, but one thing at a time. Unfortunately.

With this pressure on the team, it eventually delivered the card. The larger partner took three months to begin testing the card, during which further development of the card by the startup was suspended, finding it amusing that the partner who complained about our tardiness was even more tardy, soon to become a not so amusing lesson in avoiding smugness.

Once testing began, the card crashed. Repeatedly. And despite a desperate effort to remedy the problem, it turned out to be irretrievably flawed. During the testing process with the larger partner, one of the startup engineers was heard to say “They should be mad. That card is junk!” Had that fact been widely understood, the startup company could have used those three months to fix the card and save the partnership. Unfortunately, with time running out, the partnership collapsed. Somebody on the team always knows about a problem before it is detected by some kind of oversight system. That is why real teams provide a sufficiently safe environment to encourage speaking up no matter what consequences otherwise might attend the act.

Instead, another startup, employing a similar technology strategy, but running months behind, gained traction. It ultimately went public and ultimately was sold for $3 billion. The first startup eventually sold for $50 million, or a difference in outcome of $2.95 billion. That’s an expensive communication mishap.

In the Greek Pantheon, Hermes was the god of complementarity and communication. He encouraged not only open pathways but also actions to fill them. We think of Greek gods as curious figures from the past. They aren’t. They are an embodiment of human nature, and we might be surprised to find they are alive and well and present in our conference rooms. In this case, Hermes wept.

These and many other principles and practices are covered in my new book, Real Teams Win: What Smart Leaders Need to Know Now About Achieving Peak Performance.

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Leading Forum
Tom Steding has been CEO of more than 12 high tech companies and active chairman of several others. He is co-founder of the Mayfield Alliance with former Facebook Executive Blaise Bertrand whose mission is to deliver a transformational leadership methodology for everyone. He is the co-founder of Quadrix Partners providing leadership interventions. He holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from University of California, Berkeley, California, and a MS in Management (Sloan Fellow) from Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Stanford, California where he graduated top of his class. He was a commissioned officer and the Distinguished Graduate of Armor Officer Basic at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. He is also the co-author of Built on Trust – How to Gain Competitive Advantage in Any Organization.

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