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Peter Aceto, president and CEO of ING Direct, says he prefers staff to tell it like it is so the company can fix the problem. (Jessica Blaine Smith)
Peter Aceto, president and CEO of ING Direct, says he prefers staff to tell it like it is so the company can fix the problem. (Jessica Blaine Smith)

Leadership Lab

Why I want to let my staff vent Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

A while ago, I gave our entire organization the right to speak their mind. Here is precisely what I posted on our internal communications program:

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“I don’t think we have a great forum for people to speak their mind. You know, where people can say what really bugs them about ING Direct. I think this is a good idea because I want to know what you think sucks around here, what doesn’t make sense or what makes your day harder than it needs to be. Had a chat yesterday about why we don’t have titles on our business cards. Does this annoy you? Anything else you want to share?”

I was surprised and pleased by the response because within a short time many of our employees mustered up the courage to respond. I have spent my career proving that leaders at the top can be as real and accessible as anyone – but despite town halls, face-to-face meetings, regular communication, and no physical walls around me, some teammates still find it difficult to voice their concerns or even call me Peter. “Good morning Mr. Aceto,” the odd few still say.

I have always said that one fantastic benefit of social media is that through it, you have access to peoples’ dinner table conversations – and that reveals how your customers and prospective customers view your business. We are privy to consumer insights that generate great ideas and in turn improve our products and processes.

It is with that same spirit that I sent out my ‘right to speak your mind’ message to the team. No matter how open our culture may be, the water cooler conversations still take place. No matter how hard we try, there are still things about our business that are bothersome and irritate our employees. Why would I want this to continue? Annoyance turns into frustration and the next thing you know, your employees are seriously unhappy and guess who feels it? Your customers. So why not address the issues? Why not get the irritants out of the way? And why not, as leaders, provide the forum for people to vent?

I was reminded by this little exercise that straightforward and authentic communication is most effective. Good or bad, I like hearing it straight – and I believe we all naturally do. This is the type of communication that builds trust, forms communities and ultimately breaks down fear. Once the first handful of employees chimed in, more mustered the courage to share. Other team members started helping each other with solutions, and senior executives became aware of issues not previously discussed and were committed to fixing them. It was like a snowball building momentum, size and speed – a little push from me is all it took.

We came up with actions to take, and laid out who would be accountable to fix the problems identified. We may not have solved major business issues by having this ‘speak your mind’ session, but with my support, employees know that it is safe to be heard, and that dialogue is encouraged and we take action on their feedback. And my senior team is reminded of the power that resides in having real conversations, and honest and open debate.

Whether it is Pandora’s box or a big can of worms you’re opening, the point is the cans exist, the conversations take place and there’s always room for improvement. I strongly encourage leaders to take the initiative, be an active listener and provide safety for your employees’ honesty.

Peter Aceto (@PeterAceto) is president and chief executive officer of ING Direct (@SuperStarSaver).

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