Article 36 – The importance of being honest

by Tan Thiam Hock

Confession time. I can be a tough boss when I need to. Occasionally, I fly into a rage with my staff, suppliers and even principals. I am straight talking and sharp with my words.

Definitely not witty. But for the life of me, I just find it so difficult to tell my wife that I will be having a game of golf on a Sunday. Because Sunday is family day.

So my tactical strategy is to tell her as late as possible, like Saturday night, murmuring something like having to play with the bank CEO whom I am indebted to, up to my neck with loans that will take the next three generations to pay off.

On a need to know basis, I only tell her what she needs to hear. Sometime it works, most of the time, I get a earful with divorce threats thrown in for good measure. To my golf buddies, now you know why I play badly on Sundays.

Tan Sri Tony Fernandes might just talk himself into buying Singapore Airlines. Who is brave enough to tell him that it might just work?

So it is with great amusement I see former CEOs and former ministers being charged in court with NOT telling to their boards or cabinet certain information that is deemed important, sometimes 10 to 20 years too late.

Is it the responsibility of the CEO to tell the board every pertinent detail of the proposal or is it the duty of the board of directors to ask the pertinent questions that matters? I am assuming of course the board of directors are experienced, sharp, astute and not in collaboration with the CEO.

After all, isn’t it human in all of us to tell others facts or fiction that they want to hear? Or tell them bits and pieces of what you want them to know? Unless you personally benefit directly or indirectly at the expense of the company. Then, you are in serious trouble and you could be charged with CBT – criminal breach of trust.

But if you have genuinely made a mistake, however bad it is, it is advisable to come clean and tell the story as it is. After all, isn’t it human for even the super high flying managers to make mistakes? Maybe the board will forgive you and maybe they won’t. But you keep your integrity intact and you can hold your head high as you walk out of the boardroom, your career in tatters.

That’s called accepting responsibility. So should the board of directors accept similar punishment for not doing their job?

If you are on your own, with no partners or board of directors to report to, will you tell the person in the mirror all the pertinent details, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Can you sieve the facts from fiction? Or are you the type who believes so much into your own story, telling yourself things that you want to hear? Then you are in serious trouble and you could be charged with CBT – chronic belief trauma.

You are a stubborn dreamer and you will be sentenced to a life of poverty and an endless pursuit of emptiness.

Another confession. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I have pursued projects that sounded brilliant (because I kept talking myself into it) but are actually flawed. So I failed miserably and had to own up to my partner, tail between my legs.

Now that I am older and without being able to fall back on the excuse of inexperience, I would consult and discuss project ideas with my work colleagues so that we can arrive at a fool-proof consensus. Still, I see some of our product launches fail, quite badly, well, more like a bomb.

Looking back, we failed in our analysis because we were telling ourselves all the positive things, packaging looks good, product smells good and of good quality etc.

We have got a winner, pats on our shoulders all round and let’s celebrate with a nice group lunch.

Nobody mentioned the uncertainties, the uneasy feeling that maybe, just maybe, our target customers might not just like the colour or the smell or for whatever the reasons.

All we needed actually was a devil advocate in our group, a pessimist, a doomsayer or a wet blanket, someone brave enough to tell us as it is, that there is a possibility that this project might just not work.

Just plain conservative common sense and we would have saved ourselves a lot of money and effort.

Being honest and truthful to yourself is the first step towards an understanding of where you and your business stand in your value chain. If you are small, act small and you will strategise more appropriately. If your competitor is too strong, always avoid head-on collisions.

Work around them, feed off them or try to snatch pockets of market share. When you feel your main competitor is weak, by all means, go for the jugular, like Air Asia. Maybe now in search of a bigger fish to fry, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes might just talk himself into buying Singapore Airlines.

Who is brave enough to tell him that it might just work?

Now that I have told you what I wanted you to know for the last 22 weeks, it is time to tell myself that I have run out of stories, fact or fiction. As such, I will be on indefinite leave from this column, hopefully snatching a Sunday golf game or two on a summer holiday with my family.

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