“Honesty is the best policy” — Cervantes, Ben Franklin, and many others
I always try to be honest. Most of the time it is easy. Sometimes I find myself in situations where it is harder, but I can manage. Occasionally I feel that I can’t be honest, which is very difficult. This is a story about one of those times.
I had been involved in acquisitions before, but always as an employee and never as management. What I remember from those previous times was how tight lipped management was. Who they where talking to. Which suitor might be the most likely. As employees, none of us knew anything for certain. Rumors and speculation ran wild.
So now I found myself on the other side. We were looking for a buyer for Distil. There were many companies kicking the tires and a few that were serious. I really didn’t know how to behave. This was all new for me. So I emulated the behavior of management from the other acquisitions I had been through. I kept my cards to myself and told my team that I couldn’t tell them anything.
Early on this wasn’t very difficult. Names of companies came and went. We had several exploratory phone calls that went no where. It wasn’t that I was being dishonest with my team. I really didn’t know anything more concrete than all the rumors.
Then some deals started firming up. It was becoming clear that if a sale was going to happen, it would go to one of three possible buyers. Those around me wanted to know. I kept to my party line — I can’t tell you — but that was feeling less true. I could tell them. There was nothing preventing me other than the perverse satisfaction that comes from knowing something others don’t.
And our team had a right to know. Many of them were looking for backup plans. Some even had job offers and were feeling pressure to say yes. For many the choice to stay or go depended on their personal feelings for the acquirer. People were in camps, half saying if company X is the one I’m leaving, the others feeling that way about company Y. One of my best team members came to me. They had to know which company it was so they could decide if they wanted to stay or take another job.
I didn’t know what to say. I was on the spot. I thought back — how did management handle these questions in the other acquisitions I’d gone through? “I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised,” I said. That was the best I could come up with. It was a non-committal hedge, the kind of management speak I would have railed against before. Worse, I knew it was a lie but I felt that I couldn’t speak the truth.
What if I had told the truth. Told this employee who the probable acquirer was. What would have happened? Would they have stayed or left? Doesn’t matter. What matters is that it would have been their choice. As I let it stand, I made their choice for them. I told them that I thought everything would work out for them. I took responsibility for their future.
Would the deal have fallen apart? Perhaps. If it did, would the investors and acquirer feel betrayed. Most definitely. But no more betrayed then the team whom I had worked with for over 3 years felt now. I should have been more honest with the team, cared more about their feelings than whether the “deal” would go through.
Being a leader is hard. A true test of leadership, the crucible, is when you need to stand up and tell the truth when the truth is hard to tell, especially when circumstances make you feel like you can’t be honest. In this instance I failed that test.