When Matthew Gonnering took over the CEO role at Madison, Wisconsin-based software company Widen Enterprises from the firm's founder five years ago, the company was a very, very different place.
"We had all kinds of walled offices and cubicles and the like," Gonnering told Inc.com. "We demolished all that." And the changes to how the company does business go much further than simply a switch to an open-plan space. Gonnering was as intent on tearing down barriers to communication and knowledge sharing as he was on removing physical divisions.
Among other changes, he shook up how teams were structured, instituted quarterly employee meetings, and started a regular series of "fireside chats." "We've created a room that's called 'The Third Space,' a kick back room--it's got a fireplace in it," Gonnering explains. "We have informal sessions there to talk about culture, brand, marketing, and technology, but we also talk about failure. As part of one of my sessions, I opened with outlining all the things that I've failed miserably at with this company to embrace it. Don't be afraid of it."
Gonnering raves about the increased communication and team unity created by this move toward far greater transparency, but he concedes that turning a traditionally structured business into a much different sort of workplace wasn't without its hiccups and lessons learned. He shared four with Inc.com.
1. Be prepared to put in the time
Transparency has many benefits, according to Gonnering, but saving the boss time is not among them. When you embark on creating a more transparent culture, be aware that you'll soon be spending a whole lot of time explaining things to people.
"When you give people so much information, sometimes that's a distraction, especially when they're naturally curious," he says. Provide people with data and a voice and you invite in all kinds of questions as to why you've chosen the course you have and how you arrived at that decision. Still, for Gonnering, the trade off of a little extra effort is well worth the increase in loyalty and motivation: "It's very time consuming. That's been challenging, but I know it has long-term benefits."
2. Transparency starts with your personal style
You can shuffle desks and light the fireplace all you want, but without authenticity on the part of the CEO, a company isn't going to truly feel transparent. So drop the mighty and remote CEO schtick if that's not really you.
"I was a first time CEO, and people make certain assumptions about CEOs and what your role should be and how you carry yourself. You try to fit into that because that's what you think is expected," he recalls of his early days at the top of the company. "But in fact that's a horrible thing to do. It's going back to the great fatherly advice, 'Just be yourself.' It's letting people be exposed to the real you."
Being yourself sounds simple enough, but Gonnering cautions there's one major challenge. "Some people just don't like you," he laughs. If you want to be more transparent as a business, you just need to learn to live with that as a CEO.
3. Use your crystal ball wisely
"You have to be cautious about what you're putting out there in terms of future direction, because if you put it out there and then you pivot or change, that sometimes has negative implications. Now you're trying to explain why you're changing instead of focusing on the new place that you're going," Gonnering notes.
Thinking long-term is, of course, essential for a CEO, but just because you're busily imagining the future doesn't mean you need to share every detail of your evolving vision. Instead, be a little more cautious about how much you put out in terms of future language, Gonnering advises. That way you don't have to spend so much time explaining why you're changing direction rather than focusing on the new direction itself.
4. Measure it
This should be obvious--everyone knows and swears by the old mantra "What gets measured, gets managed" after all--but when it comes to something as intangible as transparency, this simple wisdom can sometimes fall by the wayside. That's a huge mistake, according to Gonnering.
"One of the best things we've been able to do, over the five years, is employee surveys. We use the same survey that Glassdoor uses, and we've done the exact same survey every year through SurveyMonkey. Now I can see over five years what has changed with respect to employee satisfaction or management communications or information and knowledge sharing," he says.
Despite all the bumps in the road and lessons learned, what exactly has the impact of Gonnering's transparency initiatives been? "In 2010 our overall employee satisfaction--employees who said they were either satisfied or very satisfied to work at Widen--that was 48 percent. In 2014, that's 97 percent." That's worth a few hiccups and missteps then.