Talk About The Elephant in the Room: Candid Communication During Troubled Times

"You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid." - Stanford economist Paul Romer

Today’s turbulent times demand candor – more than ever, sound decision-making and execution depend on maximizing access to unfiltered information and points of view..

The ambiguity and fear created by unprecedented global financial turmoil touches nearly every business, household, and individual on our planet. The long and deep recession expected for the American and global economies will likely prove a major inflection point in history. None of us can afford to watch passively as the world around us changes dramatically: we all are participants, with stakes in the game.

In that context, what does today’s management agenda look like?

Our clients are expecting to slash operating costs by five to ten percent or more, with about half of them expecting significant declining revenues over the next several quarters. Businesses are expecting the credit crisis to force them to cut payroll in the coming year. Thus, leaders will be focused on managing cash flow, adjusting forecasting and implementing changes in response to expectations of financial contractions. Expenses will be cut. Capital spending will be scaled back. Hiring will be frozen. Investments in new business opportunities will be limited at best. Fiscal prudence must come first. Corporate leaders are focusing on lowering the cost of their operations, deleveraging, and reducing their cash burn.

As a shared services leader for the largest US financial institution told us: "It’s about running the bank, not improving the bank; not a cent for anything else."

Leadership in difficult times requires doing five things well:

  • Seeing: When others are in "deer-in-the-headlights" mode, a leader who can see beyond the immediate crisis can have extraordinary impact.
  • Committing:  The leader who takes a stand inspires confidence – a precious commodity in difficult times
  • Engaging:  During times of great change, people will step up to challenges that they might normally avoid – but only if they understand the benefits.
  • Executing: Productivity and results are critical, with no margin for error.
  • Being: The authenticity and credibility of leadership is vital during times when people are frightened and confused.

In today’s world, the primary focus is on executing. Productivity is more important than ever.

Moving into execution before you have figured out what you are going to do clearly can lead to disastrous results.

Clear decisions that produce great results require candid conversations. We have all witnessed the behavior of countless teams where the simple truth doesn’t come out. Our observation is that almost every group, no matter how brilliant or successful, has its "elephants in the room" – those issues that team members privately recognize as critical to business success (or in today’s world: survival) - but that remain publicly unspoken and go unaddressed.

In our recent survey "Hunting Elephants: Candor in the Executive Suite", we surveyed 163 respondents of executives on the topic of candor. 

Candor Prevalence
1) Executives defined as CEO, GM, CFO, EVP, SVP
2) Management defined as VP, Controllers, and Directors.

Candor can be elusive and uncomfortable, even counter-intuitive especially during a crisis.  What essential conversations are you avoiding with your team given the economy today? 

Most executives would agree that candor is essential to the achievement of business goals and even more critical in crisis. Yet they have learned the hard way how reluctant people can be  to broach sensitive topics, to expose themselves to criticism, or to enter into open conflict.  The truth is that candor can make people uncomfortable.  It requires courage. Cultures of candor, lucid decisions and high performance results will flourish only when groups of people become comfortable with discomfort.

High performance during difficult times requires candor.  Clear and informed decisions based on unfiltered information and input will drive execution and productivity.

About the Authors

Accompli's Calvin Yee is a recognized thought leader in shared services and outsourcing. He has advised, consulted and coached a range of leading companies across multiple industries globally. He specializes in developing business and organizational strategies and guiding leaders of companies through complex performance improvement.  Calvin can be contacted at 

Hugh Coppen of Accompli is a three-time CEO and nationally recognized advisor focused on coaching and consulting to leaders of premier organizations.  His range of experiences as an advisor and leader equips him with a unique perspective from which to provide counsel. Hugh can be contacted at