Transparency isn’t a gradient

John David Back
Apr 23 · 4 min read
Engineering All Hands, talking important stuff like what I did over the weekend.

TL;DR - If you’re going to be transparent, you have to be open to full transparency. People understand you can’t tell them everything, but you must at least tell them that.

What transparency looks like for us

We run a weekly all-hands meeting on Fridays at 12:30pm called the Town Hall. It is a relatively short presentation and follows this format:

  • Welcome and some light jokes

For me, a key (the key) part of leadership in any organization is transparency. What is going on in the organization is everybody’s business. I’ve been in many jobs where I’ve experienced the unsettling feeling that the world was shifting under my feet and no one cared that I didn’t know about it. I don’t want that feeling for anyone I work with.

I get asked really hard questions at those sessions sometimes. “What is the vision for the future?” “What are you going to do about X work that isn’t going well?” “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel on this project?” “Why can’t we get the cold brew kegs filled more quickly?” I have to answer these questions and answer them seriously. I can’t avoid them, or tell people they can’t ask them. And because I am willing to answer them, or at least do my best, people feel comfortable asking. We are all in this together — secrets and private planning don’t actually do anything.

When you bring people into your business to work with you, you’re trusting that they know how to do their job and will work to move the business forward. That’s a two way street. They are trusting you to help lead, grow, manage, promote, and nurture them and the business itself. They are ostensibly bought in on the vision. This is critical to success: people need to stay bought in on the vision. How can they be bought in on the vision if they don’t know what’s going on?

This isn’t about the things you’re building. Those are table stakes. The work itself is just a means to an ends — a way to grow the business. A way for everyone to provide value in that growth. To move the needle. The rest of it, the Why, the Who, those are the things to keep transparent. Are big changes coming up? Tell your people. Are your vision and values changing due to XYZ? Tell your people. Are big shifts happening with the overall org that affects your team? Tell your people!

Not a Town Hall, but transparency anyway… about dishes.

Why it matters

People are people. They have self worth. I want to understand that what I’m doing has some kind of tangible value. An easy way to help codify some of this is operating OKRs. This at least aligns the work done by individuals with the company’s direction.

But trust is the most important aspect of any relationship, and that includes working relationships. My experience has been that I’m willing to work harder when I understand why I’m doing the work and that it matters. The elephants in the room seem to eat up all the energy when they are ignored.

An example. I worked at an ad agency that was acquired by a large holding company. Slowly but definitively the work changed. We were required to be 95% billable, or at least 38 hours a week. We stopped being allowed to print in color, or only certain employees could. Weekly Friday lunches went to light breakfasts went to bi-weekly went to nothing. We were told that margins needed to be at least 30%.

None of this benefited the common employees. Very few people had a stake or share in the success of the business other than continued employment. But suddenly we were forcing work through quickly, billing outrageously, and spending frugally in a way to make the company look extremely profitable. This was great for the founders — they took home enormous payouts. The rest of us just worked harder for less perks. I’d have been happier if it had at least been addressed head-on. I quit that job.

John David Back

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Peanut butter first, code second.