8 examples of transparent leaders to follow

Laura MacPherson,

Writer

5 February 20210 min read

From Box to Patagonia, Buffer to Gitlab, read how CEOs and founders are leading with transparency.

As humans, our tendency to gravitate towards those who are genuine comes hardwired. The people we admire most don’t whitewash their lives and mask their own shortcomings. Instead, they own up to their failures and commit to learning from their mistakes. They’re transparent.

When it comes to transparency in workplace leadership, there’s work to be done. According to a survey conducted by American Psychological Association, only 52% of respondents reported believing their boss is straightforward and open with them. At Front, we know that transparent leadership is a must. In this post, we look at eight leaders committed to showing that strong leadership doesn’t mean keeping teammates in the dark or trying to appear perfect.

What does it mean to lead with transparency?

Let’s start by defining what workplace transparency is and isn’t. Transparency doesn’t mean oversharing negative information with your teams. Nor is it a workplace confessional where you air out the laundry list of your professional shortcomings. Instead, transparency is a commitment to honesty and genuine engagement with your teams.

A commitment to workplace transparency means keeping people informed. Update teammates on the progress of company-wide goals, projects they’re a part of, and areas where you’ve fallen short and have a plan in place for change.

Transparency also involves being willing to be human in front of your coworkers. To err is fundamentally human. And a team can’t accomplish anything of significance without making mistakes. While it’s certainly important (and much easier) to celebrate the successes, it’s arguably even more important to admit when things have gone off the rails. Own up to mistakes, model the reflective thinking needed to learn the lessons mistakes teach, and move on.

People respect honesty far more than perfection and will instinctively trust leaders willing to show it. A company culture where it’s okay to experiment, fail, and try again unlocks the innovative potential of your workforce (and this is why transparency is a key value outlined in our Culture Book.)

Another hallmark of transparent leadership is a willingness to welcome feedback. People feel valued and heard when they’re asked to contribute their input and creative thinking or come up with solutions to a problem. Every team member is a potential source of an innovative new way to do things or a clever means to improve an existing process. Actively soliciting input taps into a pool of creative potential that otherwise remains trapped below the surface.

Why is it beneficial to lead with transparency?

Leaders willing to develop a culture of transparency in their company open up a host of potential benefits.

Trust — Transparency leads to higher levels of trust. When teammates see that you’re willing to be honest and open, they’re more likely to trust you. Period. As a result, productivity tends to increase, resulting in a greater sense of satisfaction at work. That feeling of investment and engagement is what drives people to reach their full potential.

Retention — Transparency also results in higher employee retention rates. It’s in our nature to want to work hard for individuals and an overall business who are genuine and open. Fostering a culture of transparency can help retain talent and avoid the costly and disruptive effects of a revolving door.

Collaboration — Transparent leadership also encourages the development of genuine relationships at work. When honesty and willingness to accept both success and failure is modeled at the highest levels of an organization, team members are comfortable asking for support and working collaboratively in an open manner.

8 leaders known for transparency

Creating a culture of transparency begins at the top. Here are leaders who recognize that real change starts with them — and how they’re working to change the culture of the companies they lead.

Mathilde Collin, CEO and Co-founder of Front

We couldn’t help but start with someone we know very well: our CEO, Mathilde Collin. She holds weekly all hands meetings that the entire company attends. Then, with input from her direct reports, the company’s OKRs are distributed to everyone in the organization and progress is tracked in a weekly update email. Public access to the company’s big picture goals keeps everyone informed and helps maintain a unified focus on what’s important. You can read through some more of the internal communications initiatives Mathilde supports at Front that keep open communication flowing.

Aaron Levie, CEO and Co-founder of Box

Sharing the good and the bad is key to building a sense of trust. Aaron Levie, the force behind Box, holds a weekly meeting with all 150 of Box’s directors. During the call, they review the areas of the business that are performing well and those that are struggling. This open line of communication on the state of the business as a whole makes it easier for team members to understand why some areas of the business are struggling and why they may need more help and resources than others.

Kulveer Tagger, CEO and Co-founder of Zeus Living

For a startup specializing in high-quality housing for business travelers, the COVID-19 pandemic was all but a death knell. Co-founder Kulveer Tagger shared the dire straits the business was in with his whole team. What came out of that decision was a collective desire to innovate to survive. They did, pivoting the focus of the company to accommodate the rapidly growing numbers of remote workers. Long story short, they survived. Brutal honesty activated the innovative force of Zeus Living’s entire team accomplishing a turnaround that would have been impossible for Kulveer to execute on his own.

We got the chance to chat with Kulveer on our podcast, Heart of Business. You can listen to his episode here.

Julia Enthoven, CEO and Co-founder of Kapwing

Julia Enthoven, CEO of Kapwing, isn’t shy about sharing stories that show the challenges of running a Silicon Valley startup. She writes on their company blog on cofounder conflict and resolution, what it really takes to hire employees in SF, tips for seed fundraising, and more. She’s found that being open with the fact that her work life hasn’t been a bed of roses has helped her gain additional recognition, respect, and funding.

Claire Schmidt, CEO and Founder of AllVoices

For CEO Claire Schmidt, making AllVoices a safe space for employees is a top priority. AllVoices uses its own product, an anonymous reporting tool that alerts leaders to instances of harassment or bias to ensure their company’s culture is a healthy and supportive one at all levels. She also encourages workers to submit anonymous questions to be addressed at all hands meetings. This ensures that difficult questions get asked and answered quickly in front of their entire team.

Carolyn Kopprasch, Chief of Special Projects of Buffer

With a remote-only company like Buffer, maintaining high levels of transparency isn’t easy, but they've kept "default to transparency" as one of their 3 keys company values. For Carolyn Kopprasch, that means keeping everyone plugged into the company conversations on Slack and regularly updating progress on goals. As a team, they keep all emails open to everyone, as well as salaries and performance information.

Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia

Patagonia's Founder Yvon Choinard ran the company for more than 40 years and held firm to the importance of leading by example. Transparent leaders are willing to go first in order to enact real change. One of his key business tenets is to “do what you hope others would do first.” One of the many bold and transparent initiatives they taken is the Footprint Chronicles, where they showcase the environmental impacts and manufacturing processes of all their merchandise. They give customers and the world regular updates on progress—such as 68% of their line uses recycled materials in 2020 and they repaired 56,000 items to keep them in use.

Sid Sijbrandij, CEO and Co-founder of Gitlab

When it comes to transparency, Gitlab sets a high bar. At the start of 2017, the company suffered a major cyberattack, causing significant disruptions. Instead of squirreling away their recovery team, they streamed efforts to fix the damage on YouTube. This episode wasn’t a quirky one-off effort at transparency. It was an offshoot of a company culture committed to being an open book. Their team handbook is available to the public, team chats are done almost exclusively using public channels, and they even publish Sid’s air travel preferences. (In case you’re curious, he prefers one checked bag for trips longer than one night, aisle seats, and extra legroom for international flights.)

How you can be a more transparent leader

Transparency isn’t automatic for most of us. Especially in the workplace. It takes focused effort to create and maintain a company culture that values genuine relationships and a commitment to openness. Here are a few ways to kickstart a culture of transparency, starting with you.

Share your inbox

Having a shared inbox for company-wide emails sends a strong signal that you’re committed to being an open book. It can also make it easier for others to find information they need to work on projects, brainstorm on product improvements, or cover for you when you finally take that much-needed vacation.

Recount a failed business decision and what you learned from it

Becoming a transparent leader takes practice. Dip your toe in by sharing a recent business decision that didn’t turn out as planned and what you learned from your failure. Nothing encourages a culture of transparency more than when the boss goes first.

Host a Q&A at your all-hands meetings

Head off the water cooler rumors before they begin by encouraging all employees to submit questions about the business anonymously. Better for you to answer tough questions than someone else with incomplete information. Be prepared to address difficult questions head on, with the honesty and candor needed to show that you’re willing to take responsibility with the whole group present.

Transparency has plenty of rewards to give

Developing a culture of transparency takes focus to establish and keep going over time. For those willing to put in the effort and vulnerability needed to make it happen, the rewards are significant. Team members at companies with transparent cultures are happier, more productive, and more inclined to stay.

Read 5 tactics to improve workplace communication to learn more about growing transparency in the workplace.

Written by Laura MacPherson

Originally Published: 5 February 2021

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