Wednesday, July 22, 2009

“Sugar Candy”

I recently had and opportunity to assist the new CEO of a $60M business on a competition. What should have been business as normal had become confusing, and they were about to miss out on a significant opportunity. I did not contribute anything more than asking a couple key questions and providing strategy guidance.

At the conclusion of our final conversation, I asked the CEO how he got into this situation in the first place. He said, “All that people bring to my office is sugar candy.” His point was that he had not yet built a culture where people bring him bad news. Only good news arrives. I thought about “sugar candy” on the way home and remembered a time in my career where the company was attempting to create a culture of providing help needed and it back-fired. The managers were taught to use the “five-whys” and to offer help. What actually happened was subordinates were “five-why’d” to the point of feeling like idiots and the offer of help had the tone of “do you need me to do it for you?” People took their issues under cover. It was less painful.

I learned from that experience that the culture a leader creates is not always the one they want. The communication tools the leader uses might dictate the resulting culture. I need to explore this when the time is right with my CEO friend.

Have you seen small errors derail cultural change efforts? What could have been done differently?


Human Energy Programmes said...

I have worked for and seen many others who lead by fear and autocratic management. This will always result in people hiding the truth from you and trying to cover their own backs at all costs. The flip side is trust, authentic relationships and the boss catching the staff doing things right, rather than waiting to pounce on those who do things wrong. Oh for the perfect world...

Kirk Teetzel said...

This is a fantastic observation; one that I've seen as well and is a huge problem for the integrity of any process and especially continuous improvement.

It seem, to me, it's when the devices which are used to aid, turn into devices used to measure and when we measure (usually progress) back-tracking is not an option. After a while the concept becomes perfunctory and is now more of an irritant than an aid.

Russell Allen Zech said...

I have.

In working with a world-wide risk assessment company I was an outside consultant providing front line management development. This 245 year old organization was moving from a long era of monopoly during which they told clients when they would schedule them for service. Over a few year period they found themselves needing to solicit work in a market with two aggressive competitors.

Managers found themselves making increasing demands on their audit / service teams in this new competitive environment. I had suggested to the managers in my development program that if they wanted to get 110% from their folks they needed to get to know them as three dimensional people. I provided a modified Harvey McKay profile for them to complete for each of their team members. McKay was a salesman who completed a detailed 66 question profile on each of his clients. I described a deliberate iterative process where a distinct detailed picture of each of their geographically dispersed team members would emerge over time using the profile. The course was two weeks long with a six week hiatus separating parts one and two.

When we returned for week two I was stunned when I found out that one of the managers had sent out the modified survey and told his direct reports to fill it out! Well at least it was efficient I guess. The "damage" was limited to his group in this case and required quite a bit of explaining on his part. The survey was quite detailed and coming out of the blue as it did created quite a ruckus.

As for what could have been done differently . . . . I have amended my introduction of the survey to include the specific instruction that it is not to be sent out for completion but rather to be methodically compiled over time.

As you noted John, if something as simple, postive and powerful as the "five whys" can be used by the dark side of the force I guess anything is fair game.

Russell Allen Zech

Al McGovern said...


Your story points to one of the key elements in any successful team--trust by followers of their leader(s). I have found I'm much more inclined to be candid when talking with a leader I trust than one I don't. If I'm worried a leader may take any "bad" news ("lump of coal" versus "sugar candy") I deliver and "shoot the messenger", either himself of via passing my news up the channel improperly (perhaps to make him look good at my expense), then I'll be careful to deliver only good news.
Taking that awareness as a leader, I have always spent more time listening and observing my team members to learn what's important to them, and what they are looking for from me as a leader. Once they know I'm listening and that I am on their side--meaning, I'll always do what I think is best for them, and never anything to expose or "hurt" them, then I can expect them to tell me the good, the bad and the ugly.
People will only open up to someone they trust. And, as they say in Chicago (usually around election time regarding voting) you have to earn their trust "early and often"!
Best Regards,

Kevin Kaputo said...

John, you bring up many interesting points. I think the most devastating instance of cultural change within a company that I have witnessed was by a leader that didn't want to change himself and mostly because of his personality. May be having an "Open Door Policy" should be rephrased as “I will listen and I will not crucify".

The overall idea of the Open Door Policy was to allow employees to communicate and discuss problems and ideas with management and to participate with improving the company. This was part of an initiative for continuous improvement within the company. A noble idea. However, the personality of this division leader, which I would like to point out was at a VP level, shunned anyone from bringing bad news to him. He was so predictable in his reaction that everyone new that he would explode with rants of demeaning yelling. His attitude toward employees was that they were just a resource and where replaceable. His conclusion was that he wasn’t hearing about problems, so everything must be running properly. Communication tanked.

Bad news should always be looked at as an opportunity for needed improvement action in one form or another. Continuing bad news that repeats itself without corrective action sometimes should be looked at as insanity.

Mike Geiger said...

All it takes to start to derail a change effort is one bad example and no public reaction to it. From the outset, the change "owner" needs to be ready for this to occur and react quickly to it. I am not saying you have to go to the extent Kevin outlined (even though it might come to that), but something needs to happen to show the example of old behaviour will not be tolerated. I have seen this time and again. You have to look at this as breaking habits and that isn't an easy thing to do. Some people are lucky and can break theirs easily, but others take more effort to do so.

Don't really have a good answer to what should happen. If nothing happens, everyone will relapse into the old way. Some people aren't blatantly disregarding the change, they are falling back on X years of ingrained behaviour. They need more help breaking the habit. You are going to have some that won't change. You have to be ready to break ties with these folks.

I found the 5 Why issue interesting. I never looked at how you lead someone through that process coming across as a negative. It makes sense if you don't phrase the questions properly, it could across as sarcastic and demeaning - "Hey dummy, why didn't you already come up with this answer.". Also need do the same with the offer of assistance.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems in the automotive industry was that when a new tool was introduced, people tried to use that tool to solve every problem. Instead of people realizing they had a tool kit where each tool applied to a certain type or style of problem, they would attempt to use a hammer when a saw was required. This resulted in such things as variable data collection being applied to processes where nothing could be adjusted. A climate of change requires that we know what the tools are and when to use them.

Michael Beason said...

Congratulations on your new position. Great choice as I'm sure you had many.

I hope this won't slow down your thought-provoking leadership posts. Our industry would appear to be all about technology, but perhaps without really thinking about it, we've become all about leadership - the good news and the bad news.

I had the opposite experience although the same idea. I met a very powerful CEO who owned most of a $300M vitamin manufacturing company. As the founder, he had formulated most of the products and had become very successful as a world wide brand.

This gentleman was very Sicilian, easy to anger, hair trigger, big ego, and lots of "hot buttons." His executive team had several people who had worked with him forever and knew him well.

Whenever it appeared that he had discovered something damaging about one of them, or whenever it appeared that he was getting to close to discovering something damaging for one or more of the team, they would feed him a "bone." Something like this - "Do you know what that little snake Randy did?"

The ensuing tirade would take at least 30 minutes while everyone stood back listening. Redirecting his attention became easier and easier. Others on the team began using the same tactics. After a while they just threw him "bones" continuously. This guy was on the ropes all the time.

When you're reacting to someone else you're not in control, they are.

Now that's an extreme example, but organizations are full of less dramatic examples. When a leader can be "activated" by problems, staff members will bring problems more and more because they subconsciously know that the boss' attention can be controlled by feeding him or her problems. Some of us wonder why it is we hear about so many problems daily.

Our employees decide what works the best to control our behavior. Good news, bad news - our communication is how we react to it. Developing our ability to be unflappable, imperturbable, calm, and positive whether news is good or bad, is one of the best assets a leader can have.

Anonymous said...


Nice job with the English language. That's getting pretty rare. I'm wondering how you appeared on my radar... (Jody DeVere / George Zeeks?) I work with ATI.

Don't know, but wish you well,

Slater John said...

Mr Bishop
That is a very interesting thing "Sugar Candy"
I can tell you from my point of view the reason people sugar coat things is they are sheep and are afraid to get fired. I respect people who tell it like it is then the ones who are afraid. It's all on the delivery.

Jeff Pfouts said...

I have to agree with Alex on the knowledge of your employees and subordinates and their ability to see right through the window dressing approach.

Having spent my life as one of those at or near the bottom rung I have seen the lack of trust and transparency between management and everyone else. There is often a cultural gap. The lower you go the more concerned the associates are with day to day problems and the ones that directly affect them. The higher you go the less concern there is for day to day problems as opposed to the higher level concerns of the overall business as it directly affects them.

Keep in mind that this is a pretty broad generalization from a lifetime of work but from my experience this type of culture seems to feed on itself because of the lack of sincere communication. Those in the trenches loose motivation and become mired in the self pity and blame game. "They don't listen to me", "they "don't care about me", "why should I do anything for them". It all just becomes a vicious cycle. And then you start listening to the upper management and you hear how ungrateful everyone is, "no one wants to work" and of course no one understands the business.

It is the little things of having a catered lunch for managers spread directly in front of the hourly associates. Leaving five minutes early on a consistent basis to go golfing when that same five minutes costs an hourly associate a half hour of pay and disciplinary points.

I've heard the "we have an open door policy" only to see associates reprimanded because they did not follow the chain of command. If you ask for feedback, accept it without repercussions. People skills and even lack of ego become very important in dealing with all types of personalities.

I knew of one executive who liked to stroll the production floor to keep in touch. Unfortunately his commentary was often negative, accusatory or even contradictory to what his supervisors were ordered to do. This often left the associate in direct conflict with their supervisors because the "executive told them and he signs their paychecks". Eventually everyone just hid when he showed up and all suffered because "no on was working" when he made his appearance. If you make the effort to be a presence then it has to be a positive one. Don't make changes on the fly, but follow your own processes. That leads into management by example...

I like Alex's idea of having the better connected subordinate act as an intermediary and his point to the follow through. I would also add that the follow through must include high visibility so that everyone sees that people are being taken seriously.

Lawrence Hallett said...

I have always found that the 5 why's is a good starting point; however I do not feel that the majority of people that are asking the questions know what to do with the answers. When building an open culture that fosters the free flow of ideas and challenges a CEO/Manager must be prepared for the question and then must go to the next step of what to do with the answer, bad or good. Too many times the answers are too difficult to hear and the party that requested the answer does not know what to do, so it gets swept under the rug. Management must be open to the good and the bad and react on both fronts. Once you sweep a bad answer under the rug you have lost your culture of openess, because your team members figure that there is no use in answering if there is no response.

Thomas S. McDonald said...

He should invest in sweet tarts candy, or eggs and build a strategic dialog around continuous quality improvement or whatever strategic initiative is critical.

The take away is that professional dialog/debate, specific to improving an initiative, can create positive change, or you can't create a great omelet without breaking the eggs first

Johannes (Hans) Verboon said...

Yes, it often boils down to whether the 'boss' presents him/her self as an equal OR a superior. 'Equal' managers are more readily recipients of bad news as well as the good.
Just my experience.

Michael Kusuplos said...

As preface to the 5 Why's - suggest that the following statement always be made: "We seek to fix the problems and not the blame"

Steve Schumacher said...

Hi John,

Great story. Thanks for sharing.

I worked with a VP once who had the habit, in group meetings, of saying "I love all your ideas, I don't want to influence your thinking BUT..." Then he would go on and verbalize his idea. Of course, as you would expect, his idea then became the group's idea. If he would have just zipped his lip after saying "I love all your ideas" the culture would have been much more creative.


Kenton Cowdry said...

Hi John,

Nice job with the English language. Unfortunately, skillful manipulation using words is getting rare these days. I mean that as a true compliment to your style.

Best wishes and keep up the great work you do (as a verb).


W.Bruce Hutcheon said...

First...I was a rescue swimmer air crewman/flight engineer for the USCG out of San Diego AS and flew many rescue operations in the Sikorsky HH 3F twin jet.

I have the Winged "S" to prove the flight success. Thank you for making equipment that made us secure in every mission we flew.

"Sugar Candy”. Is as old as the days of Rome, when the messenger was killed after he delivered an ill fated message.

First, People do not have the inner strength to tell the truth "when asked".

Secondly, If Sr management wants someone’s opinion they have to honor the words that are said. If not they will never hear the truth again.

Aaron Lintz said...

Was your client a recent President of the United States? I've heard that he created a similar culture and had less than ideal results. A little birdie also told me that UK may be in the market to buy some new helicopters. Silly jokes but a very poignant anecdote.

How do you think manager's can address this tendency to only give good news?

Anonymous said...

This whole subject has me curious about my own behaviour since you are never sure how people perceive you until well after the fact. The area of management/employee development is one of the items I look into as I am searching for my next career opportunity. I would really like to join a company that takes this subject seriously and doesn't just say they do.

Shirley E. Fox said...

I have been fortunate to work in an environment with a president that insisted that everyone tell him the truth – good, bad, or indifferent. Furthermore, everyone knew they would not be punished for telling the truth. The result was that problems were quickly identified & SOLVED!

Under his leadership, I saw a VP convert newly merged facility to the same culture. He would walk the production floor every day at the beginning of the shift & after lunch. The VP made it a point of talking to each employee. Many times, he stopped & asked in detail about what they were working on. Within 2 months, the employees starting telling him the truth – good, bad, or indifferent. The culture was changed, & no one was offended.

The “sugar candy” problem was caused by staying in the office & not walking out to the employees.

James 'Jim' R. Todd said...


I read and re-read your posting above.

I see from what you wrote that you were able to make a contribution to the CEO, which is a wonderful accomplishment.

Somehow, I do get some mixed signals from the rest of the posting, as there are more than one or two things going on.

- I am a full supporter of asking the who, what, how, why, where, how long, how much, and how often type of questions. I have found those are now an integral part of my persona - to evaluate, say written communications, to determine if the message is clear, concise, and complete. But, like all such rubrics - they can be abused and misused. At core, they are amoral, intrinsically neither good nor bad.

- I fully agree with you that sometimes the culture that is either created by new management or in existent from former management is very difficult to quantify and even more difficult to manage or change for the better. We are clearly dealing with intangibles. My value system suggests trying to ensure the culture is not critically dependent upon just one person or a hand-full of persons - there needs to be buy-in by all those involved, e.g., stakeholders. The operative word is trust - which is earned, not mandated.

- I have worked with senior management, but not extensively with the CEO group. What is clear from that experience is that openness is essential to success. I sort of dig in my heels here and suggest that one hard-lined approach to jump start such cultural change is to insist that no information comes into the office of the CEO except bad-news! Let the lower echelon handle the good news for a season. That will free-up the CEO to address the bad-news. Incidentally, I believe that is what a CEO is supposed to focus on anyway!! Smile, end of soap-box.

- Along the way I picked up the thought process that we need to be process oriented. If the human being was omnipotent, he or she could handle any number of issues concurrently. We are not omnipotent - so I suggest sticking with three to five items. If those items are addressed in a dispassionate manner, the process will deflect the desire to run for cover!

I trust these terse notes answer the mail. My intent was to decouple the presenting thoughts and to address them by inculcating clear measures of complete communication, build trust, and institute dispassionate processes.

With the warmest professional regards,

Casey Shaw said...

Mr. Bishop,

A change in corporate culture must start at the top. Executives can't just say, "From now on we are going to improve communication, so you guys have to tell me when things are bad or good." They must communicate as the bad stuff as well.

While communicating the good stuff is fun, it is the bad stuff that makes the company better. Failures must be celebrated and used to make the company better.

martin hogan said...

Hi John, I have developed the habit of asking people what will not or is potentially not going to work on a project.

We all know it will work and everything will be fine but what can stop us? There are a lot of people that don't like to give bad news and a lot of manager that don't want to hear it and I can' help thinking this has something to do with all the cost over runs and late delivery of capital projects - surely someone does decent critical path analysis on them?


John Bishop said...

This post got more comment than I expected. The title caught a fair amount of attention. Many of you caught the importance of culture and how the leader's reaction to news creates culture.



Dale Hambrook said...

It seems so many people are afraid to bring the bad news to management these days, I think you will find many think they might get the blame or even
fired because of not seeing things sooner.
So why stand up and do anything!
I have always tryed to have an open door policy for anyone that has worked for me and always keep an open mind.
I find that when I do this people will come to me even when it is a situation that they may have created themselves. I also find that when this happens I work with the employee or team to figure out what happened and what we need to do so it doesn't happen again.
Any of my employees that this has happened with you can see a change in how they deal with situations.

Dale Hambrook

Thursa Hyland said...

Very interesting topic for discussion, as it is a situation that infiltrates almost every business through every industry, to some extent. I have experienced this myself as a CEO, and working for and with CEO's.

I tend to agree that the best policy for avoiding sugar candy is to have an open door and clear communication from the CEO, the entire workforce needs to feel that their input (ideas and complaints) are valued; in turn that helps build a feeling of team spirit and "ownership" of job position which in turn leads to better production (in theory at least).

That being said, the devil is always in the details and in my experience the details are in middle management. No matter how well a CEO communicates or how open his/her door is, none of it matters if the middle management isn't acting fully to the role they have been assigned. When you have strong middle management, they are able to present the good and bad to the top level as well as foster a team environment among employees. As with any team, there will be good and bad; even when you win every game you always strive to do it better next time.

I have seen instances where middle management feels threatened (either by fear of loss of job, fear of subordinates talent, etc) and that is, generally speaking, where most of the bad news gets held and sugar candy starts spinning. This has mostly been the background where I have seen or discovered people "hiding" the bad, and the trouble is you often don't know how much has been hidden until it is too late.

I have also seen instances where middle management knows it's team well and will take responsibility for going off grid a bit on procedure to avert a problem, sometimes at their own discretion and sometimes at the suggestion of a subordiante. All companies need discipline and structure but also must have the flexibility to work the individual personalities involved so employees feel the comfort level to take responsibility for good and bad.

I've found in my own experience reporting to CEO's that if I have bad news or made a mistake, when I admit it I may get called on the carpet for it (rightfully so) but at least my free admission still merits respect as a professional. We all know mistakes will happen, unforeseen external elements can interfere, any number of "wrenches" can fall into a plan, but "hiding" bad news/mistakes only shows the incompetence / lack of managerial skills of the person "hiding" it.

To sum, in my opinion you'll get less sugar candy and more legimate updates (good and bad) in the CEO office by building a structured team that fosters genuine team spirit and collaboration and includes a strong middle management team. And it all starts with the CEO, when the head of a company can look you in the eye and admit a mistake he/she made (even if it is as simple as admitting a bad hire for middle manager that only brings sugar candy!) the rest of the team is more willing to admit their own mistakes and in most cases understand where it went wrong and how to fix it (or at least not to do it again).

Mike Osborne said...

It's all about reconciling words and actions. Too often, managers claim to have an open door policy; then make it pointless or even disadvantageous for employees to use it. When you say that you want to hear good and bad, but shoot the messengers, you soon run out of messengers.

Tom Dee said...

I too have been involved in similar situations and research solutions has lead me to this concept: "Don't manage people...manage attention" - J.T. Stewart 2008
Based on studies of over 200 businesses Stewart found CEO's misread the health of the organization based on erroneous reporting. The key for the CEO is to focus his attention outward and in the example above the CEO was looking inward waiting for the information to bubble up from his staff...evidence of a downward organizational death spiral. Information is filtered and by others thereby spun with flawed perceptions. For the CEO to avoid this pitfall, he has to look at where the attention of the company is directed. Stewart developed a business navigation system called the "Wheel" to assist executives in dialing in the where the attention should be "steered." All the aspects of the wheel can't be covered here however my experience using the wheel to help my clients troubleshoot organizational communication issues is unrivaled. Mr. Stewart is in the process of completing the published version in a couple of months. For those who are interested in getting a copy, privately reply below.

Nick Sanders said...

John, I agree with your point and would like to expand on it.

When I was consulting to companies wishing to deploy "risk management" into their program management and supply chain management functions, we spent a decent amount of time evaluating the management culture. One aspect we identifed, on a pretty consistent basis, was the "don't bring me a problem unless you bring me a solution" mindset -- which impeded the creation of a proactive, risk-aware culture.

The problem was that risks were seen as problems to be solved. They aren't, or at least not until they breach risk tolerance thresholds. Risks are risks; each graded by probability of occurrence and potential impact to the program(s). When management insisted that risks not be identified until mitigation plans had also been identified, that caused risks to be surfaced too late to be easily mitigated.

You want a risk-aware culture? Then you want lots of risks being identified all the time, and impacts/probabilities constantly being assessed and reevaluated. You want to know what's going on in your company? Then don't shoot the messenger, or subject the messenger to interrogation in order to pinpoint the problem and "obvious" solution.

Sounds obvious, doesn't it? But it's more rare than it should be.

Thursa Hyland said...

Hello everyone, what a great topic of conversation - one of the better I have seen on LinkedIn. I am organizing a live networking (LinkedIn / Twitter users) at DSEi - casual coffee break to meet the people you are conversing with on Linked/Twitter. If you have interest in attending - very informal get together, about 30-40mins max one morning - please feel free to email me or add me to your network for update & invitation thanks!

Rohit Sinha said...

I think Lawernce makes a great point, it depends how open the management is in handling questions and criticism. If they promote and surround themselves with people offering sugar candy then its hard to expect employees to offer true opinion or ask tough questions.

Christopher Stevens said...

I have personally seen that when companies manage to Key Point Indicators or aka metrics management. It tends to drive a culture of perception management and not driving the reality to define the perception. Typically this will also change a company’s culture from one of openness and the free exchange of idea's, with the wiliness to debate issues. To a more suppressed state, for the bearer of bad news is not welcome to openly discuss the challenges, which then true issues are suppressed and going with the flow becomes the norm. As the metrics perceive to be improving the reality does not. But the executive level makes decisions based on bad data, until the reality can no longer be swept under the rug. This is when the markets, Diem them to be non trustworthy and the bottom falls out. I watched my Golden handcuffs turn into copper platted.

The path of least resistance is typically not the right path. I recently heard this statement made, the only fish in the river that goes with the flow, is a dead one. If a company’s culture becomes one of going with the flow, you have a lot of dead weight; it’s only a matter of time until it’s brought to its knees.

Bobby Whitehouse said...

Candor versus candy. Candor is the missing ingredient and it is missing from many companies today. Trust and maturity is how leaders earn open & honest feedback. The Truth comes when the team knows that they can openly, or in closed conversations, tell the truth without being judged or reprimanded for it. Create a culture of respect, trust and candor. He needs to ask the hard questions, push back and invite an honest dialog, request the bad news or the down side and push past the first sugar coated answer. This also means that you have to be candid with subordinates, not mean, argumentative or judgmental but honest in evaluating their performance. I would start with a candid conversation "at the big kids table" with my inner circle on why I am always getting candy and not candor. Give it to me strait and there will be no reprimands or even go as far to reward the candid employees with a bonus or other incentive. The leader is the culture, good or bad.

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