The business meeting that got stunningly truthful

The company I was working for was in trouble, and everyone seemed to know it. A decision had been made two years before to expand aggressively, but then competitors had very quickly caught up to the technology that our CEO, an affable and eternally optimistic guy, had cleverly leveraged. Bonuses stopped; goals weren’t met. People were nervous.

A meeting was called about a brief delay in a product launch and the usual gang gathered in one of the conference rooms. I was very low on the totem pole, didn’t say much.

After one or two pleasantries, the CEO opened the meeting with these words: “Hey, I know everyone is pretty nervous about our financial situation. I just want to know what we’re all fearing. Everybody.”

Silence in the room. What exactly did he mean?

“If anyone’s worried about losing their job,” he went on, “I actually can’t tell you what’s going to happen. But I’m interested to hear what your fears are. I’ll happily talk about how that makes you feel, to think you might suddenly be out of work.”

Stunned faces. This was the last thing anyone was expecting when they’d filed in with their handouts and spreadsheets.

So a conversation began, awkward as expected at first, but the CEO was determined to go around the room and hear the truth from his staff. He wasn’t there that day to hear business solutions or explore succession plans. He patiently extracted stories from us, stories of previous job losses and scary financial situations; but first he offered his own—not once but twice, he told us, he’d moved back in with his ex-wife, feeling guilty and useless, to get back on his feet after failing with startups.

Not a paper was lifted, not a note was taken. The meeting became a kind of encounter group. There was laughter when one of the marketing people told the tale of how once, her boss forgot to tell her she was fired. Someone else described in detail the terms of the apartment lease she’d just signed and now felt trapped by, always worried about money.

The CEO listened, joked, empathized. The product launch was eventually discussed—for the last ten minutes of the hour. Then we all returned to our desks, still a bit dazed.

Was it proper, what the big boss did at that meeting? You could argue that it wasn’t, that there was an image to uphold at a medium-sized company, and that he might have slipped and said things that weren’t legally smart considering that in just another three weeks, some people in that room would indeed be laid off.

Yet by being so open, he inspired a loyalty that continues to this day on the defunct company’s alumni website. That meeting was a startling moment of leader authenticity, a display of undeniably genuine concern and interest in us as people. When the layoffs happened, there were tears but no rage, no sense that the company didn’t care. Business as usual returned for a while, but some indefinable wall had come down. I tell people now that I could never last in a place where those in power work to keep theirs so high, and stay safely hidden behind them.