Real Buy-in Means Going Transparent: Three M’s of Internal Transparency

Liz Presson • 10 December 2014

“Transparency. A lot of people talk about it. It’s a goal everybody ascribes to, but when push comes to shove, very few actually adhere to it.”

Keith Rabois shared this sentiment during his talk to Stanford students and followers around the world for How to Start a Startup, a course facilitated and shared online by Y Combinator President Sam Altman. Rabois is a partner at Khosla Ventures and is known for his investments and executive roles at PayPal, LinkedIn and Square. While his point resonated with students, and in my experience feels intuitive to an up-and-coming era of business leaders, the message hasn’t reached the c-suite of many traditional businesses. Transparency is undoubtably uncomfortable, but it also comes with a level of obscurity that makes it hard to put into practice. So, with Rabois’s help, here are three ways to move transparency forward in your organization– three “M’s”.

But, first, why transparency?

Transparency is action that says, “I want you to know everything I know, because I want you to be as bought in as I am.” And, “Let’s be successful together. If we fail, we fail together too.”

It gives people a stake in the game. That’s a good thing, because today more people than ever want to work to build something bigger than themselves. They want to contribute and understand how their work impacts the big picture. The bad news? Many companies are built on policies and processes that muddy the big picture and work against internal transparency. In a world where people don’t need to work for corporations, this becomes a big problem— an engagement and retention problem.

So, with the purpose of giving employees a stake in the game in mind, let’s talk about the three “M’s”.

1. Metrics

When it comes to transparency, metrics are step one. Everyone in your company should have access to a view of the current state of the business and what success looks like. After all, if we’re going to succeed we need to know what we’re being measured against.

When employees come to work for more than a paycheck, they need to see how they’re moving the needle. They also need to have a guide, besides management, that directs priorities. Rabois says this is vital to scaling your business: “You have to create tools that enable people to make decisions at the same level you would make them yourself.”

Rabois points to a shared a dashboard used at Square— a dashboard that every employee has access to and is encouraged to use. It’s a great example, simple and widely used. Everyone— from your sales and product teams to customer support—should be able to quickly digest the information.

“Your dashboard needs to be as intuitive as your product is for users.”

The metrics that employees see and measure against should be the same metrics that other stakeholders measure against too. Help your team understand what the business has set out to achieve and how close or far away you are from getting there. That means sharing more formal information that you may not have thought to share in the past too, like feedback from the board.

“…take your board decks. And actually review every single slide with every single employee after the board meeting, Rabois said. “You can strip out the compensation information if you really want to. But every other slide you should go through with every single employee and explain it. If you can remember some of the feedback you got from your board that is really cool to pass on.”

2. Meetings

When it comes to meetings, there are two sides of the same coin. As much as we claim to loath meetings, an invite means we feel needed (and let’s be honest, we all want to be needed). Everybody doesn’t get invited to every meeting, but they might want to go to every meeting. That just isn’t scalable. Rabois suggests a simple solution: open meeting notes.

“The way you scale that is you create notes for every meeting and you send them to the entire company. So we created notes at least for every single meeting that involved more than two people, somebody would write notes and send it to the entire company. So everyone felt that as the company added employees, they continued to track what was interesting, what was going on.”

Taking a page from WAKA founder Johnny LeHane, “parking lots” for recurring meetings are a great way of sharing notes. A parking lot is one living document, hosted on a tool like Google Drive that contains an ongoing scroll of meeting notes and actions. Google Docs gives you the ability to mention others in comments too, so if someone should take a particular interest in the notes, the feature lets them know they’ve been mentioned. If your company uses a tool like Asana, or even Salesforce, those tools have features to mention people too. It’s a great way to involve your team without taking everyone away from work.

Another way to build upon the feeling of meeting transparency? Rethink the design of your conference rooms. I remember walking by the conference room used by the executive team at my corporate job. The door closed, blinds drawn. You almost can’t help but think, “That doesn’t look good. What’s going on in there?” That’s why every conference room at Square has glass walls.

“Because as soon as you have regular walls, people wonder what’s going on. It’s amazing, if they can see who exactly is in the meeting and who is meeting with who when, they don’t start to worry nearly as much as about what’s going on behind those closed doors.”

3. The Money

Speaking of closed doors, this is where transparency gets even more uncomfortable— when it comes down to the dollars. While talking about compensation at most corporations is a no-go, many agencies and smaller companies have adopted methods of transparency around financial information.

Lullabot, a 50-person distributed agency, has an open books policy for the company’s finances. A monthly “Weather Report” discloses the company’s monthly financial performance with notes on how strategies are affecting the bottom line. Others go all the way with transparent compensation. Carl Smith, founder of nGenWorks, believes in keeping nGenWorks salaries generous, flat, and transparent to the whole company. With open salaries, everyone knows what everyone else makes and what each position is worth.

“No rockstars come in and make way more money than the people who actually earned the money in the first place,” Smith explains.

There’s no shortage of critiques of compensation transparency, and Rabois addresses the biggest one: teamwork.

“The critique of compensation transparency is, well we want people to be teammates and work together and collaborate. And if you look in the sports world where people are teammates and collaborate, all of their compensation is actually public. In fact, any one of us can look up one of their compensations in the sports world to get it exactly accurate. And somehow it seems to work. So I am not completely bought into that you need to keep compensation non-transparent.”

Most Importantly, Meaning

We’ve looked at three M’s of transparency: metrics, meetings and money. And, if you haven’t already noticed, I want to point out that here’s a reason each of these M’s matter. They each help to achieve one goal, which just so happens to be the all encompassing “M” of work in today’s world: a common understanding of meaning— a shared mission. Each of the tactics above drives a united answer the question, “Why are we here and why do what we do?” in the most honest way possible. 

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