Can large corporations ever match the transparency of a start-up?

Buffer transparency visual 2I may be naïve. Indeed I’m regularly accused of it, but I’d love to work for an organisation where employees are rewarded for speaking up and championing their beliefs rather than one where they sit tight and wait to see which way the political wind is blowing.

When Antony Jenkins took over from Bob Diamond as CEO of Barclays in 2012 he seemed like just the man for the job. Described as “a safe pair of hands” and “the nice man of banking” both his reputation and his retail heritage seemed to provide a solid base for rebuilding the bank’s reputation.

However, it’s become increasingly clear that, for all Jenkins’ sincerity and prominent espousal of his new- era values, not enough has changed at Barclays at a grass roots level to win back public trust.

At the time of the 2013 annual bonus row, a disenchanted insider captured the feelings of many: “I suppose Jenkins is well-meaning and he made a big gesture by not taking a bonus this year. But I think he lacks the essential quality of leadership. He tries to portray himself as the good guy, but allows everyone else to gorge at the trough.

Why can’t he persuade others to buy in to the message of restraint?
(Extract from “Barclays under Antony Jenkins is a mess in transition” by Abigail Hofman March 2014)

Perhaps because it will take years to effect the sort of 360o turnaround in an organization the size of Barclays?

Or perhaps trust, transparency and honest dissension without fear of reprisal is only possible in start-ups or small businesses….or possibly an employee-owned business such as John Lewis?

I started researching this topic when I was sent a link to social media management tool Buffer’s “Default to Transparency” page. Default to Transparency is #2 of Buffer’s 10 values which is defined by the following four bullets:

  • You take pride in opportunities to share our beliefs, failures, strengths and decisions
  • You use transparency as a tool to help others
  • You always state your thoughts immediately and with honesty
  • You share early in the decision process to avoid “big revelations”

In an astonishing illustration of their commitment to transparency the Buffer website contains a microsite containing 10 commitments to transparency including the publication of all salaries, their equity formula and real-time financials. Additionally, all their code is Open Source and freely available for anyone to use.

To be this transparent takes courage, commitment and a lot of trust across the whole organisation.

During my research I came across an article written in 2011 by Steve Blank (serial entrepreneur, author, lecturer at Stanford and notable proponent of the ‘lean start-up’) called The Cover-Up Culture.      In the article, Blank likens covering up failure in a start-up to “tossing money in the street” with smart founders replacing a cover-up culture with a Lessons Learned culture.


“A key element of a “Lessons Learned” culture is rapid dissemination of information. All information, whether good or bad, must be shared rapidly. We taught our company that understanding sales losses were more important than understanding sales wins; understanding why a competitor’s products were better was more important than rationalizing ways in which ours were superior. All news, but especially bad news, needed to be shared, dissected, understood, and acted on. At each weekly department and company meeting we discussed what worked and hadn’t. And when we found employees who hoarded information or covered up problems we removed them. They were cultural poison for a start-up.

The resulting conversations made us smarter, agile and relentless.”

Applying these principles of transparency, honesty and a willingness to admit to and learn from failures to a large corporation requires committed leadership and a compatible culture. However, market and social forces are coming together to drive businesses of all types towards a more open and honest culture. For example:

  • Very little is hidden anymore. Everything gets captured. The next generation of workers and consumers can increasingly know everything they want to about a company and a product: What’s in it? Where was it made? Who made it? Were they paid a living wage?
  • The growth of social media channels has made it harder and harder for companies to ‘manage the messaging’ while instantaneous communications is resulting in a “rising sense of global connectedness and responsibility” (source: HBR: Leadership in the Age of Transparency).
  • If the world perceives a company, an industry sector or even a country to be part of a problem, the only viable response is to be seen to be investing effort in finding a solution.
  • The companies that will survive and prosper in the future are those that adapt most swiftly and transparent decision-making is increasingly being seen to breed agility and resilience while ambiguity breeds distrust, resistance and fiefdom fighting.

As more companies respond to this scrutiny, exposure and consumer pressure, it becomes more likely that my next role may be in a company with a culture that embodies … or at least aspires to … the operating principles of a start-up.


About madeleinekavanagh

Internal comms specialist with a career spanning advertising, car sales and management consulting. My greatest legacy (so far) - my son!
This entry was posted in Business Leadership, Corporate Values, Culture, High performing companies, Leadership Behaviours, Social media and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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