What Doesn’t Get Said, Doesn’t Get Heard

Posted 04.09.2010

Jamieoliver My amazing wife Diane and I were talking last night about a post she wrote yesterday on her gluten-free, dairy free cooking blog. She’s really into British chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show on ABC because Oliver has gone to my childhood hometown, Huntington, WV, to help the community learn to eat healthier.  In her post, Diane was talking about an episode in which Jamie got a bunch of high school kids together to cook a fancy and healthy dinner for 80 of the movers and shakers in Huntington. Everything went great with the meal and the kids took a lot of pride in learning to cook and serving it to the big shots. The point of Diane’s post was the value of getting your kids in the kitchen to teach them an important life skill like cooking a healthy meal.

We were talking about the importance of taking the time to call out what you want the next generation to learn. That’s a key role for both parents and leaders. That’s one of the points I was trying to make in my post earlier this week about world-renowned chef Thomas Keller training the next generation of chefs in the kitchen of his Napa Valley restaurant, The French Laundry. Our conversation reminded me of a real life situation that happened to me years ago that taught me the value of calling out what needs to be said. I mentioned it to Diane and she said I had never told her the story. I couldn’t believe that because it’s one of my favorite stories. I told her the story and she loved it. So, I’ll share it with you too. Maybe you’ll love it.

Back in the early 1990’s, I worked for a regional bank holding company in a number of different management roles. A big part of my job was supporting the CEO on his strategic initiatives and shaping the culture of the company as it grew through acquisitions. The CEO was a great guy and pretty new in his role. He brought a lot of himself to the job and was very committed to values based management. He was so passionate about it, in fact, that he wanted to have a one day symposium on the topic with the company board of directors and senior management team. I was responsible for helping pull the meeting together.

The main event was to be a lunchtime keynote address from Tom Chappell, the CEO of Tom’s of Maine (the natural toothpaste people) on how he led his company in a values based way. The only problem was that Tom’s plane was delayed and he didn’t get there in time for lunch. So we improvised and had a panel discussion with the CEO, the president of the local university and an Episcopal priest who had a lot of parishioners in the audience including my CEO. The panel started talking about values and how important it was to be clear about them, lead by them and the bad things that can happen when you don’t.

As they talked, I was watching the previous CEO and current Chairman of the company at the next table over. He had stepped down as CEO a couple of years earlier after about 15 years in the job. The bank had grown enormously under his watch. As the panel continued to talk about values, I noticed the retired CEO was getting redder and redder. He was really agitated and shifting back and forth in his seat. At about the same time that I was thinking to myself, “He’s going to blow,” he blew. He slammed his hand on the table and erupted, “Damn it!  What is all this talk about values? Are you saying we didn’t have values when I ran this company?!?”

Needless to say, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. It was one of those moments where you hold your breath waiting to see what’s going to happen next. After about 15 seconds, the Episcopal priest was the first person to speak. Quietly and calmly, he looked directly at the retired CEO and said, “Bob, I don’t think anyone here is saying that this company didn’t have values when you led it. As a matter of fact, none of us would be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for the values you imparted. But one thing I’ve learned in 20 years of the priesthood is that what doesn’t get said, doesn’t get heard. If we want this company to continue on the values based path you put us on, we need to say it in order for people to hear it.”

It was the perfect thing to say at that moment. The tension was defused, the retired CEO understood and we continued with the conversation. It was a dramatic and memorable moment but the takeaway for me has always been what the priest said. What doesn’t get said, doesn’t get heard.

As a leader, what do you need to say that needs to be heard?  What do you need to teach or call out to ensure that the next generation can build on and improve upon what’s already been started?