Leadership

How Much Should CEOs Say About a Staff Crisis?

By / Apr 21, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

A call for the resignation of the American Angus Association’s CEO ultimately led to the departure of multiple employees. Can you be transparent about staff turmoil without fueling gossip?

Even without all the details in hand, it’s clear a meltdown occurred.

On April 11 Bryce Schumann, CEO of the American Angus Association, posted a letter on the association’s website informing members that six of its regional managers and six of its employees “are no longer employed by the Association.” As the letter explains, the decision came three weeks after the organization’s board received a letter from 15 employees calling for Schumann’s ouster.

“We fully understand that this decision may create unexpected hardships for our members,” Schumann wrote.

The decision has understandably riled people in the Angus cattle industry. But with the association’s leadership not talking beyond the letter, and with much of the rank-and-file response coming from an anonymous internet commentariat, I’m not interested in probing the nature of the crisis or the sensibility of the decisions Schumann and the board made.

There’s plenty in his letter, though, that’s worth exploring.

Can You Be Too Transparent?

I’ve written a fair bit lately about the virtues of transparency at the top. I think a lack of it helped hasten the end of Brendan Eich’s short-lived tenure as CEO of the Mozilla Foundation. I think a strong dose of it has bought General Motors CEO Mary T. Barra time in the midst of the automaker’s car-safety crisis. And I think CEOs generally do well to be open to staff and listen to their concerns, especially during transitional periods.

But there are limits to what transparency alone can accomplish. And when it comes to staff, there are risks to letting everybody know everything—or even letting everybody know more than a little. Schumann’s letter sticks to the facts of the chronology while avoiding the details about the dispute: The board received a letter, Schumann writes, after which he and the board convened a task force to interview employees. The board decided to keep Schumann on, the letter says, and 12 people either decided to leave the organization or were terminated. End of story.

None of that gets into the complaints about Schumann or the details of the staffers’ departure. But—setting aside the legal can of worms that opens when you publicly elaborate on such things—there’s no compelling argument for airing them, short of news of arrests or lawsuits. Sometimes transparency clarifies an association’s mission and vision; at other times, it just feeds the rumor mill.

Lines Open, Door Closed

Of course, the rumor mill keep running for a while. And though Schumann acknowledges that the changes he and the board made will be a challenge, he uses the letter to stress that he’s on top of it. “We fully understand that this decision may create unexpected hardships for our members,” he writes, but that “the Board of Directors and the employees of the Association will do everything in our power to alleviate or prevent any inconveniences or disruptions in services related to the changes taking place.”

The letter’s emphasis on getting the association back to work is respectable. But I can’t help but notice that the letter lacks something that’s common in crisis-communications messages like this one: a few words encouraging members to share their thoughts and concerns. Asserting your authority in the midst of a challenge to it is a good thing; it reassures staff and members that there’s a steady hand at the wheel. But completely shutting the door to conversation—or giving the impression that you have—can weaken your position, suggesting that you’re avoiding criticism. Establishing and announcing a dedicated email address where members can register their concerns may have gone a long way toward gauging member reaction, and helping the association move on.

Even when you feel you have good reason not to talk, you can always listen.

Next Steps

The exact details of the leadership challenge at the American Angus Association may eventually come to light, or they may not. Either way, the board and CEO will have to navigate the organization in the short term under a storm of questions. Was the reasoning behind the challenge to their leadership legitimate? Was their reaction draconian? Were their actions in the best interest of the association and its membership? How “transparent” the organization is in the face of these questions will be a challenge, and it will be different for every organization. But the benchmark for every organization is a simple one: You need to be at least transparent enough to keep members from losing faith in your organization.

Have you had to respond to a challenge to your leadership, be it from members or employees? How did you respond? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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