Loosely translated, this Latin maxim means “He who remains silent is understood to consent.” As maxims go, it will not be compared anytime soon to Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”, but the power of such a creed — the power to motivate, inspire, etc — at an emerging company can be significant.
These words were scrawled on a yellowed piece of Legal pad paper and taped to the door of the Frigidaire in the office pantry at my first company. The author never revealed him or herself and, frankly, it never really mattered. The motto became a defining statement for our company in the months to come. People would mutter it under their breath at board meetings when difficult decisions had to be made and not everyone was clearly on board (but few voiced their opinions to the contrary.)
The point was a simple one, and one that was particularly poignant at a company founded and run by then-twenty-somethings who were doing things for the first time (and often doing it badly): Speak up. If you are uneasy with decisions by superiors you need to voice that. Too often in early stage companies, people nod when they should ask questions; people are mute when problems are beginning to surface; and people avoid confrontation when a confrontation is exactly what needs to occur.
Forget about what it says on the business cards. CEOs at start-up companies — particularly the first kind ones — are often terrified every moment of the day with what to do. They have been told enough times by self-help manuals and pop psychology business books, however, never to project that uncertainty or insecurity for fear it will unsettle the troops and telegraph weakness. This is sometimes decent advice, but too often it brings unwelcome outcomes. The net result is that people swagger and feign confidence when they should be asking for help and guidance. True, sometimes it’s best that that help come from outside the company — from board directors, investors and advisors — rather than from employees and direct reports, but sometimes even that external help is too late to save a company. Too many promising companies have run aground because a proud founding team waited too long to seek help. They then make the all-too-familiar and fatal mistakes of (1) surpising their board with bad news — NEVER a good idea; and (2) they wait so long that the board can rarely do much to save the company once the problems are finally aired openly.
I raise this issue now for a few reasons. There has been an unpleasant rash of reports in the business news and international wires recently about former CEOs CYA’ing themselves over earlier deeds at their former companies, or about now-retired military men and former cabinet officials airing their views on military misteps in the Iraq matter. What is oddly convenient is the timing of these revisionist histories. Regardless of one’s opinion on the Iraq War, as one example, the time to raise issues is at a time when those opinions could have been of value. Watching Jack Welch second-guess GE’s Jeff Immelt, or hearing Paul Volcker castigate Alan Greenspan over Greenspan’s swipes at Ben Bernanke is distasteful and sophomoric.
Unfortunately, the venture/start-up community is not immune from such CYA behavior. The old saw that JFK re-popularized after his own Bay of Pigs fiasco, “success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan,” could be elaborated upon to suggest that failure may not have a thousand fathers but it can have a thousand Monday Morning quarterbacks who have strongly held opinions about why the failure occured. The catch, however, is that those opinions come with 20/20 hindsight and were never aired when it could have helped matters.
The message inherent in this post, for early stage founders, is to do your best to instill at your companies a strong sense of openness and communication that is unfettered by policies or reporting bureacracies or misaligned incentives that would impede candor from those you need input from. Don’t just issue the standard “my door is always open” drivel. Make it a part of the culture. Succeed in creating that kind of enterprise and you will find problems when they can be nipped in the bud and not stamped out in a flurry of litigation months later when an irate and blind-sided board has to step in.