Differences and Consensus

In his October 4, 2015, NY Times column “Corner Office” Adam Bryant presented his interview with Gary B. Smith, CEO of the Ciena Corporation: “Gary Smith of Ciena: Build a Culture on Trust and Respect.” In it Smith shares some of his history, his early influences and how his views changed with experience. In last week’s blog I wrote about Smith’s understanding that “it’s all about people.”

 And of course, with people there will be inevitable differences of opinion. Smith says that this is healthy. These differences should exist. But ideally, he aims at consensus. “I’m a great believer in getting consensus,” he says. But he knows that consensus cannot always be reached, so “you’ve got to say, O.K., that’s good enough.”

What’s critical he says, is that once agreement has been reached the leadership team must be synchronized and the agreement is communicated down the ranks of the organization so that all are moving in the same direction.

One of my first clients started our engagement by stating: “My dad has fired me twice.”

The point of contention was over my client’s approach for implementing a strategy. His father would neither acknowledge nor respect his son’s difference of opinion saying: “any way you do it is ok, as long as it’s my way.” Clearly there was no working toward a consensus.

Perhaps for the health of the organization it might have been easier, in the short run, for the father to fire his son, thus avoiding having the operation of the business skewed by trying to follow two conflicting directions. But for multi-generational longevity, an opening must exist, for at least a partial consensus.

To ensure multi-generational success, members of the next-generation need to be granted a degree of autonomy, allowing them to acquire leadership skills and giving them the invaluable opportunity to learn from their own mistakes.

Handling this transition is one of the most difficult challenges facing family businesses.