Raise the Alarm: Commentary by Christopher Kennedy

Raise the Alarm: Commentary by Christopher Kennedy


Nobody’s perfect. We’re all human. We all make mistakes.

These words from our mothers and fathers, teachers and clergy resound in our memory. Things happen.

What happens next is the true measure of leadership. How long does it take to identify and correct a mistake? When we see a product defect, an internal control break or a service that doesn’t quite match our company’s values, who points it out? Is the culture open to self-critique or does it take an outsider – a regulator, the media, financial analysts or an auditor — to raise the alarm.

Before a mistake is made and creates an ugly situation, there is usually a period of time where ideas are discussed and planning is done. And this is the time for leaders to be especially alert and listen to concerns from their team members. Someone might courageously say, “Hey, this is inappropriate. This message is inconsistent with our customer values or our practice of treating people as individuals.” Leaders make mistakes and when they do, it is up to their team to have their back, to raise an alarm, identify the problem and seek solutions. Problems are not like wines; they don’t get better with age.

But it takes guts to bring bad news. What in the world would cause an employee or a team member to take the risk of saying the emperor has no clothes, even when it is obvious to everyone?

It takes trust. Trust is generated by a good leader who has taken the time to create an atmosphere that invites immediate critique and honest reactions. It takes great listening skills, practiced with near-perfection, to convince people that their concerns will be taken seriously. It takes a self-confident leader who is easy to approach and to talk to and it takes a person of integrity to create confidence that excursions from team norms will be corrected. If there’s any concern that someone will kill the messenger, there won’t be any messengers.

A sense of community, that we all have skin in the game, that a loss for any of us is a loss for all of us. Pick your cliché, it all comes down to looking out for one another.

Production businesses have figured out that to have excellent quality, managers have to be committed to continuous improvement and must be open to suggestions and internal critique. The same is true in any organization: when problems occur, all members of the team must be empowered to step forward to identify and correct them promptly. When they do, it is a great leader that readied them and prepared a favorable environment.

We may see warning signs where we work and play. We each have the responsibility to be a leader that creates a trusting environment and be a team player willing to critique when actions don’t align with the community and organizational values. Speak up early, your courage is needed.