Employee to CEO: “Boss This Won’t Work!”

By October 30, 2015 Uncategorized No Comments

Jim Whitehurst, author of Open Organization, shares his own leadership story and leadership experiences, acquired during his time as partner with Boston Consulting Group, COO of Delta Air Lines and CEO (currently) of Red Hat.  Red Hat is an open source software development company, based in Raleigh, North Carolina with annual revenues in excess of $2 billion.

Whitehurst’s perspective was forged from his BCG experiences in showing clients how to improve performance, leading Delta through its bankruptcy in 2005-6 and coming on board at Red Hat to discover how their success would be attributed to Red Hat’s adoption of open sourcing … not only for software development but also as an organizational model.

The headline for this post is paraphrased from Whitehurst’s book, but he reveals the essence of open source leadereship which he labels as organizational meritocracy.  To set the scene, Red Hat had just decided to acquire a company called Qumranet to give Red Hat a stronger position in virtualization. 

Whitehurst: “But even after we made our decision, one of the engineers called me out in front of the group – which include his boss, his boss’s boss, and more – letting me know that he thought we are making the wrong choice.  He also went on at great lengths to explain why.  While I thanked him for his input – he did make many valid arguments – I continued to believe we were on the right path.  Meanwhile, as he was talking, I kept looking at his boss and his boss’s boss to see how they were reacting to this engineer speaking up as he was.  This kind of thing never happened at Delta.  If it had, people would have been turning purple with rage.  An unwritten workplace rule was you didn’t call out your boss let alone your boss’s boss – in front of their boss. The whole scene only added to my sense that this company was chaotic.

But that engineer’s words never left me.  It also soon became clear that he was right – the decision we made just wasn’t the best one for Red Hat.  So we made a major about-face when it came to the technology.  It was costly and time-consuming but it was the better decision. I share this story not to be cavalier about the significant financial investments we made.  Rather, I’d like to stress that I couldn’t let go of my ego – or the fact that we had been wrong – get in the way of making the best possible decisions for the company. Building an open organization with a participatory culture like Red Hat’s is all about encouraging debate and celebrating the best ideas, regardless of who or where they come from.  It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing if you want to build a more engaged, collaborative, and innovative workforce“.

Moral to the story: sustained engagement comes from meaningful work … and meaningful work is an outcome of genuine employee belonging, ownership and meaning.

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