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Trusting a CEO in the Twitter Age

Social media tools offer a new test for leaders when it comes to dealing candidly with employees, especially amid economic insecurity

The days are long gone when organizations could control the message internally or build a wall between themselves and the outside world. Today what's inside is soon outside, posted on blogs and message boards—or simply Twittered during meetings. Messages get distorted: Rumors take on the status of truth and digital hearsay is quickly seen as fact. Never is the truth more at risk than during tough times, with layoffs in the headlines and uppermost on employees' minds. At such times leaders need to redouble their efforts to tell employees the truth, balancing candor with compassion and hope with honesty.

It's an old lesson, but never has it been more urgent than during this historic downturn, which has brought public trust in business and business leaders to near-record lows. In a recent Edelman survey, two-thirds of respondents say they trust business less than they did a year ago. Even more troubling, a mere 17%—less than one in five—trust what they hear from a company's chief executive.

At the same time, employees routinely expect a level of candor unheard of when I started in the business world many years ago. This is especially true of our youngest workers, who were raised with the omnipresence of the Web. This generation can be suspicious and hard to win over, is utterly unfazed by asking leaders virtually any question, and is easy to lose if it feels it's being spun or taken for granted.

Like any chief executive, I understand the dangers of free disclosure but I also know the risks of silence, especially in a downturn environment. At such a time, people need the air and light of transparency. They want to feel part of a caring community with leaders who, when making the hard choices, will balance the health of the organization with the best long-term interests of the workforce.

CEO's Open Q&A Sessions Prove Popular

That's why I've invested significant time in our own Straight Talk program, traveling to offices in different regions of the country. There, I hold town hall meetings in which no question is out of bounds. I invite the audience to pass the mike and fire away—hardballs, softballs, anything goes. Everyone else in the organization is invited to dial in and listen. And the sessions and additional questions and answers are posted on a site available 24/7.

So far, more than a dozen events have been held in every region of the country. Nearly half of our employees have participated, and the archive has been accessed 7,500 times. Online surveys and e-mails show that the response is overwhelmingly positive, notably for the candor of the answers, the opportunity for employees to offer direct feedback, and the willingness of the CEO to be unguarded and available.

At the same time, these sessions have had a powerful effect on me as a leader, especially in helping me to better understand just how vulnerable people feel in tough times. Consider the partners in my organization: Only half became partners in the past five years, meaning they weren't in senior leadership roles during the last downturn. In turn, the younger people they lead—43% of them under the age of 30—are working through conditions that even their parents never experienced.

And what do people ask in these town hall sessions? Naturally, they want to hear the latest about the marketplace and our strategy. But the big question is almost always about layoffs.

Respond to Challenges Quickly

I answer that—although we have weighed alternatives and are doing everything possible to avoid reductions—as with any healthy business, we have to align staffing levels to business volumes. At the same time, I make it clear that when we make the tough choices, we do so with fairness and sensitivity. But it doesn't stop there. These interchanges break the ice for other leaders to have similar conversations, whether in large office meetings or one-on-one.

I enjoy the interplay at these sessions, but they can pose challenges. Inevitably, some questions are obscure or local in nature. Then there are those that, for timing or privacy reasons, I cannot answer—but these are few. The point is that if I can't answer I say so, and why. And if I don't know the answer, either leaders who are present chime in or I promptly get them the answer, typically in a day or two.

Much has changed since the upheavals of Enron and the dot-com bust and the market shocks of September 11. Then the Internet was in its infancy and the water cooler was king. Google (GOOG) was barely out of the garage, blogging was virtually unknown, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter had yet to be born. We knew less in real time about current opinion and—much as we have always prized transparency—we simply had less to respond to.

Not so today, when news or rumors are out fast. Leaders must keep pace, taking the pulse on opinion and when necessary, getting up in front in live public forums.

Trust is like oxygen for a business. When it's in short supply, the effect—for employees and customers alike—can be like a loss of cabin pressure on an aircraft. And never has the danger been higher than it is now in the viral conditions of the Twitter Age.

Against these seemingly unstoppable high-tech forces, I am heartened that even today, trust and transparency still can emanate from the ultimate in low-tech: a leader standing flat-footed in a room, listening and offering, as best he or she can, the plain, unvarnished truth.

Barry Salzberg, chief executive of Deloitte Touche USA, is a member of the New York State Bar Assn., the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants, and the New York County Lawyers Assn. In addition, he is the chairman of the board of the YMCA of Greater New York, a board member of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and chair of the Diversity Best Practices CEO Roundtable initiative. Salzberg received his undergraduate degree in accounting from Brooklyn College, his JD from Brooklyn Law School, and his LLM in taxation from the New York University School of Law.

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