Building an Open Organization
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Building an Open Organization

Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO, Red Hat
Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO, Red Hat

Jim Whitehurst, President and CEO, Red Hat

When I began to speak with the folks from Red Hat about becoming the company’s CEO, my initial interview was, shall we say, unorthodox.

I had met with Matthew Szulik, Red Hat’s CEO, prior to me coming on board and accepting the job. He took me out for coffee–then, told me that he had forgotten his wallet and asked me if I could pick up the tab. That was fine until later I was asked to pay for lunch and gas too. I thought, is this a job interview, or a scam?

Turns out it was not only a job interview, but also my first introduction to what I have come to know as a truly open organization. As unusual and peculiar as it was, the interview provided a highly useful glimpse into the culture of Red Hat, where no one is above anyone else, and everyone is both expected and encouraged to contribute.

As a CEO, you need to be ready for that kind of approach if you want your company to succeed in today’s fast-moving business environment. Some leaders believe that extending trust and operating transparently will somehow diminish their power. In reality, however, leaders should be sharing as much as they can with their organizations. Sharing information is how leaders begin to build the context that people in an organization need to forge connections between their passions and the organization's mission. It is imperative that you must be willing to shake off the chains of the old ways of doing business–the “top-down” management style that gives you total command and control–and open yourselves up to allowing others to be heard and considered.

  ​You must rely on your most important asset–employees–to help you make the most informed and beneficial decisions.  

Doing this may prove to be one of the most difficult parts of your job. After all, senior executives did not get into the corner office by being wallflowers. We’re bred to be the decision makers and are accustomed to having complete control. Letting that go can be pretty scary.

However, while you can and should still have the final say in matters pertaining to your business, you must also be honest and acknowledge that no one person has all of the answers.

As such, you must rely on your most important asset–employees–to help you make the most informed and beneficial decisions. Employees understand customers, partners, products, and markets in general. They have deep knowledge to go along with their creativity and passion. You must always be willing to tap into all of these attributes.

Being a leader in an open organization, then, means making connections: It involves doing the work of linking people both to each other and to some larger, shared picture. It’s helping people understand how they can contribute to a collective effort in meaningful ways. Open leaders are honest about the problems they face, the worries they carry, and the limits they possess—because, in the end, the problems leaders face are the problems everyone faces. Shared knowledge is power.

Let’s face it: as much as we have nostalgia for the past, we’re no longer living in a top-down business environment. The hierarchical, title-driven ways of old are crumbling in favor of a meritocratic approach that awards those who can contribute to the overall success of the company, regardless of whether they sit in an office or cubicle.

Today, all employees, regardless of title or position, are demanding to have their voices heard. It may not be through traditional means of communication. It may be through blogs, social media, or other forms of communication. But their opinions are getting out there, and they want those opinions to be heard and considered by their managers.

It’s not just employees, either; customers and partners are more willing than ever to collaborate and offer valuable feedback. At a company like Red Hat, this is nothing new–we’ve always followed the open source software model of collaboration and worked hand-in-hand with our customers and partners to deliver the products they need. This approach has worked very well for us.

For traditional organizations, however, this might be an entirely new concept. “Wait,” you might say, “you’re expecting us to have our customers contribute to our business practices and product development? Isn’t that what they pay us to do?”

Yes–it is. But they also pay to have products delivered that suit their needs. What better way to deliver those products than to have them actively participate in their product’s development? Doing so will allow you to become more in-tune with what your audience needs, helping shorten sales cycles and develop more meaningful relationships–the essence of a lean organization that’s built for the future.

I’m convinced that an open approach is really the only way to build for that future. It’ll help you deliver unprecedented satisfaction to everyone that’s important to your business’s success. In turn, they will help feed that success. It’s an approach that I’ve seen work tremendously over the years–ever since that first cup of coffee.

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