The Importance of Candor and Other Lessons From a Former White House Chief of Staff
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I had the privilege of meeting Denis McDonough some years ago when we played football together at St. John’s University. As a teammate, McDonough was smart, strategic and dedicated to his fellow Johnnies. So it was no surprise, to me or anyone who knows him, when years later he was recruited by President Barack Obama to serve as the White House chief of staff.
In 2008, McDonough took the challenge and served his country in this role for eight years. Appointed by the president, the chief of staff oversees approximately 4,000 White House staff, manages the president's schedule and decides who is allowed to meet with him. In addition, McDonough also served as the deputy national security advisor, advising President Obama during the Iran nuclear negotiations, the draw-back of US troops from Iraq and the search for Osama Bin Laden.
McDonough came out of the experience stronger and wiser. He recently shared some of these experiences and lessons in leadership with me and the rest of the NovuHealth team. Being personally responsible for creating a positive culture at a fast-growing company, it struck me how much we could learn from McDonough about building trusting and effective working relationships, given he did just that at a very high level.
First, your team is everything.
Growing up as one of 12 kids and later playing football under St. John’s legendary coach John Gagliardi, McDonough learned the power of working as a team. What made Gagliardi such a great coach, achieving the most wins of any coach in college football history, was that he made regular kids believe they could do remarkable things -- and they did. McDonough's observation on this was that, at its core, teamwork requires respecting others.
To paint a picture, McDonough told a story about being called in to see the president over lunch in his first week as chief of staff. Upon entering the room and seeing one placemat, one place setting and one set of silverware, McDonough realized he wasn’t a guest, he was on the menu.
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President Obama had some hard words, but what was notable was that the conversation was done privately and face-to-face. In effect, the president addressed the issue without undercutting McDonough's authority. The takeaway from this exchange was that you need to be honest and direct for the team to function well, but this must be built on a foundation of respect for the individual so that you’re not undermining their position. If your team doesn’t succeed, you don’t succeed.
Create an environment that reinforces trust.
Another story that McDonough recounted was his role in telling the president the recommendations from the National Security Council principal committee on an issue that had security and diplomatic implications. After relaying the committee’s recommendation, he was asked what his personal opinion was. Though McDonough certainly had an opinion, his response was that he was there to share the committee’s recommendation.
He withheld his own point of view because he believed that, for the team to function well, others had to trust that he was upholding its structure.
When McDonough got the job, he told the president, “If you’re looking for a policy guy, that isn’t me, but when you have to make a hard decision, you can trust that every person who needs to weigh in on it has.” Though some chiefs are more casual, McDonough maintained a more formal relationship with the president to show others that he would not work around them or undermine the team. In putting that structure together and abiding by it, everyone trusted that if they played by the rules, they would be heard.
Don't fear conflict; it may be necessary to break through problems.
One of the first things that the president said to McDonough when he started was, “Your role is to tell me what I need to know, not what I want to hear.” If you’re pulling your punches and not being straightforward, then you’re not doing your job.
This doesn’t mean always presenting a consensus point of view. But it did require being brutally honest with the most powerful man on the planet when there was something that had to be said. For most of us, conflict can be uncomfortable, but don’t be afraid of or try to avoid it for the sake of keeping the peace. It can bring clarity and tension that helps refine decisions.
In hearing McDonough speak about his work, it struck me how many lessons could be applied to companies -- mine and others. The challenge we face as we bring on new team members and work with our customers to drive innovation and greater engagement in the healthcare industry requires both candor and a high level of trust.
In thinking about McDonough's service to our country, I personally want to thank him and say how inspired I am by his dedication and commitment. In the end, whether you’re on the field, in private industry or working from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, work can be tremendously stressful when we, as individuals, face difficult decisions, strong personalities and crises.
Sometimes it’s hard to be candid, forthright and frank. Learning when and how to be honest while also being kind is the art of the job and truly the hardest part of building and being a part of a talented team. At the end of the day, you spend more time with your coworkers than your family, so it’s worth that extra consideration and tough love to learn to speak openly and constructively to each other.