“Honesty is the Best Policy.” But, Is the World Ready for a CHO?


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“Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to be honest about your capabilities and limitations. These will come out sooner or later,” Bob Thompson of CustomerThink wrote in a recent article. (Why Reps Can’t Sell. It’s the (Selling) System, Stupid!)

In other words, honesty is the best policy. But if you’re searching for succinct how-to’s for honesty, I’m sorry to disappoint—you won’t find them here. Wikihow already offers a practical, easy-to-follow 7-step process, and I won’t attempt to improve it.

Besides, Thompson’s “it doesn’t hurt to be honest” admonition catapulted me in an interesting direction, imploring me to wonder about the actual dollars-and-cents business value of honesty. Though I couldn’t calculate the exact amount, I’ll just estimate it contributes substantially to our gross national product, and leave it at that.

Look at online writing resources such as Missionstatements.com, and you’ll appreciate the ubiquity of superficial honesty in corporate communication. The website plugged honesty right into its mission statement templates. Select your favorite, keep honesty, change fundamental principles to ideals, and you’ve got yourself a unique leadership message worth framing. Pepsi has a great one: “The mission of PepsiCo is about honesty, fairness, integrity and convenient foods.” Honesty, right there the top! And everything fits within 140 characters!

Organizations casually talk the honesty-talk, but many conspicuously meander when walking the honesty-walk. Words, without will or motivation behind them, are just words. What’s missing is Corporate Muscle: a Kahuna of Honest Communication who wields power to make people stay within the lines of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If kahuna doesn’t suit your literary style, call him or her a Chief Honesty Officer, or CHO.

Corporate honesty should be easy. But I’ll make a confession: it’s not. Sometimes it’s really hard to drive demand without stretching and distorting the truth like a glob of silly putty. What’s a sales pitch, “Business Case Study,” or ROI Calculation without cleverly stacking facts and figures? But despite the difficulties, honesty-is-the-best-policy can still be embedded into a business strategy. Remember how effectively Radio Shack used bold honesty to parody its own lack of innovation in the spot it aired during the 2014 Super Bowl?

JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs. Immediately following the banking crisis, I expected to see a CHO in their executive suites. But no. How about BP and ExxonMobil? The same. Some industries are more ripe for a Senior Honesty Champion than others. Oddly, instead of anointing a CHO, corporations large and small regularly plug other chiefs into the org chart. From the important, like Chief Financial Officer and Chief Marketing Officer, to the inane, like Chief Fun Officer. But alas, not even titular homage for Honesty (sigh).

Compliance! Change! Synergy! Value! Shout out most any trendy topic, and you’ll find a Chief-Something-Officer all over it, like a fly on poop. Only in America can we find Management-by-magazine so lovingly woven into a bureaucratic corporate tapestry. This seems so wrong. Did someone say, “Well, at our company, honesty really falls under Legal . . .”? Puh-leeeeze!

Today, “honesty is the best policy,” yields 14.7 million online search results. While I didn’t analyze how much of that content contains positive sentiment, it’s seems safe to say that people clearly lionize honesty. Not bad for a 415-year-old idea that traces its origins to an essay, In Europae Speculum, by Sir Edwin Sandys, who wrote, “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie.”

Consider three common business situations involving honesty, and how a CHO would formulate strategy, manage risk, and provide governance to increase business value:

Not enough honesty.
As the General Motors Cobalt product liability case demonstrates, companies often use Marketing and Sales to obscure sinister truths about a company’s safety and quality issues. According to Keith Crain, Editor-in-Chief of Automotive News, “This issue is not about a faulty switch. Car companies have been dealing with defective parts and recalls for decades. This does not even rank in the top 10 recalls. Far more serious is whether GM executives knew about the defective switches and the crashes long ago and someone at GM tried to keep the whole issue quiet.”

Too much honesty.
In a recent article in The Washington Post, (College tour de Farce: 5 Ways not to Sell Your School, April 25th), Melinda Henneberger wrote about a tour guide she encountered at the University of California, San Diego. The “truth-telling tour leader dispensed way too much information,” and “soon had parents and progeny alike staring intently at our shoes as she talked about her steamy dating life and her preference for being the one who picks up guys when she goes clubbing.”

Exaggeration and distortion.
There are infinite examples. But here’s a current favorite of mine, a (barely) fictitious sales pitch from the HBO series Silicon Valley:

“The greatness of human accomplishment has always been measured by size, the bigger, the better, until now. Nanotech, smart cars, small is the new big. In the coming months, Hooli will deliver Nucleus, the most sophisticated compression software platform the world has ever seen because if we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller and hunger and AIDS.”

Outsized marketing floats all boats, especially if you work for a start-up. As advertising executive Milton Glaser said, “If you don’t have a change-the-world outlook, you’re doing it wrong.”–Which is great, but what happens when braggadocio permeates every conversation?

In a recent episode of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert quipped, “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe honesty is the best policy, but a close second is lying about how honest you are.” Colbert’s comment harpooned a disturbing reality, hitting a nerve that needed to be hit. Could an honesty policy at General Motors have saved the lives of thirteen Colbalt drivers?

It’s hard to say, but without someone at the highest level within an enterprise responsible for establishing a culture for honesty, as well as creating a strategy for executing and governing it, we won’t see the end of criminal corporate liability, massive breakdowns in trust, and the implosion of business value that accompanies it.


  1. Great post, and I like how you point out that a lot of what passes for honesty just raises cynicism about it. The Colbert quote is quite apropos.

    And I’m not sure how serious you are about a CHO, but let me suggest – that might potentially be the most cynical of all movements.

    Consider: we name a CXO for various jobs that require specialized focus, talent and/or energy. Those include risk management, quality, people, and a host of others.

    But think about the message implicit with honesty: that it’s something specialized; that it doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone; that it can be isolated and delegated to a staff function (or worse yet, that it needs to be a dedicated line function)?

    All these feel like non-starters to me. If there’s a case to be made for anything that absolutely has to be built into the corporate values and led in person, personally, by the CEO – well, it ought to be honesty.

    Any CEO that tried to follow even a tenth of things about which consultants claim “it has to be led by the CEO” would die of exhaustion. But this may be the one single exception: if you have to delegate honesty, you’re screwed. If you have to delegate the search for honesty, or the exhortation for honesty, or the quality control over honesty, ditto. If the top leader and the corporate culture don’t push honesty, you’re not going to get there with a CHO.

    Or so it seems to me.

  2. Charles – thanks for posting your opinion regarding my blog. I wanted to call out GM’s use of marketing and sales to divert attention from known product defects, some of which are lethal, as we have learned. From the congressional testimony, we now understand that while GM’s quality problems were pervasive and widely known internally, management relied on marketing particularly to play a much different message to the public.

    At first, this seems normal and understandable. If products were perfect, they would, in fact, sell themselves. Marketing and sales would not be needed. But the reality is that companies engage in marketing and business development in large measure to overcome limitations and weaknesses of many kinds.

    I first wrote about having a CHO in a facetious sense, and felt it almost as ludicrous as other trendy C-titles. Then, the more I thought about it, two things struck me: 1) given that we have so many C-titles already, why hadn’t more companies thought of Honesty as an institutionalized management structure. After all, honesty is in so many “mission statements.” Why not a CHO? 2) given the understanding of ‘honesty as policy,’ wouldn’t this idea lend itself to something more formal in an organization.

    I fully agree with you that taking something that should be shared among all executive staff and consolidating it in a single function or department seems lame – weird, really. This is what I thought when Chief Strategy Officers started cropping up all over the place. Strategy, after all, is what senior executives are charged with creating and executing. Same for Chief Visionary . . . Chief Competitive . . . and so on. It’s a long list.

    In short, I’m ambivalent about whether some companies and industries can truly benefit from a stronger focus on honesty, along with strong accountability to customers and vendors alike. Is it time to institutionalize honesty through a formal role? Maybe it’s not called a CHO, but something . . . .


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