What You Won't Hear From Today's CEOs, and Why

Each executive team has its own unique jargon. Facebook’s mantra is “move fast and break things.” Amazon is all about “customer obsession.” IBM wants to make everything smarter. And Google’s motto used to be “don’t be evil,” although I would take that one with a giant lump of salt.

When you’ve spent as much time in boardrooms as I have, you get used to hearing certain words over and over again. The thing is, “transparency” is not one of them.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that corporate executives are never transparent, or that they intentionally deceive stakeholders. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am saying is that, while they can sometimes be open and forthcoming, for the most part, that’s not a priority. At least not in my experience.

In the corporate world, communication strategy is all about positioning to achieve optimum results. What that means and the metrics involved vary by company and the nature of the event or announcement. The trick is to do that without going afoul of the rules and getting sued by regulators, investors, or anyone else, for that matter.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t. In case you haven’t noticed, our conversation culture is big on endless rhetoric and debate. Definitive decisions, actions and consequences, not so much.

I think we stopped holding leaders accountable long ago. Since they’re not incentivized to be forthcoming and truthful, it should come as no surprise that they’ve grown accustomed to telling us what we want to hear. And these days, we want to hear that they’re transparent. So that’s what they tell us, over and over.

For all the talk of transparency, much of it falls on deaf ears. Much like “authentic” and “inclusive,” it’s become part of the lexicon of words they use to mollify the masses. Make no mistake. Inside the boardroom and the beltway, transparency is, well, as we used to say in Texas, all hat, no cattle.

Stop and think about it for a second. When do you usually hear the word? Political and business leaders making grand promises and pledges, of course. Academics and regulators debating corporate governance, to be sure. And of course the media. Like it or not, none of that has any impact on actual leadership behavior.

Behind closed doors in corporate America, executives are generally concerned with three things: business strategy, operating results, and not going to jail or getting sued. I know that sounds cynical, but that’s my observation.

While communication is not a top priority, it does come into play when there are layoffs, acquisitions, customer deals, product launches, quarterly results and the like. And the strategy is typically to optimize results – exposure, customer engagement, brand reputation – without breaking disclosure rules.

For publicly traded companies, there are strict rules governing the disclosure of material information, although the Securities and Exchange Commission and prosecutors have wide latitude when it comes to charging companies for violating those rules.

Apple somehow managed to avoid telling shareholders anything about the health of Steve Jobs when he was CEO. Tesla failed to notify investors of a fatal accident involving its controversial autopilot mode prior to a $1.5 billion stock offering. I’m not aware that either company faced sanctions as a result. But still, there are rules.

Transparency doesn’t really enter the picture. Granted, corporate executives are incentivized not to commit fraud or out and out lie – after all, that hurts the brand, revenues and the bottom line – but as long as they stay on the straight and narrow, they’re good to go. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty low bar.

For private companies, the bar is even lower. Business owners are still concerned with the same three things – at least they should be – but there are no disclosure rules for private companies. None. So communication is all about positioning strategy to achieve the best results, again while staying out of the courtroom and the crosshairs of the Federal Trade Commission.

And in politics, as I see it, the bar is still lower. The textbook example being President Obama’s pledge that his would be the most transparent administration in history. Meanwhile, in my opinion, his signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, was derived in a vacuum and shoved down the throats of the American people.

It’s ironic that Nancy Pelosi’s glib line, “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it,” would turn out to be the most transparent aspect of Obamacare.

We should either start holding leaders accountable or stop insisting they tell us what we want to hear. It’s one or the other.