By Tim Hayes

They say that sometimes the truth hurts.  But it’s been my experience that the truth does just the opposite.  It leads to some great professional moments.

Earlier in my career, I worked for a large company and served as the dedicated speechwriter to the president.  On occasion, he would need to travel to New York or Philadelphia or even Cleveland, if you can believe that, to speak to investor conferences and other such high-stakes audiences.

Development of these presentations included much interaction with the chief financial officer and the investor relations director, naturally, and those two gentlemen would travel with the president and me to these offsite venues.  I was there to take in any last-minute ideas and incorporate them into the boss’ remarks, while the CFO and IR guys were there to help prep him and answer audience questions following the presentation.

Invariably during the flight home, as we cracked open the box lunches on the corporate plane, the president would go around the horn and ask for feedback on his performance.  Typical responses from my counterparts included statements you might expect underlings to say to their superior.  “You sounded just great,” and “I think you hit all of your main points pretty well” filled the air as we jetted our way back to headquarters.

Then he got to me.

“Well, I think you ran out of gas about two-thirds of the way through,” I’d say.  “Because of that loss of energy, you didn’t really convey belief or conviction in this part of the talk, and they hit you with some tough reaction during the Q&A.  If you had worked a little harder to sustain your enthusiasm from the start of the presentation, I think you could have avoided that backfilling at the end.”

A pregnant pause would usually follow, as the two other guys chewed their sandwiches silently, looking for a way to inch their bolted-to-the-floor seats away from me, and waiting for the explosion from the boss.

An explosion that never, not once, happened.  This particular leader was wise enough and confident enough to accept honest criticism and coaching.  All he would say in reply to my no-candy-coated input was something like, “You know, you’re right.  We’ll have to work on that.  Thanks.”

Eventually, I left that organization for a new professional challenge.  After giving my two-week notice, I came into work on my final day there when my phone rang.  The president’s assistant asked if I could come up to talk with him.  I went upstairs and walked into his office.  He asked me to close the door – something he rarely did – and I sat down opposite him.

“So, I hear you’re leaving us,” he said.

“Yes, I want to try something new and a little different.”

“That’s great.  I wish you all the luck in the world.  I bet you’re wondering why I called you up here, though.”

“Well, I assumed you needed something written.”

“No, that’s not it.  I wanted to make sure I told you something before you left.”

What he said next remains quite possibly the finest, proudest moment of my professional life.

“Tim, I wanted to thank you.  You were the only person around here who I knew would always tell me the truth, and I wanted to make sure you knew that I have appreciated it.”

Leaders are so protected and safeguarded that they are desperate for honesty, truthfulness, sincere feedback and input.  When this man, for whom I had and still have the utmost respect, said those words, it changed my life.

The truth doesn’t hurt.  It can – and will, and does – set you free.

Copyright 2010 Transverse Park Productions LLC