Barry Barlow | Crain's Washington D.C.

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Barry Barlow

Background:  

Based in Chantilly, Va., Vencore is a defense contractor that’s provided the U.S. government with information solutions, engineering and analytics for more than 40 years.

The Mistake:

Fairly early in my government career, I was working at the precursor to the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and was about to give a presentation to the director of the agency. The question he wanted answered had to do with a particular system we were developing, and the people who were senior to me had a preconceived notion about what they thought he wanted to hear. So we put the presentation together. But when we went in to brief him, I almost never got off slide one because he didn’t feel as though I had done my due diligence. I couldn't really defend the decisions either, because I felt the same way—that this was not the best course of action. There were other things we should have considered, but we sort of short-circuited the analysis.

The general ended up making us go through the entire presentation, and he shot down every bullet on every page. He was pretty much making a point that “you are not going to come in here and tell me what I want to hear. You are going to come in here and tell me what I need to hear.” He used the situation as a teachable moment—and he did it publicly. There were about 30 other executives in the briefing room at that time, but no one else spoke up because it was almost as if this was a conversation between only me and him, in public, to make a point.

You should always speak truth to power.

The Lesson:

Don’t be afraid of telling the truth to someone who’s above you. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear, when you believe in your heart that that’s not really the answer. You should always speak truth to power.

At the time, I think, I felt like I was too junior to trust my instincts. If this is what the boss wants, I thought, then that’s what we should do. But by not giving him the valuable input that he was paying for, we ended up having to redo the work and give the presentation again. Basically, we had to say that everything we had told him before was wrong. It wasted both his time and our time, and it reduced our credibility. Walking out of the briefing room that day, I thought “I’ll never do this again.”

Follow Vencore on Twitter at @vencoreinc

Photo courtesy of Vencore​