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"Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity: whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is...afraid of going into the water." Friedrich Nietzsche

The leader's job is to clarify the depths for their businesses, to reveal the dangers, to illuminate the opportunities... to inspire people to dive into the deep end with them. But all too often, the "crowd" clings uncertainly at the edge because their leaders do not know how to communicate effectively. As John Hamm writes "If you want to know why so many organizations sink into chaos, look no further than their leaders' mouths." The question is: will your mouth cause your business to sink - or swim?

Swim: Start By Not Sinking

In "The 5 Messages Leaders Must Manage" leadership coach John Hamm argues that leaders erode their own efforts - and efficacy - by issuing "unclear vague roller-coaster pronouncements."

Don't think you could possibly be the source for such ambiguous statements? Consider this: even in companies with "clearly articulated public strategies," less than a third (29%) of employees can identify their company's strategy. Their core strategy. Their very reasons for being.

The reality is that when leaders say strategy, when they say organizational structure, when they say results, or culture, or priorities, they believe everyone shares the same definitions. As a result of these erroneous assumptions, Kotter writes, "your team will move slowly and defensively rather than swiftly and proactively. Worst of all, they might be off and running, applying valuable energy in the wrong direction."

Head in the Right Direction

Hamm outlines the five major areas of communication that leaders most frequently manage to muck up. Provide clarity here, and you can help your people pull together, develop shared understanding, and create better results.

Mistake #1: Failing to Take "Definitional Control" of Organization - and Reorganization

Is your organizational chart a rigid, unyielding structure? If so, any hint of "reorganization" will strike dread - and the compulsion for politicking - into the hearts of your people. Hamm writes, "[W]hen the corporate structure is changing, the org chart can truly become fearsome" particularly in politically-charged cultures.

This was the case when Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, decided the tech giant needed a "top-to-bottom reshuffling." She hinted around, approached the reorg cautiously - and inadvertently created an atmosphere of anxiety and fear. Productivity and motivation plummeted well before the official announcement (and after).

On the other hand, when you treat the structure and hierarchy as a "flexible map of accountability for action, and thus, results," you can allay fear and create buy-in for change initiatives. A CEO of a small software company, for instance, gathered his team and said:

[W]e're in a war for market share. I get paid to win it, and so do you. But right now I don't think we're properly configured to win the particular battle we're fighting, so I'm changing the structure of resources so that we can execute more effectively. Most of you will continue to do the jobs you're doing now, but you may have a different supervisor.

No fear, no panic, no politics. The organizational structure became a means by which to produce optimal results - not an indicator of individual status. The difference: communication and clarity versus secrecy and speculation.

Mistake #2: Using Financial Results as a Weapon

You say, "We need to focus on our promised results." Your executive team hears, "We need to achieve these results by any means necessary." Hamm describes a CEO who was aggressively committed to "results"; so, in order to achieve the targets, his sales force inflated its figures by stuffing the channel. The company was forced to accept massive write-downs and profits stalled. Not exactly the results the leader wanted.

He lost sight of the connection between "employee behavior and results," (i.e. what people will do if they feel that results must come by any means necessary) and did not leverage learning opportunities to help his people succeed.

Hamm contrasts this style with that of CEO John Adler. When his team didn't hit a target, he asked questions; he encouraged them to learn and to apply lessons to the future. Instead of using results as a weapon or a whip, Adler used them as a diagnostic tool. This is the way you build long-term value for your organization.

Mistake #3: Being the Answer Man or Woman

The leader's role can be a significant source of confusion - both for employees and the leader him or herself. Too often, we fall into the trap of believing we have to be the one with all the answers. As Michael Dell said, "Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people...or find a different room."

Being the smartest person in the room puts leaders "in a very lonely, isolated position where information becomes unreliable and useful input is stifled."

Effective leaders, on the other hand, bring out the answers in others. They "understand that their role is to ask great questions, and they know that the answers can be found as long as employees feel safe offering them. Accordingly, the entire team moves the company forward."

Separate your ego from your job, and bring out the greatness in your people. And if you're the smartest one in every room you enter, it's time to reassess your hiring strategy - or your self-image.

Mistake #4: Letting Time Manage You

"When the CEO gives employees the message that time is the boss, the "to-do list" mentality can easily subsume important goals." Hamm describes one CEO who felt that time was the enemy; his attitude created anxiety in his people. When every minute of every day is like the final 4 seconds of the big game when you're down 2 points, it does a number to your productivity - and your blood pressure.

Contrast this with Mark King's approach to time. Rather than the enemy, it's a tool to be strategically utilized. The TaylorMade CEO wanted to introduce a line of innovative golf clubs on the company's 25th anniversary.

As his engineers and marketers toiled, King realized that there simply wasn't enough time. Rather than breathing down their necks and creating a frantic environment, he adjusted his goal. They'd introduce one club and release the rest later. The result: a multimillion-dollar line that the golf world loves. And time as an ally instead of adversary.

Time isn't the enemy. It's a neutral force. It's up to you to send the message that it can be used strategically.

Mistake #5: Decreeing Culture

"Our culture is fun, vibrant, and innovative." Great - but saying doesn't make it so! Hamm writes, "CEOs who fail to define success and communicate their vision of it, and fail to make their expectations clear to employees, produce meaningless cultures."

The only way to create a culture that encourages high-performance and results is to:

  • Hire the right people. (Hire for fit.)
  • Require employees to align behavior with the values of your company.
  • Implement processes that allow your organization to succeed in the marketplace.

You can do none of this by simply declaring what your culture is. You need to ensure that people understand what you mean by "culture," and how they should live that definition. When you do this, your people will "come to work with a fire inside them, a result of clearly stated leadership and business practices that everyone explicitly understands."

Learning From Your Mistakes

That's the key: ensuring that everyone (including you) explicitly understands the messages that leave your mouth. As a leader, you do not get the luxury of trivial comments. When you learn how to communicate effectively, you can guarantee that every communication is clear and facilitates better results. In the depths of complexity, strive for clarity. Always.


Larry Hart

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