Executives who only look and sound the part risk being nothing more than talking heads, warns LinkedIn's CEO.
Many years ago, prior to joining LinkedIn, I attended an all-hands where a senior executive was addressing our team. The executive knew the company, was well-respected, and was an excellent public speaker — essentially all of the raw materials necessary to motivate the audience to take action.
On this particular day, the exec was rolling out a new way of thinking about the business. He detailed four new operating “pillars” for the company — all being added to several previously established operating priorities. Operators, in other words, now had to be focused on these additional dimensions when thinking about key initiatives. One of those new pillars was globalization. He wanted managers to develop products, services, and go-to market strategies with an international mindset from day one, and not as a reactive effort requiring expensive retrofits.
In theory, all of this was perfectly reasonable. The reality would prove otherwise.
About six months later, after little material progress had been made on our globalization efforts, the same executive asked me for candid feedback, wondering aloud why we had accomplished so little as an organization on this front despite the clarity of the message at that initial event. I responded with something akin to the following:
“We rolled out four new dimensions on top of seven previously communicated priorities, thus creating essentially 28 different initiatives. While the determination of the seven priorities was a highly collaborative effort, and subsequently well-received, none of the new dimensions and the implications of adding those to the priorities were previously socialized or vetted with the people responsible for executing them. There was no stack ranking of the pillars and their intersection with the priorities. There were no measurable objectives communicated that would enable us to track results. The overlay of the pillars created an entirely new set of inter-dependencies between teams, without any guidance on how to navigate those new relationships or time to create the right connective tissue. No additional process was put in place enabling us to report out on progress, identify blockers, and work together to resolve critical issues.
[Long pause, big smile]
What could possibly go wrong?”
In retrospect, I could have summarized the entire discussion by saying, “As a senior executive, just because you said it, doesn’t make it so.”
I have come back to this anecdote countless times since, not only sharing the experience with leaders on my team so that they can avoid similar outcomes, but constantly reminding myself of the same. It’s a hard lesson to learn. After all, as senior executives, most of us are wired to believe that if we say it, the team will just naturally execute it exactly as we had envisioned.
If management were only that simple.
We all need to be wary of avoiding the Ron Burgundy syndrome: On the surface, looking and sounding the part, but without providing the right discipline, focus, and ongoing context, appearing as nothing more than a talking head.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned to help prevent myself from falling into this all too familiar trap:
Repetition, repetition, repetition
As an adviser to four different Presidents of both parties, including Reagan and Clinton, David Gergen is widely recognized as a world-renown expert on the subject of effectively communicating key messages. In his book “Eyewitness to Power,” in which he chronicles his time spent in the White house, he wrote, “History teaches that almost nothing a leader says is heard if spoken only once.”
A former colleague of mine described it this way: In order to effectively communicate to an audience, you need to repeat yourself so often that you grow sick of hearing yourself say it, and only then will people begin to internalize the message. It was an extremely valuable insight and one I’ve employed countless times since (repeating it so often, I now simply refer to the dynamic as “David Gergening” the message.)
Simplify the narrative
Simply put, we are the stories that we tell. When communicating important new messages, try thinking of it as introducing a new narrative. The simpler, more relevant, and more inspirational, the more likely it is to resonate with its intended audience.
Also, be aware of the number of objectives, priorities, themes, etc. that you’ve been communicating over time. With greater success comes greater scope and complexity. This will inevitably lead to a larger number of important narratives that need to be shared with the team. Yet, people can only grok so many things at once. Try consolidating. Even more importantly, periodically and systematically try taking things off the list (note, this is much easier said then done).
The fewer things you need to communicate, the more likely people will be to internalize the message, align themselves accordingly, and achieve success.
Explain the why
Regardless of how senior you are, and how much authority you wield, just saying it won’t magically make it happen. Your audience is busy (if not overwhelmed) by their own work. In order to get them to take notice, and far more importantly, change behavior, it’s essential you provide the context behind your message: Why is this particular initiative so important? Why is it a higher priority than what the team is currently working on? Why is it a better strategy than the one already in place?
After explaining, it’s equally critical that the team feels heard on the subject, particularly if they disagree. Seek to understand. By virtue of how close they are to the work, more often than not they’ll have a unique perspective that helps shape your own. The resulting conclusion will be that much more effective because you developed it together.
Eliminate the Rashomon Effect
Have you ever been in a meeting with four other people, thought you reached a shared conclusion and set of next steps, only to find later that all five of you left with a completely different understanding of what transpired? If so, you are not alone. Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa popularized the concept in his film “Rashomon,” which told the story of a tragic event seen through the unique perspective of four different participants (the same film technique would later be used in countless other films and television shows).
The film captured a simple yet powerful tenet of human nature: We all have our own unique way of interpreting the events taking place around us. Understanding this dynamic is critical to ensuring the team is on the same page following important discussions. Specifically, after making an important point or communicating a key action item, try asking attendees to play back what they heard. If you’re not on the same page, make sure to course correct in real-time.
Also, ask someone to take notes at the meeting. The goal is not to capture every word, but rather to summarize, codify, and distribute key conclusions to ensure everyone in attendance (and ultimately those that didn’t attend but who are reliant on the information discussed) has a shared understanding of what was discussed and what’s expected going forward.
Make the team’s priority your own
We’re all familiar with the adage, “If you want something done you need to do it yourself.” While easy to pejoratively interpret as a rallying cry for micro-managers, it can also be positively applied to prioritizing the work yourself and leading from the front. Said another way, “If you want something done, you need to make it your own priority first.” When the team hears a particular initiative is important to you, and sees you spending the resources and managerial cycles to make it successful, more often than not they’ll follow your example.
Beware the last page of the power point deck
Be wary when that key theme you thought you had clearly prioritized repeatedly shows up as the last page of the power point deck. More often than not, it’s there to check a box and appease the person who asked for it, and not because the author believes it’s important. Same thing applies when asking for a specific date on a critical action item only to hear there is no set date, but “It’s on the road map.” These are tell-tale signs that you and the team are not on the same page regarding prioritization.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of these responses, rather than mistakenly assume the work is getting done, take the time to ask questions about where the disconnect is arising, re-align efforts, and ensure everyone is on the same page. If all goes well, six months later, you and the team will be celebrating a needle-moving win rather than trying to figure out what went wrong.