Monday, October 28, 2013

You Gave the Message But Did They Get It?: Why the Messages Leaders Give Often Don’t Get Through to Their People

Today we have a guest blog from Lauren Owen:

“I can’t believe he didn’t follow up on the request I sent. I thought my email was really clear.”

“But we had a meeting on this very topic and we all agreed on the action steps. I’d say only half the people who were at that meeting did what we talked about!”

“I don’t understand why people are still confused about our mission. We just had an all-company meeting where we announced our new mission statement at the beginning of the year.”

The above statements are familiar to anyone who has ever been a leader, worked for or with a leader. It’s certainly a common theme in many of the CEO peer groups and leadership workshops we’ve led.

As leaders, we think we’ve been clear: we sent the message out, by email, phone conference, meeting, or any number of methods, and……nothing happens. Or, something happens but it’s sure not what we thought it would be. Or, we find out people’s actual interpretation of the message is way off from our intention.

Are we, as leaders, simply bad at telling people what we want? Are people really so unwilling or obtuse? While both of these reasons might be true in some situations, we believe other factors are at work.

First, a story that illustrates my point. When Urs and I lead workshops, we usually start with an opening exercise that is designed to help participants warm up and relates to the day’s topic.

One of our favorite exercises for leadership workshops is this: we arrange participants in a close circle and have one of them start out by naming something in a classification, such as a type of car, for example, “Honda”. The kick-off person points to someone else in the circle and says “Honda”. Then that person in turn comes up with another type of car, for example, “Toyota”. This second person then points to another person and says “Toyota”. This goes on until each person has come up with a unique car name and told it to another person in the group until the circle is completed.

For each pattern, “cars” in this example, the same person says the same car name to the same person each time we repeat the pattern. We practice this pattern until the group can get through it quickly.  It seems pretty easy until we add another pattern, for example, city names, only this time with different people giving different city names to different team members at the same time they are also working through the car pattern. Then we might add a third (and different) pattern to the mix.

Although we initially instruct each person in the circle that they are responsible for ensuring that their “receivers” gets the “word” (the name of the car or city) each time, inevitable once we add more than one pattern, for example cars plus cities plus states, one or more of the patterns breaks down: names of cities and states and car types start flying, sometimes two or three at one time and we eventually lose a pattern.

It’s only after we stop and then restart several times that most groups get into the swing of things and can handle several patterns going through at once without dropping a round.  And it’s really only after we remind everyone that they are responsible for making sure their “receiving” partners really “get” the word, in this case, by deliberate hand gestures, eye contact and body language, repeating the word if necessary until they actually see their partner ‘get’ it, that the patterns start to flow quickly and completely through the entire circle.
So, besides getting people laughing, energized, and synapses firing, how does this relate to good leadership communication?

As leaders, we need to take responsibility for ensuring our team members “get” the messages we are giving. In our warm up exercise: what gets in the way of people getting our messages? Multiple messages sent at the same time, people not paying attention, people dumping and running on to the next thing while assuming/hoping that the message(s) that they gave got through to their teammates. Hmmm, what does this remind you of? A typical work environment for many of us! THIS IS VERY NICE!

For leaders, how might our behaviors change if we truly took responsibility for people “getting” what we are “giving”?

For one thing, we’d tell our messages multiple times in multiple ways. We might hold one on ones, followed up with an email or even follow up meeting. (Research backs up the efficacy of this multiple times, multiple methods approach). Click here to se Urs’ article on this very point.
We’d get over our fear of “redundancy” and concern that we are bothering people with repeated messages because we know it’s more effective. Patrick Lencioni, author of the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage, says the best number of times for a leader to communicate something is not just a couple --  it’s seven.  “It was reported, employees won't believe a leader's message until they've heard it seven times. Whether the real number is five or fifty-five does not matter, the message is – people are skeptical about what they hear unless they hear it repeatedly over time”. This is especially true as your organization grows in size and complexity.

  • Before we ended any meeting, we’d ask each person present for their understanding of the action items discussed. We’d follow up with emails that detail the action step, person responsible and completion date.
  • We’d figure out different ways to communicate the same message: one-on-one, email, conference call, team and company-wide meetings.
  • Just like in our warm up exercise, you can give someone an instruction but there’s no guarantee they are going to get it until they actually try it out. How can we build in more “try outs” and post action debriefs when we are trying something new?
  • We’d come up with ways to “test” people on their understanding of especially important messages such as company mission and values and we’d keep the discussion going. (Ideally we would include them in the development of these from the get go.)

Sounds like a lot of work? You bet, but likely not compared to the money, time and energy wasted from assuming people were taking the correct action when they weren’t.
I once had a very wise boss who said (many times!), “It’s a constant passing parade out there and you need to make sure you get your message across to each one as it goes by.”


Lauren Owen, Redpoint Succession and Leadership Coaching

Lauren works with businesses leaders who want to develop and execute succession plans, sharpen their business practices, strengthen their leadership, and create long-lasting value in their businesses. She is a certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Leadership Coach. She is also a leader of the Excell Puget Sound Southend Group.

(206) 427-2856, (253) 245.3518

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Building Strong Teams

Today we have a guest blog from Earl Bell:

Top performing companies have highly functioning teams.  If you want business outcomes to improve dramatically in your company, build an action plan based on the idea that employees are NOT created equal.  

To begin the journey of creating highly functioning teams, start by taking time to separate employees into three categories:

1. Actively Disengaged:  This group hinders your company in a big way.  They are disruptive to customers, vendors, or co-workers.  If you were evil and wanted to destroy a strong company, its culture and values, you'd look for these people as your go-to individuals.

2. Going through the motions:  Most employees fall into this category  They are comfortable with and competent in their work, show up and participate when asked, but could be accurately described as biding their time until something better comes along.

3. Actively engaged:  These employees are passionate about their work and strive to improve dramatically the experiences of customers and co-workers, transforming ordinary results into extraordinary outcomes. 

Now that you’ve segregated employees into three categories, let’s discuss next steps:

1. Actively disengaged: Take a moment and add up the total compensation and benefits you are paying to actively disengage employees.  Then add to that the spillover costs resulting from customers who decide to buy from a competitor along with high performing employees who leave your company seeking a better working environment.  Now ask yourself, "How long am I willing to continue paying the cost of employing these actively disengaged individuals?"  My advice is to stop it and get rid of those who are cancerous to your company.  Until challenged, many CEOs won't do this - they will have all kinds of reasons to maintain the status quo.  Remember, there is a cost for doing nothing...

2. Going through the motions:  Invest the time to lead and inspire these employees to become actively engaged.  Building a healthy company culture is most important.  In addition, clarifying how the employee is important to the company's success, and then providing recognition and reward when they behave and preform in ways consistent with desired company culture and goals can build active engagement in short time.

3. Actively engaged:  What are you doing to attract and retain key performers?  What is your plan?  Is it effective?  What needs to change? What needs to stay the same?

Big picture -  the goal is simple.  Weed out disengaged employees while inspiring remaining employees to become or remain actively engaged.  The results will astound you!  My challenge to you is simple... "What will you do this week to begin the journey of building strong teams in your business?"


EARL BELL is the author of, Winning in Baseball and Business, Transforming Little League Principles into Major League Profits for Your Company, which provides a roadmap to success for leaders that desire to build thriving companies in a very competitive 21st century business environment.  Earl believes that “everything you need to know about business, leadership and team building can be learned from Little League baseball.”

Earl coaches and consults with owners, business leaders and their teams, teaching them how to dramatically reduce the time it takes to improve profitability, customer experience, employee engagement and company value, while simultaneously increasing discretionary time and reducing both stress/employee burnout.  He believes the secret to winning in baseball, business and life can be summarized in a simple formula:  Winning = Service + Humility.  His motto is that Winning in Business is a Team Sport!

Earl has served in the Chief Financial Officer role for numerous companies throughout North America. His personal passion is youth sports and he has coached 28 teams since 2002.  Earl is a CPA, graduated from SU (Seattle University) with a BA in Accounting and from the MILL (Mercer Island Little League) with a Master’s in Youth Baseball.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Showing urgency while moving slowly

In case you are wondering, my golf game is showing steady positive progress.  I am pretty consistently in the eighties (my goal for this year).  I played twice last week.  My first game was a scramble with three other golfers (in a scramble, you choose the best ball hit and each of you hits from that place).  I did not add much to the team.  I was mystified… what had happened to my game?  Then on Sunday, I had a wonderful outing at a tough course and scored an 89.  What was the difference? 

Pretty simple… In the scramble, I was focused on the result.  I lost my presence.  On Sunday, I slowed my swing and was in the moment for 75-80 of the 89 strokes I took. 

My point?  It is the same in business, for many of us.  We race to a goal.  Get that RFP in, make sure it is edited well and is our best shot at getting the business.  We race to a meeting having half prepared.  We don’t catch the tone of a supervisor who is coming to us with a problem.  When some minutes, days, or weeks later, we reflect and wonder what happened, it is rare that an executive can pinpoint what went wrong or where. 

So, here is your answer…. Pay attention to each moment.  Don’t rush.  Instead, build in travel time to meetings, be prepared to say to someone who approaches you, I want to really hear what you have to say, can it wait until ____ (a specific time)? 

We can show urgency by living in confusion (what went wrong) or by building in ways to strengthen our performance and increase the likelihood that we will achieve the results we say we want. 

How do you stay present?  What do you do to slow your swing and hit that great shot?