Great Communicators Make Great Explainers (HBR)

In the months since Barack Obama has taken office, a curious thing has occurred in his communication style. He has toned down the rhetoric and geared up the details. As Don Baer who once worked for President Bill Clinton put it, Obama is now “the Great Explainer.”

In doing so, Obama is following in the tradition of a previous president, Franklin Roosevelt. At his best, Roosevelt, either on radio or to the press, took on the role of a trusted friend explaining things in simple terms so that anyone could understand them. For example, Roosevelt compared the U.S. program of Lend Lease to Britain in 1941 to a neighbor lending a garden hose to a neighbor trying to put out a house fire.

Explanation is a key attribute of leadership communications. Leaders know to inject their communications with verve and enthusiasm as a means of persuasion, but they also need to include an explanation for the excitement. What does it mean and why are we doing it are critical questions that every leader must answer with straightforward explanations. Here are three ways to become an effective explainer.

Define what it is. The purpose of an explanation is to describe the issue, the initiative, or the problem. For example, if you are pushing for cost reductions, explain why they are necessary and what they will entail. Put the cost reductions into the context of business operations. Be certain to explicate the benefits.

Define what it isn’t. Here is where the leader moves into the “never assume mode.” Be clear to define the exclusions. For example, returning to our cost reduction issue, if you are asking for reductions in costs, not people, be explicit. Otherwise employees will assume they are being axed. Leave no room for assumptions. This is not simply true for potential layoffs but for any business issue.

Define what you want people to do. This becomes an opportunity to issue the call for action. Establishing expectations is critical. Cost reductions mean employees will have to do more with less; explain what that will entail in clear and precise terms. Leaders can also use the expectations step as a challenge for people to think and do differently. Your explanation then takes on broader significance.

Good explainers need to be careful, however, not to overdo the details. In a town hall meeting format, the leader sketches the facts and supports them with data points. Dwelling too long on a single point, or points, risks not simply boring the audience but confusing them. Save detailed explanations, which are necessary, for written documentation or team meetings. The latter presents an opportunity for the next level of leaders to translate the communications into action steps.

As such, detailed explanations work well in face-to-face situations, or in team meetings. They become opportunities to elaborate on possibilities. More important, they also allow individuals to offer their feedback, something that typically cannot occur in large-scale town hall events. The explanation becomes an invitation for discussion, and skillful leaders use it to communicate not simply facts, but also to engage support for their ideas.

One final point. Explanations may include aspirations. On March 31, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt gave a briefing to Congress on his meeting with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta in which the future of post-War Europe was discussed.

During the course of his presentation to Congress, as H.W. Brands writes in a brilliant new biography of Roosevelt, Traitor to His Class, the President, only weeks from death, mused momentarily to talk about the need for enduring peace. “Twenty-five years ago, American fighting men [in reference to World War I] looked to the world to finish the work of peace for which they fought and suffered. We failed them then. We cannot fail them again.”

FDR, like all good leaders, knew how to close a good explanation with an equally good challenge; it puts people on notice and gives them a reason for action.

First posted on 6/22/2009

VIDEO: Write Your Own Eulogy

 An obituary is a recitation of facts embellished with stories. A eulogy is a song of praise to a life well led. It may be eloquent as well as humorous.

The lesson for leaders is to reflect on your life. Are you satisfied doing what you are doing now? Too often we are overwhelmed by the minutiae of the day, and it is hard to take a step back and gain perspective.

Such leaders lead by example, and they live their lives with a commitment to making a positive difference. They make their organizations better places to work, and they teach those around them what it means to live a full and rich life.

First posted on Smart Brief on 11/16/2012

Make the Place Proud of You (HBR)

There was an excited buzz in the room. By virtue of their animated conversations, it was obvious that these men and women, mostly in their forties, knew each other well. They were gathered for a graduation event, more than twenty intrepid souls who had completed a career transition program sponsored by Spark, a non-profit business development entity located in Southeast Michigan.

I had been invited to give the group a leadership pep talk. Some were intent on leaving jobs voluntarily; others had left involuntarily through downsizing; and all wanted to remain in Michigan to begin a new career.

As ruthlessly as the recession has gutted the global economy, few places have been as hard hit as Michigan. My state has been in recession since 2000. In other words, the bust that broke the dotcom boom never left. And so making a decision to remain here is either madness or commitment.

Looking at the men and women gathered that evening, I saw no signs of delusion. I saw determination and a commitment to make things better. What I told them can be reduced to a handful of pithy quotes that I shared with them.

“Do not let what you cannot do, interfere with what you can do.” The words are those of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach. When attempting to do anything new, voices inside us will whisper “No, don’t do it.” Those who give up listen to such voices; those who persevere pay them no heed. When it comes to making big and bold changes, either in our lives or our careers, there will always be those around us telling us no; it is up to us to heed our own inner yes.

“Talk does not cook rice.” As this Chinese proverb implies, you must do more than talk about what you want to do next; you have to take action to make it happen. As as author and management strategist Ram Charan teaches, large organizations fail not because of lack of good intention, but for lack of effective execution. The same applies to us. We fail to move from thinking and talking to acting.

“He who has no fire within himself cannot warm others.” You need to have passion for what you do, as this Swiss-German proverb advises. Otherwise no one will follow you. This is critical for anyone seeking to build a business or start a new career. You need to radiate a passion about what you do so that others can feel and share it with you. Entrepreneurs need passion to attract capital; job seekers need passion to convince employers of their worthiness.

As I came to the conclusion of my short speech, I could sense the audience was with me. Eyes were focused, some were even leaning forward, and one or two even took notes. And so in closing, I paused to share a quote that I had discovered in preparation for this presentation.

“I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.” As I uttered Lincoln’s words, a low sound of affirmation rose up from the group. These men and women sensed that Lincoln was speaking directly to them. Not only did they understand his intentions, they were living them. Each had made a commitment to their state, their locality to make it better; they hoped that their actions would make it a better place for their families, their communities, and themselves. That gave them pride. They were, as Lincoln said, seeking to make “the place be proud of” them.

That is the commitment that businesses in Michigan will need if they are to succeed. Judged by the guts and gumption of the men and women to whom I spoke, our state’s chances for recovery seemed just a bit brighter. Where there is will, there can be hope.

First posted on 6/29/2009

VIDEO: Patience Is a Virtue

Having trouble mastering patience?

Patience is a matter of control. I certainly do not possess it, but I do admire those who do. And as someone who likes to be in control, as do most executives with whom I work, control may open the window to developing greater levels of patience.

Boil it down to the maxim “Control what you can control and let the rest go.” We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it.

This video draws upon the work of Allan Lokos, author of “Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living.”Loko’s book is filled with many practical suggestions for how you can master patience.

First posted on Smart Brief on 11/30/2012

How to Collaborate with Your Contractors (HBR)

The other day a good friend of mine called to express the frustration he was feeling about working with his current IT vendor. My friend is in the pre-launch phase of an e-commerce start up and he was discouraged with the lack of progress the vendor is making. He was tempted to pull the plug on the project and award it to someone else. Entrepreneurs feeling frustrated with subcontractor work is nothing new. I know of another start-up executive who is expressing similar feelings about a manufacturing vendor.

While the problems entrepreneurs experience with vendors are different, there is a commonality. Many start-ups, and mature businesses too, are working with vendors who do not consider themselves to be collaborators; they are mere contractors. Collaborators feel ownership for their work; contractors just want to get the job done. The latter is not a problem for small projects, but when the contracted project is integral to the future of the enterprise, the contractor mentality will not do; the big project demands commitment.

Coaxing commitment from a contractor is not a straightforward proposition. The contractor is not part of your organization; you lack line authority over their employees. However, they are part of what many of us call the virtual organization and need to be treated as contributors. Otherwise, you are managing by checkbook rather than by commitment. Stirring commitment in any employee is a challenge but doing it for people who do not report or work for you is doubly difficult. But not impossible! Here are some suggestions for addressing the human equation in your supply chain.

Get people on board. When the contracted project is important, you want your employees to understand its impact on the organization. The same rule applies to your vendors. Communicate the significance of the project to the vendor principals, that is, those responsible for managing your project. Talk about what you hope to accomplish. Get their input into how to do it efficiently. Ask them how they want to be managed and how you can be a good client company for them. Dialogue lays the foundation for establishing trust.

Communicate for knowledge. Vendors need to keep their clients informed of progress. Establish regular communication points. For example, ask for an update via email every couple of days and a phone call once per week. Make a habit of meeting face to face occasionally. Clients might even want to spring for lunch or dinner. Doing so opens the door to open communication. Make it clear that you will not tolerate the withholding of bad news, but at the same time earn the trust of your supplier so they give you an honest appraisal of work to date.

Insist on accountability. Once the timeline is established, hold people to it. Correlate payments to project milestones. Easier said than done since many projects involving technical expertise are subject to slippage, not because the vendor did anything wrong but because the scope of the project changed. So a savvy manager will work with the vendor to incorporate the new parameters and pay them for work done to date and write a change order for new work. Open communication is essential; it is fundamental to keeping the project rolling forward.

Sometimes it does become necessary to seek another vendor. The current vendor may not have the capability or the capacity to deliver on the agreed specifications. And so you must part ways. While this may incur some cost, it is not as difficult (at least emotionally) as terminating an employee. You are terminating a contract, not a person.

Working collaboratively with your vendor is becoming more essential in our downsized economy. Core competencies are retained but everything else is subject to outsourcing. This creates great opportunities based on excellence. That is, the company and vendor both focus on what each does best. Suppliers are free to hawk their services to a broader customer base and in the process grow their businesses. Paying attention the human equation in the supply chain is vital; ignoring it will only lead to missed deadlines, overblown budgets, and missed market opportunities.

First posted on 6/29/2009

VIDEO: A Pocket Guide for Leaders

In this post, John Baldoni discusses his book, “The Leader’s Pocket Guide: 101 Indispensable Tools, Tips and Techniques for Any Situation” and what leaders can learn from it.

Before you can lead others, you must learn to lead yourself. Yet, those tasked with leadership roles must discover what their people — and their companies — respond to as they go. “The Leader’s Pocket Guide”provides concise, on-the-job expertise to inspire and direct readers on their professional journey.

Organized into three easy-reference sections — “Self,” “Colleagues” and “Organization” — the book supplies tactical tips and contains a handbook for creating an action plan for achieving purposeful results.

First posted on SmartBrief on 12/12/2012

What Nonprofits Teach Us about Leadership (HBR)

The recession that has staggered the world economy has leveled the nonprofit world. Endowments have lost significant value, and donations from corporations and private citizens have dwindled. But dealing with hard times is nothing new to many in the nonprofit sector. Well-run nonprofits know how to be frugal as well as creative in how they work with limited resources.

A core competency of the nonprofit world is people, men and women who are committed to a cause who know how to get effective results. A virtue of effective nonprofits is their culture; it extends beyond a gathering of like-minded people who want to do good; it is a generative culture that focuses on learning.

Recently I asked Stephen Gill, a colleague and consultant who has worked a good part of his career with the nonprofit sector, three questions about the value of creating a learning culture. This is a topic that Steve has written about in his newest book, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations.

Organizations are cutting resources and headcount. Why is it important for an organization to create a learning culture?
“It is precisely because they are cutting resources and headcount that organizations, nonprofit and for-profit, must find ways to be more efficient and effective with what they have… To maximize productivity they need to be continuously learning. They must learn what they should be doing, how they can do it better, and how they will know when they have achieved the results they want…This means making information feedback, reflection, and knowledge-sharing part of the way they function on a day-to-day basis… Doing more of the same, even if slightly better, is not the answer.”

What can the for-profit world learn from the nonprofit world about establishing a learning culture?
“Nonprofits tend to be values-driven. They are concerned about the beliefs and motivations of their employees. This means that these organizations ask themselves questions such as: Are we doing what we ought to be doing in the way we ought to be doing it? What’s the impact on our communities and is that the kind of impact we want? Are our actions aligned with our values? In a learning culture, these questions are asked constantly. For-profit organizations should be asking these questions more often. They would have greater employee satisfaction and engagement and they would be better corporate citizens.”

What is a key take away from your book that has relevance to a manager seeking to navigate hard times?
“This is no time to do nothing about improvement. Even when the economy turns around, it is no time to be doing business as usual. Rapid change will continue and unless organizations are continuously learning they will not be able to sustain themselves. They need feedback and they need to reflect on that feedback and turn that learning into action. What better time than now? A no-growth mode gives managers the time and rationale to focus the organization on the collective discovery, sharing, and application of new knowledge. This is critical for emerging from hard times and managing the economic upturn that is inevitable.”

Fundamental to a learning culture is measuring impact, something in which Gill specializes. He has spent a good part of his long career helping organizations assess their learning and measure the effectiveness of their training programs. One evaluation tool included in his book features three essential questions that would be useful for any executive to use when gauging the effectiveness of any project. The questions are: one, what issues do we still have; two, how can we strengthen our organization based on what we know; and three, what challenges lie ahead. Answers to such questions can lead to honest evaluation of progress.

Next generation organizations will continue to evolve in response to the dynamic nature of bringing people together to work. Central to future success will depend on how well the organization can adapt and innovate. Those competencies will depend on creating a learning culture.

First posted on 7/02/2009

VIDEO: The Art of Leading Your Peers

Peer leadership requires conviction that the person in charge is one whom you trust and are willing to follow even though that person has no authority over you. So why believe?

Leading those who can say “no” to you is always a huge challenge, but if you can convince them by your actions and your enthusiasm, then they might believe in what you are doing.

First posted on SmartBrief on 1/04/2013

How to Stay Creative Under Pressure (HBR)

Sergio Marchionne has lit a fire under Chrysler that is providing a spark of hope to the ailing automaker. From media reports, it seems that the Fiat team under Marchionne’s leadership is shaking up the place the way another Italian (albeit American) did a generation ago, Lee Iacocca.

As a hands-on manager, Marchionne expects his direct reports to meet with him regularly, which they can do face to face at Chrysler or via video conference. He also has ditched the executive suite for the engineering trenches so he can be closer to the action. Marchionne is to be commended for keeping the loop tight enough that executives can keep each other informed. But there is there is a price to pay. Marchionne, according to the Wall Street Journal, he expects his executives to be in the office as he is six or seven days a week “for the foreseeable future.”

Creating urgency to save a sinking ship is imperative. Working long hours to do so is also critical, but working day after day for months on end without a break is a bad idea. When a team is crashing on a deadline, pulling together can be energizing. But when there is no deadline in sight, the long hours exact vengeance in the form of loss of energy as well as diminished commitment. Managers do not become more creative by working harder; they burnout more quickly. You need give people a break from the day to day flow of work. Here are some suggestions for sustaining productivity under fire.

Set standards. The team leader must make it clear that during the crisis people are expected to assume a greater work load. The leader sets the example by taking more than his fair share of the work. Part of that work means being there for his team. At the same time, the leader does not need to decide how individuals must work. Often employees can decide how best to do their jobs. For example, mandatory meetings are fine, but every meeting need not be mandatory.

Get a buddy. One way to work smarter is to do what I have seen efficient organizations do. Team up with a co-worker to cover for you, not simply on vacations but also during times you will be out of the office. If your buddy is junior to you, then it can be a development opportunity. The leader can also buddy with a colleague or boss to stand in for him, too. Many organizations preach team as in collaboration but too few take advantage of treating teammates as partners. You can do more when individuals work together.

Mandate fresh air time. Get out of the office from time to time. This can be as simple as going out for lunch, or taking a walk in the afternoon. Clock time in the gym, too. Fitness is essential for tackling a heavy workload. The leader also sets the tone by making time for himself. When the team sees the boss taking a break (mental or physical), it gives the team permission to do likewise. Without the leader’s example, no one will follow through on making time for self.

Clocking long hours is not reserved for the corporate suite. Working in government, or even in the highest office in the land — the White House — can be grueling. President Obama vowed to make his administration family friendly, but as his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel quips, “It’s friendly to your [Obama] family.” As a result many staffers, as reported in the New York Times, are feeling stressed chiefly because they miss time with their families. Continued long stretches of working extraordinary hours will cause talented people to leave early.

Taking breaks is not the same as doing business as usual. It is an acknowledgement that people are your most valuable resource. They need rest and relaxation as well as an opportunity to reconnect with their families. Rather than diminish urgency, it heightens it. Getting outside of the bubble of work allows the mind and body to recharge and be better prepared to face the gauntlet of challenges that lie ahead.

First posted on 7/06/2009