Are you afraid to be articulate and clear?

Would you stay on an airplane that was about to take-off if the pilot said the following as part of their pre-flight announcement:

This is your captain speaking. We are about to take off, we’re just waiting for the fuel truck to finish refueling us. They had an issue with fuel earlier on, but I am confident they’ll give us enough fuel for our flight… In addition, as you can see the weather isn’t great out there. Nevertheless, we have a strong aircraft that can withstand the storm, let’s just hope we don’t encounter any lightning…”

Would you put your brain, heart, eyes or any part of your body under the knife of a surgeon who came across in your pre-surgery consultation as lacking clarity, rigor, knowledge or confidence?

I don’t believe you would tolerate any level of approximate or vague measures when your life is at stake. You would want absolute clarity, precision, and transparency.

So, why do we tolerate so much vagueness and lack of clear, explicit and rigorous conversations in business?

This may sound strange to you, but one of the reasons teams find it so hard to drive alignment, ownership and effective collaboration in important strategies and plans is because people simply don’t speak plain English.

I don’t mean that people don’t speak the English language. I mean that people in corporations tend to talk about important things in a conceptual, vague, unclear and convoluted corporate language.

To say it politely, there are too many professional slogans, acronyms, and other jargon, shortcut phrases, and noun-type words and too little plain-old direct, explicit and articulate conversations. I see this dynamic all over the globe.

For example, people say things like: ‘We want to be Best in Class‘, but it is hard to tell if that means ‘best among their peers in the industry’, ‘best among other teams in their company’ or ‘much better than they are today’?

Or, people say: “We need to upgrade our talent”, but do they mean to fire the poor performers, hire new people, train everyone, improve specific systems and tools, or all of the above?

Phrases such as: “operational excellence”, “customer excellence” and/or “enablement” what do they mean??! You may jump and say: “I know what these mean!”. However, I assure you that if I asked another 10 people around you they most likely would have 10 different takes.

Everyone assumes that everyone else understands what is said and what it meant. However, more often than not that is completely not the case.

Then everyone goes off to do things in their own way, and then people wonder why not all team members are aligned, on board and owning the strategy and rowing in the same direction.

There is a big difference between plain language and corporate language. The latter is a language of high-level, implicit and vague clarity.

You would think that with so much at stake within the business world people would want to leave nothing to chance. However, experience shows that leaders actually prefer to leave declarations, commitments, promises and expectations at a general and vague level.

It enables them to stay off the hook and eases the pressure of committing to things unequivocally. After all, if you define things too clearly it becomes crystal clear what you’re saying, what you stand for, what you are committing to, and what you are accountable for. But, if you leave things more general it gives you wiggle room, especially when facing adversity.

At the core, it’s not a language issue. It is a commitment issue.

So often when supporting teams in creating their strategic plan I listen to the dialogue and even though I am not an expert in their field I can immediately tell that their inability to converse in plain language is hindering their ability to think, create and articulate thoughts and ideas effectively.

Simply by asking: “So, what do you mean by that?” everyone realizes that different people have different assumptions and interpretations about what is being said and what it could mean.

My questions are often met with a blank stare or a long-winded response, which only further illuminates the lack of clarity. In other times, I get a barrage of different, sometimes even opposing responses from different team members, which again emphasizes the point.

People seem to be so entrenched in the conceptual noun-based language-style used in PowerPoint presentations that they seem unable to move away from this style when conversing and interacting face-to-face.

The typical corporate language is sufficient for perpetuating the ordinary and status quo. However, if you have bolder ambitions in mind of being extraordinary – the ‘best of the best’ and/or taking your game to a new level, you better challenge the vague corporate language norm and start promoting and demanding a new level of simple, straightforward and rigorous dialogue.


Stop stating the obvious and start stating your stand!

I was attending a senior Executive team meeting where the topic of the discussion was consolidating the roles and responsibilities of a few key functions in the company in order to drive greater scale, efficiency and cost reduction.

The company was commercially successful. However, it was struggling to keep its historical leading market position in the growing competitive landscape, given its high-cost structure.

There were layoffs a few months earlier and the leader’s projection showed that if they didn’t come up with more efficient and wise ways to do more with less, they would have to do it again.

Needless to say, the stakes were high as the company had to shed some overhead cost and come up with new and more modern and innovative ways of doing what they had done in the same way for many years.

Because of the strategic importance of this decision and the fact that it would affect everyone the CEO wanted his senior leaders to fully align on, and own the way forward, in order to avoid problems in the execution of this drastic change.

The discussion was challenging and awkward. Even though most leaders had clear thoughts and biases about how they wanted the new organizational structure to look, everyone was holding back and conveying their thoughts in a diplomatic and cautious way.

There was a lot of:

Well, the problem is that each of us has strong exposure and contact with our key customers…” or,

The problem is that we all do this today, and we all are good at this…” or,

We need to figure out a way to take the good things from the existing structure without the bad things…”  etc.

People kept highlighting the challenges and dilemmas instead of clearly stating their thoughts about how they believed the new structure should look.

The conversations dragged on for hours. It was ineffective and, to be frank, it was painfully exhausting.

Unfortunately, I see this conversational dynamic in key business conversations and meetings all the time – people state the obvious instead of taking a stand about the way forward.

There are no right or wrong answers and solutions to any business challenges, only possibilities/opportunities, and choices. Things change so quickly these days. There are so many examples of events we were certain would happen that ended up not happening and things we never imagined or anticipated that did happen.

The role of any leadership team is to make – sometimes hard – choices and then be responsible for carrying them out. That is what taking a stand is about.

Real leadership requires courage to take a stand.

Most of the time, leaders have good ideas and thoughts about how to drive the change they want. They simply are afraid that if they clearly state their stand about critical and sensitive topics that impact other people around them their boldness may come back to bite them. The key fears seem to include:

  1. Their idea may not get selected,
  2. Their ideas may get selected and then fail,
  3. They may be viewed as ‘forceful’, ‘self-serving’, ‘political’ or having a personal agenda.
  4. They may be viewed as picking sides or favoring other leaders.

The phrase ‘Career limiting move’ comes to mind…

But, if you want things to move faster, your meetings to be briefer and more productive and your experience of day-to-day business interaction to be much more powerful and satisfying, then be more courageous, clear and assertive about the future you want and stand for.

Just don’t get too attached to your answer, especially if you are part of a team. Someone else’s ideas may be a better fit for what the team needs. Be open to that.

Promote a dialogue where people spend less time on pointing out the problems and dilemmas (which got you into this dialogue in the first place) and spend more time on discussing, taking a stand and making courageous leadership choices regarding solutions and directions that will enable you to create and fulfill your desired future.

Can you tell the difference between Statements and Questions?

I am sure that if I asked you if you can tell the difference between statements and questions you would be offended by the mere question and respond with “Of Course!”

However, based on my experience of working with hundreds of teams in many organizations, I have to tell you that people don’t know the difference between the two.

You would think that people understand that the appropriate and effective thing to do in conversations and meetings is to “Answer questions” and “Acknowledge statements“. However, in reality, most people tend to “Answer statements” and “Acknowledge questions.” To be honest, people often simply “Ignore questions“.

If you want your meetings to take less time, move faster and be much more productive and satisfying follow this seemingly simple rule…

I frequently hear people say, “I’d like to ask a question” and then they go on and on expressing their opinion with no question in sight. At times, when this happens, I stop the person and ask: “So, what is your question?” Typically, everyone cracks up, because they all realize the obvious.

At other times, when a real and clear question is asked, I hear others talk in length without ever answering the question. I often stop the conversation and ask: “Would you please answer the question“, people crack up about that too.

I also frequently hear people say “I would like to respond to what the other person said” as if they are answering an urgent question when no question was asked and even when not responding to someone else’s opinion when no question was asked and when their opinion doesn’t contribute value to the dialogue. People seem to be quite unconscious and reactive in most conversations.

If you want your conversations to be more powerful and effective and your meetings to be shorter, more productive and more enjoyable, start paying attention to these distinctions and adhere to the following four simple common-sense principles:

  1. If someone says, “I’d like to ask a question” and they go on without a question, stop them (politely) and ask “so, what is your question?”
  2. If someone expresses their opinion, at the end of their opening simply say, “Thank you” or “Thank you for sharing” and move on. Do not react to what someone else had said.
  3. If you feel you must express your opinion after someone else’s opinion, simply say: “I would like to build upon what X said” or “I would like to offer another view on the matter.” Don’t react to what someone else has said. There is room in the conversation for more than one opinion or truth.
  4. If someone asks a “yes” or “no” type question – for example:Do you think we should do this?” or “Do you agree with my view?” just answer with a “yes” or “no”. Hold back your temptation to go on about it. If they ask you to explain or elaborate, then, of course, do so.


Don’t let past failures stifle your future success

It is a well-known fact that most change initiatives outright fail. Most initiatives start with high expectations and hope for a better future, but because of a lack of follow through and staying the course, they end up producing the opposite effect; managers and employees at all levels who are even more skeptical and cynical about any future prospect of change, including their inability to make a difference in shaping a better future.

This is the starting condition of most change initiatives. I see it in most companies.

Take for example the regional senior leadership team of a large global manufacturing company that was operating in a very competitive and commoditized market in which their fixed costs were growing faster than their top line growth.

They had to figure out how to do things differently and work smarter in order to accelerate their revenues while reducing their expenses. This meant a significant transformation in their operating model and mindset about their business.

This company was very successful, and its leadership team members were very seasoned, experienced and smart executives who had been in their jobs for many years. They knew what they had to do. In fact, they had many great ideas about how they could do things differently.

However, because they had seen so many change initiatives come and go without delivering on their promise and hope, it was extremely hard for them to get excited about the new change. They simply couldn’t help but feel extremely skeptical about the likelihood of success.

If you want your change effort to succeed, you have to first free yourself from that notion that if you have failed in the past you are doomed to fail in the future.

You can do that by understanding and taking ownership of why your past change initiatives didn’t work. In most cases, it is because leaders didn’t follow through and stay the course.

You can’t change the past, but you can learn from your past successes, failures, and mistakes. You must be clear about your future aspirations and commitment so that you can be guided by them, and not by past events.

Secondly, you need to manage the mechanical and process aspect of your change. This means, aligning on clear, bold and measurable objectives that define the end-game or what success looks like, breaking them down to mid-course (six-months or annual) milestones and then scheduling a cadence of frequent follow-up meetings to track, inspect and drive your commitment.

You must make this routine the highest priority, keep each follow-up and review meeting religiously, and not delay or cancel these meetings, no matter what.

If you Google “How long does it take to form a new habit or change a habit?” you will get a variety of answers. Most popular seems to be 21 Days.

However, when it comes to forming new practices, rituals and disciplines within a team or organization, it takes much longer.

From my experience as a practitioner – depending of course on the size and complexity of the organization – it takes around a year of staying the course and keeping to your cadence of follow up meetings to integrate your change initiative into your team’s DNA. And, this is considered to be fast.

Last, but not least, you need to drive a mindset of what I call Unconditional Ownership. This means promoting an attitude of “let’s prove that this change will work“, rather than the common default resigned attitude that exists in most teams: “let’s see if the change will work

The mental attitude is the most important component. In the case of the leadership team described above, they were very good at the discipline of setting goals and metrics, execution and managing process. However, because they carried so much baggage of skepticism and cynicism from the past, it hindered their ability to think outside the box and believe in their power and ability to drive the change they wanted.

You always have a past and a future. The most powerful relationship you could have to them is to be your future and have your past. Or as Mahatma Gandhi put it: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”