Job #1 of a Leader: Be Clear

Being clear is very, very hard to do.

And unfortunately, being clear is the most important job of being a leader.  I know I have failed countless times at being clear with people in my career, and it’s a constant work in progress.

Often, I have not articulated my own expectations of people.

I have wrongly assumed that when I told them what I expected, and when they nodded their head, that they ‘totally got it.’

Or, even worse, I assumed that they ‘just knew….because everyone knows that, right?’

The thing is, we often rely on common values, education and sensibilities to assist us in the providing clarity.  But, as Voltaire said in 1764: “Common sense is not so common.”

People come from wildly different backgrounds.

They come from different family upbringings.

They come from different educational systems.

They come from different previous employers.

They come from different countries, with different languages and culture.

All of these different backgrounds provide the context in which people operate their lives.

These backgrounds help provide the shared values and sensibilities that someone takes with them every day to work.

For example – let’s contrast two fictional people:  Ashton and Betty.

Ashton was an intelligent child.  But while he was intelligent, he went through grade school, then middle school, then high school and college turning in B or C level work, often skipping class along the way.   Ashton socialized and partied a lot.   His father died when he was young, and his mother worked two jobs to support them.   Often, Ashton would spend time at other people’s houses while his mom was working.

For Ashton, the world didn’t end because of his Bs and Cs he received in school.  Ashton graduated.  He learned how to deal with people effectively and developed a high level of emotional intelligence through his time spent with other people.

Ashton adopted the mantra “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” and had success getting to know people and making a good living along the way as manager in a variety of industries.

Now, let’s take Betty.  Betty wasn’t the most intelligent child, but she worked extremely hard.   She received Bs in grade school, but kept working hard.   She received straight A’s all through high school.   She participated in academic extra-curricular activities and her parents enforced a strict curfew.  Betty didn’t socialize or party much, and kept to herself.

Betty was accepted into an elite Ivy league university.  She worked extremely hard during college and kept to herself.  She then went on to get her Master’s degree at another Ivy league university.  She was recruited by Accenture after receiving her Master’s degree.   She traveled the world and spent 6 days a week on the road.   She had few friends outside of work and her clients.

Betty always received high marks from her customers because of the outstanding, high quality deliverables.

Betty believes in the concept of a meritocracy, and believes her work should speak for itself.   She takes great pride in her work and is a perfectionist.

By circumstances of fate, Chuck the CEO hires both Ashton and Betty as his direct reports, both managing a few of the largest divisions of his company.

Chuck asks Ashton and Betty to work together on a 3 month project to produce a report on strategic opportunities for the company.  This will involve talking to a number of people across the company and delivering a report back to Chuck that will set the direction of the company for the next 3 years.

Ashton and Betty decide to divide up the work equally across the organization and come back with their respective reports and then jointly present the findings to Chuck.

Ashton goes off and casually talks to a lot of people in the organization – across sales, product and customer support.

Ashton gets to know people by talking with them about their families, their lives, and taking them to lunch.

People open up and tell him lots of interesting stories and anecdotes about their time at the company.   Ashton discusses the company in an extremely casual manner, asking people what they believe should be changed about the company, where they think it should head, and other open-ended questions.    The answers he receives are varied and very interesting, often filled with personal details.

Ashton takes selfies with people to help remember the conversation.

Betty, by contrast, schedules 3o-minute appointments in her office with a highly structured set of interview questions with people from marketing, engineering, and finance.

Betty records every session with a tape recorder and takes rigorous notes.

Betty spends nights and weekends summarizing the results and plotting the data.  She creates charts.  She creates an executive summary.  She spends all night at Kinkos preparing a binder in preparation for the meeting with Chuck.

When Betty and Ashton meet up the morning, they both have 30 minutes to present to Chuck.

Betty hands Chuck the report binder, and goes through an extremely detailed PowerPoint, presenting her findings.

Chuck, who used to work at Boston Consulting Group, says he is impressed with Betty’s level of detail and the analytical approach.

Ashton brings up iPhoto from his Mac, and plays a slideshow of selfies he’s taken with people.  He tells each person’s story, and what they thought of the company, and their ideas on how to improve.

Ashton closes with a flourish, and plays  Eye of the Tiger on iTunes.

Chuck laughs, and is impressed by the creativity and innovative approach.  He also is impressed with Ashton’s recall of the personal details.

Chuck asks Betty:  “Did you happen to gain any insights like Ashton’s?  On the more personal side of things, I mean?”  Betty doesn’t have any of these insights.  Her interview questions didn’t cover those questions.

Chuck furrows his brow at Betty, clearly disappointed.

Chuck then asks Ashton: “I love the presentation, but can you send me the written summary of that so I can send it to the Board?”   Ashton doesn’t have one.  He points to his head, and says “It’s all up here, Boss”

Chuck furrows his brow at Ashton, clearly disappointed.

Chuck abruptly ends the meeting and tells them to combine their presentation formats, add personal stories for everyone, and create a written summary and get back to him in a few weeks.

Ashton leaves the meeting, angry at Betty for providing such a detailed written summary.  Now he is stuck providing a similar deliverable the next several weeks.

Betty leaves the meeting, angry at Ashton for the ‘unprofessional’ presentation that included all those personal stories.  Now, she has to go and meet with people again to gather personal insights, wasting her precious time for several more weeks.

Chuck leaves the meeting, angry at his two new direct reports, wondering how Ashton and Betty could deliver such wildly inconsistent presentations.

The root cause of all of this?

Chuck wasn’t clear with Ashton and Betty about what he wanted.

In the absence of this clarity from Chuck, Ashton and Betty weren’t clear with each other about what the deliverable would look like.

They both assumed something completely different.

Now, the relationship between Ashton and Betty is strained and possibly irreparable, and it’s all due to lack of clarity on Chuck’s part.

And lack of clarity doesn’t just affect interpersonal relationships.  It can affect a lot of things in the organization.  Let me give some more examples of not being clear:

  • Not being clear about response times to customer bugs.  Some people respond immediately – 24×7.  Other people assume that 5PM on Friday means they can address it Monday at 8AM.
  • Not being clear on the desired outcome or agenda of a meeting.  This tends to create a meandering conversation that goes nowhere, but fills up the entire calendar appointment block.  This wastes everyone’s time and they complain about “too many meetings” when I reality, they are complaining about “unproductive meetings.”
  • As illustrated in the example with Ashton and Betty, not being clear about the quality of deliverables expected.  This could be project plans, mockups, emails, reports, memos, forecast models, algorithms, etc.  Some people deliver grade A quality all the time.  Other people deliver C quality all the time.  If someone isn’t clear on the difference between an A deliverable and a C deliverable, how can they be expected to produce an A deliverable?
  • Not being clear on what happens if deadlines are missed.  When someone commits to something, and it doesn’t get done, what should happen?  Not having clarity around this dynamic causes people to ignore deadlines, cause project delays, and increases organizational frustration.
  • Not being clear on what type of behavior is expected when interacting with others.  Some people grew up in a household where passive aggressive behavior was the norm.  Others where open hostility and verbal or even physical abuse occurred.  Not being clear with people that their passive-aggressive or hostile behavior is unacceptable can cause their team members to quit and possible legal action to follow.
  • Not being clear about software test coverage.  What’s OK?  What’s not OK?
  • Not being clear on what’s ok and not ok around acceptable alcohol consumption.  Soon, people are drinking at lunch (or even earlier).  New, younger employees with little work experience follow the example and take this habit on to future employers.
  • Not being clear about accountabilities by putting two people in charge of something.  When two people are in charge, zero people are in charge.  This creates an accountability gap and an unhealthy blame game when shit happens.
  • Not being clear with the team about the need for office cleanliness.  This can create an environment where your office looks terrible and new candidates are repulsed by the working environment.
  • Not being clear about performance of software.  Some people believe that 4 seconds loading time is OK.  But users get frustrated and leave with a loading time of more than 0.4 seconds.  As a result, products are shipped that engineering believes are satisfactory but users complain about.
  • Not being clear on what is expected when an employee is on vacation.  Do they check in daily?  Or do they go off grid?
  • Not being clear about what numbers a sales person needs to hit to remain employed.
  • Not being clear about a departmental spend constraint.
  • Not being clear about how frequently people need to conduct 1-1s with their reports.

But I digress.  I could spend all day about the different ways leaders are not clear in their expectations.

It happens all the time.

The bottom line is that communicating expectations with clarity is really hard. 

So I encourage you to ask yourself the question – are you being clear?  More importantly, ask the people you work with and demand an honest answer!

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