One of the precepts of the EOS program is, “The answer is in the room.” It’s a phrase that’s used to emphasize the importance of discussion in addressing important issues, and I am a full supporter of that idea.
The problem is, the phrase itself is not quite right.
WELL…SOME KIND OF ANSWER IS IN THE ROOM
A more accurate phrase would be, “An answer is in the room.”
And it’s the job of the CEO to know whether it’s the answer or an answer that is in the room – whether your team has the right stuff to understand and evaluate the issue and the options for solving it…or not. Because if they don’t, but they think they do, then you are wading into dangerous territory.
It’s not that dangerous if the issue is minor. But if it’s a major strategic decision…having the wrong answer is a big problem.
EVALUATING THE QUALITY OF YOUR TEAM’S ANSWER
So, how do you gauge whether you are getting an answer (a poor or bad decision) or the answer (a good decision)? Here are some questions you can ask:
- Have we seen this situation before? Or something similar? Or has someone on our team?
- Can we come up with a list of risks that would make our banker (or some other knowledgeable skeptic) proud for how pessimistic the list makes us appear?
- Can we come up with 3 strong options for handling the situation?
- Is there more than one person who is worried that the answer may not be in the room?
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Let me talk more about that last one. The biggest business mistake that I have witnessed was when a client decided that the answer was not in the room for them. They hired me to write a plan for a new initiative, discussed and agreed to the plan as a team…and then 2 weeks later the CEO came up with an alternative “short cut” approach.
That short cut ended up costing the company between $2MM and $10MM, depending on how much you count the indirect impact that decision had. At the time the leadership team was discussing the short cut, there were 3 members of the team who said, “We just paid for a plan, and we all said we liked the plan – why are we not following the plan? Why do we think we have a better answer than the plan now?” (Which is another way of saying, “The answer is not in the room.”)
HOW THEY GOT IT WRONG
Why did most of the team change their minds? Because the CEO had a long history of running and building the business, and the majority of the leadership team said, “If you think this is the right thing to do, we trust you.” What they missed was that the CEO had not pursued a strategy like this before – it was a new area for him, and it was more complicated than anything he’d worked on before.
The team needed to listen to the skeptics more – and there’s a lesson there for you, dear CEO, if you find yourself in a similar situation.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
If you’re a CEO listening to your team debate a topic, you have another role you need to play – you need to raise yourself above the discussion, and look down on it, and critique whether the sophistication of the discussion matches the complexity of the issue and the quantity of the resources you’re going to commit to the answer.
Leadership and the under-communication crisis
As the writer of this article, I’ve evaluated all of the possibilities I could focus on, and decided that we should give our attention to communication.
We all need to communicate more, and will be doing things in the coming months to do that.
Not enough for you? Keep reading to see what you should be doing to communicate as a leader.
When I was a debater in high school, my coach gave me the following formula for success:
Tell them what you’re going to tell them
Tell them what you told them
As a company leader, the same formula applies, with a change:
Tell them what you’re going to tell them
Tell them what you told them
This is the time of year when you’re setting your annual priorities, which will be followed in a few weeks by the need to communicate those priorities to your team. I was meeting with a COO last week, and after spending an hour talking about one of his 2016 company goals, I asked how he was going to communicate the goal to the organization.
“I’ll have the VPs tell their groups.” (Mind you, last year, some VPs told me that their colleagues would often communicate very different messages about the same topic.)
“Can you spend time on this in the company meeting?”
“No, we don’t have time. We need to keep those to ½ hour, and we have too many other things to cover. The VPs can cover it.”
Huh? Um, no they can’t – at least not by themselves. In addition to the VPs’ communication, all company staff need to hear a single version of the message directly from the highest leader. It ensures consistency of the message, and ensures that people know it’s important.
The closer a message is to something that people already know and already do, the less energy you need to spend on it. However, it would be unusual for a topic that rises to the level of an annual priority to be something that people already know and already do. So, it’s going to take energy to communicate.
And probably extra extra energy.
Here’s what most annual priorities should get:
- Monthly review by the CEO in a company-wide forum (ideally a meeting, but could be a newsletter)
- Monthly review by the VPs in their department or team meetings
- More frequent attention as needed by the relevant manager – such as the head of HR or Sales
“That’s a whole lot of communicating,” you may be thinking. But it’s actually still a small proportion of the overall communication that your employees are exposed to in all of the hours they’re at work. And we’re talking about a message that’s really important.
“People are going to be bombarded by too many messages,” you may be thinking. And if that’s true, then it highlights the need to reduce the number of priorities. The need to communicate is the need to communicate. If you’re not able to meet that need, then you have to focus your attention more.
Most business leaders are going to under-communicate their 2016 goals to their organizations, and that’s going to hurt their companies in an environment that requires as much efficiency and effectiveness as your team can muster. Are you going to make that mistake?
One of the pleasures of working with Second Stage small businesses – the largest part of the economy – is that I can mostly ignore Wall Street. It’s not the people – I’m sure there are good people and bad people working there. It’s just that for the small business economy, money is the benefit of good work, not the reason for it.
But today is different.
Greg Smith, a leader at Goldman Sachs, has pulled back the curtain on Goldman Sachs culture in an Op-Ed article in the New York Times. Not surprisingly, he portrays a culture focused on making money, sometimes to an extreme.
Although small businesses mostly ignore Wall Street, there’s actually some value for us in what Mr. Smith has to say – because he highlights 2 key ideas about culture.
First, company culture comes from leadership. For a small business, this means that leaders have to be aware that their little behaviors get magnified and projected in the organization. There are many benefits of being a small business leader, but one of the burdens is that you may need to crimp your style for the good of the company.
Second, culture must be evaluated in the context of strategy. Strategy provides the direction, but culture provides the energy. So, before you work on “solving” culture problems, you first have to make sure your strategy is right. It sounds like Goldman Sachs has done a good job of aligning its culture with its strategy – with enough clarity that talented and motivated people who aren’t a fit are self-selecting out. Although there may be long-term problems with the strategy, you have to give the Goldman Sachs leadership credit for being focused.
You’ve probably made a difference in 5 or 10 small business’ cultures by your article today, so thank you Mr. Smith and Goldman Sachs for the lesson.