The Art of Clear Leadership

As a member of a leadership team, you have a lot on your plate. You have to work with your peers to figure out how to accelerate growth, innovate, elevate talent, find efficiencies, scale faster, be more customer centric and execute better.

These questions are tough. Having authentic and creative conversations in order to answer them is tough. Articulating your strategy for dealing with them is tough.

But this is what your organization needs you to do – see through the fog and align employees behind your approach.

So if your LT is wrestling with a big strategic conversation, what can you do to find clarity?


Listen to the whole organization
We often see leadership teams try to go it alone – frequently because they want to look like they have all the answers. While understandable, this is a mistake.

Without exception, our clients have immense stores of in-house data and expertise. Given the right questions, some good facilitation and a solid process, they can solve pretty much any problem they want.

There are lots of ways you can access company-wide thinking about potential opportunities, barriers and solutions, from online crowdsourcing or surveys to small-group workshops.

However you decide to do it, the most important thing is to listen to and trust in your people. The LT or executive committee can own the final decision, but they’ll be better informed with some degree of up-front employee – or even customer or partner – involvement.

And don’t forget your extended leadership team – the next-level down from your functional heads. These are often some of your most senior and talented employees, and they’re closer to the organization’s everyday reality than most senior leaders. They can provide a wealth of knowledge and expertise, so be sure to carve out a clear place for them in your decision-making process either as ideators or reviewers. Their buy-in to decisions will help you execute better down the road as well.


Start with ambition
Conversations about strategy and execution often spiral because different leaders have different views about the ultimate goal.

Taking time at the start of a decision-making process to frame a very explicit statement of ambition for an initiative will save you a tremendous amount of swirl later on. It’s the only way to avoid ambiguity or unaligned interpretations of what’s required.

When you’re framing that ideal outcome, give space for people to speak up, air concerns and ask questions. You need everyone on the LT to be fully clear, and fully bought-in. The last thing you want is to march forward with a plan of action only for grenade throwers to derail it later on.

Dissenting opinions need to be aired freely and early. We’ve seen many times that leaders will fall-in behind a plan, even one they don’t fully agree with, once their concerns have been thoughtfully considered and vigorously debated. Ideally, of course, the leadership team will find a better answer than they would have as a result of the contrarian viewpoints.


Let good enough be good enough
It can be really easy to wait until you feel your strategy is perfect.

The problem is, it won’t be. Ever. There will be stakeholders who aren’t getting what they want. You’ll have incomplete data for some elements of your plan. You may not have the systems or talent in place to execute an idea exactly as you’d like to.

Our most successful strategy development efforts have been conducted with leadership teams who accept that nothing can be finished or perfect. They know that the most important thing is to move fast, learn and adapt. Detailed three-, five- or ten-year plans are a thing of the past. They’re just PowerPoint decks that gather dust on the shelf.

Craft your high-level ambition or goal, then evaluate your efforts to achieve it every month or quarter. If something isn’t working, figure out why, then try something new. Only firms with this kind of agile mindset can compete in a fast and fluid marketplace.


Focus focus focus
It’s not uncommon to find an organization with about fifteen priorities and dozens of KPIs. But when everything’s a priority, nothing is. This is the best way to confuse and overwhelm your people – and to achieve very little.

Prioritization is hard. There’s always another great idea that you want to pursue, or something that seems valuable that you can’t let go. But you have to. Your people need you to. How can you expect them to make smart decisions about where to spend time and money if you haven’t given them clear guidance on what’s important?

Here’s a tip: gather a team and create an inventory of everything you have going on in your organization. Then write each project on a Post-It and put it up on a two-by-two chart, with “impact” on one axis and “urgency” on the other.

If a project isn’t in the top-right quadrant – that is, if it’s not both urgent and important – end it, postpone it, or at the very least dramatically reduce the resources you commit to it.

The beauty of this approach is that you don’t need to quantify impact and urgency in order to prioritize initiatives. You just debate how they compare to each other. A second advantage is that it gives you real empathy for employees who are trying to make sense of the confusion and chaos in your system.

Applying a draconian focus to planning has a third benefit: it makes strategy far easier to understand.


Make strategy accessible
Imagine The New York Times writing an article about your strategy. A good business editor would use everyday language to distill your approach into a desired outcome and three to five key themes for how you’re trying to achieve it. They would give you a narrative.

But as a leadership team, this is really your job. Only by embracing the role of storytellers – paring decisions down to their essence, piecing them together into a coherent story, and resisting easy corporate cliche – can leaders expect employees to listen, and to know what they should consider most important.

Finally, consider making strategy accessible by communicating using creative and storytelling techniques used to great effect in advertising and marketing. This will save everyone time by making strategic decisions easier to learn about and digest.

It’s our belief that these five ideas – inclusive decisions, clarity of ambition, comfort with imperfection, ruthless focus and great storytelling – can help any leadership team provide better, clearer direction for employees, and transform the performance of their teams.

Jeremy Morgan is co-founder of The Narrative House.