Leadership communications: Do people really know what you’re asking them to do?

Earlier this week I spent an afternoon with the former CEO of a large corporation and an executive vice president who is still with the company. We were talking about a book we’re considering writing about how their company built its innovation muscle while the CEO was in charge. They did it so successfully that they were the target of a buy-out by an even bigger global company last summer, which is the reason why the CEO is now the former CEO.

One of the topics they thought needed to be emphasized in the book is making sure everyone in the company is talking a common language. And by that, they didn’t mean making sure that everyone was speaking English. What they meant was that it is very common for people to be using the same words – important words like “breakthrough innovation” – without meaning the same thing.

In this particular case, the CEO thought he was doing a great job of constantly communicating that he wanted the company to come up with some new ideas that were really breakthrough. He held town meetings where he used “breakthrough innovation” in every other sentence. And he thought everyone knew what he meant by that. But he was wrong. People were defining it differently – defining it the way they had before he became the CEO – and things didn’t get on track until they realized that they were using the same words to mean very different things.

Is this happening in your business? Are you asking your staff to achieve a goal only to have them fall short? Does this happen again and again? The problem may be that you are defining the goal differently.

It is vitally important for people working together to have a shared language – words that everyone knows specifically how to define. If you’re frequently frustrated by the results your people are achieving, a lack of a share language may well be at the root of the problem. You’re asking them to jump and they think they are jumping, but it’s not high enough for you. So you have to tell them how exactly high you want them to jump.

Having clear meanings behind goals and desired outcomes is critical to business success. There are many ways that the same term can be interpreted. In the case of the company mentioned above, the CEO saw that things changed when he finally shared exactly what he meant by “breakthrough innovation.” He put in place metrics that could be used to determine if something was truly breakthrough or just more of the incremental innovation the company had long mastered. After several years of frustration on his part, ideas finally started to emerge that had significantly bigger potential than the ideas that had come forth previously. Now they are on the brink of introducing new products and services that will radically alter their place in the markets they serve.

Coming to a common understanding of what important words really mean takes some work, of course. You need to sit down and define the key terms you’re using and then have group discussions with the people you’re asking to achieve important goals and objectives and learn how they define those same terms. Watch for light bulbs to go off as people realize that what they thought you meant was something different from what you really meant. Taking time to do this can make a world of difference in whether goals are achieved.

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