Under-communicating strategic direction and priorities is one of the most common mistakes I have seen founders make. Startup founders typically have a set of top priorities or organizational goals they have defined and communicated.
Usually, this communication takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation which is shared in executive staff meetings, and then again in some form of employee communication process such as an all-employee email or company-wide meetings. Some leaders even remind their organizations of these goals in quarterly communication meetings, but in our world of hyper-information availability and constant communication, this is not enough to maintain the focus needed to ensure success.
Competing inputs drastically dilute the focus leaders are trying to create. Think about the world we live in today. We are constantly bombarded with email, text messages, Tweets, web-based news and information. Boards, customers, employees and other key stakeholders thrust new projects and pressing requirements on us; and these are just the distractions in the workplace. Then add to that our lives and priorities outside of work. The impact of all of these is that our top priorities actually achieve very little mind-share against this other clutter.
Priorities are never as clear as we think. The most effective startup founders recognize this mind-share issue and have decided to dramatically increase their message volume and frequency to overcome the clutter. Think of this as an advertising campaign, just like any other in your business.
A clear and compelling message is a good start, but insufficient. Next, you must define the channels and the frequency required for the message to be understood in order to have the impact you desire. Some effective leaders address this by starting almost every discussion with a reminder of these top priorities. Every one-on-one, every staff meeting, every operating review, every employee meeting … you get the point. They say, “Remember our top five priorities are … Now, let’s talk about our agenda today in light of those key areas of focus,” and it works.
You really have to hammer this home way beyond what feels necessary. Priorities are never as clear as we think! Cutting through the clutter is very difficult. But, allowing a continuous dilution of focus on your top goals will lead to continually degrading organizational performance.
Another common blind spot is poorly defined success measures. Vague expectations are dangerous. Communicating top priorities creates the basis for areas of focus for an organization, team or individual. However, without clear definitions of success, management and employees can be aiming for very different levels of performance. This creates significant risk in the execution of committed operating plans and strategic projects.
In addition, nothing sucks energy out of a team or individual more than thinking they have met or exceeded key objectives only to be told that the expectations were much different. It is a bit like playing a game thinking you understand the rules, only to have someone explain at the end that winning is defined differently than you expect. That crushes a team. Specific targets and timeframes clarify what achievement levels are expected.
Leaders need to be precise in defining how they are going to measure success. What indicators are going to be used? What weight will be put on different measures? And what are the specific target levels for each of those measures that are expected? (A personal career note to leaders: never let others define what success looks like for you at the end of the game. Define it VERY clearly at the beginning, then all that is left is keeping score).
Highly visionary leaders struggle with this more than most. They tend to be heavy on pitching big ideas but very light on communicating priority and specific expectations. The way I suggest dealing with this is by having the visionary leader and the catcher of the visioning walk through the following process:
Start with the big idea – what is the key concept AND how does it relate to the organization’s key strategic priorities?
Next up, solidify and communicate four to six key defining principles, which provide further insight into the key elements or concepts the leader has in mind (but often doesn’t explicitly communicate). Have the vision catcher shape the goal or project. Develop explicit measures and targets that define success.
To prevent drift from the vision, managers need to establish a short feedback loop review, frequently rechecking the trajectory of projects and functions against the original direction.
Only a few days of work should pass before a quick review to check for alignment through to the achievement of the goal. This allows corrections to be driven in time to save time and money, gain improvement, and ensure proper project execution.
Teruel Carrasco is president of Valhalla Private Capital.
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