To Align Your Team, Lead by Repetition
When I was early in my Army career, I remember watching generals and senior leaders preside over strategy meetings and give speeches to large crowds. I was new to leadership, and I expected broad rhetorical flourishes and high energy, a la General Patton’s motivational speech in front of the flag in the eponymous movie. I was surprised to find that this type of rally was never the case. Usually, briefings and meetings were a repetitive refrain of the organization’s mission, a review of goals, and a bit of boilerplate “hooah” peppered in to boost excitement as the same information was repeated for the umpteenth time. Later, as my experience grew and I started leading bigger and bigger teams, I realized that the genius of this approach was in the clarity, consistency and frequency of the message’s delivery.
In my career since the Army, I’ve leveraged the approach (clarity, consistency, and frequency) that I learned from the four-star generals and have found it vital to getting my teams moving forward towards our goals. This simple yet profound method will work for you too.
Let’s look at an example in which you’re part of your company’s executive team. You’ve just finished a robust strategy and planning campaign, and you’re proud of everyone’s work. This new three-year plan is the best strategy that your team has ever produced. You have a revised set of objectives and key results (OKRs) to take the company to the next major developmental milestone, and you’re excited to bring the strategy to life.
Accordingly, at the next all-hands company meeting, you deliver a dynamic presentation. You cover the process, the problem statement, the expanded purpose (the ephemeral ”why” behind any project) and the specific goals for the team. Each of your department heads leads a conversation on the larger OKRs that their respective departments will impact. You see a few heads nod in the audience throughout the presentation. At the end, you moderate a couple of rounds of questions and answers. Overall, you feel good about the presentation. People were paying attention, and it seems like the whole company gets the new strategy.
As the leader, you have brought the key stakeholders together, analyzed the data, set OKRs (or a similar goal framework), developed a high-level operational plan, and briefed the team on that plan. You’re now ready to stand back, supervise, and let your team turn the strategy into a refined operation. Your checklist probably looks something like this:
- Assemble key stakeholders.
- Analyze your key data and the market environment.
- Set initial objectives and key results.
- Develop strategic and operational initiatives to impact your OKRs.
- Disseminate the new strategy and allow the team to operationalize the plan.
- Pat self on back for a job well done!
If only it were that easy. The most critical time for a leader is right after the new strategy or plan has been announced. Once the plan is built, it needs a champion and cheerleader to articulately and consistently relay the key messages so that they fully permeate into the team’s collective mindset.
I’ve had several friends and colleagues share their hesitancy in being a champion or cheerleader. They say, “It’s not a strength of my personality” or “I have many things to do and I need to delegate that responsibility.” Both positions seem reasonable, but they miss a larger point.
In our daily lives, we’re constantly bombarded with information. Marketing mavens and growth gurus fight against the noise every day to deliver buying signals to customers and clients. Entire marketing teams design ads to be crisp and captivating in order to gain the audience’s attention. Despite the amount of work that goes into advertising, it still takes at least seven brand impressions before a conversion. That’s a tremendous amount of repetition!
Now, I’m not saying you need an omnichannel marketing approach to disseminate your plans within your company. I do think that the analogy is a useful one, however. Repetition is essential to uptake. When you speak articulately and consistently on your priorities, you will push out the distractions and excess noise, keeping everyone focused and aligned. The more your team hears about the company’s goals and strategy, the more they will absorb. That’s why David Gergen, an advisor to four presidents and a world-renowned expert on communicating key messages, remarked that “History teaches that almost nothing a leader says is heard if spoken only once.”
We’re all busy, and I’m sure you have a long list of responsibilities. The idea of spending valuable time reiterating the same key messages over and over to the same audience seems redundant. It’s not. A study by Tsedal Neely and Paul Leonardi, researchers from the Harvard Business School, found that managers who were “deliberately redundant” across several different types of media moved initiatives forward faster and smoother. Additionally, their employees reacted positively to the clarity around what was expected from the employee’s work.
Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, hosts a Masterclass course in which he says, “Strategy is only as good as your ability to articulate it, and clarity is an essential part of good leadership.” He also relates a case from his own experience with disseminating a strategy. In order to share his new vision, he traversed the globe, briefing every division and team on the new direction. His goal was to ensure that everyone was aware of the new company strategy. His actions in getting the word out mirrored those of a political campaign.
Odds are you won’t need to undertake a globetrotting expedition like Iger did, but the principles he employed should be the same for your own practice. Scientific research and testimonials from business leaders attest to the need for leaders to clearly, consistently and frequently share their priorities. I’ve built a quick list of ideas that I have used or seen used effectively to share strategic visions.
- Prepare a short “strategy stump speech” or have scripted answers to common questions. Having a prepared speech will help bring consistency and professionalism to your messaging, thereby increasing your team’s trust and confidence in the plan.
- Remember to present your strategy and goals with your audience in mind. Answer the question of what’s in it for them. Also, make sure that any presentation you give is worth watching. Dull meetings are the greatest business cliche of all time. You are competing for attention, so win it!
- Use a story to help your team visualize what you are trying to say. Paint them a visual picture of what a successful outcome looks like for the strategy you are presenting.
- Even if you have to fake it a bit, you should be excited to share your priorities and strategy with everyone. You have to sell the company’s goals, priorities and strategy.
- Find unique ways to meet with your team. Invite a small group that you normally wouldn’t meet with to lunch, and use the time to talk about your strategy.
- Experiment with alternative media. Do a recorded interview or podcast, host an Ask Me Anything on Slack or Twitter, or put together a YouTube video.
- Remember that your vendors, partners, suppliers, and customers will also want to hear the company’s strategy and will have questions. Be prepared to use all of these techniques with them as well.
I have been consistently surprised at how often I have to repeat myself throughout my career. At first, I found this frustrating, but then I learned that my ability to achieve OKRs was dependent on aligning the team and getting everyone moving in the same strategic direction. These lessons are valuable for leaders at all levels and for companies of all shapes and sizes. Clear, consistent and frequent communication with your team — going beyond the point of redundancy— will make your initiatives progress quickly and smoothly.