Effective Executive Part 3: Communicating Crisply

Paul Armstrong sent me some questions about my post on practicing inquisitive and active leadership (since retitled slightly) that caused me to expand on the notes in a way that I thought would be useful as a separate blog post. The essence of effectiveness as a leader is communicating well. Being able to get your points across in a one page memo or elevator speech (2 minutes or less without talking so fast the listener cannot follow you) clearly conveys that you have thought through your key points by conveying them effectively. 

Background

In his seminal article for Harvard Business Review, “What Makes an Effective Executive,” (summary, entire article) Peter Drucker identifies as one of the key practices an executive must master is taking responsibility for communicating:


Effective executives make sure that both their action plans and their information needs are understood. Specifically, this means that they share their plans with and ask for comments from all their colleagues—superiors, subordinates, and peers. At the same time, they let each person know what information they’ll need to get the job done. The information flow from subordinate to boss is usually what gets the most attention. But executives need to pay equal attention to peers’ and superiors’ information needs.

Organizations are held together by information rather than by ownership or command.

 

I find myself reading and re-reading this article about every year and regularly finding new insights to apply.

Discussion

Paul Armstrong (paul.armstrong@enthusaprove.com) sent me the following comment:


I read the long version [of the notes to accompany the Kurstedt Management Process wallet card] and … the card hits me odd... I don't know if it’s the blatantly STJ language ("crisply"... I never want to be crisped to nor do I want to be known as a crispy communicator) or that it seems to treat management as all science and no art.  Personally... I think its ok advice for operational and tactical managers.  Conversely, I wonder whether it is not dangerous advice (pay attention to detail...the downfall of Jimmy Carter) for the strategic manager.  Since you attested to its goodness, I am questioning my assumption, but I can't yet get comfortable that this is good senior executive advice.

 

Certainly, the notion of what "crisp" communicating might be is not widely understood or taught. I have done web searches for it before and not been very satisfied with the results. It might be better written as "communicate clearly and concisely.” That might have come across more clearly, but I did not give much thought to rewording the checklist when I got the copy from Ben or posted it to my blog. 


What I found in Webster’s (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/crisp) for the use of "crisp" as an adjective was:



notably sharp, clean-cut, and clear <a crisp illustration>; also: concise and to the point <a crisp reply>

 

Based on Paul's suggestion, I modified the notes so they now read "Communicate crisply (clearly and concisely)." There is also an existing sentence of explanation (just before "Almost Guiding Rules Are Important Too") in the explanation of theprocess


"Get to the point and leave out unnecessary details to ensure complete clarity."

 

I think Paul was correct that the checklist is a good tool for those operating at the tactical level and cannot be applied mindlessly ever, but especially as you move into executive ranks (people at the rank of Commander and above in the US Navy). My target audience for the blog is new Engineering Duty Officers, most of whom are struggling with the "basics" of the incredibly complex work we do in shipyards on Navy ships.  You can get thrown “out of the boat” and under the water in rapids in the turbulent daily world of ship overhaul. In their book “The Art of Possibility,” (see references) Ben and Rosamund Zander suggest that you “cannot think your way back in, you have no point of reference. You must call on something that has been established in advance, a catch-phrase like “nose to toes” [which would float you back to the surface where the air is]. The Kurstedt card can be thought of as a catch-phrase to get you “back to the surface.”

I could not agree more with Paul's caution that the practices on the Kurstedt quick reference card, like all tools, need to be applied in a balanced approach.  Near the bottom of the longer Kurstedt notes are these words:

 

Recognize that balance applies to everything. In the management process you must always look for this need: balance setting expectations, (a function) with focus on what you can do (a guiding rule). Balance pay attention to detail and practice inquisitiveness with everything you touch (quality), with give physical evidence of your progress and face up to meeting your commitments squarely (productivity). Balance form and substance in designing and using logs. Balance Management by Wandering Around (MBWA) or Management by Sitting Around (MBSA) with reviewing status and progress. Balance setting expectations with reviewing status and progress when meeting with your direct reports.

 

Guide (from www.christiansarkar.com, see references)

In a book which is still relevant today - Winning With the P&G 99 - Charles Decker writes that if you can learn to write a P&G memo, you can learn how to think. The memo becomes a knowledge codification tool, a way to present ideas, arguments, and recommendations in a language and style everyone at P&G understands.

Think about how effective this is. In most companies, the quality of communications depends on the writer. Every department, every individual speaks and writes in their own language. At P&G, the language and style is the same everywhere. What is original is the idea in the memo.

Dr. Andrew Abela says (on his blog) that when he joined P&G twenty years ago, the one page memo discipline was in full force. Here is the format:

1.The Idea. What are you proposing? This is typically one sentence.

2. Background. What conditions have arisen that led you to this recommendation? Only include information that everyone agrees upon in the Background - this is the basis for discussion, so it needs to be non-debatable.

3. How it Works. The details. In addition to How, also What, Who, When, Where.

4. Key Benefits. This is the "Why?" There are usually three benefits: the recommended action is on strategy, already proven (e.g. in test market or in another business unit), and will be profitable. You can think of these three in terms of the old Total Quality mantra of "doing right things right." The first (on strategy) means you're doing the right thing. The second and third mean you're doing things the right way, because you're being effective (proven to work) and efficient (profitable).

5. Next Steps. Who has to do what and by when for this to happen?

Simple enough. So why don’t you adopt this for your [group]? And better still, why not use this format for all your meetings as well.

 

Caveat

There are many forms of important communication that cannot be effective if you approach them from the point of view of "how do I make this crisp" or worse yet, "How do I make this person crispy?"

For Further Reading