Everyone who runs a successful business believes that they have the best people working for them. And that’s no accident since we invest so much time and effort in screening and interviewing people to ensure they are smart, capable, and a culture-fit all in one.
But the truth is that no matter how hard you work on attracting and hiring the best of the best, the collective intelligence of your organization is still just about average, especially if you have a larger operation. Maybe your organization is the exception and you are really, really good at hiring–but that only means the total team might be 5% to 10% smarter than everyone else. It all comes back to averages. It’s just a mathematical reality.
At the same time, one of the aspects that set great leaders apart from the pack is that they tend to have special skills–particularly the ability to see over the next hill and make connections and correlations that the rest of us can’t. Much of that ability comes from experience, knowledge, and the ability to do complex thinking. These are the people who can see into the future, if you will, since they are the ones who are great at mapping out the kinds of strategies that put companies on the fast track. They can anticipate how doing A plus B, contingent on C, equals Z.
Guess what happens, though, when great leaders like this try to explain their complex strategies to the average worker? They get looked at quite literally as if they were from another planet. Sure, most people might understand A and B, but how the heck did you get all the way to Z?
To put that another way, great leaders need to learn to not out think their organizations.
What this means at a practical level is that when it comes time for you as a leader to explain your company’s strategy, you need to pare it down. Yes, you can talk turkey with your senior leadership team. But when it comes to company-wide communication, make things short and sweet enough to give your team the information they need to act without overwhelming them. Boil it down to a maximum of three elements since that’s the maximum amount of information most of us can process. Not seven, not five–three is the magic number. Then take those elements and repeat, repeat, repeat as a way to drive them throughout your organization.
Consider the classic example of legendary CEO Jack Welch’s reign at GE. At the time, GE was a massively complex organization worth more than $100 billion with its fingers in all kinds of industries like light bulbs, locomotives, jet engines and finance. You can imagine the kind of complexity that went into managing the strategy for that kind of multi-pronged business.
But if you worked at GE at that time and heard Welch speak, he would have focused over and over again on just three things: globalize the business, drive service and recurring revenues, and improve quality throughout the company by embracing the discipline of six sigma.
Of course, Welch could peel the onion or dive deep whenever he needed to. But it was by repeating those three basic elements that he knew he could get everyone in his organization, no matter how average they were, aligned without fearing of talking over their heads.
I actually had a similar experience with a boss, Paul Snyder, earlier in my career. Paul was the CEO of High Voltage Engineering and, while we weren’t on the scale of GE, we were a multi-faceted and growing business with thousands of employees. But I remember even to this day the three things Paul repeated over and over again about our strategy: make the numbers, grow the business and invest in the people. Guess what we talked about every time we got together?
Boom: easy enough for anyone to remember, including me–for many years! That’s the real value in not out thinking your organization. So when it comes to communicating with your strategy with your organization, and ensuring you don’t out think it, the phrase to remember is: keep it short and sweet.