Good leadership is hard to quantify, especially when considering intrinsic qualities like humility (which I argue is the most important quality of all). However, there are external skills which can separate effective and ineffective leaders, and communication is arguably the most fundamental of those externally-visible skills.
When a company is small, and everyone fits in a single room, then a shared vision can almost be maintained by osmosis. Additionally, at this stage a company is usually extremely focused on a narrow goal or set of goals, so there is clarity not only due to small company sizes having more efficient communication, but also because the set of objectives is small as well.
When working with growth-stage companies, perhaps the biggest difficulty which invariably arises is the need to maintain clarity of vision and to maintain a common understanding of the mission of the organization as the team grows. If this understanding is not shared across the business, the business will fail.
The failure mode of inadequate communication from higher leadership often manifests as general confusion about purpose, frustration with seemingly constant “changes from management” and a lack of progress towards what the executive level sees as the company objectives. There may be a lot of great work being done, and a lot of great progress being made, but that work and progress may be in many different directions instead of a single mutually-supported one.
When that happens, the fact is that the executives are not communicating effectively as leaders, and they are not ensuring that their subordinate leadership is doing the same.
As an organization grows, more attention must be paid to the structure and content of communication in order to ensure it is simple and easy to remember. Any complicated messaging will soon be forgotten by others, or worse will be labeled as useless management-speak and will cause frustration, resentment, and further feelings that management is detached from the employees.
The usual way that executives pose this problem to me is to ask how to maintain common understanding as the organization grows. They are already experiencing some of the failure modes listed above, and the executive level often feels frustrated and may even claim that “people just aren’t doing what they’re told.” The answer to their question is that the bigger an organization becomes, the simpler and more clear the communication must be.
As simple as possible, as detailed as necessary
General George S. Patton Jr. was one of the most well-known commanders of World War II, and as Commanding General of the Third Army, he was responsible for hundreds of thousands of people in his organization. He was well-versed in the need for clear and easily understandable communication to his subordinate leadership. Here are some examples from his Letter of Instruction 1 dated 6 March 1944 and sent to what would in businesses terms be called his middle management.
When discussing visits by officers to other levels of the organization:
The function of these staff officers is to observe, not to meddle. In addition to their own specialty, they must observe and report anything of military importance. Remember, too, that your primary mission as a leader is to see with your own eyes and to be seen by the troops while engaged in personal reconnaissance.
When discussing rest and rotations:
Staff personnel, commissioned and enlisted, who do not rest, do not last. All sections must run a duty roster and enforce compliance. The intensity of staff operations during battle is periodic. At the Army and Corps levels the busiest times are the periods from one to three hours after daylight, and from three to five hours after dark. In the lower echelons and in the administrative and supply staffs, the time of the periods is different but just as definite. When the need arises, everyone must work all the time, but these emergencies are not frequent; “unfatigued men last longer and work better at high pressure.”
That is a very clear communication of Patton’s expectations for his subordinate leadership. If you were part of his organization, there would be no question as to whether or not you should make sure your people have proper rest and to what extent they should be worked.
You could do a bit of rewording and the same guidance would equally apply to many tech companies. How many expect entire tech teams or engineering departments to be on-call at all times? How many have no on-call rotation or roster to speak of?
Plans must be simple and flexible. Actually they only form a datum plane from which you build as necessity directs or opportunity offers. They should be made by the people who are going to execute them.
This is clear and easy to understand. Every subordinate leader who received the letter would know that they should not be making detailed plans. The people who execute the plan should make the plan, and it is the job of the leader to provide the context and constraints for the plan. Which leads to the topic of orders.
Formal orders will be preceded by letters of instruction and by personal conferences. In this way the whole purpose of the operation will be made clear, together with the mission to be accomplished by each major unit. In this way, if communication breaks down during combat, each commander can and must so act as to attain the general objective. The order itself will be short, accompanied by a sketch – it tells WHAT to do, not HOW. It is really a memorandum and an assumption of responsibility by the issuing commander.
In other words, people should have a good understanding of the overall situation and context before any direction is given, and even then, the order should be short and should only describe WHAT needs to be done, but not HOW it should be done. Leaders provide the what, and the team doing the work provides options for the how.
Perhaps the most succinct guidance is contained in section 7, the final one of the letter.
DO NOT TAKE COUNSEL OF YOUR FEARS.
Where to start
So we have some examples of a leader, who is responsible for a massive organization of around 250,000 people, and how they communicated their vision to their subordinate leadership. How can you translate this into your organization and what are some ways you can determine whether or not the communication is clear enough?
Whenever I’m talking with anyone at an organization, regardless of their position, I usually ask three questions very early in the conversation in order to help me understand the effectiveness of communication from senior leadership or, in the case of executives, how well they have internalized and can communicate their vision.
- What is the mission of the company?
- Why is that important?
- How did the work you are doing today achieve progress towards the mission?
It is extremely rare to find people, let alone whole teams, who can answer those three questions. In the cases where I do encounter people who can answer these questions, I know their leadership is on the right track.
As a good starting point, every person in your team should be able to immediately answer these questions, from memory, because you as a leader were able to provide a clear and simple vision which can be easily memorized.
Making sure everyone understands those questions also forces a leader to consider them and to make sure their direction is focused and clear. Focus and clarity is like adding fuel to the fire for a growth-stage startup.