Always Make Your Position Clear

Has it ever happened to you that you were approached by your subordinates (or even your boss) and after a discussion ended you were left wondering what the point was? One of the skills a senior leader should build is an ability to express his thoughts in a straightforward, easy to understand manner with clearly stated facts and points of view.

Imagine you come to the office and one of your employees comes to you and says “Jim just told me that CompanyX released a new product.” So? Is it great or bad release? Do we need to react? Why is he telling it to you? Or imagine that you sit on a meeting and someone brings up a topic to discuss “We have a big issue. Jim got a great offer from another company and resigned.” So? Why is it an issue? What should we do about it? Is it just that Jim is so indispensable? Or is it about us not being competitive on the job market anymore?

If an individual contributor comes with information like this it is fine as they are most likely not the ones to resolve it but if a leader and/or a manager makes this sort of statements then you have a problem. A manager who just provides the information without his opinion on what that means is essentially leaving all the work for you. He is just a proxy, a messenger. He did his part “informing” and if there is a problem later on he can always say “I told you so.”

What you should expect from leaders is not just gathering information and relating them to you but also forming opinions and coming up with solutions. The more senior they get the more important it is for them to learn this basic formula for communicating with other senior managers.

Context + Data + Opinion + Proposal = Actionable Information

Context – sometimes it may be necessary to provide a bit of context or “the big picture” to ensure that the actual data/information you want to provide makes sense. However, be very brief and very careful not to over-deliver. As I mentioned in What’s Your Point? you may get lost in providing too much context. Essentially you are providing “why” should we care about the rest.

Data – the actual information you wanted to deliver. Once again be as specific and succinct as possible

Opinion – what is your take on the news? Is it good or bad? What does it mean for the organization? Here you explain what is your position or at least how you understand the data you are providing.

Proposal – what do you propose we do with the information? Do we need to change something in our products? Do we need to change our compensation structure? Or do we just need to have a bigger discussion on the correct approach? Here you should give a proposal on the next steps.

If you follow all these steps you will come up with information that is actionable, information that allows the other participants of the discussion to know what you are saying, why you are saying it, and how you propose to approach it.

Let us go back to the examples from the beginning.

“Jim just told me that CompanyX released a new product,” could be transformed into something like this “CompanyX, the major player in our space [context] just released a new product with significant improvements of functionality [data]. A quick review showed me that it is significantly more powerful than our solution and may negatively impact our sales [opinion]. I suggest a quick survey of our customer base to understand what features are important for them and incorporate them in the next version of our product [proposal].”

Or

“We have a big issue. Jim got a great offer from another company and resigned,” can be communicated this way “To follow up on the compensation discussion from last week. We have already fifth person to resign this month [context]. I just learned that Jim got a significantly higher offer from another company [data]. Based on the trend I believe we need to speed up the compensation adjustments as we don’t seem to be competitive [opinion]. At the same time I plan to do a quick employee survey to make sure we are not missing some other reasons for the retention issues. [proposal]”

Remember, even though both words start with “m” manager shouldn’t be just a messenger. If you want to manage and lead others you need to be able to formulate your own opinion and provide a direction on how to deal with the information provided.

Twitter type summary: “A manager is not a messenger. Always provide Context, Data, Opinion and Proposal to deliver Actionable Information.”

What is your trick on communicating information with your senior management? What do you expect from your team when they communicate with you?

The ugly truth behind having secrets

Information is power. What information should you share with your team? What are the things that are better kept secret? And how does leadership fit into the picture? What secrets should you have as a leader and what things should you never hide? Being strong believer in transparency and honesty I don’t think there are many things that should be kept hidden. I can imagine there can be things that if shared would have legal implications but that’s it. Anything that doesn’t have legal impact should be in the open. Let me make my case.

Reasons to hide information?

I have often heard from managers that some information shouldn’t be shared as they would have negative impact on motivation of the team. The team would question some of the decisions, and people wouldn’t understand why something was necessary. Sometimes there is this fear that when you share information it can be used against you. Let me debunk some of these myths.

Sharing negative information will demotivate the team – why should it? Explaining the situation as it is will be seen as a show of respect and trust. After all, we are dealing with mature adults who know that life is complicated. And if you can follow up with a vision of the future you may even create a sense of urgency and make people act to change things for the best

Things can change – so sharing proposals that are not approved will create friction. People hate uncertainty. And people from most cultures also hate not being included in decisions that impact their lives. Keeping your team in the loop even during a decision making process will allow them to contribute and will create a feeling that their opinion matters. When you share the final decision it will be much easier to accept by the team.

People would question my decision if I share too much information – why should they? I assume you based your decision on a certain set of data points, information, values and beliefs. It is exactly the other way around. People will be more likely to accept the decision if they understand how and why it was made.

If I share this proposal someone may steal it finish and take credit – great! That would free your hands to do other stuff. Getting someone to take your idea and execute it is the best thing that can happen to you as I mentioned in Leave your ego at the door article.

If I share information with others I won’t have advantage over them – why should you have advantage over anyone? You work with the team towards a common goal. The moment you start playing office politics and trying to get advantage over others you no longer work towards that goal and will destroy your reputation as a leader in the nick of time.

I’m the boss, the team doesn’t need to know the details – you are right, they don’t need to know. But again, if you want them to follow you and work towards the common goal the more information you provide the bigger likelihood that they will have the sense of ownership and work to the best of their abilities to achieve the goal.

I’m shielding the team from too much information so they don’t get distracted – why did you hire bunch of legally insane people? And if you hired smart and adult individuals why do you believe you need to filter information for them? It is their responsibility to filter things they need and don’t need. By giving them the opportunity to decide what is important you treat them with respect and it is more likely they will follow you. I love this quote by Ricardo Semler “Workers are adults, but once they walk through the plant gate companies transform them into children.” Or something similar said by Jason Fried in his book Rework – “When you treat people like children, you get children’s work. Yet that’s exactly how a lot of companies and managers treat their employees.”

Why to share information?

And to share one more quote. Some time ago I heard this (not sure about its origin) “In absence of a good story someone else can make up a story of his own.” People love to speculate and imagine things, the less information they have the more wild things they will come up with and the more damaging these speculations will be. Being open and transparent pretty much prevents unwanted speculations and gossip and creates a culture of mutual trust and sense of ownership of the common goal and future of the company. Let us look at a manager who shares information and creates environment of transparency, inclusion and trust.

Transparency and trust – by being transparent you show a great deal of trust that your team will be able to handle the information like reasonable adults. When you trust people they will trust you back.

Inclusion and sense of ownership – by including people in decisions and sharing information with them you are making them part of the decision and you create a sense of ownership.

Honesty and human face – by being open and honest even at times when you are lost and unsure about the correct course of action and if you freely admit mistakes you put a human face on you and will be more acceptable for others. They will follow you because they will know that you won’t lie to safe your face.

Sharing and empowerment – sharing information, sharing responsibility and sharing the means to get things done leads to empowerment. Empowered teams will accomplish the goals, will stay together and will love their work without much external stimuli

What about compensation?

The ultimate test of open environment is sharing information about compensation of the members of the team or at least that of management. Compensation is one of the most emotional topics in the business environment and figuring out a way to get it out of the table can have a really positive effect on productivity and motivation of the team. If you hide the information, you have unclear rules on how are individuals compensated, you don’t communicate openly decisions why someone got increase of salary and why this particular number you create an opportunity for guessing, gossip and false beliefs. People are curious so they will try to estimate salaries of others, their own worth and will most likely create picture that is very far from the reality. Most of us have the tendency of overestimating our own value. At the same time we tend to believe that we are not compensated well enough and the others must make whole bunch more. Why else would they look so happy? Wouldn’t it make sense to introduce as much clarity and transparency so you align better the expectations and the reality?

In a book “Maverick!” Ricardo Semler describes some of the inner workings of Brazilian manufacturing company Semco. It is a workplace where he created completely transparent environment with very flat organizational structure and without hidden agendas and office politics. It is a place run by democratic principles where employees are truly empowered. For example, each of the executives could set their own salaries without any need of someone approving it. Of course, everyone in the company would know their salary so that created environment where people would set salaries for themselves that would be seen as fair by others. Or another example from Semco, before people are hired or promoted to leadership positions, they are interviewed and approved by all who will be working for them. Every six months managers are evaluated by those who work under them. The results are posted for all to see thus pushing the manager to constantly improve and make sure their teams are willing to follow.

Twitter type summary: “Information is power! Give as much power as possible to the team and create a sense of ownership and desire to reach the common goal.”

What is your position? What sort of information do you believe should be hidden from your team and why?