‘You’re getting warmer’ is not a good way to exercise executive leadership

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I’ve come to believe that most leaders are unintentionally playing a game of “You’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder” when it comes to creating clarity around their organization’s purpose, vision and values.

It’s really hard on talented and self-motivated people to not understand where their leader wants them to go. Many work to figure out the direction by trying things and then seeing how their leader reacts to it. Sometimes they’re getting warmer, which feels good and hopeful, but all too often, it’s a frustrating and embarrassing version of, “No, you’re getting colder.”

This is much less functional than creating clarity for the team around purpose, vision and values. Virtually any leader would agree with me on this. So why are so many not doing it? It’s really hard work!

Successful leaders often are very intuitive. They have a sense of what will work and what won’t, but that sense doesn’t bubble up until they’re in the moment. With hard work, and maybe a coach to help them find their clarity, they can turn that intuition into clear and consistent direction.

When we help someone pursue this clarity our coaches will ask clients to describe what their organization will look like years from now. Or, “How do you know what to say yes to and no to?”

When faced with these kinds of questions, a client often will respond with, “Oh, that’s hard to say.” Exactly! “That would be hard” often stops a person from going further. Now if they have a bulldog coach in front of them, they will persist and do the hard work of digging for clarity.

It might take many more questions, and a lot more listening, but usually they can get to a place where they find the clarity that the team needs. Doing the hard work of turning intuition into clear direction is worth the effort so you can plan your work and work your plan.

So how are you doing at this? You might stop and ponder that for a moment.

After the hard work of creating clarity, then comes the next hard part — you need to turn those clear thoughts into effective communication so others understand them.

Once again, this is hard work. Most leaders don’t do this hard work. Instead, they do all of the other work that keeps them super busy, often over-functioning in areas their people should be covering and then telling their people “you’re getting colder” when they take on tasks they know are theirs to do.

We know from research that important messages need to be communicated several times and in several different ways. We’ve adopted the expression, seven times/seven ways. This means that once you get your clear direction into words, you have to figure out other ways to get that clarity into the team’s psyche. This will be done through words, visuals, decisions, actions and behaviors. Another expression we like is, “I can’t hear what you’re saying because your actions speak too loud.” Keep this in mind when you’re working on ways to communicate your vision.

The good news is, if you’re willing to do this hard work, it has a great return on investment. Your people will know where they’re going and they won’t have to ask you so many questions. Of course, you’ll have to train your ego to be OK with that.

They will be aligned and pulling in the same direction, which creates great momentum. They won’t be frustrated with your lack of clarity and they will have more energy and passion for the work and the team. The results are so much better and the process is much more fun, which also helps you retain and attract great talent — one of the great challenges of our time.

All of this requires the hard work needed to create clarity, communicate it and be OK not being the center of it all as the grand master of the game “You’re getting warmer, you’re getting colder.”

Creating clarity of purpose, vision and values is one of the simple but hard things we can do in West Michigan to be a cut above the rest, thus making our region the hotbed of the best leaders in the country.

Rodger Price is the founder and managing partner of Leading by DESIGN, an executive development firm in Grand Rapids.

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