Saturday, September 26, 2009

Focus, guts, and great communication

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,” said Dr. Seuss, “nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

I agree with that. But as we all know, caring is not enough. You need discipline, dedication, and relentless focus too. And unfortunately, few organizations seem to have these qualities—especially the last one.

The link between focus and success is so obvious and well-established that it seems silly to get up on a soapbox about it. It’s as plain as the nose on your face - if you don’t define success, and you don’t do everything you can to achieve it, then you will by definition fail. Or more accurately, flail. Like a duck, flapping its wings and quacking, and going nowhere.

In an organizational context, a lack of focus goes together with a lack of shared performance measures that define success. In fact, there is a de-emphasis on metrics altogether; nobody likes to talk about that.

In the place of measures is anecdotal evidence, informal feedback, and an inward focus. You hear a lot of feel-good stories and not so much in the way of painful self-examination. Personality cults, power plays, and cultural dysfunction become the norm, and there is no officially sanctioned way to air and clear the tough issues.

In short, in the unfocused organization, the definition of reality is “so-and-so said so,” rather than something objective, externally measurable, that the average person can understand.

Why do so many organizations tend to be unfocused? Isn’t that what leaders get paid to take care of?

Never having been a CEO or the head of an agency, I can’t speak from a view of the executive suite. But I can speak from the perspective of a marketer and public affairs specialist who is accustomed to watching the headlines play out. And what I see is that leaders are frequently caught between the demands of their diverse stakeholder groups, each with their own priorities and goals, and sometimes even demanding completely opposite things of the organization as a result. It is impossible to satisfy everyone — no sooner do you make a move in one direction than the people on the opposite side start screaming.

Consequently, it almost becomes logical to refuse to focus at all. Instead, the leader might choose to maintain a stance in which the organization does just enough of everything it is supposed to do, but not so much that anyone will protest. It’s the choice to be mediocre, a choice that virtually guarantees that no one constituency is ever alienated too much.

This may not even be a conscious choice – just a pattern that organizations fall into, and that trickles painfully down until being average becomes a standard of good performance.

In my opinion, this is particularly an issue in government as versus the private sector. In a corporation, earning more than you spend, generally speaking, equals success (I know I am oversimplifying things for the sake of making a point). In government it is not about the money. Rather it is about performing the mission, albeit efficiently in terms of how the money is used, to serve the public. But often, there are many different voices that go into defining what “performing the mission” means.

So how does government, and in particular how do government leaders, overcome the curse of mediocrity and achieve the kind of focus which can exponentially enhance productivity toward a defined set of goals? That’s the million, billion, trillion-dollar question.

I have the answer in four letters.

G – U – T – S.

That’s right, guts.

It takes guts to be a real leader. Not just a leader in name only, but a leader who fulfills a mandate for action. Rule #1 of marketing is that you cannot sell all things to all people – no matter how good your product is. So if you are a leader, somebody is going to take issue with your programs, your priorities, and even with you. And they will oppose you – subtly or obviously, nicely or threateningly, with crowds or in one on one meetings - in an effort to bring you down.

Assuming you can handle the opposition, you also have your own inner fears, your demons, to deal with. Those will also try to bring you down.

Gutsy leaders can handle them too.

When you have a gutsy leader, you know it right away from the quality of their communication. They hire or train writers to issue statements that are clear, simple, to the point, that have a meaning. Statements that are not at all vague or complex or full of acronyms and jargon. Statements whose sentences are not a paragraph long. Statements that the reader reads and walks away from having actually understood what was said, whether they like it or not.

Gutsy leaders say, here’s what I’m going to do about things. Take it or leave it. And they keep that focus even at the cost of risking their own livelihoods, because they know that leadership is not a popularity contest but an effort aimed at achieving real results. They communicate so strongly not because they are slick Madison Avenue types who want to sell a piece of propaganda, and not because they are egotistical about how great they are for coming up with a particular plan, but because they are passionately dedicated to what they are doing. Even if they are wrong in the end – and it is human to be wrong - they are as committed as warriors to what they are doing.

And that is why, when a gutsy leader speaks, people listen. Even if they’ve never taken a writing class in their life.

Notes: All views my own and not those of my agency. Please feel free to repost.