A couple of years ago, I was attending an industry trade show when I ran into an old employer of mine named John. Introducing me to a friend he was with, John said, “This is Jason. He used to work for me. Best project manager I’ve ever had, hands down.”
“Wow,” John’s friend said. “The best project manager John’s ever had? That’s high praise. What’s the secret?”
“Sounds to me like John is really bad at hiring project managers,” I replied.
Jokes aside, it was high praise and I appreciated it, but I couldn’t come up with a great answer at the time. What is it exactly that makes not just a great project manager, but a great manager/leader in general? Since then, I’ve have had the opportunity to work for and with many great people in the industry. Their work styles are as different as their personalities, but they all have at least one thing in common: the best leaders and managers are also the best communicators. And the best communicators transmit their ideas with what I call “Total Clarity.”
How Not To Do It: Total Ambiguity
To illustrate what Total Clarity is all about, it’s best to start by looking at what it is not. While few of us have experienced what it’s like to consistently communicate with Total Clarity, we’ve all experienced what it’s like to communicate with its opposite: Total Ambiguity. The boss receives a lengthy email from an important customer. The email ranges over several broad topics and contains no fewer than a dozen questions/calls to action. The boss forwards the critical email to five different people in the company. Seeing the email come through, you open it expecting to jump in and get to work. But instead of anything resembling a clear directive, you’re greeted with three letters: FYI. No clear expectations. No timelines. No prioritization. No accountability.
Two weeks later, when it comes to light that almost nothing from the email has been resolved, the boss is perplexed, indignant even. “If I only had better people around me,” he tells himself, “maybe things would actually get done around here.”
Other examples of Radical Ambiguity abound. Endless meetings that conclude with no specific next steps/accountability. Grand and visionary business directives tossed at the team one after the other as if they’ll plan and execute themselves. And coworkers who convey information in 1,000 words that could just as easily be said with 100.
The good news is that there are simple principles we can all leverage to communicate with Total Clarity. Below are a few tips. Simply ask yourself the following questions whenever you communicate with your team:
· Have I proactively identified and answered questions? Consider the recipient. What questions is your communication likely to prompt? Take a few extra minutes to pre-emptively answer those questions in your initial communication. Over the course of a workweek (to say nothing of months and years), the amount of back and forth you’ll reduce can make a massive difference in productivity.
· Have I specified my request? It is amazing how often this simple rule gets overlooked. If you are indeed only trying to promote awareness, then say so in the first sentence: “No action required, this is an FYI.” If, in fact, you do expect specific action to take place, then declare that as well. Be direct. Implied requests are as good as no requests.
· Have I checked my assumptions? Be very careful about assuming prior knowledge. If, for example, you are referencing a previous conversation, do not assume your recipient recalls all the details the way you do. If you’re conveying a technical topic, do not automatically assume your recipient has the same level of comfort as you with the topic. Avoid assumptions wherever possible. If you must make an assumption, call it out as such.
· Have I structured my message thoughtfully? No one wants to read a monolithic block of text. Break the ideas up. Organize them logically. Use headings and bulleted/numbered lists to structure your message, and ensure there’s plenty of white space. If you want to be persuasive, you have to first make your ideas digestible.
· Have I made information accessible? A good rule of thumb: whenever you mention an additional resource (a document, spreadsheet, website, etc.), always provide a direct link or attachment. Not only will your recipient appreciate the convenience, but it also reduces the chance for confusion, error, and wasted time.
· Have I assigned clear accountability? This is another one that gets overlooked with amazing frequency. Especially when communicating with multiple people at one, make sure you’ve declared who is expected to take which actions and by when. Diffusion of responsibility is a real phenomenon. And if you’re trying to prompt action, it is the enemy.
Clarity—A Universal Skill
Thinking about the wide variety of skills we could focus on to become the best leaders and managers possible can be overwhelming. Personal organization, attention to detail, empathy, patience, and many more all come to mind. Regardless of your personal style and approach, communication should be at the top of your list. But great communication means different things to different people in different contexts. If you’re looking for one specific skill that will improve your communication in any situation, focus on achieving Total Clarity.