The critical leadership technique most often forgotten - Technical.ly DC

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Jul. 12, 2019 12:00 pm

The critical leadership technique most often forgotten

Excella Cofounder and Partner Steve Cooper takes a deep dive into some tactics for using symbolism to successfully lead a company.
Excella Cofouder Steve Cooper at a NSBE conference.

Excella Cofouder Steve Cooper at a NSBE conference.

(Photo via @ClassicScoop on Twitter)

This is a guest post by Excella Cofounder and Partner Steve Cooper.
Authenticity. Prioritization. Delegation. If you’re leading anything nowadays, you’re probably sharpening some aspect of your leadership.

You read a book, go to a conference, take a class, and almost all of it is designed to improve your thinking, and to what end? The ultimate output of your improved self almost always manifests itself in your communication—in knowing what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. No matter the scope or aim of your project, messages that immediately resonate share one thing in common: symbolism.

We all know that communication is the most fundamental leadership tool, but here’s where it gets interesting: most leaders invest too many resources into the wrong aspects of communication instead of focusing on making their message more compelling. It’s like a fisherman who keeps launching more boats and dropping more lines, without ever putting bait on the hook. And every time more lines are dropped in the water, inevitably a few fish decide the fisherman’s mediocre offering is good enough to connect with, and ‘progress’ is declared.

Let’s look at today’s conventional business communication and we easily see how much investment we put in messages that we consider ‘critical’—from scheduling meetings and arranging catering to organizing conferences. We narrate our messages, point by point, in a straightforward (but dry) fashion and repeat them on multiple platforms as we’re told that our audience must hear something seven times in different ways before our message is meaningfully absorbed.

Is this what good communication looks like?  If so, how did millions of Americans instantly grasp the deep meaning of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, in eight inches of snow, transmitted on grainy black and white television sets?  And how did the Ice Bucket Challenge drive one charity’s annual donations from $20 million in 2013 to $100 million in 2014?

Don’t be tempted to call these examples exceptions because of big world impact. The most effective communicators invest their resources into finding (or creating) a symbol that crystalizes their message. A symbol can be an example, a metaphor, or any device that distills a message into a lightning bolt of instant understanding. And often, effective symbols are harnessed from domains distant from the subject matter at hand.

Examples of the power of compelling symbols are so common; it’s hard to imagine why we don’t naturally call upon this technique more readily.  Here are a few:

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JFK’s challenge of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” wasn’t just about a space program, and he knew the audience would get that.  It represented the idea of a nation stretching its collective resources to make big leaps forward. If he had just said “let us stretch our collective resources to make big leaps forward,” there’s not a PowerPoint deck in the world that could match the instant resonance of the moonshot challenge.

Why did Gandhi spin his own clothes?  He wasn’t just making clothes; he was sending a message. Think of how many Indian citizens were inspired by the image of him spinning what he wore, instead of using mere words to encourage the Indian people to “find peaceful ways to be self-reliant and boycott British goods.”

In 2005, Bill and Melinda Gates recognized that millions of lives could be saved by preventing mosquitoes from spreading malaria, far more than AIDS, cancer and aircraft accident deaths.  But how do you get this message across?  After almost four years of speaking on this topic, Bill Gates sought a more compelling communication method, and in 2009, he found one.  During his TED Talk, he released a jar of mosquitoes into the audience, saying: “Not only poor people should experience this.”

You might think that your messages aren’t as compelling as motivating a nation or saving millions of lives.  If that’s the case, your need for symbolism is even more critical.  So how can you do it?  Here are some examples of ideas to get you started:

The CEO of a startup ad agency wants to explain to her team how important it is for them to hit $2 million in sales next year.  She’s determined that hitting that number will enable them to make the investments needed to serve new clients and compete in a new marketplace. In addition to publishing the conventional bar graph with bullet points, here’s a message using symbolism that could drive her point home:

“Company life cycles are like human lives: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. And for us to reach the success of our adulthood, we must advance past our awkward teenage years. We’re entering that phase now, and it’s unavoidable.  My plan is to move us through that period as quickly as possible. When we hit $2 million next year, it will mean we’ve made it through our awkward adolescence, and only then will we realize our full potential.”

Another example:

A services company plans to enter the product business, which will require it to be much more attentive to high-volume sales, and much less attentive to satisfying each customer at the 100 percent level. In addition to explaining that in factual terms, the CEO could use a food-service example:

“Our services clients love what we do for them. That’s because in a way, we’ve been catering royal banquets one delicious meal at a time. We don’t rest until our customers are delighted with every bite they eat.  Now we’re opening a French fry carry-out window on the beach. The name of the game for that team is going to be consistency and speed, which are values we haven’t stressed until now.”

An effective symbol doesn’t have to be a sweeping, poetic allegory; just as effective is a well-thought-out parallel between the outside world and the intricate domain of your team.

You’d never throw an empty hook into the water expecting outstanding results, even if you’ve got the best boat and you’re fishing at the best time of day.  Likewise, infusing symbolism – which requires a modicum of creative analysis – into your communication is more important than your PowerPoint template, your conference room lighting and your meeting schedule.  Not only will it immediately connect your audience to the message, it will often keep you from having to narrate your bullet points six more times.

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