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The irony is, the higher the performance level in sport the clearer and simpler; roles, communications, goals and instructions are. Senior leadership teams appear to be the opposite; many competing priorities, a complex matrix of goals and a shifting sand of importance of deliverables.

Elite sport has got it worked out. When the pressure comes on the ability to split our attention disappears (as if it was strong to begin with) and we want to be focusing on executing the most important task at that moment.  Corporately we drift. This focus this month, this department measured one way compared to another, confusing messages and fingers crossed, it all somehow works out.

If you confuse them, you will lose them!

In states of confusion humans prioritise “making sense” before anything else. If your team or business is confused, they are not performing, at best they’ll be doing what is most comfortable. In that moment you have lost their leadership and they are doing their own thing.

Try this one simple question.   Ask members of your leadership team “what is the most important goal for us to get right this year” – then stand back and listen. Take their answers literally, don’t blend their responses so that you feel good about having a high performing team. If they aren’t word for word the same, you don’t have alignment – simple, there is no other answer. If you don’t have alignment then your leaders and their teams are servicing other goals than the primary one which you thought they were focused on, meaning you are throwing good resources down a pipe that is not leading to where you want.

Russie Erasmus was able to turn the performance of the Springboks around in just under two years. They went from being eighth in the world to being World Cup champions and it wasn’t all about just playing better rugby. He made things simple for the players to understand, simple plans to execute, consistent with players he chose (the squad didn’t have to think about who was playing beside them this week). Consistency is something he speaks of building and consequently winning occurs.

What we often see around the table of the corporate leadership team is a group of very bright people trying to be successful at multiple agendas. Now I have no problem with that, but what happens is complexity and ambiguity are passed downline and finally rests with the people who are unable to manage it. We see subtle elements of confusion, running from one objective to another, a culture which is driven from mid-levels of the business and when the leadership realise that, it’s too late as they’ve already lost the reigns.

The problem of course is, if you want to create simple and easy “straight line” focus for your team you need to make tough calls at the top and explain why you have chosen; growth over profit, market share over new products, production over quality and safety over speed. These are no doubt not mutually exclusive but if the leadership team can’t make the decision and provide clear and simple explanations, don’t expect anyone else to.

Here’s the clues that your leadership team is not making the business intent simple and clear;

  • Varying answers to the question “what is the business’s main focus?”
  • Measures of success cycle up and down
  • Cut through and sustainability of results is hard to achieve.
  • There are many voices advocating for differing things
  • Nonalignment across key functional groups.

What’s being suggested is simple but not easy, however, what we are asking of leaders is to; manage the complexity, be succinct, make it  easy for us to understand and follow you and manage the ambiguity at your level – are you up for the challenge? If not what the consequence for the rest of us?

What’s your experience in managing competing agendas? How do you create clear and simple messages to engage others and make them feel safe?