Hocus Focus

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Bathrooms play an outsized role in popular culture. They often serve as the backdrop for intrigue, mystery, even violence. Michael Corleone, James Bond, and Jason Borne had pivotal moments or pitched battles among sinks and stalls. Jurassic Park’s only on-screen death of a human took place on a toilet. And who can forget the shower in the Bate’s Motel from Psycho.

Bathroom humor is also as old as our species. Recently unearthed mosaics from a Roman latrine featured ancient bawdy cartoons. Potty jokes are some of the first humor children learn. And if we were to judge solely based on popular culture, it would appear the bulk of our high school days were spent smoking or scheming in the locker room.

I’ve had my own share of interesting restroom encounters. My first one-on-one conversation with each of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer happened in the bathroom adjacent to the Microsoft board room. During a break in a senior-level personnel review, Bill and I stood outside it chatting leadership. It was the first of many such conversations we had on the subject, but usually in his office.

Then there was the time Rupert Murdoch invited several global human resources executives to Sydney to discuss HR leadership. At a break during dinner the first night I found myself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rupert in the men’s room. In the most awkward of moments, he turned to quiz me about Bill Gates, whom he had yet to meet. I demurred, but we stood outside for several minutes discussing not just Bill, but Microsoft, HR, recruiting, and leadership. It became clear he had timed his break so he could pick my brain. The next day with his son Lachlan, we spent more than an hour discussing their HR team.

But perhaps the most common of all restroom clichés is the confidential conversation accidentally overheard by the unnoticed person in the stall. That plot device has driven the twist in a million stories. When it happened to me in real life, it cemented my perspective on visions and their role in leadership. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

This is the fourth and last of our episodes on the importance of having a vision. In this episode we’ll look at how to use your well-crafted vision. This is Episode Fourteen: Hocus Focus.

The birth of Microsoft Visual Studio was an enormous effort that I was proud to lead. It involved merging hundreds of people from a half-dozen separate products into a single team. The goal was to build what we initially referred to as “Office for Developers”. A single suite of tools programmers would use to build the many programs that made Windows so successful.

The various developer tools had been independent products since the dawn of the company. One of the very first Microsoft products was a Basic compiler. Bringing all the tools under one roof was ambitious and fraught with ancient politics. Some clear guideposts and ground rules were critical.

One of the most fought over components was the code editor, used by programmers to write their masterpieces. History blessed us with two excellent code editing tools, and two warring factions. One celebrated ease of use; the other rich features for power user. Unfortunately, that was one too many.

Our customers wanted to use and learn a single tool. They also wanted to take advantage of any of our languages in that one editor. Internally, it made little sense for two teams to work in parallel on difficult and complex code. The product management team and I agreed, and we set a single editor as a core component of the project’s vision. We had to find a way past the internecine warfare.

During a break in one of the most heated meetings on the subject I was in a bathroom stall. Two meeting participants entered in mid conversation, unaware of my presence. One suggested we simply give up and ship both editors. The other said, without hesitation, “There’s no way Chris would buy into that. He’s said from the start, one editor.” I relished the moment in silence. When the meeting resumed, I didn’t have to say a word. The teams worked it out. Though it took some heroic efforts, we eventually did ship a single, common editor. The product sold over $100 million dollars in its first year. The common editor was a key reason why.

That moment in the bathroom bolstered my passion for the use of visions. Having a clearly stated vision, in this case that we’d build one common editor, is vital to success. It sets expectations and goals. It clarifies decision making. And it makes communication easy.

The other lesson I learned from that bathroom was that it’s impossible to repeat the vision too often. I felt like a broken record, constantly reminding everyone about the vision. I was weary from regurgitating the same sentences, over and over. I thought, “these people must be so tired of hearing the same thing from me, time and again.”

It took my admin, Jill Hoover, to set me straight. As the master of my schedule, she pointed out that I was constantly meeting with different teams, with new sets of people. Some of them were hearing the vision for the first time. I realized that most people need to hear something two or three times for it to really sink in. And it’s not until it becomes a relentless drumbeat that they realize that this is something you’re dead serious about. That it’s really important. That it is immutable.

What seemed like repetition and monotony to me, was being read by the team as clarity and consistency. That very “broken record” quality was, in fact, its strength. And that strength allowed it to become the other thing that good visions are: the heart of decision making.

As I saw in that meeting about the editor, having a clear vision of a single editor allowed me to step back. It freed those building it to work out the problems without micromanagement. I made one key decision, the selection of the editor for the foundation. With that key choice, the details became clear to everyone involved. The teams quickly worked to integrate the two code bases. There were thousands of small decisions that needed to be made, but given the overarching vision, I didn’t have to make them.

This is where clarity of vision truly shines. If the vision is well understood from the bottom to the top of the organization, people feel empowered to make the many small decisions they face every day. They simply know the right thing to do. Which choice realizes the vision? Great, do that.

Nordstrom is an oft-cited example of vision in decision making. For well over a century, customer satisfaction has been their cornerstone. Not profit margins, not gross sales, not customer throughput. Customer satisfaction is their top goal, based on the belief that it will drive all the other metrics. As their web site states: “Fashion changes. Shopping changes. Our commitment to happy customers doesn’t.”

Nordstrom implements this in their famous return policy, where they accept items regardless of the date of purchase. Returns are accepted on a case-by-case basis as decided by the front-line employee at the register. The clerk knows that customer satisfaction is the primary goal, and that the company supports their decision. Does accepting this return retain a valuable customer, or does it simply encourage misuse? Their call. It’s empowering for the employee. It delights many customers. And it frees management to worry about larger issues. Certainly, there is a fraction of abuse, but that cost is well worth it.

Key to making Nordstrom’s customer satisfaction vision work is the consistent support of the entire leadership chain. The first time the vision isn’t taken seriously, the instant it is ignored in decisions, it collapses. If even one Nordstrom employee got their pay docked over a mishandled return, it would echo through the company, and rock the entire foundation of the vision. It takes strength of leadership to recognize that people are human, mistakes will be made, but the endurance of the vision is worth the price.

You see the banner in the workshop, “safety is our number one priority”. Or the sign behind the register, “the customer is always right”. Ford ran ads with “quality is job one”. Countless companies have similar phrases plastered on their trucks, IDs, or business cards. When there’s an incident the spokesperson trots out “the safety of our customers comes first.”

And no one believes a word of it. Because time and again, their leadership proves these words hollow. They make business decisions that make it clear safety is not their number one priority. That the customer is often wrong, at least from the company’s perspective. That quality, while important, is certainly not more important than profits.

The employees don’t believe it. Neither do their customers. They become hollow empty words. Just cartoon gibberish. Not to be trusted, just more hype.

This erosion of value then taints everything else. Everyone wonders if words really matter. Further, they learn that if words and actions don’t match, follow the actions. Believe nothing your leadership tells you, watch what they do. Eventually all anyone can do is wait for the actions.

The result is a lag that can be fatal for an organization on the move. If no one acts on words but needs to wait for actions, the delay is painful to watch. And can be a huge competitive disadvantage. Stretch goals or lofty objectives are ignored as everyone waits on the other to make the first move.

Worse, this corrosive attitude leaches through every pore of the organization. Cynicism abounds. Trust is eroded. It inevitably spills out to the customers who see the internal despair and rot. The downward spiral is relentless. All because they didn’t say what they mean or do what they said.

I spent a lot of time in the last three episodes trying to convince you that vision matters. That your words matter. But it all hinges on your actions matching your words. You do that in two clear ways: repetition and decision making.

First: repetition. Repeat the vision until you don’t think you can possibly repeat it again. Then repeat it a few more times. You know you’re getting through when your team starts repeating it back to you. Best is if they beat you to it.

Outside your team, use it in your communications up the chain and throughout the organization. A consistent clear vision radiates thoughtful leadership. It must be genuine. “We’re doing X, we believe X is right, and we’re going to consistently work toward X.” Your success metric should be when people are tired of hearing you talk about it. Best is when they start to refer to you as “professor X” or some such similar nickname.

Make the vision the centerpiece of your external communications, in the marketing, messages to the media, or just casual conversation. Consistency of vision is priceless as a foundation for the brand. Even if your project isn’t public, your vision makes a great elevator speech. It helps you look like a leader. Here too, you can tell if you have it right when people automatically, without prompting, associate the vision with the project. And with you.

Second, make your decisions based on the vision — to ensure your actions match your words. When you first are faced with a decision, check to see if you can use the vision to decide. Maybe the vision doesn’t help in this case. But very often it can and does.

If you base your decisions on the vision, it not only reinforces the vision, it can simplify the decision-making process. The crucial part of most decisions is deciding the lever, the tipping point, upon which to base the decision. For the best leaders I’ve seen, this ability to identify the crux of a decision is their superpower, due to their laser-like perspective. A great vision helps bring the lever into focus, and often makes the choice clear.

To help yourself do this, a simple trick is to repeat the vision out loud before you make the decision. Just to yourself, perhaps. “When you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s difficult to remember your initial mission was to drain the swamp.” Purposefully recalling your vision can help you refocus on the true objective. You know you’ve done this right when the vision is the first thing you think of when faced with a tough choice.

Once you’ve made the choice, make it clear to everyone how the decision was made. “As our vision clearly states, we need to do X, and this choice reinforces that.” The difference between command and leadership is largely the why. It can be as simple as “we are doing X because the vision makes it clear.” But knowing why you made a choice helps with buy in. The metric for success at this point is when people feel the choice was obvious. In hindsight, doing anything else seems like it would’ve been silly.

Teach your team to use the vision. When they come to you for decisions, ask them to make it using the vision. “Well, which of these options most support the vision?” Help them to see the decision points through the vision. Empower them, through the vision to make the choice themselves. Your metric here should be what I overheard in that bathroom: the team making decisions based on the clearly understood vision.

Through all of this, if your vision doesn’t fit, you’ll know it soon. If your vision doesn’t help, perhaps you have the wrong vision. But more often than not, a good vision will provide the clarity and focus your project, and your team, need. Even crave.

In summary, it’s not enough to have a vision, you need to use it. To make the thousands of decisions project leadership entails. And the best way to use your vision is to repeat it. Over and over. To your team. To your peers. To your leadership. To your customers. Until, as they say, you’re blue in the face. Echo your vision before you need it. As you make decisions with it. And after you’ve used it.

In the end, your great vision will prove to be the magical point of Hocus Focus.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site, CLWill.com. That’s C-L-W-I-L-L.com.

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That’s it for this episode, and for our look at the importance of vision. In the next episode we’ll dive back into the details and begin a series on firing. On when and how to let go. We’ll begin by looking at how to handle prima donnas. It’s called “Superstar”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.