Mark My Words

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The first notes of the band in the distance wedged their way into the warm Maui evening. The sunset had been near perfect, a gentle fade from late afternoon blue through its final flash of orange. The sky was now an ever-darker violet. The wind had died, the waves on the beach were almost too subtle to hear. Then, in moment, the warm tropical embrace was disrupted by an awkward cover of Steve Miller’s “Jet Airliner”.

It prodded us out of the comfort of the beach chairs, our home for the afternoon, and back toward our room. The path wound around the resort’s gardens and toward the glare of the festivities. Dozens of voices strained over the band, nearly as loud as the island-wear clothing everyone sported.

Sprinkled about were enormous white lighted orbs perched high on poles. They must have been five feet in diameter, and they made the patio brighter than midday. They had the event logo on them, but it was impossible to read against their intense, electronic glare. All I could make out was a clumsy jumble of L18 at the center, ringed by some smaller writing.

The logo was everywhere. On a banner over the buffet. On the neatly pressed polos of the staff. On the conventioneer’s badges. But I couldn’t read the fine print.

L18. What could it mean? Not right for a bingo ball, even though the orbs were the perfect design for it. The call from a giant game of battleship? Not likely. What could it mean?

Then there it was. A discarded napkin on the path. The name of the company was Hilton Grand Vacations, the timeshare sister company of our hotel. It all became clear. This was Leadership 2018, a boondoggle for their top salespersons.

I have seen plenty of these events, even been to a few. They are excused as rewards, often for sales teams, and usually include spouses, sometimes the whole family. They conduct just enough business to qualify as write-offs. But mostly it’s just a perk — a family vacation in a gorgeous setting — sold to upper management as an incentive for the team. In this case to spur them on to selling yet more of their “fantastic timeshare opportunities”.

Along with the company name, the rest of the ring on the logo was the event’s theme. Every large group gathering, it seems, needs a theme. If only for something to put on the shirts, the napkins, and the enormous lighted orbs. These themes, these catchphrases, are dreamt up as afterthoughts. They are often inane. This one especially so.

What was the theme for this gathering of sales leaders for a timeshare company? “Building Inspired Strategies” 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 third of our episodes on the importance of having a vision. In this episode we’ll look at how to decide on a great vision for your project. This is Episode Thirteen: Mark My Words.

This stupid event was stressing him out. The whole last week had been one fight after another about who deserved to go, could they bring their fiancé, and why some member of his staff just had to be there to take care of this detail or that. He just wanted the whole thing done.

Then she showed up at his office door. She had a clipboard and at least three dozen more decisions he needed to make. Seriously, he thought, why does a simple sales boondoggle need to be this complicated?

She peppered him with decisions. Does this meeting schedule look OK? Where should the reception be? And of course, he had to finalize the theme. They needed to get the order in for the polo shirts, the napkins, and the decorations.

She didn’t really care about the theme, she was just the event planner. She had venues and plane flights to worry about, bands to schedule, meals to plan. All she knew is that she needed a logo, and the logo needed a theme. As she had a dozen times before, she turned to Buzzword Mad Libs.

Let’s play the Buzzword Mad Libs game! All you need is three simple words:

For your first word, we need an action verb. Something ending in -ing. Choose one like defining, creating, or realizing. Better yet is something strong, and powerful. Like building, driving, crafting, or maybe even forging.

The second word of your Buzzword Mad Lib is a lofty adjective. Like unique, creative, outstanding, or inspired. The more over-the-top the better. How about proactive, or better yet world-class.

To finish you need a plural noun. Maybe partnerships or results. Except those aren’t vague enough, so maybe it’s foundations or strategies. Or my personal favorite: solutions.

And there you have it, the perfect buzzword theme: Forging World-Class Solutions. Or is it Crafting Unique Partnerships? It doesn’t really matter. Whatever you choose, it’s perfect and ready for the t-shirt, the napkin, or the lighted orb. And it’s guaranteed to be forgotten as quickly as the event it accompanied.

Do I know that’s how Hilton Grand Vacations came up with “Building Inspired Strategies”? No. But I’m pretty certain the story wasn’t far from that. And I’m equally sure no one at that event built a single strategy in between the Mai Tais, let alone an inspired one.

You can find these delicious morsels of word salad wherever you look. A favorite place of mine to find them is on the side of trucks. These massive mobile billboards are ideal locations for bits of corporate mumbo jumbo.

The other day I spotted a truck of the Old Dominion Freight Line sporting the gem “driving outstanding solutions”. Cute. Especially since it was a meaningless as the tagline they sport on their web site: “Helping the World Keep Promises”. What does that even mean for a trucking company? Someone at Old Dominion clearly likes it, they trademarked it more than a decade ago.

Do these words really matter? Aren’t they just marketing cr**? Doesn’t everybody do them? Who cares what’s on the napkins or the side of the truck? Why should a leader invest time in them?

Because, simply put, words matter. This is one of the hardest things for new leaders to learn, and it’s something I find myself reminding even the most experienced of them. Your words matter, and your team listens to each and every one. They will replay them, dissect them, and try to interpret them. And they will telegraph your words in their work, and to your customers. Your words echo in ways you can’t even imagine.

It’s clear to most good leaders that honesty is important. You need to speak the truth, and people inside your organization and out need to be able to take you at your word. This is a hard-earned lesson taken to heart by the best leaders.

But equally important is the lesson that you shouldn’t waste words. Don’t treat messages to your employees and your customers as disposable. When you do, you confuse people. Are these words important, or are they just more throwaways? And when you really need to be heard, when your words really need to matter, you won’t be taken seriously. You end up sounding like blah, blah, blah.

Take every chance you get to convey something as an opportunity to define or reinforce your team’s culture. To clarify the objectives. To make decisions. To reward or rebuke. To set targets. As a leader, you need to value your words, and use them carefully.

That’s why what you choose for the mission, for the vision, and yes, for the event theme, matters. And you shouldn’t just toss those words out on a t-shirt, a truck, or a lighted orb without plenty of thought.

The best way to create a great vision is to start at first principles. First decide what you stand for, because you have to stand for something. Stake out some ground. Fence off your corner of the world and commit to owning it.

Then decide on some objectives. Refine these down to two or three core objectives for the project. Build the foundation of the vision from there.

If you have more than a few, say more than five, objectives, you probably have too many. No human can remember more than three to five things at one time. With more than a few objectives, people will pick a few and focus on them. Some will get forgotten, or at least get short shrift. And that selection will vary throughout the team. Some people will focus on these few, others on those few. You’ll have a mess. Best to stick to a small number, so that you can actually get things done.

But what, you say, if I truly need this project to handle these 10, 12, 15 different things? Split them up. Either divide them over time – do these few this time, postpone the others for later. Or divide them over teams — have one team handle these few, another team handle those few. And give each of those teams, clearly defined visions for their work on their handful of objectives.

Once you have the core objectives, figure out a way to make them measurable. Some way to know where you are at any given moment, and when you’re done. This can be statistical or economic, even sociological, but it needs to be clear and indisputable. I’m not a fan of vague adjectives like “creative” or “inspired”. I love superlatives — words ending in -est, like fastest or largest, as they set the bar very high. I shy away from vague superlatives like “unique” since that’s open to interpretation. Best of all are simple, hard numbers. Specific targets for sales, installations, market position, test scores, and so on.

The goal is for the target to be clear, obvious, and hard to argue with. There will be plenty of things to argue about as the project goes along, don’t let the vision be one of them. Make it a target everyone understands how to interpret and measure.

It’s also great if the target is hard. Really hard. I like it when the rollout of a vision is greeted by gasps from the team. But you have to be careful, they need to be gasps, like “oh wow”, not laughter. As in “yeah, right”.

All visions need to feel like a part of the overall mission. Does a vision targeting customer satisfaction make sense? Or is the mission more focused on sales, or some other objective? The last thing you want is for your team to be headed off target. Even if you’re convinced it’s the right goal, being at odds with others will make everything harder. You’ll struggle to get senior-level support, needed resources, and even cooperation from other teams. You and your team will seem like outliers, and maybe even suffer at performance review time.

So, make sure you pick a vision that fits in well — reinforcing, not fighting, the organization’s mission. Like it’s just one more step on the road to achieving it.

You need to test your vision by trying it out on several sets of people. The boss, for example, and their boss. A few of your direct reports, the ones you trust the most. And if you can do it delicately, a couple of the stars further down in the organization. Do they gasp or laugh? Is the response “heck, yeah we can do that”? Or is it “are you out of your mind”?

But don’t go too far in sampling the vision. I love a good rollout. And the project kickoff, with a great unveiling of the vision is the ideal time to make a splash. It’s the perfect way to build energy, and buy-in, for the project and its vision. Make a production out of it. Roll it out with conviction. Heck maybe even a t-shirt or two. But perhaps you can skip the enormous lighted orbs.

Let’s circle back to themes. Is an event’s theme really the same as the vision I’ve talked so much about? Of course, it should be. The event is a project, one that has a set of goals to accomplish. And like I’ve said in the last two episodes, every project needs a clear, crisp vision. A vision that sets the target and meshes well with the goals of the organization.

So, let’s return to our Maui boondoggle, and see if we can help them. The purpose for the Hilton Grand Vacations event was to reward the top sales performers and to serve as a carrot to the rest of the organization. To spur their best sales efforts. Next year, that’ll be me, you want them thinking. That’s a pretty simple set of objectives, and clearly a Hawaiian vacation is a pretty easy way to hit that out of the park.

As we’ve discussed, you also need to consider this project’s place in the larger organization. This is hard to do without knowing Hilton in detail, but we can guess. As a timeshare company, the sales of those shares is the main source of revenue. Therefore, setting the goals for the sales team is paramount to the success of the whole organization.

I also don’t know Hilton Grand Vacation’s mission statement. There is none on their web site. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if they didn’t have one. But I would bet the corporate goals would be tied to providing enjoyable vacation experiences, to ensure repeat business and develop goodwill.

With that framework then, what are good goals for this event? Having a good time is implicit, and certainly doesn’t need to be on the napkins. The reward part is less obvious but needs to be clearly stated. A huge “thank you” to these stars needs to come from everyone, and that might be a good theme. But that’s looking back. It misses the chance to set a target going forward.

Better yet, would be to echo the larger corporation’s goals for next year. Here again, I don’t know them, but I’m certain these goals have been firmly established and are quite clear. Perhaps it’s a certain sales target, say 20% growth. Or to hit some magic number, say $25 million in gross sales. Those might be good visions: “20% Growth for 2020”, or “Hit 25 in 2020”. They’re extremely clear, and very measurable.

But, maybe we can do better. If they care about their customers, how about targeting the highest customer satisfaction in the industry? You can measure customer satisfaction in a variety of ways. (Some of them are silly, will touch on that in a later episode.) But it can be measured. And I would bet they do analysis that includes customer satisfaction of their competitors. So why not set the bar very high?

And now we have a better theme for the event. “Industry-Leading Customer Satisfaction”. Not some vague buzzwords. It’s clear and crisp, measurable and memorable, and it fits well with corporate objectives. Best of all, it would fit on a napkin, a t-shirt, and banner. Because it mirrors larger company goals, it would even outlive the team’s tans. People will fly home with their eyes on the ball, or the enormous lighted orb.

We’ve now seen an example of how to create a vision with some meaning. But now that you have this vision, how do you use it day-to-day? That’s next time. We’ll look at how to communicate the vision, how to use it to help make decisions, and how to measure progress against it. Again, that’s next time. In the meantime, remember to carefully craft your vision to be memorable. So that everyone will find it easy to “mark my words”.

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, That’s

Check out the show notes for a link to where you’ll find a photo of Hilton’s lighted orbs, as well as a transcript and a place for your comments. If you like the show, please subscribe and rate it in your podcast app, every rating helps new people find it. And please share the show with your friends. Just click that little share button in your podcast app right now to spread the word.

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That’s it for this episode. In the next episode we’ll continue our look at the importance of vision. Next we’ll explore how to communicate and use vision to help your team perform. It’s called “Hocus Focus”. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.