Repeat After Me

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It’s hard to avoid coffee in Seattle. There really is an espresso hut or a Starbucks just about every other block. And against my best efforts, coffee has wormed its way deep into my heart.

My mother was a coffee snob long before it was cool. As far back as the 1960s she brewed an obscure French coffee brand, with chicory in it. The aroma penetrating the house was the most pungent alarm clock ever. She’d brew it so strong you could stand a spoon in it, strong enough to permanently stain every cup in the house. When I was but six I vividly remember trying it, as my mother looked on with a sly smirk. The pure disgust from that tiny sip would stick with me for years.

Fast forward a decade. A ski trip with a family friend to Otsego, Michigan. One morning we awoke to bitter cold, twenty below zero. The snow crunched and the air burned, draining the motivation to venture outside. My best friend egged me on with a steaming thermos. Haunted by my mother’s cup, I resisted. The instant blend of coffee he poured was little more than hot brown water with an acrid odor. The diametric opposite of my mother’s sludge. It cemented my loathing for coffee and lead to further years of abstinence.

Another decade passed. My very first day on the job at Microsoft. Our liaison escorted a small group to the cafeteria for a mid-morning break. They had a dedicated Starbucks bar brewing a range of delights: lattes, mochas, americanos. My host was having a dopio espresso, others favored a latte, I had a simple drip coffee, black. With the first sip, the heavens opened. Where had this nectar been all my life? It was great coffee, expertly brewed, the very antithesis of my two previous cups.

For the thirty years hence, I can’t recall a day without coffee. Good coffee, strong, black, and the sooner the better.

This makes the simple unreliability of our Keurig machine a source of great frustration. I like two small strong cups each morning. The machine has a size button, I always choose the small. Alas, it brews whatever size it chooses, not infrequently overflowing the cup.

“How hard can it be?” I curse. Just repeat the same thing I did yesterday. And the day before. For the previous 30 years. Simple repetition. How hard indeed. 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 episode continues the series on communication as a leader. This time it’s about getting the message out. This is Episode 220 — Repeat After Me.

One of the first and most impactful things you learn as a leader is that people listen to you. Really listen. Whether you’re ready or not, whether it’s sage wisdom or a slip of the tongue, your team hears you.

I discovered this more than once by letting my flippant wit turn into a meme, long before memes were a thing. My casual clever asides got echoed and rubbed like salt in a wound, for both me and my team. Sometimes for years.

I find myself counseling new leaders about this often. Their response is frequently one of incredulity. Why, they ask, would anyone care? Their life thus far has been as an individual contributor, where their opinion may have had value, but it rarely had impact. Sure, people may hear me, they think, but why would it really matter?

It helps new leaders and old to see this from their team’s perspective. The team wants to do great work, they want to excel, they want the project to be a resounding success. And to get there, they want a leader. Someone who sets the course and clears the path ahead. And if you earn their trust, they will listen. Even hang on every word.

The impact of their rhetoric can be disquieting for first time leaders. But like most superpowers when used for good, it can be amazing. If used wisely.

Alas, using the power of attention wisely is the hard part.

We’ve talked about it here on this podcast several times, including a whole series in season one. Visions are important, they have strength. A clear, crisp vision can empower your team in many ways. It charts a distinct course, a defined direction. It provides comfort in times of uncertainty. It allows you and the team to make decisions. To decide what’s on the path to the vision, and what isn’t. It even empowers them to decide these things in your absence.

To enable this strength of a vision, you need to be clear. You need to tell them what the objectives are. You need to define the strategy and tactics to get there. You need to help them keep to the vision.

And you need to repeat it. It’s been proven for well over a century that the key to remembering things is repetition. For individuals surely, but for organizations even more so.

In 1885, Herman Ebbinghaus’s famous study entitled “On Memory” showed that people need to hear something seven times to remember it. Later studies have placed the number as high as 30 times. Whatever the number, people need to hear something again and again to make it indelible. Just ask any advertiser.

So you as a leader need to not only chart the vision, you need to repeat the vision. Clearly, consistently, and frequently. Repeat after me…

As a leader you meet with people all the time. You have regular meetings, one-on-one meetings, staff meetings, all hands meetings, special team meetings. Big groups, small groups, and individuals. Sometimes it’s one group, sometimes it’s another. Too many meetings, we all agree.

And in these meetings, you’re often looked to for guidance. So you try your best, you remember Ebbinghaus, you know what to do. You take every single chance to pull things back to the vision.

You frame every answer in terms of the vision. When someone says, “should we do this”, you say, “well since it aligns perfectly with the vision, sure, we should do this”. You often begin your presentations with the vision. You make it part of performance reviews. You remind your boss and peer leaders about the vision. You use it when talking externally.

You do it so often, you get sick of it. You see the vision in your sleep. I sound like an idiot, you think. All people hear is my spewing the vision.

But it’s not enough. Not by a long shot.

Think about all those many meetings. Those meetings with all those different groups, with all those different people. Each one of those groups heard you reference the vision probably just once. And remember Ebbinghaus, you need at least seven, and maybe thirty of those impressions. If you meet with just ten different groups, you need to repeat the vision 70, or perhaps as many as 300 times. As I said, your feeling of repetition is not only off, it’s way off.

Yes of course the groups will overlap. Some people will be in several meetings. But which would you prefer, have them hear it too many times, or not hear it enough?

You need to stop being sick of it. Garnering attention is one of your superpowers as a leader. And clarity of vision is crucial to your success. So as they say, you need to suck it up and repeat it. At every opportunity, until you don’t think you can repeat it again. Then do it a few more times.

How do you know when it’s enough? That’s the subject of the next episode, and we’ll discuss it at length then. A good hint is when your team starts completing your sentences. But there are other great clues you can use. We’ll talk about them the next time.

In the meantime, your job is to provide clarity and consistency. Through repetition. Repeat after me…

The most perilous time for a project is not at the start. The energy is there, the ideas are flowing, everything seems new. It’s not in the middle when there are problems to be solved, decisions to make, hurdles to leap. It’s not at the end, when the finish line is in site and you can almost taste the victory.

No, the most dangerous time in a project is about three-fourths of the way done. That’s when it becomes a grind. The excitement has waned, the decisions are largely done, now it’s all just about getting it done. The finish line is out there, but the daily grind has become oppressive.

And the danger that looms largest? Distraction. The project you’re working on seems mundane, the challenge is known, it seems so boring. Yet the world is filled with new ideas, new challenges, more interesting things to imagine. You’re drawn away from today and to the future, to the shiny new trinket over there. To the detriment of the project mostly done.

This danger lurks for both the leader and the team. For the team, the distractions are relentless. They’re faced with the most mundane parts of the work, the day to day grind of getting the project done. They read the latest news, the next invention, the reports of the competition.

The same problem faces the leader, but only more so. The job of a leader is to chart a course. To be seeing the future. Those distractions aren’t just shiny trinkets, they may be key to that next version, the long-term future. But the leader needs to remember their superpower. Their ability to draw attention.

The last thing your team needs is a leader who comes into a meeting dreaming of the future. Briming with excitement about the next big thing. The team still has a job to do. They can’t be whipsawn by the latest news of the next shiny object. The current project will be in ruins.

This is incredibly challenging. You’re a leader because you have passion. You love what you do. You’re excited by your industry and the potential. Your head is always working on something, always coming up with ideas. You don’t want to rein that in. But you must. The current project must be completed.

For both the leader and the team, the solution is not complicated, but it is hard. There needs to be a clear and distinct way to table ideas for the future. A next version to-do list, a roadmap for the future, a shared document of ideas. Both the leader and the team need to use that repository for the outlet. And get back to the project at hand.

How do you get attention back to on track? By reminding yourself and everyone what the goal is. By repeating the vision. Over and over. Relentlessly. Repeat after me…

Finally, when you’re deciding what to repeat, remember your culture. As we discussed in the episodes on diversity, leaders have a key role in establishing the team’s culture.

And the primary way to establish the culture is also through repetition. Here too, Ebbinghaus is right. You fix bad attitudes and define best practices through repetition. By being consistent in the way you act, and the way you correct. Time and time again. Culture is set by example, and once again, repetition is key.

Next time we’ll begin to discuss how to know if you’ve been heard. If the messages are getting through. If you are affecting the culture. We’ll go over how to determine how many times you need to repeat yourself. And how to know what’s enough. But until then, remember that if you want to lead, you need to repeat after me.

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

If you like the show, please share it with your friends especially on social media. Referrals are the greatest source of new listeners. I’d also love your feedback. I’m “theCLWill” on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or send email to

That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We’ll talk with Peter Spiro, whose fascinating career has given him a deep passion for leadership. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.