The Tenth Commandment Of Strategic Planning: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

There is a great saying that if all you have in your toolbox is a hammer then everything will look like a nail. Knowing how to communicate is a learned skill and often times we have to choose our skill sets very carefully based on the situation.

In all my trainings and coaching one very critical piece that many CEOs need help with is their communication style. While some are very direct (which can cause pain) most are not direct, nor open nor honest for many reasons I’ve written about previously. Today, I’d like to share various communication strategies that can be very effective when done properly and for the right reasons.

One such strategy is “radical candor.” Author Kim Scott coined this term when her then-boss at Google, Sheryl Sandberg, used very direct, open and honest feedback to help Scott identify a blind spot. Scott was an up and coming executive at Google and did a presentation for Google’s leadership team. The presentation went very well. Or so she thought.

Afterward, Sandberg asked Scott if she’d walk back to her office with her. Scott immediately started thinking about what could have gone wrong but couldn’t figure it out. Sandberg recounted the strengths of her performance and made time to celebrate the success of the presentation before revealing her feedback: “You said ‘um’ a lot. Were you aware of it?” Scott was aware but felt it wasn’t a big deal. Sandberg asked, “Was it because you were nervous? Would you like me to recommend a speech coach for you? Google will pay for it.” Scott brushed the offer off, saying “I didn’t feel nervous. Just a verbal tic, I guess.” Sandberg then replied, “I can see I am going to have to be really, really direct to get through to you. You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.” Now, that got Scott’s attention and she agreed to be coached. More importantly, she then went on to codify different communication styles and share them in her book Radical Candor.

There are four radical candor quadrants, divided by two axes. One axis is labeled “care personally,” the other is “challenge directly.” When we both care personally and challenge directly, it’s radical candor. In other words, in order to create an open and honest feedback culture, you need to first care personally, meaning you demonstrate that you really want the person to be successful and to grow. Then, you have to be able to challenge directly, meaning you clearly address the issue head-on with that person.

If you don’t care about the person and their success and all you do is challenge, then you will be guilty of what Scott calls “obnoxious aggression.” On the other hand, if you care but do not challenge the person, it’s what she calls “ruinous empathy.” If you don’t care and don’t challenge, then it’s “manipulative insincerity.”

I see a connection between Scott’s radical candor philosophy and Stephen Covey’s philosophy for creating a win-win situation. Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that a win-win requires two things: courage and consideration. You need to have the courage to be upfront and clear about your needs and why they’re important but also have consideration for the other party’s needs. Radical candor is an example of a true win-win situation for all parties involved. However, when you have low courage or consideration, leading to manipulative insincerity, it creates a lose-lose situation. In order to achieve assertive communication, you need to have courage and consideration or caring and challenging. So the equation goes something like this: assertive communication = radical candor = win-win!

What does this all have to do with strategic planning? For a strategic plan to work and work well we must incorporate very clear and open communication; otherwise, the plan will just gather dust on a bookshelf.

Dan, a client of mine, had strategically planned a significant expansion of his financial services and was able to hire a very experienced operator to run that expansion and take it to the next level. They invested millions of dollars in the new expansion and it seemed like it would be easy sailing. Then, nothing happened. They didn’t meet any of their goals and were on track to not only lose their initial investment but also projected a significant loss.

When I met with Dan I asked him how it was going, and he said that they weren’t sure why they were failing but the new hire was a hindrance — if not the cause — of them not reaching their goals. When I questioned him further, he explained that the new hire was not communicative with his staff and, when meeting with potential clients, tended to say the wrong things. This indicated to Dan and his staff that the new hire was the wrong person in the wrong seat.

I shared with him the concept of radical candor and asked him if he had to be very candid with the new hire, what would he say to him? After reflecting, he said, “Asking the wrong questions in client meetings makes us lose trust in your ability to run the department and demotivates the staff, thereby causing a complete disconnect.” I asked Dan if he ever relayed this and the answer was no. Why? Because it’s very difficult to be that candid.

So, Dan and I practiced over and over until he got comfortable saying the difficult feedback. Eventually, he felt good and his manager realized his part in the problem too and vowed to improve. Fast forward to today and the “new hire” is still with the company and doing well, their division is profitable and they were able to recoup their investment with a sizable gain. Most importantly, they have adopted radical candor as their mode of communication.

Good communication is important in every aspect of work, but especially for establishing and executing a strategic plan effectively. How might your conversations around strategic planning be improved with radical candor?

By Jacob Engel (Yeda LLC) CEO & Author #1 Amazon Bestseller Family Business & Entrepreneur Consultant Leadership Coach. First published on January 21, 2020