How To Use Clarity To Get Things Done

09/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Do you have a destination in mind? Are you clear about the outcome you hope to achieve? Have you taken the time to engage and enroll your fellow travelers in your expectations? Do they share a vivid picture of what's ahead? Is there a map to get you there?

Leaders are in the outcome business. Most of us live with the "hope" that we'll "get 'er done," but too often we are delayed or lost getting there. Or we never leave.

One of the signs of leadership excellence is the ability to be clear about expectations. The people who follow you deserve a map, a sense of the horizon, but too often we get lost, not because of potholes or surprises in our path to somewhere, but because we were never clear where we are going. One of the most important expectations "followers" have for leaders is clarity of direction. But we waffle, muddle and meander in the false hope that together we'll find our way to Oz.

Guess what? Not only don't we ever get "there," but folks step off the path when they sense they are underled. Whatever your politics, the polling data confirms that most Americans have grown deeply cynical about our elected leaders' commitment to consistency, clarity, and truthfulness. Many of us feel deeply disappointed, even betrayed, and we long for clear and authentic leadership. I've never seen a darker time for truth telling, or more hunger for straight talk. We don't trust the map or the destination.

I recently was in a meeting with a legendary CEO, who remarked that he was personally disappointed in most of our business leaders. He felt that they lacked the courage to provide clear direction, and instead were lured by the siren song of the theme, strategic idea or marketing trend of the moment. He longed for more straight talk in the board room, and he was saddened by the public disclosures of board behavior which have eroded both shareholder and Wall Street confidence. His candor sucked the air out of a room full of CEO's.

I believe leaders are in the business of courageous, consistent conversations...with an unknown future, with their team, colleagues, customers, and with themselves.

For those conversations to work, and to sharpen our expectations, I suggest a simple technique I call "bookending." You know that if you put bookends at either end of a heavy row of books, they need to be anchored at both ends to support the weight. It's the same with clear communications.

This really works:

At the beginning of any conversation, set the context. "I want to review what we need to complete before next week's board meeting to be certain we are prepared." Leaders are in the context business and our followers are starved to understand how we connect the current work with the intended outcome. Several decades at the top of organizations confirms that a leader must constantly frame and hold the context. In this "age of continuous partial attention" we keep writing about, folks lose their way, they forget, that reframe for their own purposes. Don't assume they know.

Then, listen carefully to see if your partner has "received" your message and understands your expectations. Then have your conversation, sort for clarity, probe for ambiguity or detail, and arrive at agreement.

Finally, and this is the step that completes the cycle, and the one most of us forget:
Confirm what's next, what you've agreed to do, be clear about timetables, deliverables, process and outcomes. That's the final "bookend" to frame the conversation. Unless we close the conversation by explicated confirming our "contract" we fall in the pothole of ambiguity, the foe of any leader.

Try it. Before long it will become a natural part of all of your conversations. And, you'll experience a sharpness and engagement with your colleagues that may have been missing before you began "bookending."