Leading With Why: Is Yours Clear Enough?

Being crystal clear on your Why matters more than ever

Uncertainty demands that leaders improve how they lead with Why because the How is often not immediately evident.  During periods of rapid change, we need to do things differently, and we know that “different” is a harder, riskier decision than doing the “same” better.

To empower teams to act differently, leaders must be able to articulate the Why in a way that motivates them to join you on the same page, moving in the same direction, now!

Leading with Why is not just about being able to articulate your mission or core purpose.  It’s about clearly communicating why something is important at the appropriate level of a goal, objective or task.

Consider for a moment: Is your Why as clear as it could be?

“One of the biggest lessons I learned in my years at P&G was the power of simplicity and clarity. I found that the clearer, simpler strategies had the best chance of winning, because they can be best understood and internalized by the organization”

A.G. Lafley,
Author, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works

Unfortunately, too many leaders struggle to communicate clearly and simply. Why?

  • Because writing and speaking simply and specifically, in plain language, is often hard, and some leaders don’t want to invest what it takes
  • Because some leaders love the wiggle room that vague and complex language allows
  • Because some leaders think complex language is more “inspirational”

Consider for a moment: If you are not clear, what happens?

It’s management’s dirty little secret.

Leaders must recognize that employees and direct reports are afraid to ask for clarity, thinking they should know.  Instead of asking, they pretend to understand, or make up their own version of the truth. This results in everyone making assumptions about what is most important to achieve at every level of the organization.

The Top 3 mistakes leaders make

Before leaders can improve how they lead with Why, they first have to recognize the mistakes that are causing their struggles.

Mistake #1: Too much fuzzy language

Your Why, and other forms of strategic direction are often written with corporate jargon, fuzzy language and vague ideals (what I love to call ‘weasel words’).

For example, we use words like efficient, effective, sustainable, resilient, diversity, engagement, livable, world-class, and centre of excellence (you get the picture). Though the leader may have in mind what these words mean, the people receiving the message are not quite sure, leaving them to wonder and then make their own interpretations.  This is very dangerous for execution!

Mistake #2: Leading with actions instead of Impact

Leading with Why is not about assigning specific tasks, but too often leaders have a pre-disposition to action-orientation.

For example, leaders will say we need to deliver on our work plans, or we need to improve how we collaborate with our partners, or let’s engage our employees more.  But this is not leading with Why. This is leading with doing.  It’s heads down work.  Leading with Why is heads up direction.

Mistake # 3:  Leaders don’t provide enough focus with their Why

Leading with Why should help teams focus, yet leaders often fail to clearly prioritize which results are most important to achieve now. When people have too many things to focus on, they usually get overwhelmed and have trouble figuring out what to do first, creating wasted effort and lost time.

For example, leaders often state the Why as bundled up priorities: Our organization needs to be more efficient and effective with additional collaboration. Are they all equally important now?

Top 3 Fixes to improve how you Lead with Why

Now that the struggles can be recognized, here are the fixes that will improve the clarity of your Why.

Fix #1: Use language that a Fifth Grader could understand

All great communicators know this already: plain language does not dumb your message down, it makes your message instantly understandable and digestible. Plain language evokes the real world and has the ability to emotionally connect, making the work more meaningful for teams. Believing their work is meaningful is a key ingredient for high-performing teams.

How-to Tip: Create a safe environment where leaders can work together to unpack the corporate jargon and agree on what they mean in the context of their organization.
Ask questions like the ones posed below but insert your own organization’s weasel word where efficient occurs.

  • What does “efficient” look like right now in our organization?
  • What is the impact we are trying to articulate by using the word “efficient”? Why is it important?
  • For example: Are we trying to keep our overhead costs down? Are we trying to get products to customers more quickly?

For example:

  • An online retailer might have the goal to “improve our customer experience”
  • When they take time to unpack this goal, they agree it means “we need to be easier to buy from”.

Fix #2: Turn action-orientation into results or impact-focused statements

Leading with Why means leaders need to articulate the purpose of the work – Why the activity matters in the first place.   Leaders need to clearly answer the question, “What do we want to achieve?” not do.

How-To Tip:  Create a safe environment where leaders and their teams can improve their understanding of why this project or initiative is important, and answer these questions:

  • Why do we want to do this action?
  • What is the impact we want it to have?

Notice: At first, leaders might use words that are a bit fuzzy, but that’s okay.  Once you have a shared understanding of what you want to achieve, go back up to Fix #1 and unpack those words to move to plainer language.

For example:

  • An online retailer might have a goal: “Establish standards of service delivery”
  • First, you need to recognize that this is an action, and then ask, “What do we want to achieve?”
  • At first, you might agree to something like: “The result we want is that customers experience high consistency in our services every time”
  • Okay, good. Now let’s use some plainer language.
  • Through discussion, you can then move to a few, clearer simpler statements that provide better strategic direction.
  • Why are standards of service delivery important? Because..
    • Customers get their orders on time
    • Customers get their order for the cost they expected

Fix #3:  Become ruthlessly focused

When an organization is ruthlessly focused, divisions can easily see the few things that matter most at the organization-level only. When the organization’s leadership has agreed to the fewest top results that form their strategic direction (what they want to achieve in plain language statements), it then allows departments or divisions to cascade from the higher level, creating their own Why at their level that links directly to the organization’s priorities.

How-To Tip: Create a safe environment where leaders can discuss and decide what are the most important results at the organization-wide level they need to focus their teams on now, and what can be delayed or stopped. Ensure the prioritized results are within their control or influence to improve, and that they have resources they can dedicate to closing the gaps.

For example:

  •  The online retailer realized that their strategic plan was filled with too many goals, objectives and actions. Often, similar things were written in different ways over multiple pages, with different flow charts and graphics.  They also realized that the list of actions was actually not strategic direction at all.
  • The leaders went through a process to unpack corporate jargon and clearly state the Why of all this work.
  • The outcome was a clear strategic direction with five plain language, organization-wide results statements that answered the questions, “What do we want to achieve?” and “Why is it important now?”
  • The actions were removed and provided to the responsible leader to assess if they were still a priority and if so, for which result.

Author, Speaker, Researcher Brené Brown says, “Clarity is Kind”, and I hope the fixes I have shared lead to greater kindness when you are leading with Why!