The Corporate Maverick: Your Communication. There is always something we learn early in life that simply stays with us forever, isn’t there? For me, it was a lesson from the CEO I worked with early on.
“Never forget the Gatekeeper in Guatemala.”
You see, we were a global company, and English was not always the first language. The big boss knew that whatever he said to anybody at any level in the company could be easily misinterpreted. So, anytime, someone wrote something for him, or told him he needed to fly out and talk to someone, or had to give a presentation, send an email, his first words were ALWAYS about the poor gatekeeper in Guatemala. One day, I had enough of this nonsense and asked him why he cared so much about an inconsequential person.
This is what he told me.
“The Gatekeeper in Guatemala is an uneducated, middle-aged guy who does not speak English outside of a few sentences. Furthermore, his main job is to check the incoming and outgoing truck traffic for the facility. He is an immensely proud man and good at his job. He has been there for 20 years monitoring trucks every day. Guatemala is a much more impoverished country than ours, so his personal life is vastly different as well. Plus, we are from head office. So, in his mind, the head office has no impact on his life, and therefore he does not need to be friendly or listen to us. That means, anything we say to him must be in the simplest of terms and must be framed in something meaningful to him”.
That explanation was brilliant, wasn’t it? It made me realise that my opinions, my thoughts, and my beliefs were NOT important. What was vital was how I made the other guy feel. It made me think carefully about framing the most important takeaway I wanted to leave. It made me simplify my language. It caused me to remove all the big words and the corporate jargon garbage and made me zero in on the ‘what’s in it for me’ of the other person.
Did I get it right? No. Perfection is impossible, and even today, I still screw it up.
What I did learn to do was to speak to be understood; not to be heard. I developed a reputation for simplifying the most complex problems, to never leave until the other person realised what I needed, to always be prepared and to write and speak at a Grade 8 level.
The Corporate Maverick: Your Communication – Let me share a true story.
I was leading a continuous improvement project. I knew we could do it – though many on my team and most of the rest of the company did not believe. I had everyone pulling in the same direction, except for the shipping manager.
He was a crappy piece of work and refused to help or sign on. He had the biggest chip on his shoulder and made everyone’s life miserable. Every place has one of these, right? I was out to reduce the shipping errors and get all the screw-ups that had been made – eliminated. I asked the shipping manager to watch and then report on some metrics at the weekly staff meeting. He did not; he gave excuses.
After letting the excuse master carry on for six weeks, I went to his office. Livid. I closed the door and prepared myself for a nasty conversation. His office was a pigsty, and I could not find a good place to sit, so I stood.
We started talking. That is a lie.
I started going on in jargon speak about what I needed and what I expected him to do. Which successfully annoyed him off and we got to an impasse. I made a snide comment about his filthy office, which unleashed a torrent of bitterness from him. As he was venting and swearing, I looked at his desk and saw a bunch of squiggles and lines on his blotter.
I cannot honestly tell you where this came from, but I asked him to explain his squiggles and lines. It turned out those squiggles were how he managed his function. He could point to any day and tell me what was shipped, what was screwed up, whether the sun was shining and how many truckloads came in and went out. Then he showed me each month, the last year, and the year before that.
I got quite excited because I realised he had all the information PLUS what I wanted him to report each month. The difference was it was his way of talking, which was not mine. In other words, I had forgotten about the Gatekeeper in Guatemala concept. I was so focused on the fact that he was not delivering for me, I ignored the fact he had no idea where I was coming from and what was in it for him.
That day we made a pact. I would have his office painted and spruced up for the first time in 20 years, and he would present his way of tracking stuff to satisfy our continuous improvement project. Inside of six months, he had eliminated every single shipping error imaginable, would stop me regularly and quote, in my terms, what his stats were and ultimately became one of my staunchest supporters.
The best leaders speak and write to be understood. Not just to be heard. They focus on the other person. Specifically, what they need to know and how they are supposed to feel after the message.
The Corporate Maverick: Your Communication. Please remember to simplify, simplify, simplify because nobody will ever be as clear about what you want as you. So even when you are mad and annoyed and frustrated, think about the Gatekeeper in Guatemala. I promise. It will make your life so much easier.
This is the final part of a three part series about Maverick Leadership in a multi-million-dollar organisation.