Business Growth & Strategy

Common Mistakes that CEOs Make: Lack of Clarity

“The second requirement for building a healthy organization—creating clarity—is all about achieving alignment…Within the context of making an organization healthy, alignment is about creating so much clarity that there is as little room as possible for confusion, disorder, and infighting to set in. Of course, the responsibility for creating that clarity lies squarely with the leadership team.”- Patrick Lencioni,  The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business (J-B Lencioni Series)

Back in grade school did you ever play the “Telephone Game”? Where someone in a group whispers a simple message in another person’s ear and asks them to whisper it to the next person in the group? Once a group member receives the message, they whisper it to another until the last person in the group had received it. That last person shares the message out loud with the group.

Common Mistakes that CEOs Make: Lack of ClarityThe original message of, “I visited my Grandmother over summer vacation, and she made me my favorite chocolate marshmallow cupcakes.” could easily become  “My Grandmother was visited by Martians over summer vacation, and she looks like a chocolate cupcake.”!

Because the original simple message wasn’t clearly transmitted through the whole chain of listeners, it quickly became wildly distorted. The resulting distorted message can be quite funny in the game but not so much when the message is an important directive within your organization.

Without absolute clarity and frequency, communication within your organization can easily experience similar results. Unfortunately, a lack of organizational clarity is one of the most common mistakes that I observe in my work with CEO’s, and it has severe consequences.

Why Is Clarity So Darn Difficult?

Clarity is created from the choices that you make and then clearly over-communicating those decisions.  Achieving clarity is difficult for 3 reasons:

1. Emotional Factors

In his book, The Clarity Principle: How Great Leaders Make the Most Important Decision in Business (and What Happens When They Don’t), Chatam Sullivan states that:

“Executives are adept at keeping the emotions they experience around choosing in the shadows because they feel that the risks associated with choosing are unmanageable. These risks may be real or imagined, likely or improbable. Whatever their grounding in reality, these risks are often so anxiety-provoking that they are never acknowledged, much less discussed.”

The risks and anxieties and that arise while making a decision include:

  • A sense that you have earned the right to avoid the uncomfortable emotions.
  • Fear of conflict.
  • Feelings that accompany loss. Every decision means a “yes” to something and a “no” to something else. Those “no’s” mean that someone is losing something and may grieve over that loss.
  • Fear and risk of making the wrong decision.
  • Fear and risk of failure.
  • Fear and guilt about negatively affecting the lives of your employees.

Unskilled management of any one of these emotions leads to either a bad decision or no decision at all, and subsequent confusion.

2. Too Many Demands on Your Attention

Another enemy of clear decision making is the constantly connected digital world that we inhabit. Our electronic “addiction devices”, social media, 24-hour availability and barrage of information constantly compete for our attention.

As a result, our minds and bodies are constantly over-stimulated, tired and often confused. Valuable reflection time, and its associated state of calmness, becomes the casualty. When we need it most, the time, energy and discipline necessary to create clarity aren’t available.

3. Lack of Repetition

Once you have made your decisions, Patrick Lencionci states that you “must then communicate those answers to employees clearly, repeatedly, enthusiastically, and repeatedly (that’s not a typo). When it comes to reinforcing clarity, there is no such thing as too much communication.”

Most CEO’s, Executives and Managers communicate the most vital components of their businesses infrequently. What to communicate and how it will be communicated should be discussed at the end of each meeting where any decisions are made.

The Effect of “Muddy Water”

When your employees lack clarity, they can feel like they are scuba diving in muddy water and don’t know which way is up or down. The toll on your organization can be significant.

Effects on employees include:

  • They are forced to adapt using their own judgment and interpretation of what is important.  How many employees do you have? That’s how many possible interpretations exist!
  • They fight and compete with each other over what they believe is important. This type of infighting, with no unifying organizational clarity, breeds political maneuvering.
  • They lose confidence in their leader for not providing clear direction.
  • They don’t understand what’s expected of them in their jobs, so they do what is easy or what they want to do. And, ambiguity makes their work more difficult, because employees have to first make sense of things before they can act. They become disengaged and stressed.
  • Your high performers become demotivated and move on.

Strategic and financial effects include:

  • Missed opportunities because no one sees, or is focused on, the “Big Picture” or the future.
  • Customers receive inconsistent or poor service and leave.
  • Profitability suffers from the loss of customers and from money wasted on inconsistent processes and inefficiency.

Swimming in muddy water leads to muddy results, organizational anxiety and worse.

How to Achieve Clarity

First, recognize that this problem is yours, and it is your responsibility to solve it.

Marcus Buckingham, in his book, The One Thing You Need to Know: … About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success states that the following disciplines are needed to achieve clarity:

Discipline 1: Make time to reflect.

Find some quiet time to reflect. Whether it is seclusion in a cabin, long walks or technology “time outs”, schedule time to think.

Discipline 2: Select your heroes with great care.

If you want to predict the future behavior of any community, look to its heroes. What gets recognized gets repeated. Carefully select which employees’ performances to celebrate and recognize, because they will become role models for others. When you recognize a high-achieving performer, be explicit in your recognition. What specific behaviors are you recognizing? The heroes you select will serve to clarify your future.

Discipline 3: Practice.

Discipline yourself to practice the words and stories that describe your future. Do not use industry jargon or management-speak. Don’t worry about creating newer and better speeches; rather, practice and refine your favorite speeches, focusing on the material that is most pertinent. Repeat! Repeat! Repeat!  If you are not bored with your own speech, then you have not said it enough!

Clarity is the result of making difficult choices and then regularly and repeatedly communicating those decisions. It requires courage, personal mastery and skilled emotional regulation, but the payoff can be huge.

Clarity engenders confidence, resilience, creativity, security, and it dissolves anxiety. If this lack of organizational clarity is your Achilles heel, make improving it a top priority starting right now. If you don’t, no one else will.

This is one of a series of blogs that Cheryl McMillan writes about the common mistakes that CEOs make.

Category: Business Growth & Strategy Communication & Alignment Leadership


About the Author: Cheryl McMillan

Cheryl is a Vistage Master Chair and Executive Coach. She has a passion for raising awareness in leaders about how their choices and unconscious actions impact their results. She leads two C-Suite peer advisory boards, comprised of CEO's or …

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