Message Discipline

Chapter 7 of The Chocolate Conversation


When Alan Mulally left Boeing in 2006 to become CEO of Ford Motor Company, he was facing the biggest challenge of his life. He had turned Boeing around, and now he had an even bigger turnaround to accomplish at the beleaguered Ford Motor Company. Within two weeks of his arrival, he sent a letter to every employee in the company outlining what he was going to do and what he expected of every person at Ford. He told them about the business plan for the company, and stated:

Our plan will be built around three priorities:

PEOPLE: A skilled and motivated workforce.

PRODUCTS: Detailed customer knowledge and focus.

PRODUCTIVITY: A lean global enterprise.'

He had those three expectations printed on one side of a laminated card for all employees. On the other side were the words: "One Ford." Mulally knew what he wanted, and he made his expectations clear and simple for everyone.

In Mulally's drive to get Ford back on track, he challenged his team to revive the company's most familiar brand. In his own words:

I arrive here, and the first day I say, "Let's go look at the prod­uct lineup." And they lay it out, and I said, "Where's the Tau­rus?'' They said, "Well, we killed it." I said, "What do you mean, you killed it?" "Well, we made a couple that looked like a football. They didn't sell very well, so we stopped it." "You stopped the Taurus?" I said. "How many billions of dollars does it cost to build brand loyalty around a name?" "Well, we thought it was so damaged that we named it the Five Hun­dred." I said, "Well, you've got until tomorrow to find a vehi­cle to put the Taurus name on because that's why I'm here. Then you have two years to make the coolest vehicle that you can possibly make." The 2010 Taurus is arriving on the mar­ket this spring, and while it is not as startling as the original 1986 Taurus, it is still pretty cool.

Could anyone mistake what the CEO wanted after that?

At the core of everything a great leader does is message dis­cipline. Iconic leaders make sure they have distilled what they want to a clear, concise message that all people understand ­and then they drive it through to everyone in the company. In the case of Ford, Mulally's message was simple, clear, and inspiring-something everyone in the company could line up behind.

Clear the clutter

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple with the acquisition of NeXT, he saw immediately that the brand had lost direction. The engineers were inundated with projects. The product line was all over the board, giving a confusing company message to customers. Jobs streamlined the product line and the direc­tion. He simply said, "Stop everything you are doing. We are going to make four products: two desktop computers and two portable computers, one for professional and the other for per­sonal use." He also told his team that these computers had to be the newest and most beautifully designed. He was going to make Apple the computer you "had to have." To this day, people line up for Apple product launches so they can be the first to own the most forward-looking technology products on the market.

Jack Welch, the chairman and CEO of General Electric, told his leaders, "When you take over a business, you have three options: Fix it, sell it, or close it."

No ambiguity there: his leaders knew exactly what was expected of them. Sure, there is complexity in implementing the direction, but there is no misunderstanding about what is required.

Successful leaders instinctively know that the secret to run­ning a successful business is message discipline. It is my firm belief that message discipline drives operational discipline. I've often told my clients, "People will do what's expected of them when they understand what you want them to do."

We've talked about worldviews, standards, and concerns and the role they play in how people get-or miss-the mes­sages you're trying to convey. A lot of us worry that if our mes­sage sounds too simple, it may not give an accurate picture of what it will take to make something happen. This is particu­larly true in multibillion-dollar publicly traded corporations where leaders need to communicate with tens of thousands of employees.

Large businesses are, by nature, complex. The complex­ity is driven by multiple functions and departments that are required to deliver against objectives that do not always seem to be in sync across the business: the Sales Division has revenue-growth goals and Finance wants the revenue, but the Finance Department's priority is the margin. Each depart­ment may have a different standard by which it is hearing the conversation. It is important for leaders to "speak into the lis­tening" of each of the business functions or departments.

I like how Alan Mulally makes sure his message is dis­seminated through the ranks. He has a business plan review, a meeting with his direct reports that is held every Thurs­day morning at eight o'clock. When he first arrived at Ford, there were departments, like Human Resources, that weren't included in senior-level meetings. Mulally changed that, so the Thursday meetings included every functional discipline, because, as he said, "Everybody in this place had to be involved and had to know everything."

When that meeting is done and Mulally is sure that every­one understands his message-and that they each understand the others' responsibility in getting the job done-the senior managers go off to have their own meetings with their depart­ments, ensuring that the message from the top is transmitted throughout the departments in a way that makes sense to them.

Once your message is clear, everything must support your message-every conversation you have, everything you do.

In essence, you are branding and marketing your message with your words and with your actions.

John was the chief executive officer of a company that acquired another business of equal size. The idea was to gain complementary product lines and access to a broader customer base. John was actively trying to make a place in the new company for several of the top executives from the acquired company-retaining this talent was a key benefit of the merger.

The position of chief operating officer in the new company was open. John publicly said that he wanted to table any discussion of who would fill the role so that the combined team could focus on integrating the two companies and develop their market strategy.

A few weeks later, John had a full-blown crisis on his hands. Three of his executives felt they were being tapped for the COO slot. Each conferred with the others, dropping hints that he had been selected, only to find that the other two felt similarly anointed.

When John was confronted by each of them individually, he was bewildered. The conversation went like this: "I understand that you are interested in the COO position but I haven't made my decision yet. You are in the running, but what gave you the impression that you had the job?" All three executives had the same response, "You did!"

After talking with John about this situation, I began to con­nect the dots as to how he ended up with this mess. He told me that he frequently rode up in the elevator with one or another of these executives. On occasion, they would chat in the ele­vator or on the walk to their offices. At different times, John made some encouraging remarks about the new management structure that he thought were pretty neutral.

As he recalled it for me, one of these executives had said to him on one of those elevator rides, "John, did you see the financial plan I put together?" His reply was, "Yes, Mark, and you did a really good job sizing up the business opportunity we have by consolidating two of our divisions. We'll save on cost. Thanks, I like that. That's the kind of thinking I'm look­ing for." He remembered similar conversations with the other two, as well. He thought they were neutral, but each executive left the elevator thinking he had received a nod for the top slot.

When John explained that it had not been his intention to signal that the COO position was decided, each one left his office feeling betrayed. One of them resigned over the misinterpretation.

John was stunned by what these executives inferred from his elevator comments. He told me, "I was just making casual conversation!"


Here's a principle I live by: once you are in a leadership position, there is no such thing as a casual conversation.

When you lead an organization, everything you say and everything you do conveys a message-even if it's not the message you intended. George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single big­gest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Communication is difficult in the best of times. It's almost impossible to get it right when you're caught off guard.

People read into everything that is said, and they can interpret the meaning incorrectly.

In John's case, his affable manner caused a crisis for the new company. The executive who left played a key role in the inte­gration of the two companies. He was bitter, and his feelings were known to his direct reports and to people throughout his entire organization. His departure left a void in the company and confusion in its wake.

Bad news travels fast. The other two COO candidates became cautious and guarded around John. John had to rebuild trust with his remaining executives, in both his old company and in the newly acquired company.


John learned a painful lesson. Chocolate Conversations can happen when you least expect them, and they can damage your credibility. It's important to postpone conversations you are not prepared to have. If you are in an elevator or walking in a corridor and someone raises an issue or starts a dialogue, you must be careful. It's okay to say, "This sounds important. I don't want to give you a quick response. Please get some time on my calendar and let's give this the attention it deserves."

Death by PowerPoint

Several years ago, my partner, Gavin, and I were asked to sit through a cross-business unit meeting and capture the key points of several presentations. One presentation given by a senior vice president consisted of forty-six slides. I didn't have a clue what this guy was talking about until he got to slide forty-four. We sat through forty-three slides before the two big points of the presentation were shared:

Point one: His division could offer a systems-integration solution to mid-volume businesses that was far less complex and time consuming than the one offered by the "Big Five" systems integrators.

Point two: This point was actually a request to the audience. Audience members had the relationships in the mid-volume accounts that he and his team wanted access to. He asked to partner with them to identify prospects from which both business units could benefit.

The following day, I asked the group if they could tell us what they had heard. We got a host of different answers, none of which landed on the two big points our SVP was attempting to get across.

After we listened to everyone-and realized that no one got the message-we summarized his forty-six-slide presentation in one sentence and the group was blown away: "We are an alternative to big and painful system-integration efforts, and we need you to be our pitch candy." The room went silent for a few moments and then everyone started to laugh. Once the laughter died down, people began to see the absurdity of the presentation.

I'm not suggesting that anyone making an important pre­sentation should get up and put two lines on a slide. What is true, however, is that complexity leads to unclear messages and leaves people with no direction for action-and that leads to an inability to execute.

What I am suggesting is this: the point of the message must be first and must be as clear and as distilled as you can make it. Then, substantiate with supporting data points-in this case, that the SVP's division would implement a simpler integration and that the two business units would identify prospects and make calls together.

Gavin, my partner, trained at a military academy. He often references the way military leaders cut through debate with clear, precise instructions. If you're fighting a battle, you don't have the luxury of long-winded, complicated speeches.

The military is the poster child for message discipline. There can be no ambiguity between orders and action. The idea is to make the line from A to B absolutely clear, no matter what mayhem is going on in the background.

General Patton is one of my favorite historical figures. Dur­ing the European campaign in WWII, his beleaguered army asked, "Where are we going?" When Patton's chief of staff came to him with the question the soldiers wanted answered, Patton reportedly said,

"Tell them we're going to Berlin to kill those sons of bitches."

That simple, direct message reener­gized Patton's troops and they followed him into battle.

Military personnel, politicians, marketers, advertisers, and effective company leaders use message discipline to urge peo­ple to make choices or to act in a certain way. The idea is to win a battle or an election, cause customers to fall in love with your brand, or get people to execute on your strategy. Leaders and influencers need people to follow their direction. Message discipline is the basis for action.

The importance of listening

A critical piece of message discipline is listening. You have to be sure that your message is landing with people the way you intended it to. If you listen, your people will tell you what's going on, what customers are saying, and what their colleagues are frustrated about. These are important conversations.

Understanding employee and customer concerns will help you close the gap between strategy and execution.

People need to see themselves in the picture. They want to know where the busi­ness is headed and how that impacts what they do every day.

Being intentional-and inclusive-when you send mes­sages through the organization is essential. Lou Gerstner did this throughout his tenure with IBM. He wrote intentional e-mails that went to everyone in the company: "Dear Col­leagues, today we have acquired Lotus Notes. This acquisi­tion is part of our strategy to provide our customers with ... "

Everything anyone needed to know about who, what, when, and how was in his messages to the organization. This discipline was a major factor in the success of the IBM transformation. People at all levels of the organization looked forward to these communications and they paid attention to them.

You do have to get ideas across clearly, listen to be sure your message lands the way you want it to, and get people to act.

Politicians are masters at doing just that: they use words (sound bites) to give meaning to their ideas and then "listen" by using opinion research-focus groups, surveys, and polls­ to be sure that their message landed with their audience in a way that moves people to action. They want people to vote for them and they can only accomplish that if voters can see them­selves in what the politicians are saying. Message discipline, in this case, leads to votes.

Opinion research was at one time only used in presidential, U.S. Senate, and gubernatorial races, but now it is common at all levels of government. Politicians at every level have learned that it isn't enough to convey their message in speeches; they must know how the message is perceived and if it was effec­tive in moving voters to their side of the political spectrum. Often, the results of a poll or focus group will tell a politician that a theme she wanted to use just didn't fit the circumstances, and she is able to drop the theme or make adjustments. That's what happens when message discipline is used in a conscious and deliberate way to alleviate any ambiguity, focus the mes­sage, and get people to act.

If you use message discipline effectively, it will translate into operational discipline: what you talk about and what your people focus on will determine what happens.

Let's take a look at some specific things you can do to bring message discipline to your company. As we talk about exam­ples, keep this in mind: what you say and what gets heard equals what gets done.

WHAT YOU SAY: Craft your message carefully-distill it to its essence. There will be detail behind these messages, but first get the main idea across; consider, for example, Jack Welch's message that when you buy a company you have to, "Fix it, sell it, or close it." Be clear about what you expect and what you want people to do. Keep the language simple. Verbose language leads to confusion. If you are communi­cating to a large audience with multiple functions repre­sented, make sure your function-specific message is heard by all members of your organization, but differentiate the specifics for that role. Ensure that all disciplines can see the role they play within the larger company model.

WHAT GETS HEARD: Listen to your people. Seek feedback and do something with it. Be sensitive to what people are telling you. Understanding employee and cus­tomer concerns closes the strategy execution gap.

WHAT GETS DONE: This is the action that is taken as a result of your message. Make sure that you-your lead­ership and everyone accountable-can see what is getting done, and that what people are doing lines up with your message.

Remember: message discipline drives operational discipline. Be brutally honest with yourself when you look at your results. If what is getting done is not aligned with the company direction, your message is not getting through to the organization. You own that! Execution validates strategy. Make sure it is clear and keep testing alignment.

It's All in the Context

Think about what happens when you meet a group of employ­ees. You're going to tell them something about the business and what you need them to do. They have only a small piece of the context that you have. You know the whole thing. You have a lot of stuff to dump in their tiny frame of reference.

So, we have a communication gap here. There is risk of confusion and noise. You face what my partner refers to as "the curse of knowledge." Any time you know significantly more than your audience, you run the risk of assuming they know what you are talking about. That is often not the case.

If you are the top executive-or are on the executive leader­ship team-and you're in the midst of a company-wide trans­formation, you will know a lot more than most of the people in the company. Getting your message across to everyone requires time and preparation. At top levels of leadership, it is as important to be a context expert as it is to be a content expert. Just think of it as the difference between the forest and the trees. You're the one who can see the forest. They can only see their own tree. If you give people the backstory for how you came to the decisions and choices you've made, you will help them connect to the bigger picture. People need more context than most leaders provide.

This was a valuable lesson I learned while attending a leadership conference at MIT. I was asked to give a talk on leadership to a group of students. I was a little nervous about addressing this particular audience. Keenly aware that every­one accepted to MIT has a perfect SAT score and an off-the ­charts IQ, I wondered, "What can they learn from me?"

The gentleman who asked me to speak, Dr. Kostenbaum, sensed that I wasn't my usual effervescent self. When I told him what was bothering me, he led me through a corridor into an area with an open archway. He asked me to read the inscrip­tion above the arch. It said, "If you can put what you know into a context, it's worth 80 IQ points."

Dr. Kostenbaum smiled at me and said, "You, my dear, are a context expert. Do not worry. You have a lot to offer these stu­dents." I went on to deliver my presentation and was pleasantly surprised at the warm and inquisitive reception I received from these young, brilliant students. This stuff isn't taught in most universities.

One of our clients, Martha Delehanty, handled the context challenge beautifully. She is the head of a large, global Human Resources team. Martha brought her team together to plan their strategy for the coming year. How did she get one hun­dred leaders and their local teams all working consistently in the same direction? She took a look at how HR's efforts fit into the company's strategy and she did a superb job of setting the context. She boiled it all down to a few simple goals.

This was the centerpiece of her strategy presentation:

To transform this company, we are going to have to bring new skill sets and experience to the business. Our current tal­ent will need to be assessed and brought up to speed. We will need to acquire new talent where we don't have the skills and experience, and we need to continue to grow leaders for the future. Here are our three strategic goals we need to live by:

Keep good people

Get good people

Grow good people

She detailed the specifics under each of these points. There was a lot to work out, considering there were differ­ent needs for different geographic regions. However, the basic mantra-Keep, Get, Grow-made it easy for this big group to work effectively. How they would make that happen and what it would look like became a story everyone was part of, built around a simple, clear, memorable message. And her people left the meeting with a very distinct idea of how they fit into the bigger picture and what their leader wanted them to do.

Here is another great example. A few years ago, Emilio Botin, the chairman of Banco Santander, spoke about how his company stayed the course during the financial services collapse of 2008. He had instilled three simple principles that his people lived by:

"If you don't fully understand an instrument, don't buy it.

If you will not buy for yourself a specific product, don't try to sell it.

If you don't know very well your customers, don't lend them any money.”

Botin's message was clear, unambiguous, and powerful. He knew the context in which he and his bank executives were living, and he laid out a clear path forward. Everyone at Banco Santander knew exactly what their CEO stood for and what he expected of them.


Clear and simple

In these stories, the leaders did a terrific job of communicating a simple, clear direction and staying the course. That is message discipline driving operational discipline. Let's take a closer look at how you can do this.

If everything is important then nothing is important. If every­thing is a priority then nothing is priority. You must be ruth­less in your efforts to simplify your message to its core. This does not mean dumbing things down. We're not talking about shallow sound bites here. Every idea can be condensed to its essential meaning:

What do you need people to hear?

What do you want people to do?

What do you want people to remember?

Since it's so important to take complex concepts and make them clear and simple, let me define my terms clearly and simply. CLEAR means you are distilling what you're talking about to its essence. SIMPLE means using words and lan­guage an eight-year-old understands.

Bill McDermott, the co-CEO of SAP and the author of the foreword of this book, uses the phrase, "Keep it Sesame Street simple." That means use meaningful, single-syllable words ­keep, get, grow-with no acronyms, no complex business speak, no corporate speak. Just simple, clear directives that emotion­ally connect people to what they have to do and why.

I and the fassforward team spend a surprising amount of time helping clients untangle the complexity they impose on them­selves. They are so used to corporate speak and to concepts made to sound complex that they've become immune to it.

Cutting to the heart of the matter is always refreshing. It's not easy to do, but it's the only way to make your message heard the way you intended it to be heard.

Make it personal

You want to say something that moves people and gets them to stop and think. Which of these would get you to sit up and take notice?

"A high closing ratio is a key factor in achieving your new business targets."


"Doesn't it make you furious when you give a presentation that knocks it out of the park and your prospect still won't buy from you?"

Remember, you’re talking to people, not machines.

A client of ours is the SVP for Customer Service in a Fortune 100 consumer goods company. She was asked to speak to a large group of customer service reps from call centers around the country. The national target for churn was .08 percent and the actual result was 1.0 percent. They were missing their churn target by two-tenths of a percent, which was significant.

When this executive got up to speak, the customer service reps expected to see the usual slides with graphs showing the trends in call-in rate,first call resolution, and churn. Instead, her presentation went like this:

Yesterday fifty thousand customers called in to our centers around the country. Seventeen thousand of them have been with us five years or longer. Sixty-eight hundred of them decided not to renew their contract with us. That was just one day. Every thirty seconds, we lose one of our customers. We need to take that personally!

People sat up and took notice. She made the statistics mat­ter to them: no graphs, no corporate speak, just an honest, simple message that made the point!  

You are your message

Stay strongly focused on your message. You don't need to be a celebrity CEO to have message discipline work for you. Be clear about what you're asking your people to do. Keep a razor-sharp focus on that message. Don't cloud it with filler. And don't be afraid to make it personal.

Dale Carnegie said, "We are evaluated and classified by these four contacts: what we do, how we look, what we say, and how we say it." Part of staying focused on your message is remembering that you and your message are one. Your behaviors have to match your message. If they don't, your people will see the contrast between what you say and what you do. The result? They won't act the way you want them to. In fact, if your message is seriously out of sync with the way your people see you, you can do a lot more harm than good. Here's a per­fect example:

In November of 2008, the CEOs of the Big Three U.S. automakers all went to Washington, D.C. They needed massive government help to avoid bankruptcy. All three CEOs were clear and simple. Each was in sync with the other. Each made a case for urgency. All said that thousands of American jobs hung in the balance. Yet, the three CEOs were slammed and ridiculed in every major news outlet and talk show for a solid week afterward.


Each had flown separately to D.C. from his big, fancy office on a luxurious corporate jet. Think of the missed opportu­nity! These guys are carmakers, but instead of driving their best product to Washington, they flew. And they didn't just fly, they flew like royalty-royalty begging the taxpayers for bailout money. Do you see the absurdity in the situation? The late-night talk show hosts did.

One of my clients demonstrated this "what gets said, heard, and done" principle during a presentation he was making on a new go-to-market model for his teams. He's the head of one of the major offices of a media company, and his teams were doing two things simultaneously:

1. They were coming together after a large merger for the first time, and

2. They were figuring out a new collaborative model of working.

Right in the middle of his presentation, a well-respected team member stood up and said the company's commission and bonus setup didn't take the new model into account. He said he had spoken to a finance person that very morning who confirmed that team members would actually lose money if they acted the way the new model urged.

My client enlisted that team member right then and there, inviting him to meetings with both the Finance and Legal departments to hammer out a new compensation model that complemented the new way of working. Before this executive left the meeting, he told the audience he would get back to them on changes to the compensation policy-and he gave them a time frame for when they could expect to hear from him.

These actions are right on target. This leader had been talking about collaboration. He immediately saw the problem his team member raised as an opportunity to model the right behavior. He suggested a way to solve the problem that worked for the group. There is no more powerful way of showing a group what you're talking about than demonstrating it in real time in a real situation.

Everything I've said in this chapter serves one straightfor­ward aim: use message discipline to make things happen. Keep in mind the connection between what you say, what gets heard, and what gets done. Make it personal. Remember, people need to connect with you and your message. Otherwise, you can't expect your people to act and do what you expect them to.

Most leaders find it difficult to be everywhere they would like to be, delivering their message the way they want to. If they lead large organizations, they can't be face to face with all of the people who follow them. They need to touch people through multiple communication media: webinars, e-mail, company intranet, and presentations. All these communi­cation media need to connect you and your message to your people-and they need to connect your people back to you. In our next chapter, we'll talk about how you as a leader can effec­tively extend your reach.


Interested in moving your business forward? Want to hear more about what a partnership could look like? We'd love to connect with you.