It Starts With You

Chapter 4 of The Chocolate Conversation


A few years ago, I got a call from a senior executive who was having trouble motivating his team. We met in his stylish, chrome and glass office. I looked around and saw that the shelves in his office were filled with leadership books. Clearly, he was looking for the “secret sauce” that would make him a great leader. He had a brilliant mind – that was apparent from our first telephone conversation. He claimed his team couldn’t keep up with him. He was frustrated and I guessed that his team was frustrated as well. 

He took me through the challenges his group faced. In speaking with me, he was very smart and very expressive about what he wanted to achieve – I asked questions to help him to further articulate his vision, but something wasn’t sitting right with me.


Listening for the points in his vision is what I do for a living, so I could read between the lines and get the whole picture. However, the very fact that I had to “read between the lines” at all meant to me that he wasn’t speaking as simply as he could to communicate his vision for his company or what he wanted his people to do. His conversation was peppered with what I call corporate-speak: he wanted his people to be “information facilitators” and “system advisors” rather than sales representatives. I noted that he spoke over the ends of my sentences as if he couldn’t wait for me to finish before he continued what he wanted to say – always a sign for me that someone is not really listening.

We met several times before he agreed to let me see him in action. I attended a staff meeting and watched and listened as he spoke to his team. I could see how he was trying to apply some of what we’d talked about. He was making a huge effort to incorporate my direction about speaking simply; however, the more he talked, the more he regressed into his normal corporate-babble. He waved away the few brave hands that went up at the beginning of his speech – soon, everyone gave up and there were no more raised hands.

He spoke for one hour during which he touched on a number of “key priorities”. His message was convoluted and unclear. I watched his people as he spoke – many rubbed their eyes and foreheads, some looked at each other, wide-eyed, and I detected the slight shrugs between people that signal defeat.


At the very end, he asked for feedback. The silence was deafening. They had long since given up trying to understand what he wanted of them.  Some of them in the back actually put their heads in their hands.


When he concluded the meeting, his people didn’t even seem to know that they could get up and leave – they stood up, looked at each other, and then slowly made their way towards the doorway. They left, not knowing or understanding what was expected of them -- that was clear from the bowed heads, slumped shoulders, and quiet air of resignation as they filed out of the room.

When he and I reconvened in his office, I shared my observations. He bristled a bit and I could see that he prided himself on being an articulate, intelligent executive. No argument there – he was certainly intelligent.  Among his peers, he probably was articulate. What he wasn’t, was a good communicator. Good communicators translate complexity into simple straightforward language that moves people.


Leadership happens in the conversation

As a leader, you have a practical job to do. Leaders drive results through people. People need to pull together to meet targets and perform on behalf of the company and their customers. Shareholders and stakeholders want to be kept informed on trends and projections. It’s all about people, the ones that work for you, the ones you work for, and the ones that buy from you.

For many years, I’ve been telling my teams, my colleagues, and my clients that leadership happens in the conversation. It’s where you have the greatest impact as a leader every day.  And, like chocolate itself, conversations can be rich, dense and layered. What we say and what people hear can be very different. What we hear and think we understand can be misinterpreted.

Remember the Great American Chocolate Conversation we discussed in an earlier chapter? President Obama opened a dialogue with a broad group of Americans and brought them along on the beginning of his leadership journey. He had a huge vision and, as soon as he became the President, he began to implement. Shortly into his presidency, however, the health care debate spun out of control, and Obama seemed unable to control the spin and keep his message on track. Soon, even his own supporters moved away from his position, as the conversation grew more shrill and adversarial.

It may be true that some political issues – Social Security or health care or peace in the Middle East – are just explosive and no leader can guide a constructive conversation around them. I might agree since I have found that there are issues just as explosive in companies. As my colleague, Gavin McLeod, says, “Politicians are public executives.”

I have seen significant controversy in companies attempting to adopt a new technology that cannibalizes the core business, a shift that always causes different points of view to emerge. Changes in compensation benefit plans, and other reward systems are also fodder for controversy since they affect people on a personal level.  Organizational changes can result in people losing power and influence – again, a positive change for the company that may leave some people with ego wounds to lick. I don’t have to tell you how brutal those conversations can be.

Leaders have to have those conversations -- sometimes one on one, in small groups or in a public forum. Conversations can take place in someone’s office, over lunch, informally in the hallway or formally in public forums in front of large audiences.  Some conversations are televised like webinars that CEOs have with far flung global teams or even State of the State and State of the Union Addresses.

There’s no room for Chocolate Conversations here – everyone has to come out of the conversation knowing exactly what’s changing, why, and how it will affect them.

The most brilliant “change initiatives” die long, painful, expensive deaths. Chocolate Conversations erode people’s confidence, performance and faith in the company leadership. Ultimately, everyone suffers -- and the company struggles to regain its footing in the same way our country and many nations around the world are struggling to regain theirs.

Having conversations that truly communicate what you intend is vital to achieving your goals and to surfacing the potential concerns of others. It is so much the life-blood of an organization that it can be said, “Communication is to leadership what water is to life.”


At the worldview level, almost everyone agrees that communication is critical.  When you go beyond paying lip service to this concept, and you begin to set standards for how you communicate -- with whom and with what frequency -- you can do more to effectively lead and move your company forward than with any other initiative.

Leadership happens in the conversation, and that conversation happens in the moment, and it is a choice we make. When you manage a project or a process you have time to plan. When you are confronted with the unknown, you have to act in the moment and respond. Those moments often define our leadership. Even when we are silent we are communicating. People will read into your silence as well as your words.


I will go further and say that communication is so central to leadership that once an individual becomes a leader, they no longer have the luxury of casual conversations. People hear everything. The casual conversation that you have in the hall, or the off-the-cuff remark you make, could have significant ramifications. All of your remarks become part of the conversation people are having with everyone else about what you said, what you really meant, and why you said it. The senior leaders I consult with understand that every comment they make communicates volumes.


Communication needs to be authentic. It’s not about saying the right thing or using the right buzz words. One might say all the right things, in the right tone of voice, and in the most positive manner – and, it doesn’t mean that their words will land as meaningful and true. Most people see right through someone who is talking in corporate speak or jargon. Speak straight, speak what you intend, speak from what you know to be true – and people will respond with their own conviction and you can then have a dialogue that is purposeful and moves the action of your company forward.

If you think of every communication as a conversation, and you are authentic and open, people will respond to you. Even when they don’t agree, they will feel they can express themselves, and then you’ll know why they disagree. This is a good thing. If you know that people disagree and you know why, you’ve opened a dialogue so that you can resolve the differences and align your people to you – and move forward into action.


You may not be the best presenter in the world, but if you are able to communicate in an open and conversational style, it creates receptivity – and people will respond. You know when people are responding to you when they give you feedback. This is how you uncover those unmet needs I referred to earlier. When you uncover the unmet needs of people, obstacles fall away and you are left with clear understanding that moves people into action.

Even the best communicators can be misinterpreted. It’s important to communicate with the understanding that someone is on the receiving end of what you are saying. People are going to interpret what you have say. Knowing that will cause you to stay focused and speak straight from the heart.

I’ve met my share of superstar leaders, and even superstar leaders don’t start out fully formed. Putting experience aside for the moment, the fundamental attributes that great leaders have is the ability to convey a message to their followers to take action.

Let’s look at this for a moment. Napoleon, a short man with a grand vision, was able to conquer half of Europe. Winston Churchill, who successfully led England to resist Hitler during World War Two, was a political outcast who spoke like he had a handful of marbles in his mouth. Golda Meir was a student from Wisconsin who established a nation state and led Israel into the 21st century. Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King both challenged discrimination in their societies despite being the targets of prejudice themselves. Rosa Parks sat on a bus and, in silence, lead a change that significantly advanced the civil rights movement. Mother Teresa, through compassion and a tireless effort, communicated with her devotion and faith to make a difference for the victims of poverty in India.

All these leaders had courage, commitment, and vision. But, what really set them apart -- what made them leaders -- was their ability to convey a message to their many followers to take action. They spoke from their hearts about what they believed. People responded and made those causes their own. What made these leaders effective was their ability to convey what was important to them and make it important to others.


Speaking naturally and authentically about what you believe in, whether it is a political position, a personal choice, or a business decision, will get the attention of your audience.

People who make themselves heard

Thirty years ago, I visited GE’s headquarters in Schenectady, New York. It was known then as General Electric, the company my peer group and parents grew up with. It was a stodgy, old-line manufacturing company that made light bulbs and small household appliances. When I visited their headquarters, I requested a ladies room. They were a little embarrassed because there wasn’t one. I was escorted to a private executive restroom.  It was already the 80s and these guys were so far behind the times that they hadn’t thought to have an executive restroom for women.

Not long after that, a guy named Jack Welch came in and brought this company back to life. The conversation on the inside mirrored the conversation he and his leaders were having on the outside with customers, constituents, and shareholders. GE re-established its relevance, grew year over year at astounding percentages and scaled across the globe. Jack developed a well deserved reputation as a master communicator, driving performance relentlessly through his ability to give people an unambiguous picture of what had to happen and where they fit in. During Jack’s 20 year tenure as CEO, GE’s stock value rose 4,000%.  Today Jack is asked to speak on talk shows, news casts, and to other corporations. His speaking engagement fee is $150,000. It doesn’t matter that he’s retired – he’s still relevant, and he’s still helping other businesses grow.

To this day, GE is known for turning out superior leaders. Jack felt that if he focused on executive leadership, first by walking the talk and then by developing strong leaders, his executives could lead any business. He saw leadership as an expertise in and of itself, so much so that he created a leadership center at Crotonville in Ossining, New York – the place to visit for any executive seeking to lead a business transformation.

The ability to reach your people is at the heart of your effectiveness as a leader. Over the past eight years, my company has had the privilege of working with Verizon, their leaders and teams across their businesses. Our first introduction to the company was through the Wireless division. At the time the CEO was Denny Strigl. We never met with Denny while he was at Verizon, but we did meet with his senior team and a cross section of leaders in operational and functional roles.

In these meetings, I was keenly aware of Denny’s influence. He immortalized a philosophy that he referred to as the Shadow of a Leader, and leaders at every level of the organization LIVED it. His people always quoted him, and his pithy declarative statements, affectionately known as “Denny-isms,” were firmly in the fabric of the culture. One of the many Denny-isms was “the first job of a leader is to act.” Another was, “employees don’t fail; their leaders do.” 

Denny kept his messages simple, direct, and there was no ambiguity about his direction. Denny led and people followed. He didn’t have chocolate conversations. His worldviews were widely known, as were his standards and concerns. One of his leaders told me that if you couldn’t explain your direction on a half of a sheet of paper, you didn’t understand what you were doing and neither would your people.

Lowell McAdam, now the CEO of Verizon Inc., was Denny’s Chief Operating Officer. Although Lowell’s style was different, he was a good complement to Denny. Denny’s style was direct and declarative. He laid out clear direction and people followed. Lowell’s style is more Socratic. He asks thought-provoking questions that facilitate people to problem-solve and reach their own conclusions. What Denny and Lowell have in common is each of their styles is an authentic expression of who they are – and each of those styles moved people to action.

Lowell talked to me about his leadership principles. At the top of the list was integrity. “Always do what you know is right.”  This is not always easy, but leaders who live this principle are trusted and credible. Lowell is down to earth and real. He believes you can learn from anyone and that includes people at any level of the organization. He is approachable and spends time with employees across the businesses and the globe. He listens and he acts.

Lowell’s advice to leaders looking to the next promotion is simple: “Do your current job”. Leadership is less about ambition and more about bringing value to the business, your customers and your team. Lowell lives these principles and people follow and lead in his shadow.

One of those people is Tami Erwin. I met Tami in 2004 when we launched a company wide leadership program within Verizon Wireless. She was a new Region President at the time and has since been promoted three times. We’ve worked with Tami in each of her roles. Currently she is the Chief Marketing Officer for Verizon Wireless.

Tami’s previous position was Area President for the West Area, the largest of the four Areas in the company. When Tami took over the area, she faced several challenges -- not the least of which was a business she and her leadership team needed to turn around. We met with her, Dianna Zaccardi, the Marketing V. P., and the rest of Tami’s team, her staff, and her Region Presidents to work on an operational strategy. The intent was to translate the strategic goals of the company into actionable tactics that the frontline customer-facing employees could run with.

The strategic goals of the company made perfect sense to people at senior levels. Those goals needed to be translated for frontline employees to understand how they could execute on them. This is where true leaders take it up a notch. Communication at its highest level is listening and translating the message across all levels of the organization. A good leader speaks into the “listening” of the various departments and levels and concerns in the company. It’s not enough to simply take the “company line” and assume that everyone’s standards and concerns are the same as senior management’s.

I’ll show you what I mean.  The table below illustrates what can happen if leaders simply parrot the same messages to all levels in the organization:


What Happens When leaders speak the same way to everyone?

Many leaders believe their job is to simply pass on the message from the top, and they call that communicating, but I beg to differ. We’ve taken a very strong stand on this and said, ‘No, it’s not. It’s every leader’s job to translate. You have a responsibility to translate the messages you’re getting from the top through to your employees so that their interpretation is both consistent with the direction of the company and meaningful to them.”

Working with the team, we coached them through the task of translating the corporate goals into clear terms that frontline reps could both understand and act on. They worked hard at it and what they came up with was amazing. Their response was, “Wow. This really hits home.” You take each goal and you bring it all the way through the organization so that it matters to every employee. The table below shows how much more meaningful the translated messages were to frontline reps:


So we ended up with a very simple, distilled message and actionable goals that became pervasive throughout the area. No one forgot them. They didn’t have to be on a laminated card. People didn’t have to sit and think about what they were told to do.

Gavin and I started with a premise that we ask all our clients to consider: Message discipline drives operational discipline. Message discipline is the term we coined to convey the importance of words. I think you have to be very disciplined about what you say, how you say it, who you say it to, and when you say it. The simpler you keep the language, the less likely you are to confuse people. If you keep your message simple and focused and target it to your audience, the less likely you are to contradict yourself with confusing expressions that won’t mean what you want them to mean to your people.

When we asked why people don’t use simple language, we get confusing responses back. When that happens, I am even more convinced that it’s because they know the message they want to convey but find it hard to do. Too often the message gets lost because it takes a great deal of effort to make it simple. You know the old Mark Twain adage, “if I had more time, I’d write a shorter letter”. Distilling a message to its essence is an objective every leader should strive for. It reduces the risk of chocolate conversations. People end up thinking and doing what you intended.


The focus on message discipline grew out of a familiar complaint we were hearing from virtually all our clients: “We’ve got a great strategy. I wish I could get my people to execute on it.” This was often followed by the comment, “They just don’t get it.”

My answer to that is, “If the masses ‘don’t get it,’ who owns that? The leader owns that.” If execution and operational discipline are critical to you, you need to understand that they’re driven by message discipline. When employees get multiple messages – from headquarters, from region, from their boss, each with a slightly different spin, they don’t know what to pay attention to anymore. Message discipline drives operational discipline.

Recently in an interview with Tami in her new role as CMO we asked her to reflect on her journey as a leader in Verizon and this is what she said:


It is easy to assume a common understanding. It is the old saying: You assume and it makes an ass of you and me. In the haste to deliver, people assume understanding and a common background and they skip the step. They move to strategic planning and problem resolution without testing understanding. They do not clarify.

I like the concept of chocolate conversations; it is simple; everyone understands it. It is easy to say how I think about chocolate and to see how someone else might think of a different chocolate.

In our business, people come from different backgrounds and experiences; they have different skills and knowledge and understanding; they bring a different operational knowledge and strategic understanding. If you can get to a common framework, you maximize the differences. If you bring diversity and skip getting to a common understanding, if you skip the chocolate step, then you do not effectively communicate and you do not pull the different perspectives together; if you do that (skip getting to a common understanding), you do not deliver.”

People will ask if you understand; but no one will step up and say “I do not.” Who would do that? And probably everyone thinks they do understand. Instead, we need to say, “Tell me your understanding.” Then we can clarify by validation, not assumption. Tell me your understanding of the situation. If you ask: Does everyone understand? Everyone will think they do. You have to create an environment to say what you understand; then you get to the differences – then you can bring in each perspective; you can clarify and move forward.

I do not care how great the strategy is or how wonderful the product is, if people are not valued, you can pack your bags and go home. You treat your employees with respect, kindness and integrity and the rest is simple. Think about our credo [at Verizon Wireless]; it is a culture of respect and constructive dissent. You do not check your brain at the door. But you make a decision, you align and you move forward. The only reason to have a strategy and a product is to bring together people and enable them to success.

You can structure the conversation. You cannot control people but you can control the conversation – you can specify that this is about fact-gathering or about making decisions. You influence very quickly the rest of the organization as people are watching. You create the structure.


We’ve already spoken earlier about Shahan Nazar, Senior Vice President, Product Development, for Estee lauder Companies. He’s the guy who led the effort to successfully integrate the Estée Lauder/MAC merger in R&D. He brought two cultures together to build a common identity. Shahan is a master at bringing people and teams together. He observes:

Without a leader you cannot succeed. Collectivism is a nice concept but it does not work. The success of a leader goes to maturing the team and gaining consensus – the majority must rule. But if the minority is not heard, the ruling proposal collapses. You must listen to objections and meet them in some way. Communism collapsed because they did not listen to dissent. If it is just the leader, it can be brutal and collapse.

Good leaders make a consensus of the team; they do it with the input of the minority – they need to be heard on their key objections and brought on board.

Some dissenters you can never get on board; some you can never convince. You have to neutralize them, since, if you do not, they can be destructive. If you do nothing, it is a big mistake. You cannot have people undermining you. Napoleon thought he had delayed the Prussians; but one of his marshals betrayed him and allowed the Prussians to arrive in half the time. He could not sell his strategy to that marshal; he did not neutralize him.

To gain as much support as you can, the key is to translate your strategy and make sure people understand it and can see themselves in the picture. First, the strategy has to be wise and solid; if it is smoke and mirrors it has no chance. If it is solid, and doable, and makes sense, it is not hard to sell. You must spend a lot of time coming up with a winning strategy, supported by intuition, facts, process—spend a lot of thinking on it. If the strategy is solid, it can still fail if the execution is not good. That is when communication is key. You can’t afford to have a chocolate conversation. People need to understand what you want them to do and be given the freedom to express their concerns.

How to know you’re having a Chocolate Conversation

Leaders try to come up with simple ideas to drive change all the time.  “Customer experience” is a good example.  For the past several years, companies have been grappling with “best customer experience” as a key goal.  Yet, some of the leaders I’ve seen work on this have not made their companies any more appealing in the customer experience realm. As a result, they’ve suffered lost market share despite a lot of effort.  The answer is where Chocolate comes in.

I’ve used the Chocolate Conversation exercise in my own consulting practice for many years. We use this exercise whenever we begin a new group session with a client. The subject matter of the meeting varies – we could be talking about anything from strategy, to post-merger integration, or leadership practice to innovation.


We start by asking a room full of executives to conjure up a picture in their minds when they hear the word chocolate. They’ve all tasted some form of chocolate, haven’t they? Most of the time, individuals look around the room at each other and then at us rather curiously – after all, asking about chocolate at the start of an important business meeting does raise a bit of concern as to how the rest of the meeting will go. After all, aren’t meeting facilitators supposed to begin by talking about the objectives for the meeting?

Next, we’ll ask participants to write on a post-it note the picture that came into their mind when they heard the word “chocolate.”  After everyone writes something down, we ask for a volunteer to read off their post it.  Once the members of the group read what is on their post-it notes, people begin smiling at each other – as we are connecting their words and playfully making commentary like “you want strawberries dipped in chocolate, but this guy wants to make sure it’s dark chocolate and this woman wants hot fudge over strawberry ice cream and two other people don’t want any because they don’t want it to show up on certain body parts.”

Through hundreds of sessions and a broad variety of clients, I’ve heard responses that range from M&M’s to happiness to gourmet Belgian chocolate, to a beloved Labrador retriever. In one meeting, someone said, “Halle Berry.”  As they share results, people laugh at some of the associations made within the group.

The next question we ask is the clincher: if a simple concept like “chocolate” can evoke so many interpretations in a short period of time, how does the group think something like the company’s strategy or a change-implementation plan will be interpreted by the hundreds – or frequently thousands – of people who have to work together to make it happen?

Everyone in the room nods when I asked if they have tasted this thing called “chocolate,” but after the exercise is complete, each one sees that there are as many different images of “chocolate” in the room as there are people. Translate the word “chocolate” into words like “innovative,” “talent,” “solution,” “experience,” or “customer” and every person can immediately see why personal interpretation  leads to multiple understanding and standards, confusion  and concern. After this exercise, the participants realize that everyone has a different picture in their heads of what the concept means to them. The moment we substitute words like “innovation” or “customer experience” for “chocolate,” each person there begins to get the picture. The trick is to recognize chocolate conversations when the meeting is over and people are back at their everyday jobs.

I have used the chocolate exercise with a diverse group of clients, and I’ve been gratified to hear them adopt it into their own vocabulary. I’ll overhear them talking among themselves six months or a year later and they’ll pull up short and say, “Wait, we’re having a Chocolate Conversation.” Then, they’ll make sure everyone in the conversation is clearly seeing the same picture before they continue. In a sense, the term and this behavior have become markers for executives we’ve worked with who have really gotten something out of focusing on the “conversation” and then have incorporated it into their personal leadership practice.

Good leaders can have bad conversations

Leaders of organizations and teams have all types of conversations privately and publically; conversations for possibility, commitment, action, and assessment. Preparing for these conversations is key to the success of an effective leader. For every Tami and Shahan I have known, I have met three times the number of executives who are crippled by their inability to have the conversations they need to have. They are smart, hardworking and dedicated – and they get the idea of Chocolate Conversations when I talk to them – but they find it hard to have the conversations that are important for their businesses in a way that creates action. They are good people who consistently have bad conversations. Let’s move on to our next chapter to find out why this is so – and what you can do about it if it’s happening to you.


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