What does your team say at the water cooler about your organization’s leadership? Before you answer, keep in mind that individuals learn, understand, and remember through different communication styles, mediums, methods, associations, and reinforcements. So you might first ask whether you’ve done your best in demonstrating an understanding of this diversity of perspective by tailoring your communication. Is there anything you could have done differently regarding the leadership, planning, and communication process in various scenarios? What was out of sequence or too little, too late? What messages did you presume to be common knowledge or shared understanding but turned out to be otherwise?
When a leadership initiative, guidance, or communication hasn’t gone as well as I’ve hoped, I think back to a lesson from a favorite college English literature professor. Along with being a respected professor, he was also a minister and had been a race car driver. He was eccentric, but he was also an amazing leader and an expert at inserting practical, interesting meaning into his lessons.
THE SANDWICH LESSON
One memorable day, he challenged us students to teach him how to make a peanut butter and banana sandwich and to help him appreciate what it would taste like. Further, he wanted us to assume he was blind and had never eaten a banana. In other words, the goal was to provide step-by-step instruction using just our words to someone who couldn’t see us and had very little context or relevant experience.
So how do we make this sandwich? We put peanut butter and banana between two pieces of bread and then we’re done. Makes sense, right? Take it a step further. We have an unopened jar of peanut butter, an unpeeled banana, and an unopened bag of bread.
We must also open the jar, peel the banana, open the bread, take two pieces of bread out, and then put the peanut butter on the bread. All good? Not done yet. How do we get the peanut butter out of the jar? A spoon? A knife? What size spoon or knife? Do we use the whole jar of peanut butter? How do we get the banana into pieces to put on the bread? Do we smash it onto the bread, or do we cut it up? Do we make long or round pieces of banana? Do we hold the banana upright? Do we even have any peanut butter and bananas, or do we have to go shopping first? And on and on.
What the sandwich scenario teaches us is this: Perhaps to those who’ve been making sandwiches for years, all this is obvious. But if someone has never done this before, they have no frame of reference.
Once we’ve explained how to eat it, we still need to explain what the sandwich is going to taste like. We might say it’s going to be a cold sandwich, that it’s a little chewy and soft, and that it will be sweet. But are we saying it’s cold like ice or just room temperature? But wait, is it sweet like ice cream? Or is it sweet like chocolate? Remember, the recipient has never tasted a banana, so he has no frame of reference. How would we communicate the flavor to him?
Transfer this creative project to the day-to-day business world, and it becomes clear that strong leaders need to consider their audience and deliver messages thoughtfully within full context: sharing how the decision was reached, steps taken to analyze the situation or options, where the plan was headed, or how it impacts both the team and clients. This is a necessity each time we lead our teams, define a process, and communicate.
Within our accounting and finance lives, we frequently have these types of opportunities to improve how we lead our teams. For instance, when we alter a long-accepted routine process, we have to adjust fee schedules knowing that the increase will be a challenge for some of them. Or if we change the cost of employee benefits, it could result in a reduction in employee take-home pay. These are common scenarios. If we involve our teams in the background, reasoning, and planning discussions for process changes, the thoroughness of the implementation and level of acceptance will be more successful, and we may even learn of ways to make the process better than we originally had hoped.
For example, by helping our team members understand why we’re changing our fee schedule and how the changes will be implemented, tested, and rolled out, and realistically planning for client concerns, we can go far to decrease the difficulty while reducing our team’s stress level. And, of course, with any scenario that involves employee benefits and payroll, we must acknowledge that the viewpoint, level of understanding, and focus of importance could be drastically different for each employee. Any misstep in our plan and communication efforts could amplify and spread quickly. I’m confident that within each of these scenarios we can recall similar situations during our careers as either a deliverer of the message or the recipient and think of ways the situation could have been handled differently. Our challenge is to learn from those lessons and remember them as new opportunities arise.
The need to consider all the details and the best way to communicate them for accuracy is inherent to the challenges of leadership, process design, implementation, and communication. Every day we have to manage multiple audiences who have various frames of reference and who use multiple delivery channels. We should always be conscious of keeping our leadership guidance messages simple yet complete, targeted by audience, sequenced appropriately, comprehensive yet not overwhelming, and guided by an awareness that recipients learn and absorb knowledge differently. Our teams want and need leadership and guidance so they can understand, buy in, support, and continue to grow stronger. Our role as leaders is to provide this to them. Our challenge every day is to teach others how to make the sandwich.
IMA LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/career-resources/leadership-academy.