The Leader & Bad Signage

Signage-leadership-communicationMy family and I lived in a foreign country for five years. We loved our time in a new environment. The people were warm and friendly. The food was incredible. The scenery was breathtaking. And the cultural learning was rich.

Certainly we were challenged on many fronts by living in a place so different from our home country.

There was a significant language barrier.

There were new customs, traditions, mannerisms, and priorities.

We came to embrace most of these new realities and saw many of them as superior to our own. To this day we continue to practice some of those cultural values, even though we live again in our home setting.

One aspect that always proved daunting for me in this country was taking on the open road. I love to drive. I am an explorer at heart and driving allows me a great way to see and do new things.

But knowing where you are going and how to get there are critical aspects to the driving experience.

This particular country was great at getting you started. There were always detailed road signs about exactly where to turn, how far you had to go, and what was next–when you left the city. In an uncanny fashion though, almost always at the halfway point, you were often left completely hanging. The road signs seemed to disappear. The next turn was a complete mystery. What were labeled as one way streets on your GPS were now one way the other way. The names of the towns seem to change. Nothing made sense.

Distances were now a luxury.

Direction was at a premium.

Lostness was the norm.

This produced one very frustrated American driver. My hunch was that the native population knew where they were going. All these additional signs simply marred the beauty of their country. Foreigners would figure it out eventually. Besides, efficiency was not a cultural value.

As leaders we can tend to assume directional clarity as well.

We can begin well.

We talk vision early on.

We delineate roles and priorities.

We provide the first few steps.

And then we disappear.

Our teams can feel an innate sense of “lostness.” The halfway point is a endless horizon without a marker. This can lead to silos, ineffective individual efforts, and loss of morale. The great need is for more signage! The destination needs to be reinforced. The turns, roundabouts, distances, and road conditions need to be illuminated. Clear communication markers are necessary for everyone to arrive happy and safe. It is on you to ensure the rest of the team is navigating properly for the accomplishment of the stated mission.

Here are a few reminders:

1. As the leader you are the GPS for your team.

2. Clear communication has to be a constant–in the beginning, during the nebulous middle, and at the end.

3. You can never over communicate direction and encouragement. 

4. Bad signage will ensure the wrong destination and maximum frustration. 

(photo credit)

2 replies
  1. Rich Dixon
    Rich Dixon says:

    I love this idea, mostly because I have a lot of questions.

    Seems like signage is different, because it’s designed for newcomers. Shouldn’t people within the organization accept some responsibility for finding their way and asking when details are unclear?

    Am I being too literal? Or perhaps it’s the former teacher in me!

    Do we need perfect signage or people who understand the vision well enough to figure out the turns without explicit directions?

    • Gary Runn
      Gary Runn says:

      Rich-great questions. I like the teacher in you. I think “signage” is huge early on in a new endeavor or with newcomers. And I think you are correct that those who are not newcomers should accept some responsibility for “finding their way.” I think the problems arise when leadership assumes everyone can do that or is doing that. With some people you can simply “aim and fire.” Others need more clear, successive steps along the way. So to your point, too much communication can feel like micromanagement to some–but others might feel abandoned and lost. I guess this falls under the category of the art of leadership–providing for the differing needs of followers. I would still stick to my point within the post that you still can’t over communicate direction (where is magnetic north-where are going) and encouragement (the fuel to get there). If those are clear and consistent–than I think we are best positioned as leaders to adapt to the needs of our followers in how much then need in between. Thanks for the push on this towards clarity and good thinking. I love it.


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