I was lucky enough to be in the audience recently when A.G. Lafley, Procter & Gamble's CEO, gave a lovely talk to a small group of executives. We've talked here about Level 5 leaders -- he qualifies, If anyone does. He is perhaps the most modest and selfless CEO of a Fortune 500 firm I have encountered. I know A.G. slightly, as in 2000, when he first stepped in as CEO, I spent a few hours with his top team talking about The Knowing-Doing Gap.
One of the premises of that book is that a key to turning knowledge into action is that -- although executives who talk about many ideas and complex ideas will be viewed as smarter -- wiser and more effective executives pick just a few simple messages and repeat them over and over again until people throughout the organization internals them and use them to guide action. Constantly changing messages lead to the "flavor of the month problem" where people don't act on the current message because they have learned that, if they wait a few months (or days) the message will change (managers in such organizations become very skilled at talking as if they acting on the flavor of the month, but not actually doing the thing that senior executives are pushing at the moment.) And making things overly complicated may make the senior executives seem smart and feel smart , but if a message is too complicated understand, it is also means that the implications for action are impossible to understand as well.
Expressing a simple message and repeating it over and over again is especially important when an organization is large, as it isn't possible for A.G. to have a meeting with all 130,000 or so people in one room. A.G.'s motto is that the principles used to run the firm need to be "Sesame Street Simple." I love that because it is so different than the kind of message you hear from management theorists or from CEOs who are obsessed with how smart they are -- and how dumb everyone else is in compassion.
Here is a U.S. News and World Report article that describes A.G.'s style in more detail. For this post, here is the key paragraph:
Repeat after me. If that sounds simplistic, Lafley is the first to admit that it is. Yet in a company where more than half the employees don't speak English as their first language, he says his Sesame Street- simple slogans, repeated over and over, keep everyone trained on what's important. Human beings "don't want to stay focused," he says. "So my job is to get them to focus their creativity around the focus; focus their productivity around the focus; focus their efficiency or effectiveness around the focus."
As I compare A.G.'s approach to what is happening in financial meltdown, it strikes me that the crisis (and the apparent cure too) is brought to us by people who -- at times -- did such complicated things that no one, including themselves, understood what they were doing and what the implications might be. I am sure that some very smart economists or finance people believe that they understand all this, and I guess we have to trust some of them now to get us out of this despite their history of greed and arrogance. But this crisis has further convinced me that I prefer Sesame Street Simple to Wall Street Convoluted every time.