Picture this: you're in a meeting with the executive team, and someone says, "It's our most important problem." Everyone around the table nods.

As an executive coach, I know this is my moment to step in. I stop the action. "What do you think 'it' is?" I ask everyone around the room. "What is the 'it' that is our most important problem?"

Invariably when I ask seven people this question, I get seven different answers. "It" is our inability to get enterprise sales. "It" is our need to fix our sales process." "It" is the need to work better together as a team.

One of the main jobs of startup CEOs is to make sure everyone has the same picture in their heads of what success looks like. You need to make sure that next steps are clear to everyone so that they can work tougher as an integrated team.

And you need to know that while you're off raising money or converting a $1 million deal into a $5 million deal with your biggest customer, your team is doing what you expect of them, even when you're not there. Being specific drives clarity. Being vague-- or letting others be vague-- doesn't.

Here are two simple tools you can use to drive clarity.

1. Ask clarifying questions.

At the end of any meeting, check in with the team. "What do you think we decided?" is a great question. So is, "What are our next steps?"

You can also say, "We covered a lot of ground. Can someone summarize what we decided and what next steps are?"  That invites someone from the team to articulate what expectations are. If there is confusion you can deal with it immediately.

Claire, a startup founder and CEO that I was working with was frustrated at the pace of progress on the most important project the company was working on. Her VP of Marketing was designing their new website, and he needed and actively sought a lot of buy-in from the team. That's good. However, when we talked it through, Claire realized that she regularly attended his meetings and she herself didn't always know what the next steps were.

So she asked her VP of Marketing to ask at the end of his next meeting, "What do you see as our next steps?" After he did this, the entire team realized that some of them thought that the meetings were for their information only; no next steps at all. The VP of Marketing, on the other hand, had specific tasks for them to do, but one way or the other these were not coming out. After this pivotal meeting they all got on the same page, and the website was completed and launched very efficiently.

2. Be more specific yourself

Being vague is easy. Getting specific takes more work. I find that leaders are often unclear in their communication because they are unclear in their thoughts. Solve this by taking time to reflect before every meeting and one-on-one on the most important message you want to get across.

Richard, the CEO of a biotech startup I worked with, did this in response to direct feedback from one of his vice presidents. "I never know if he is giving me something to think about or asking me to do something," the Vice President said to me when I conducted 360-feedback. When I asked Richard about it, he said that sometimes even he didn't know what he wanted!

Startups move fast, and he has a lot on his mind. When he says something, sometimes he's just brainstorming, sometimes he's offering a different perspective, and sometimes he's directing his team to do something.  

After we realized this, I asked him to reflect before each interaction. Did he want to ask his employee to consider something, or did he want her to do something? Once he knew the answer to that, confusion disappeared.

As a leader, your communication matters a lot. It is one of the key building blocks that will help your startup be successful. Make sure you are clear and that everyone around you is clear.

Published on: Apr 23, 2019
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