The best ideas often come from the collision of two very different domains of knowledge. For instance, Steve Jobs soared by bringing the aesthetic sense of calligraphy to computers. That's a grand and famous example, but this sort of productive cross-pollination goes on every day. Strategic messaging consultant Andy Raskin recently shared one such moment that combines the worlds of startups and sports on Medium.
In the post he talks about an insight he took away from an event sponsored by VC firm Cowboy Ventures that brought together sports luminaries and entrepreneurs. The simple but profound bit of leadership wisdom came from NFL Hall-of-Famer Marcus Allen, who claimed he learned it from Ray Willsey, the backfield coach for the Raiders when the team won the Super Bowl in 1980 and 1983.
"Don't" vs. "Make Sure"
What made Willsey an extraordinary leader and coach, according to Allen, was the way he gave advice. "Allen said that nearly every other coach he had ever played for spent most of the time telling players what not to do," Raskin relates.
"For instance," Raskin reports Allen saying, "take a punt return. Every other coach would tell us, 'If you're about to be tackled, don't cut back, because you're probably going to lose yardage.'" This sounds like a straightforward and effective way to provide feedback, but Willsey used a different technique. He "never said the word don't. Instead, he always said make sure."
Why was this little change of language so powerful? Allen explained that "instead of telling me not to cut back, he would say, 'Well, if you are going to cut back, make sure you have plenty of room to run.' By saying make sure instead of don't, he was telling me that he had faith in my ability to make decisions." With two simple words Willsey inspired Allen to think for himself and believe in his own judgment.
Raskin now uses Willsey's technique with start-up founders. Rather than flat-out tell founders that they shouldn't do X, he'll phrase his concerns differently, saying to an entrepreneur that if she wants to do X, she should make sure that unlikely conditions Y and Z are met. The founder usually thinks for a minute and comes to her own conclusion that her idea could use a rethink. Misstep (tactfully) averted and founder simultaneously empowered to wisely assess similar situations in the future. It's a win-win.
Tweak your language for an outsize impact
This tiny but profound change of phrasing isn't the only time that a small language shift can have a big impact for leaders. A variety of other experts have suggested other tweaks that can have an outsized impact on a manager's effectiveness, including adding "yet" to negative feedback or swapping "Yes, and" for "Yes, but." Read more about them here.
Could you put Allen's insight on how to phrase advice to work at your office?