How important is repetition in setting the azimuth?

The answer is: very important.  Read on as we share a challenge faced in the Army, how it was solved, and how “setting the azimuth” applies to running a business effectively.

We learned from our Army mentors that a leader must be clear, concise, and repeat the message often.  The “Rule of Seven” is indeed alive and well.  If you want your team to get the message – tell them at least 7 times. The challenge for a leader is to be as unambiguous as possible in the fundamental work to boil the message down to a level where it is rapidly understood and internalized by every team member.  Clarity matters.  The verbal and nonverbal skills required in communicating an organization’s mission, intent, values, culture, and priorities separate effective leaders from the pack.  A Level Five leader is an effective communicator who uses repetition as a key element of getting  the word out, and having it understood.

In 1991, as the commander of a mechanized infantry battalion of 800 soldiers in the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, I (John) was confronted with the challenge of communicating my message.  One Wednesday evening, I grabbed a small piece of notebook paper blowing across the parking lot.  I noticed that it was a single page, very sketchy rendition of a squad leader’s version of the notes from the previous Monday’s training meeting.  In the Army, the weekly training meeting is fundamentally important to synchronize the details and resources for the next three weeks of training.  I used these meetings to communicate what I considered to be clear guidance with the desired purpose and end state for each activity.  In turn, I was relying on the six company commanders to pass my guidance to their direct reports.  This information flowed through the chain of command, to the platoon leaders and ultimately, to the battalion’s 54 squad leaders.  After glancing at the small piece of paper, however, it became very clear that the content from the training meeting was nowhere near captured or understood by the squad leader.  I was naively thinking that my message was being transmitted to every soldier in the battalion.  This had to be fixed as soon as possible.

The solution was twofold.  First, minutes were produced after each training meeting, which I personally edited and approved.  Second, we relearned the imperative that leaders must frequently stand up and address their teams.  I did this on a weekly basis with the entire battalion and smaller gatherings of companies, platoons, and squads.  I found myself repeating myself over and over, to the point of personal distraction, but the results were amazing.  The 800 soldiers got to know their battalion commander first hand and the repetitive messaging brought us all on the same sheet of music.  Company commanders and their direct reports were not threatened by my frequent interaction; rather, our messaging was synchronized and the team appreciated my reinforcement of what they were saying.    We achieved a high degree of focus and alignment.  The battalion’s mission and intent were well understood and supported.  Over time, the battalion grew into a high performing team where initiative was encouraged and expected.

Over the past nine years, we found that the same techniques apply equally in business.  There is a direct correlation between how often a company’s CEO and managers stand up in front of their respective teams to describe with clarity the company’s mission, intent, financial status, key performance indicators, and upcoming priorities.  Team members want to be empowered with information.  These meetings are also a great opportunity to transmit the team’s success stories and recognize top performers in front of their peers.  The more folks feel valued and understand the “what” and “why” of what they are doing, the more likely they will be to seize the initiative and surprise you with amazing performance – and profits.

Repetition is an important component of our first “Big 6” leadership principle: Setting the Azimuth. Let us know how the “Seven Times Rule” works for you.

You can learn more about “Setting The Azimuth” and our other leadership concepts in out book “We’re All In.” You can get a copy of the first chapter for free here.