Senior management isn’t clear

briefcase_headAh yes, fuzziness and lack of clarity – a subtle yet deadly dysfunction that is all too common with senior management. Whether it’s working for an organization without a clear strategy to working for a senior leader that expects you to be a mind-reader, a lack of clarity from senior management is a killer. It kills morale, productivity, alignment and focus. It breeds anxiety, silos, rumors, frustration and distrust.  Before we dive into the most common versions of this dysfunction, consider these few guiding principles on the importance of clarity at work:

Principle #1 – Clarifying expectations is the job of managers and leaders (who, what, when, where, why and how).

Principle #2 – If done well, clarifying expectations up front (from vision to individual performance) can eliminate over 50% of all workplace dysfunctions (and home dysfunctions for that matter).

Principle #3In absence of communication, people ALWAYS assume the worst. 

The Most Common Forms of Sr. Management “Fuzziness” Today

The following are the most common forms of this senior management dysfunction.  If you work for a senior manager that does any or all of the following, take note.  A prescription will soon follow.  And if you are the senior leader, pay particularly close attention to what each of these dysfunctions costs you and the organization.

NO CLEAR STRATEGY– Don’t be fooled. An unusually high percentage of organizations today don’t actually have a clearly articulated strategy. Instead of a clearly formulated strategy that provides clarity to all the members of the organization, what we more commonly see is either a series of corporate buzz words thrown together (Ex: “Our strategy is to be the industry leader in service, excellence and quality by 2020”) or a consistent delay by senior management in providing an overarching strategy (Ex: “We have been working diligently over the last 6 months to finalize our strategy. Trust me, it’s coming” – no it isn’t).

COST: The cost of this dysfunction is significant. Members of the organization assume two things, first there isn’t a strategy and second, senior management is largely incompetent. As a result, thousands of little competing strategies pop up as mid-level managers attempt to fill the void left by senior management.

CULTURE… WHAT CULTURE? – Setting the culture is the job of senior management. Period. What do I mean by culture? Simply put, culture is the clarification of what it means to work here and how we as members of the organization are expected to operate. Do we share our toys in the sandbox or is it every man or woman for themselves? Most senior management today is so focused on short-term metrics that they have stopped addressing these fundamentals with any kind of regularity.

COST: When this isn’t clearly communicated WEEKLY by senior management (contrary to popular belief, communicating this once at an off-site four years ago doesn’t work), competing sub-cultures form. In other words, you get the joy of working in silos that fight with each other and don’t trust other functions. In addition, without a clearly communicated culture poor performers can hide because the rules-of-the-road were never clearly communicated. Infighting and working alongside incompetent slackers that are getting paid the same as me – a party I would rather not be invited to, thank you very much.

LAS VEGAS MANAGEMENT– Great leaders communicate on day one what it is that they expect of the staff. From quality of work product to frequency of communication, they paint a clear picture of what success looks like. This allows them to manage performance more effectively and to empower their direct reports. Notice, I said “great” leaders. Today, most senior managers practice Las Vegas management. They let you gamble and guess what they expect and when you guess right, you are rewarded. When you guess wrong, you are punished.

COST: Las Vegas management creates frustration, anxiety and poor performance in any organization. It almost always results in public temper tantrums by senior management when direct reports continue to guess wrong, tarnishing senior management’s credibility as leaders.  Frustrated direct reports soon opt to dust off their resumes.


“But Brandon,” you ask “this is so obvious. Why don’t senior leaders do these simple things. After all, it’s not rocket science.” I couldn’t agree more. There are two common reasons why senior management’s lack of clarity is so common today:

Fear – Deep down, a large majority of senior leaders are scared. Their industries are flipped upside down. They have no idea where to take the organization and what success should look like. As a result, they default to focusing on short-term metrics. Their pay-off for being vague is that no one can blame them for having the wrong strategy or setting the wrong expectations if they keep vague.  After all, vague can be interpreted so many ways. On a side note, fear increases exponentially if senior leadership is “overly seasoned.”  What do I mean by “overly seasoned?”  Overly seasoned leaders are typically characterized by the leader that has been in his or her industry (and maybe that same company) his or her entire career and is just a few years away from retirement.  Their industry is upside down and they are scared. They don’t want to screw anything up so they just keep quiet, hoping and praying for 2005 to return.  They will be hoping and praying for a very long time.

Assumptions – You’ve heard the old saying about assuming right? When you assume something, you make an a** out of you and me. Sometimes senior leadership “fuzziness” is a product of too many assumptions. Senior managers expect direct reports to be mind-readers and simply “know what I mean.”

Your Prescription

Here’s how you treat this dysfunction: become a clarity hawk. If you are not senior management, train your ear to listen for vagueness and ask clarifying questions. Consider great clarifying questions like:

  • “What would success for the project look like?”
  • “In a perfect world, where would you want see us in 5 years as an organization?”
  • “Where should decision-making rest? When is it o.k. for me to make a decision and when do you need to be making the decision?”
  • “Describe how you want us to be working together around here.”
  • Etc…

Rx3If you are a senior leader, pay close attention to the categories listed above and remember, in absence of communication, people ALWAYS assume the worst. It is your job to fill that void. Communicate your expectations re: vision, culture and individual performance often and provide regular updates for each. Do that, I and I can promise you that you will have a high performing, nearly dysfunction-free office in no time.

Then again, drama is much more fun. Ignore everything I just said and keep things fuzzy.  After all, unclear expectations make for much better reality T.V.


A note from Brandon
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5 replies
  1. CDub says:

    Perfect timing – our company had the quarterly “all hands meeting” to discuss the past, present, and future. Plenty of buzzwords and platitudes shared today.

    While the organization itself is run by a CEO, the company itself (which is a media company) is owned by a handful of investors, which consists of other media conglomerates and companies. So not only do we experience the inconsistencies between individual departments and their senior leaders, but the organization at large has to answer to the shareholders of the owner companies as well. This explains why the company would lay off a decent size of the workforce one week before a major yet unexpected business boon (because we “didn’t make quota, so we were grossly over-budget”), experience woefully understaffed situations during the boon, then wind up re-hiring new people to fill those spots that we had previously not been able to “afford” after the boon. Oh – and our vacation is “use it or lose it”. So half of the workforce that survived wound up losing PTO time ’cause the layoffs and the boon event occurred during the last two months of the year. Another slap in the face? Those who were laid off were told that in order to receive their entire severance package, they had to work the remaining 2 months of the year – and train their replacements.

    Personally, I joined this company because I grew up with the brand, highly related to the brand, went to college so that I could become a professional who specialized in the field covered by the brand, and ultimately dedicate my life to serving the public through the actions of the brand. Lately, I’m becoming disillusioned with the brand. Much like Abercrombie and Fitch, our new leaders are valuing “meeting metrics” over providing quality and satisfying products to our customers. On a daily basis, the metric I am asked to meet changes on a whim (it’s either one of three metrics, and meeting one metric means I cannot realistically meet the other two). And even when I succeed in a metric(s), I will read the customer feedback – and it shows that the customers did not respond favorably to product. The metrics are neutral – they only indicate users’ behavior to our products. They do not indicate whether the user engaged with our product and experienced a positive or negative reaction. In order to find that extra source of information, I resort to combing social media for user feedback on our products. Rarely does our department leader take this extra feedback into consideration.

    My job heavily requires the use of software that malfunctions on a daily – if not hourly – basis. When it does work, it was inadequately developed, so much so that it takes 5 minutes to correct a simple typo, and as much as 20 minutes to move one picture from one side of a gallery to another. 99.9% of what I do does not require a college degree, let alone the highly scientific one I pursued and earned. It depresses me to think that I am paying for student loans doing the work I do, and I try to take my mind off of it by saying, “Yeah, but at least you are not waiting tables, or on unemployment, or….” etc.

    So – yep! I have very little faith in my senior management, largely because of what you have outlined in your post above. I’ve been working on my personal brand, skills, and networks in order to be ready for the next opportunity that knocks.

    Keep up the great work – I always enjoy reading your experiences and analysis!

  2. Brandon Smith says:

    I hear ya. That doesn’t sound like fun at all, particularly when you are practically set up to fail. Hang in there and shoot me a note if I can help!

  3. CDub says:

    I put my money where my mouth is, and I wound up getting a phone interview with a different company pretty much one week after firing off this comment. I’ll drop you a separate message ’cause I have LOTS of new questions for you 🙂 As always, thanks for the advice!

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