Sending Signals

A blessing and curse of holding a leadership position is the ability to both intentionally (blessing) and unintentionally (curse) send a strong signal or message via small actions. The more senior your role or perceived responsibility, the more significant this impact is likely to be, and it’s particularly pronounced for members of the senior leadership or executive leadership team.  

As a leader, your words carry substantial weight. Once you’re aware of this, you can absolutely use it as a tool. It can help you enforce messaging and desired behaviors. Small actions like what topics you ask questions about and what agenda items you consistently discuss can help re-enforce your messaging on priorities. Your actions can be used to signal organizational priorities.

To use an example (intentional). Let’s say a critical priority for your organization this year is Sales and you really want to enforce that. Simple acts like making it a perpetual agenda topic at team meetings, referencing it at big company events, talking about it in 1-2-1s with your team, with your colleagues, and with anyone you interact with in the organization, will re-enforce its importance.

To use an example (unintentional). You meet with a client and they ask you when a particularly bespoke product feature is going to be available in the software. For the next six months, you routinely check in with your product team on the status of this feature. Without really meaning to, you elevate its importance and find it’s been pulled forward in the priority list, even though you probably wouldn’t have made that choice if it was laid out in front of you.

Once you’re aware of signal sending, you’ll realize that sometimes you need to take action even when you don’t really feel like it or want to. Maybe you’ve told the team that this year, it’s critical to be present at the major conferences in your industry. But you also had a newborn 6 months ago, and you haven’t taken much vacation lately, and these conferences are spread all across the country. Regardless, you show up and attend because your actions speak louder than words. Your actions send the signal and re-enforce the message: these conferences are important.

Sometimes you can use hyperbolic or exaggerated versions of actions to really send a strong signal. There is a famous story of a customer returning tires to Home Depot’s customer service desk… at a time when Home Depot didn’t even sell tires. The Chief Merchandising Officer at the time accepted the tires and gave the customer a refund in full. Then he chained those tires above the customer service desk to exaggerate the point “the customer is always right here”. The cost to Home Depot was small, but the value in sending that type of a signal, which became cultural lore, was extremely high.

*I heard the Home Depot story several years ago and it may not be literally accurate but the spirit of it is intact.