Simplify: The Most Important Leadership Skill

By Steve Strelsin


An entire industry has been built around emulating great leaders. It began with the Greek philosopher Plutarch around 100 AD, who wrote The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans so that young people could learn from the experience of Achilles, Alexander the Great and other notable figures. Today, an Amazon search of books about “leadership” generates 136,344 results. Using the search term “Jack Welch” alone yields 1,787 titles.

While doing research on leadership with the Harvard Business School some time ago I had the opportunity to ask dozens of senior leaders: “How would you describe the most important aspect of your role in the organization?” I learned a valuable lesson from that experience and nothing has happened since to change this learning.

Specifically, executives at companies that performed inconsistently described the most important aspect of their role as creating a vision for the company, building culture or developing a strategy. Those are all important, of course.

But at companies that consistently outperformed their peers, the senior leaders’ responses were surprisingly uniform. They saw their role as “Chief Simplifier.” They were accomplished at simplifying strategy to focus on the greatest sources of value. They simplified the organization to better execute the strategy. And they took responsibility for communicating key strategic and tactical messages in simple, clear, compelling ways that inspired changes in behavior and impelled action.

Simplify Strategy

The most successful leaders were consistently focused on the things that really mattered. They were willing to back off even good ideas for the sake of simplicity and focus. Like master gardeners, they recognized that careful pruning would ultimately yield stronger, more sustained results.

In a Fast Company article titled “The Biggest Business Comebacks of the Past 20 Years”, General Motors was cited for dropping its Pontiac, Saturn and Hummer divisions. Simplifying its business portfolio was a major factor that led to a company turnaround that saved an estimated 1.2 million jobs.

In 1997, Steve Jobs said, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying “no” to 1,000 things.” But he also succeeded in consistently simplifying the strategy into memorable themes. Apple’s business strategy, according to its latest Form 10-K, is predicated on “bringing the best user experience to its customers.” That’s not far from the message of its first product brochure: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

In other words, when it comes to strategy, be prepared to say “no” unequivocally and to say, “yes” memorably.

Simplify the Organization

Organizations can falter when activities require a lot of interactions and interdependencies. Every organization has what I call tension or rub points, those areas of complexity where different functions have to interact well for the organization to succeed.

Successful leaders anticipate which events and activities will make things more complex and create untenable tension. Some leaders just have a nose for those tension points. Some have learned to let others do the heavy lifting by asking them simple questions such as, “What’s getting in your way?” and “What would make it easier for you to do your job?” People will tell you where the complexity is, particularly when they understand their role in executing the company’s strategy.

Then successful leaders know which levers to pull to ease those tension points. They know when and how to get people from different functions together to simplify interdependencies because those are the areas where a strategy is at risk of breaking down.

A hallmark of the simplified organization is clarity around decision-making. Leaders create singular, clear accountability for frequent, important decisions, whether in the boardroom, manufacturing or at the point of sale. Another hallmark is to have clear success measures for all aspects of the work and for each role in the organization. These success measures need to be accurately monitored and largely controllable. Too many organizations define roles by a long list of activities that are to be carried out. It is far more powerful to define roles by their success measures and their role in key decision-making around the factors that matter to the organization’s strategy.

Communicating Simply

Developing a new strategy is a complex process. The engineering (and sometimes, over-engineering) that goes into crafting a strategic plan can yield a strategy that is comprehensive but incomprehensible to the stakeholders for whom it matters most. Successful leaders have learned that helping others understand the company’s strategy at the personal, behavioral level is the surest way of getting them to support it.

To ensure this outcome, leaders should break the strategic plan down into simple terms that have specific relevance to each group. Then they should explain how each role is linked to the strategy and regularly ask questions to measure employees’ understanding, and clarify any misunderstandings.

Likewise, the most effective leaders have developed the ability to communicate all messages with the audience in mind, and with the express objective of creating actionable understanding. Starbucks provides an interesting example. According to the Fast Company article, back in 2008 Howard Schultz closed all U.S. Starbucks stores for three hours to retrain baristas in the art of pulling espresso. Re-establishing a consistent process took the guesswork and one-off decisions out of coffee making and elevated the quality of the product across the organization.

In short, as the world becomes more complex, simplifying strategy, inter-dependencies, decision-making and all communication becomes more important than ever.

Leadership & Talent
Business Transformation