Several years ago I was interviewing David Cancel, co-founder of Drift, on the art of running a product business. I asked him how his role was changing as the company evolved from being a small startup to having hundreds of employees.
His answer really made an impression on me.
“I think my role has been and will continue to be Chief Explainer Officer or Chief Repeater Officer. I would just have to keep repeating the vision or mission. ‘Why are we here? What are we doing?’”
You might infer that because he’s repeating the same thing over and over again he’s treating employees like recalcitrant children. The opposite is true. To be a good leader you need to respect that everyone is at a different place in their understanding. Dave’s empathy demands that he meet employees where they are.
As Dave said, “It takes us all many reps before we’re ready to hear something. A lot of it has to do with the context we’re in. We have to be in the right context or the right frame of mind to actually catch onto something.”
As a leader it’s unlikely you’ll catch everyone on the exact day when everything is perfect for them to absorb that vision or idea. You need to give everybody the chance to really hear it by repeating it over and over again.
Assuming a company is maturing and changing context from time to time, each repetition will land differently. “That’s why I go back and reread books. Because I’m in a different context each time. I learn something new each time.”
But what is it that the leader needs to be repeating? Is it only the vision, mission and values? Yes, but boiled down to the context of where the business and team is in that moment.
The vision and values need to be anchored to tactical decisions and choices of the day. Dave goes on to add, “We’re also repeating stories. Stories are what people remember. That’s how we’re wired. These are normally customer stories and challenges we’ve overcome. These stories are what translates the fuzzy vision and mission into tactical things you can do.”
As I wrote this post, I also realized there is a compounding effect in the repetition of stories. As the story catches on it gets retold by others. The leader is no longer the source. There are multiple sources. One-to-many becomes many-to-many.
I asked Dave how he knows if the repeated story is catching on and making an impact. “You see it in how people behave, how the product works, and what stories they are telling each other.”
In its simplest form, repetition is a closed loop. The leader needs to repeat the vision until the team starts repeating those same stories back to you.
I’d add that another way to know there’s traction is when stories are being shared and repeated in your absence. Leadership often happens when you’re not in the room.