When enough is enough, it’s time for tough love

How to send a message that won’t be misinterpreted

There comes a time when a CEO must send a message that is unequivocal, one that will be understood by everyone from the highest level all the way down to the lowest rung on the organizational ladder. Usually, these calls are reserved for a time when everything seems upside down and business is going south. These communications are seldom misunderstood because they are of the “do or die” ilk.

This same type of tough-love mandate can, however, be equally effective when everything seems OK, but the CEO has a gut instinct that the team is coasting — doing what’s necessary to maintain, but not what’s needed to excel. First inklings occur when the top players seem to be getting the job done, but not aggressively looking for a new or better way. Similarly, middle management conveys the impression of taking success for granted.

One day you wake up thinking “enough is enough.” It’s time to send a message to stir the pot, get everyone going and underscore the consequences of accepting mediocrity and just getting by.

This can be done in small group meetings or on a bigger stage, but much akin to a Super Bowl halftime performance, the wake-up call, to be effective, must be dramatic and unexpected.

One important warning: When sending your message, don’t make the mistake that occurs in the children’s game of telephone. The first player picks a phrase and then passes it along to the next player who repeats it to the next player, etc., until the last person announces the phrase to the group. Virtually every time, there is little resemblance to the starting phrase. This happens because of misinterpretation and is indicative of why many important messages get diluted or completely discombobulated.

For your message to hit the target dead center, choose your words carefully and craft an inspiring talk that leaves no room for confusion. This is where the tough-love component comes in because this type of communication must include an ultimatum. As in, “We either pick up the pace, do it once and do it right, or there will be consequences.” These ramifications don’t have to be mean-spirited, but instead can play off of most everyone’s desire to win, combined with a touch of “f of f” (fear of failure). An example, “our success has made our competition better; if we look in the rearview mirror, they’re gaining on us.”

The message must also include a brass ring reward, be it bragging rights or possibly economic incentives, which will resonate with all levels of the company. It’s critical that the mandate includes specific actions and details on how the score will be kept, while reinforcing the reality that many times the more difficult the struggle, the greater the victory.

When a company coasts downhill, it may eventually reach the finish line, but for sustained true success and growth that maximizes your people and all resources, enough is never enough.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.