Les Wexner succeeds at leading Limited Brands by being a good teacher

Paint a clear picture

You could have the greatest idea in the world. But if you can’t share it with others, it will never amount to anything.

“Words matter,” Wexner says. “What’s clear in my mind’s eye in terms of imagining something, if I’m not real clear about my communication, you won’t understand what I’m really thinking in the fullest sense.”

Wexner has always had a sense of curiosity about what isn’t being done and what markets aren’t being tapped. But if he hadn’t been able to share those thoughts with others, he couldn’t have built his business by himself.

“I’m always fluent when I talk to myself,” Wexner says. “If you’ve got friends or a spouse or other people, there is the opportunity for confusion. An organization is just a large group. That gets to the subject of leadership. First, you have an idea. As the organization gets larger, you tend to discover what you know and don’t know about leadership.”

It’s your job to take those creative thoughts and curious personal discoveries and capture the most important aspect of it. At Limited Brands, it’s known as the main thing.

It reads: The main thing is the main thing is the main thing.

“It’s easy in an organization, just as in a family or a community, for someone to drift off what the main things are.”

You need to paint a clear picture of your idea so that your people can see it, think about it and ask questions about it. The tricky part is, sometimes, you and your people think you’re talking about the same thing, but you’re really not.

“I really like chocolate,” Wexner says. “I’m imagining milk chocolate, and you like chocolate but you like dark chocolate. When I say I like chocolate, you go to what you’re thinking, not what I’m thinking.

“The tension in an organization is you want people thinking about what they are doing. They are not marionettes. You need the feedback from people to say, ‘Did you mean this or did you mean that?’ One of the things you learn as you are developing an organization is you say, ‘This is what I’m thinking and this is what I’m trying to get done.’ People say, ‘Yeah, I got it.’ And then you say, ‘Would you explain it back to me so that I know you really do understand?’”

There are brilliant minds who serve as teachers and professors and bring a great deal of worldly experience to the classroom. But if they are unable to convey it to their students, it’s useless.

It’s much the same way in business.

“You have to think about how you lead, not just what you know,” Wexner says. “I could know things technically, but I may not be able to lead. Good leaders, they see themselves as teachers. They have to know what it is they know. Then they have to get it to a teachable point of view.

It was an aspect of leadership that was a challenge for Wexner at first.

“You know and you’re telling people, but my frustration was they’re not learning,” Wexner says. “They said, ‘Well, you’re not teaching them.’ You have to see yourself more as a teacher. You have to be able to distill what it is you know and what you’re thinking, whether it’s the values of your organization or things about quality or products, into a point of view where you can teach it. Part of teaching is for you to have a clarity of what it is and why. If I just tell you something and I can’t give you the reason, I don’t think it’s nearly as effective.”