Don't Just Say It -- Fix It!


Liz Ryan My colleague wasn't happy about her house -- the one still on the market after three months. "It's not that I'm angry at the realtor because the house hasn't sold," she said. "It's the way she communicates with me.

"Listen to this. My realtor sent me an e-mail that said: 'I feel I should pass on all the feedback I get. Yesterday, a couple suggested that the house is overpriced. Do you think we should lower it?'"

"So here's why I get angry," continued my friend. "When I listed the house, I asked her, 'At what price can you sell it?' She gave me a number, and I agreed. Now she's hiding behind feedback from an anonymous couple, who may or may not exist, to ask me to lower the price. She's taking the position that she's just a conduit for information. Wimpy! She needs to tell me that she goofed and priced the house too high."

INSERT YOURSELF. I thought that was a great observation. How often do we see businesspeople passing on information as if their role is to be a postal carrier, when what's needed is not only information, but a commitment to action?

A good example is the ad director who, when the vice-president of marketing asks, "How's the new ad campaign coming along?" replies, "The agency says the ads are running late."

Okay. So you're the ad director, what are you doing about it? What's Plan B if the campaign isn't ready on time?

If you simply pass on information without inserting yourself -- here's what I heard, and here's how it affects us, and here's how I'm managing the situation -- you aren't adding any value. When large employers shed layers of management back in the '80s, this is what they were getting rid of: people whose chief responsibilities were to pass information to and fro, without having much other impact. Looks like they didn't eliminate all of that -- or maybe it has crept back.

"NO ONE'S SAYIN'..." Plenty of managers remain (including those born in the '80s) who behave as though their purpose in life is to let other people know what's going on, so those other people can handle the situation. But that isn't management.

In the Southside Chicago neighborhood where my husband grew up, there's a great expression: "No one's sayin'.... I'm just sayin'" is a colloquialism that cracks me up.

So if no one's sayin', what exactly are you sayin'? Businesspeople do this all the time. I'm going to make a statement now, but I don't want you to hold me to it. If you watch me, my lips will move, but I don't have an opinion about what I'm saying, and I don't want to have to act on it.

That's the gist of it. "No one's sayin' [that we missed our last three deadlines].... I'm just sayin'."

Okay. Thanks for saying that. Now what?

WHOSE PROBLEM? YOURS! I once worked with a regional recruiting manager who had a bad case of this. One day he came into my office exclaiming: "Man! You should have heard the sales manager on the phone screaming at the headhunter!" (We were doing sales recruiting and using a retained search firm.)

Me: So what was he screaming about?

He: The sales candidates the search firm is sending are no good.

Me: And are they any good?

He: They're not that great.

Me: So how do we feel about that?

He: I guess the sales manager was mad. He was really screaming.

Me: I'm not a big fan of screaming -- bad for the vocal cords -- but if anyone is going to scream at the headhunter, it should be you, not the sales manager, right? Aren't you in charge of recruiting?

He: Well, I let the sales manager know that the salespeople said the candidates were no good. That's when he picked up the phone and started screaming.

This is the problem. No impact on the process -- just a lot of fact-pushing. People who make a difference aren't merely letter carriers. They jump in to make things work better, move faster. And when they speak, they say what they mean and own it. Not "No one's sayin'", but "Here's what I'm saying -- and here's why you should care."

BE A RAINMAKER. Corporate postal carriers are to an enterprise what spectators are to a mildly interesting tennis match: Wow, there's a good shot. My, look at that return.

It's not that you have to quiver with regret as you share with your fellow managers the 40-second increase in response times down in customer support. But neither should you merely report the facts. You aren't here to report the news, you're here to make it.

This is what makes your typically volatile CEO jump up and down and pound the table -- this know-lots, do-nothing disease that can spread like pink-eye through management teams. You get enough of this "here's the information, although no one's quite sayin'" around a boardroom, and you can literally see the CEO's blood pressure soar.

"So who's fixing the problem!" he will eventually roar. Yes, I know these things are complicated. Your group is waiting for results from the Strategic Planning Group, which is on hold pending a second round of interviews by the Highly-Paid Consultants, and then there's the interplay with the Integration Team and...

HEART AND SOUL. Look. Just do this man a favor. Now is your moment. Stand up and bellow, "I'LL FIX IT!" That's all he wants to hear.

And remember this the next time you're feeling smug about your oh-so-perfect PowerPoint deck and up-to-the-second information: Information alone isn't power. Information deployed with heart and vigor for good effect is power. The rest is just really, really boring gossip that will become outdated in the time it takes to gas up your car.

If you want to be a postal carrier, apply to the U.S. Postal Service. If not, stop talking and make something happen. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT


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