Executive Communication.

Your ability to manage depends on your ability to communicate. Whether writing, storytelling, or speaking, great general managers communicate the right content in a way that influences the thoughts and actions of others. Great communication skills amplify your talents and poor communication skills stunt your growth. It’s that simple.

Slides from today

Digital class guide, with digital spread of cards


Course materials

Gordon Mackenzie

Rose up to be head of "modern design" team at Hallmark. Successful and productive "wackiness" helped him "orbit the giant hairball" of Hallmark and become extremely successful. Created roles for himself; success and financial return confirmed his strategy and made him almost invincible.

To find Orbit around a corporate Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the institution.

Along with his success, he was dogmatic, overly strident, and not always respectful of colleagues. He doesn't seem to always have a lot of empathy. Was a frustrating colleague – a ‘black and white’ thinker like perhaps many creatives. It’s good or awful, not a lot of in-between. That may have fueled a negative viewpoint on some colleagues and projects.

Very wacky (too wacky) as a creative:

Dogma arose from being successful – struggled, hit a home run, became massively insulated from reality. But could have had more impact:

Figure out if you can light him up with more mission and more growth opportunities – have to talk about it; have to do it in a performance review. Show him a prototype of his future; find out if that's what he really wants.

I've been tracking all these "yes"'s you've been handing out, and it looks like 60, 70% of them don't go anywhere. 3 out of 10 seem to go great though; maybe you want to spend more time focusing on those 3.

Making him a coach to some young, creative go-getters might help steer him away from being cynical (overly judgmental, negative about company as a whole).

Andrew Humphries: He seems to be someone who responds to momentum. He has some natural, internal negative momentum, but he can easily be swung to positive when he is surrounded by people and projects he finds really exciting.

When MacKenzie retired, he wrote a short announcement that he shared with colleagues.

Ducks paddling across a pond.
The water resists,
supports, closes behind.
our wake follows us,
into oblivion.
Gordon MacKenzie went into the outside world today.

Performance reviews aren't a verdict from a jury. It's a high leverage moment in your relationship with another human being, to communicate with them what's possible in their career. Spend a moment victory lapping the things that have gone especially well, then tell them, I see some paths in your future, and depending on the path you choose, here are the steps you will need to take.

When you're a manager, you're paid for your judgment. You were put in that role because you have good judgment. It's scary but a privilege to use your judgment and not just fill out the form thoughtlessly. Figure out how to impact the company and the employee's career.

Barbara Minto

Was in the second batch of women ever to go to Harvard Business School, joining a literal old boy's club. 790 men in the class, 10 women. Must have had pressure to outperform – social and culture pressure, a need to prove herself as equal or better than her colleagues.

Must have also been tremendously excited – busted a move in a huge way, changed the trajectory of her career by getting accepted.

Turns out that because it was an experiment, because the school didn't know what would happen, the school didn't put the women with the men in the big seminar room – they instead were in a smaller room across the river.

The women had a different grading curve (if not in top 10%, you were expelled). They experienced a different teaching style – the men had the tenured faculty who were the best business professors in the world; the women were left with graduate students who gave them problem sets and lectures.

The women decided the way they would get through it together was to create their own study groups, and divide up and conquer the topics. Barbara's deep topic was macroeconomics. She started writing her study guide and got pissed – not because the women at HBS were treated wrongly, but because the book was written terribly. Mad that the writer had wasted so much of her time.

Even before Harvard, Barbara was a master of communication – her boss, Cyrus Eaton, had bought land in Canada and the Midwest really cheaply from the Rockefellers. He decided he wanted to learn the Nobel Peace Prize, so sat down with Barbara to make a plan to win it in 10-15 years. (He ended up winning it.)

Barbara and him came up with a plan to create the Pugwash Conference, an early arms control study group between the US and Soviets. At these meetings, there were physicists talking to policy-makers talking to businesspeople, and no one understood anyone else. Barbara every night would type up conference notes and synthesize it into a summary everyone understood. When Khruschev visited shortly afterwards, she did the same for him too.

Barbara Minto had to rewrite other people's work all her life, and it shaped her career and the entire field of executive communication. She was hired by McKinsey as the first female management consultant in the world – hated consulting work, but loved rewriting her colleagues' decks. McKinsey saw her skill in that, asked her to do it all over the world, then left and started consulting privately. Charges $30k a day now.

Minto's Pyramid

Let's do an example. Say a boss's boss asked him how things are going.

Narrative style

“We’re doing OK in the watches category but not as great as we could be doing. We have decent growth rate and the new promotions coming up are excellent. But I don’t like what I am seeing on the repeat purchase rates. They are down about 10% versus last month. I think we should make it a priority to do more research with users. Maybe we can also test some higher frequency email campaigns. We’re already locked and loaded on those new promotions so that will be good to get those out.”

What's wrong?

What would you assume about the person who wrote A? No confidence, disorganized, no facts, not detail-oriented, not assertive, not taking ownership.

A doesn't feel like it was written by a shareholder. Felt like was written by a watcher – I'm watching this unfold and telling you what happened.

The boss's boss wrote back:

OK, thanks.

Already decided he was going to get his information elsewhere, has put the category manager into a box in his mind: I'm not sure about this person's potential. This is not how an executive writes. Next time there's a need for new leadership, for a challenge, he's already out.

No one ever gets feedback on their writing – no one ever hears that their writing is what's holding them back. Make sure you're not silently being put into a box as not leadership material.

How would Minto write it?

S: Watches are critical to our growth strategy. They’re 15% of our sales and a feeder category for jewelry and shoes. We’re +3% to sales plan YTD.

C: *However, repeat purchase rates are down 10% versus last month.

Q: The team and I have been working on the obvious question: “What should we do about that?”*

A: We’ve decided to focus on marketing and merchandising to our buyers.

  • Increase cross-marketing of other categories in email [evidence]
  • Accelerate release of two new sub-categories [evidence]
  • Do a price-promo to lapsed buyers test [evidence]


Weaknesses and shock absorbers:

It's imperative to include the A. If you just respond with S and C, thinking A isn't important:

The A can be a way to find the A as well – do a survey, do research, etc.

What if every single variable is outperforming? What do you put in the S? How do you not waste their time? Just sort the variables by importance; share the 1-3 that are the most important and most impactful. You've got limited time and limited ink to make sure you're in the "this person can do anything" box.

Minto in practice

How can you do it on Slack?

Why practice this?

Practice, practice, practice! Use this workbook of real examples.

Minto is a great tool for writing, but it's an even better tool for thinking.

🃏 Build Your Deck: Minto's Pyramid

Let people see your actual ideas, your actual thought process. Let people interact with that, rather than just with your communication style.

Example 1: Just Buy Desks, People


First, I see most people at [COMPANY] who use the standing desks actually standing at them. There isn't a single desk that isn't taken all day long. Unfortunately, it's the same people every day for the most part. I've stopped using the standing desk because it's taken by the time I want it.

The overall cost of X/pp is really large at 1000 employees, but the incremental cost is small in comparison to the yearly lease + buildout (low single digit percentage). I contend that it would pay for itself in employee happiness and, more importantly, health benefits.

I'm 100% for staying frugal. It's one of the things I've always loved about [COMPANY], but let's be frugal in the right areas! Let's keep headcount down by only hiring people we need. Let's find other ways to save big money. Penny-wise and pound-foolish is still foolish.

People will spend hours and hours through the years with us here -- at their desks. It's important that we take care of them. I bet if we asked if people would spend X to have a sit/stand desk out of their own paychecks most people would do so, myself included. We have an employee who went out and bought his own expensive chair because he was uncomfortable using the ones we provided. That shouldn't be the case.

It's worth it.


S: As you remember, two years ago we bought 6 standing desks for our employees for health and well-being reasons. They've been extremely popular since then.

C: Our company has grown and our standing desk capacity is at its limit. All desks are fully utilized every day, and many who would like the same health benefits aren't able to get a spot at all.

Q: How can we make sure everyone gets the same benefits?

A: Let's address this from both a capacity and utilization standpoint.

"Official" answer

S: We have shared standing desks.

C: There is more demand than supply.

Q: What should we do?

A: We should let people use company money to buy whatever desks and chairs they want.

Clarifies the person's thinking in a way that makes them seem like an executive.

Example 2: Tense Town Hall

Trying to do too much in one email. Focus on one thing at first:

S: We had a town hall, and it was heated.

C: Did not resolve issues

Q: What should I do?

A: Dashboard, changing relationship with product, open door

Release dates can be addressed later, maybe with eng.

Imagine you're the most angry person at the town hall. When you read the original email, you'll be repeatedly reminded of what you're pissed about; maybe even get more pissed.

The lack of front loading of the issue and the situation makes it hard for people to rationally evaluate the actions. You'd just keep getting dragged back to the things you're angry about.

Take time to clarify your thinking – what complication is on the table, what actions am I recommending?