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Posted: June 17, 2014

What the heck are you talking about?

Top four language barriers

Todd Ordal

I recently read that only 6 percent of teenagers check email daily. For those of us who are middle age and in business, it’s still a primary communication tool. I always wondered why my kids (in their 20s and 30s) respond to texts immediately but rarely reply to email. It’s like I’m speaking Italian and they only understand German!

Have you ever run into someone with a different language who points at a map, trying to ask you directions? You likely talk slowly and gesture. It doesn’t work. What do you do? You probably talk louder and slower, as if they’ll somehow understand. They don’t.

We do the same things to our teams at work unless we develop good housekeeping around language. Here are the language barriers I most frequently see:

• Financial terms. Too often there’s lack of uniformity in the language of budgeting and financial results. “Gross margin” has a definition, with some slight variances depending on your business model, and should be understood. “Profit” is too often used without good definition. Is it EBITDA? Operating profit? Profit before nonrecurring events? The accounting profession determines much of this. There are standards, and those businesses that use nonconventional (or just wrong) financial terms and definitions are at a disadvantage when they try to discuss their business with their people, other business leaders, bankers, consultants, their accountants or the potential acquirer of their business.


• The language of strategy. “Our new strategy is to cut costs.” Wrong! That’s not strategy. Strategy is the “what” that’ll bring you to your vision. It identifies where you play and how you win. It’s not the budget. When I help teams recraft their strategy, we first agree on consistent language. Vision, mission, values, culture, strategy and tactics should all be defined.


• The language of performance. Budgets, forecasts, reforecasts, goals, objectives, metrics, and winning and losing too often get jumbled up. Are you on plan or not? Are you winning or not? If team members answer this differently, you have a problem. Performance reviews are frequently fraught with problems. Is “meets standards” good or bad in your company? In my mind, if standards are appropriately set, it’s pretty good! In some companies, it means you have one foot out the door. Making sure everyone is singing from the same song sheet is very important!


• Mahogany row language versus shop floor language. If the CEO asks you to “socialize that with your team,” is he or she talking about change management or a beer bust? Do you “rationalize our west coast operations to move the needle on the scalability of our ecosystem,” or do you “lay off 100 people to increase profits?” Do you “take this initiative offline,” or do you “stop doing” something. If you Google “bullshit bingo,” you’ll find a fun game to play that might actually stop you from talking like this. I’m a fan of direct language. In an attempt to soften the blow, we too often confuse people.

Few leaders put much emphasis on good housekeeping regarding communication because it is difficult to measure the problems that miscommunication causes. If you could optimize communication in your company, what impact would it have on your profit (however you define it)?

If organizations with critical functions like the military, air traffic control and medical centers value accurate communication so much, is it possible that the rest of us should as well?

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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