Why the Details Matter — Lessons for the C-Suite
If you’ve made a habit of digging into the detail, you’ll know the chasm that often exists between what’s said, and what's done. Sometimes, it’s as if people believe that utterance becomes reality, and all you need to do, is to say that it’s so.
It’s easy to think that you are discerning enough to tell fact from fiction. Reality from intention. That you’ve gathered people around you who will tell it like it is.
The truth is, it’s more complicated than that.
As you rise through the ranks in an organization, it becomes progressively more difficult to stay across the details. There are simply too many of them. As you rely on your lieutenants to tell you what matters, you have to assume that they’re across the details themselves.
The more layers you add to your organization, the less likely it is that your direct reports know what’s really going on. Those doing the doing have their finger on the pulse of the organization, because they’re the closest to the action — closest to what really happens.
When asked by their boss, they’ll explain exactly what’s going on. Very candidly, if they feel comfortable enough. Other times, they’ll give what they believe is a palatable version of the truth, perhaps smoothing out a few rough edges.
Their boss passes it up the chain and by the time it reaches the top, the detail is lost. The nuance is gone. The message is unreliable.
There’s no conspiracy, or intention to mislead. The message simply can’t stand up to being relayed by multiple people. Each one changes it just slightly, passing it through their own filter and putting their own spin on it.
The nearer to the top the message rises, the more likely it is to be spun, even by good people, who are well-intentioned. Nobody wants to be the one to tell the CEO that things aren’t as rosy as they appear. Everyone wants to show their business unit in its best light by presenting their best metrics, without detailing what they really mean.
It affects what you believe.
It impacts what you tell investors, and your board. They’ll believe you until they notice something incongruent, then they’ll start asking probing questions, designed to get to the detail.
It shapes what you tell those in your organization. Those invested in the story will appreciate your acknowledgement of their good work. Those who know there’s a difference between what you’ve said and what is real, will start to lose faith. They will trust you a little less. They're right.
Because, it’s not true.
It’s not a lie. There’s no intent to deceive. You’re simply telling it as you believe it is, because you’ve been told that’s how it is.
But, you don’t know the detail. You don’t know the detail because the people telling you don’t know the detail.
It’ll be fine, for a while. Some of those details don’t matter much at all. Some of the things that become important to some of those at the coal face really are not major concerns to the business.
But when the pressure comes on, and you haven’t created a culture that demands excellence, and takes pride in executing on the details, you start to run into trouble.
You defend missed deadlines, accepting resource constraints. You praise apparent delivery, ignoring the rough edges that impact customers. You make decisions based on smoke and mirrors, and assign blame when the outcomes aren’t what you expected.
For too long, you reward appearances, believing them to be reality. You accept what you're told, and praise your leaders for their work, not realizing they aren't focused on the detail, either.
The reality is, the details aren’t just nice to know.
Excellence is all about the details. Every box checked. Every task completed. An uncompromising insistence on completing processes the same precise way, every single time, with no excuses.
Anything else isn’t excellent — it’s inconsistent. You’ll strike high notes, and you’ll feel good about them, but your low notes will pull you down. That will affect your revenue — your ability to close deals, your speed of execution, and your growth.
The only way you can know what's happening is to be across those details.
You need people on your team you can rely on to relentlessly focus on execution — to ensure everyone on their team executes on the details.
Doing is what delivers excellent experiences. Talking about delivering those experiences means nothing, without delivery.
If you’re relying on your lieutenants, and they’re taking advice without checking — without knowing — and passing that reassurance on to you, then you’re in trouble.
Staying interested in the details doesn’t mean getting caught in the day-to-day minutiae. That’s overwhelming, meaningless and energy-sapping.
Focussing on the details means directing the play — knowing the steps to take and the passes to execute, and ensuring they are taken and executed at a level that wins games.
It’s not enough to know that the game was played. You have to watch it. When you do, you’ll realize that you have a different perspective. A different standard and a different expectation. Things you took for granted aren’t understood exactly the way you thought they were.
That’s when you can execute your role as a leader, and as a coach. Guide your team’s play. Show them how they can be better. Iron out the inconsistencies. Deliver excellence.
That relentless focus on details, the coaching for every step, the insistence on mastery is what wins games. Get the details right, and — in the immortal words of NFL coach Bill Walsh, who took the San Francisco 49ers from losers to legends — the score takes care of itself.