January 11, 2016
Why Smart Leaders Are Buffers And Translators

When visiting a foreign country, it helps to travel with someone who understands the local language and can translate essential information.

Business is this way, too. We recently added a new banking client whose work included so many insider terms and acronyms that we had to have it translated to ensure we knew how those phrases affected our work.

The ability to translate what matters, as well as the ability to set aside the inconsequential, is important for leaders in fast-moving and constantly changing organizations. These smart leaders fill in the gaps, connecting larger business strategies to the people who make it all happen. Managers should not only understand the big picture but also relay that message effectively so employees can act upon it. Without this translation, you’ve got a strategy with no chance of success.

Delivering Strategy and Execution

Leaders who are sandwiched between strategizing and executing can determine a company’s success. Gallup’s State of the American Manager report reveals that managers play a vital role in outcomes like profitability and productivity. Gallup estimates that managers account for a minimum of 70 percent of variance in employee engagement. Being a connective leader facilitates engagement and therefore maximizes your bottom line.

Smart leadership involves two key components: translating and buffering. These clarify your strategy and help teams successfully implement that strategy moving forward. In short, they’re the meat of your leadership strategy.

Translating the Language of Strategy

A strategy won’t answer every question. The best ones set a clear path forward that capitalizes on the opportunity or addresses emerging threats, yet the implications aren’t clear for every group or situation. That’s where leading through translation comes into play.

The primary job of a leader is to take that strategy and translate it into team decisions, actions, outcomes, and priorities. These must be distilled — especially in times of ambiguity — so that everyone is not just on the same page, but also on the right page.

Companies in high-growth industries are especially dependent on leaders to translate priorities. Google CEO Larry Page is setting a strategy that his organization understands. Not only is he the highest-rated CEO on Glassdoor, but he’s also led Google in several new developments, with more coming soon. Clearly, Page’s team is ready to adapt and work to realize priorities.

Translating means more than just providing context to employees. Explaining your brand, mission, or values is important and useful for team members in key roles, but real impact comes from making that translation even when faced with ambiguity. Determining the impacts and implications, even in times of constant change, is a more advanced leadership skill.

This also requires understanding what your employees need to know — and what constitutes a distraction.

Buffering Against Distractions

The boss’s ultimate goal is to create clarity and focus for the team. Buffering means filtering out distracting and excessive information that has no relevance to the team’s roles and work.

In our world of constant media, communication, and 24/7 access, distractions are endless. The volume of available information in an organization can be daunting. Smart leaders serve as human filters, sharing only applicable information to guide their teams toward desired outcomes.

Mark Zuckerberg is doing a great job of buffering at his company and keeping Facebook moving forward, despite it constantly being in the news. Zuckerberg made it to No. 4 on Glassdoor’s list as Facebook continues to explore new boundaries, with everything from expansions into virtual reality to smaller decisions like the widely publicized new reaction buttons.

Don’t underestimate distractions, whether external or internal. Focus the team on essential or directly relevant information, and be a model for setting aside the rest — turf battles, rumors, unimportant details, and disagreements between leaders — unless they stand in the way of progress.

Buffers focus on areas of cooperation or common purpose, rather than differences, across divisions or functions. It’s important to find the collaborative path forward, not the long list of obstacles and disagreements.

Communicating With Intent

To make translating and buffering the core of your leadership strategy, break down the major elements

1. Assessing relevance

Continually determine the relevant information and insights, both formal and informal, that impact the team’s work and results. Every time you learn new information, take notes with your team in mind. Ask yourself how that info affects them and whether or when they need to know it. Add relevant topics to your next team meeting, or tuck them away for future use.

2. Eliminating distractions

Your team has a limited capacity to absorb new information at one time, so be strategic about how you use your airtime. Your team will learn to concern themselves with what you talk about and trust you on what you deliver.

3. Clearing the clutter

Most people suffer a daily onslaught of information. Hundreds of emails and phone calls and dozens of meetings require their attention. Make their priorities and desired outcomes clear and simple. In times of change, it’s impossible to anticipate every issue with a process and policy. If the intent is clear, you can trust your team to make smart decisions as new conditions arise.

4. Guiding action steps

Once you’re all on the same page about what you want to do, your team may still need some guidance about how to go about implementing the strategy. Think of your role as translator as much like that of a parent or teacher. Parents translate the goal of responsibility to their kids daily, but they don’t just say, “Be responsible!” They explain it in terms of doing homework on time and honoring commitments. This ability to translate the intent into daily and ongoing actions is essential for achieving desired results.

We know that most strategies never make it to implementation, but smart leaders can use their skills of buffering and translation to guide their team’s strategies to their ideal destinations.

Patti Johnson
Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consultancy that she founded in 2004. She’s also the author of “MakeWaves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life.” She and her team advise clients, including PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, and Frito-Lay, on creating positive change in their leaders and organizations.

Other Articles by Patti Johnson:

Change Your Ways To Lead With Speed

Team Building And Other Leadership Band-Aids That Don't Work

Avoiding Decision Paralysis In The Face Of Uncertainty

Should You Think Small This Year?

3 Ways Leaders Create Change Resistance