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Snakes on a Plane

Some years ago I was asked to put together a training programme for a company that, after a strong beginning, had begun to stagnate. The service was innovative and close to recession-proof. Recruitment procedures were solid and new staff were hungry and sharp.

The problem?

The CEO was a hands-on leader who wrote and delivered all internal training. His intelligence and passion had lifted the business off the ground but his communication skills were pulling it back down again. When I sat in on a team meeting the issues became clear as he breathlessly outlined the company’s goals for the coming month in a series of sporting metaphors that no one could understand.

The staff, who liked him and wanted to do well for him, tried hard to pay attention. It was an uphill struggle. When one team member plucked up the courage to ask for clarification of what was meant by “passing the commercial baton” he repeated the phrase, slowly and loudly, with accompanying sign language. Confusion and disenchantment swept through the room like a virus.

Staff turnover had increased, and one exit interview had revealed a pointed and painful truth. A key reason for leaving was that the boss was very bad at telling people what he wanted, but very good at telling them when they hadn’t delivered it.

The solution?

Snakes on a Plane.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, “Snakes on a Plane” is a film about, well…a plane with a lot of snakes on it. I’ve seen it once. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. The one thing I can say for certain is that I wasn’t misled by it. No one who saw it has any right to ask for their money back. The title raised an expectation and the movie met it.

I explained the plot of Snakes on a Plane to my client in ten seconds, asked him what advantages there might be in having a title and a premise that was so clear, and then asked him to contrast this clarity with the briefings he was giving his team. We then listed the training and appraisal sessions he had planned for the coming month and broke each one down to its essentials. What exactly did he expect of his staff? Jargon and management-speak were ruthlessly dispatched, and a clear central concept was established that people could understand and buy into. In our repeated practice sessions, whenever my client drifted into convoluted language, I reminded him of what he stood to lose by continuing to alienate and demotivate a talented team and what he stood to gain by re-engaging with them.

One of the greatest pleasures in the workplace is seeing the look on a person’s face when they are reminded of their own potential. Strip away the management-speak and let people see what they can actually do. My client had an employee in her mid-40s who had returned to work following a lengthy career break to raise a family. Her performance and motivation levels had been below par in a role that required organisational skill and clear thinking under pressure, qualities she had been specifically hired for. We held an appraisal that began as one of the sadder professional experiences of my life and ended as one of the most satisfying. Since the day she’d joined the company, a torrent of empty words had left this person unclear about any of her daily goals. The jargon she’d been fed about juggling day to day responsibilities had confused and upset her to the point where she believed she lacked the ability to multitask. The remedy was simple. I asked her to tell me about a day looking after three young children. Without a hint of self-importance she gave a list of tasks and responsibilities that would have put her employer, and me, in a spin. Multitasking? Here was the expert. All we needed to do now was explain clearly what was expected of her every day and let this natural leader and organiser get to work. Results, for her and for the team, rapidly improved.

Trends towards flexible and remote working may change the logistics of 21st century employment, but they don’t change the fundamentals of motivation and leadership. People want to be inspired, to be elevated. And above all they want a clear understanding of what’s expected of them. What does “winning” look like, for a team and for each individual in it? If you don’t know what constitutes a job well done, how can you take pride in your performance? And if it’s not clear which direction your manager wants to lead you, how can you follow?

Give your team clarity. Set an expectation, let each person know when they meet it and let them celebrate the achievement. Leadership can’t always be summed up in a four word title, but sometimes that level of simplicity is a useful place to start.


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