How to be a ‘Sticky’ Leader

Jack Welch is still deemed one of the greatest business leaders of all time. Bill Clinton will go down in history as one the most successful political leaders of the modern age. One reason why Welch and Clinton were so successful, Stanford Professor Chip Heath argues, is that they were both “sticky” communicators.
“Stickiness” is a success factor we all understand when it refers to our websites. Stickiness is a proxy for traffic; when we have it, we know we’re doing something right with the UI, or the content, or other features on our blog or home page. But in this Web2.0 world, we sometimes forget that that it is equally important to develop “stickiness” with our internal messaging. Where “external stickiness” is critical for generating commerce, “internal stickiness” is critical for successful leadership and management of our startups.
The McKinsey Quarterly has a great piece on how to craft a message that “sticks”, produced from an interview with Prof. Heath, who teaches organizational behavior at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Says Prof. Heath: A sticky idea is one that people understand when they hear it, that they remember later on, and that changes something about the way they think or act. That is a high standard. Think back to the last presentation you saw. How much do you remember? How did it change the decisions you make day to day?

Being able to develop and communicate “sticky ideas” may seem like “a mysterious talent” — many leaders, Heath acknowledges, “are frustrated to find that key messages sent one day are forgotten the next—or that [staff] don’t know how to interpret them.”
Prof. Heath offers some suggestions for ‘how to be sticky’ like Welch, Clinton … even, Jack Kennedy. The top 3: make your message surprising; concrete; and keep it simple.

Rule 1: Surprise them!

John F. Kennedy, in 1961, proposed to put an American on the moon in a decade. That idea stuck. It motivated thousands of people across dozens of organizations, public and private. It was an unexpected idea: it got people’s attention because it was so surprising—the moon is a long way up. It appealed to our emotions….

Rule 2: Convey a concrete goal

[The idea of putting an American on the moon] was concrete: everybody could picture what success would look like in the same way. How many goals in your organization are pictured in exactly the same way by everyone involved? … My father worked for IBM [He] didn’t think of himself as working for IBM—he thought of himself as helping to put an American on the moon. An accountant who lived down the street from us, who worked for a defense contractor, also thought of himself as helping to put an American on the moon. When you inspire the accountants you know you’re onto something.

Rule 3: Keep it Simple

Simplicity is the hardest. Leaders know lots of things about their organization and business and want to share them all… I’m not talking about dumbing down a message or turning it into a sound bite; I’m talking about identifying the most central, core elements of strategies and highlighting them [so] everyone in the company can keep their eye on the right ball…The guiding message of Bill Clinton’s first presidential race was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” There were lots of issues in that race, but you can’t keep a complicated campaign organization on track if you try to tackle all of them. You have to pick your battle and win it.

Your ideas will be even sticker if they have three additional attributes:
Credibility: Speakers [often] cite outside experts when the most credible source is their audience. Prof. Heath suggests that you ask your customers or staff: “Have you experienced this?,” rather than citing an outside expert.
Emotion: “We are wired,” Heath says, “to feel things for people, not abstractions”).
A story: “Stories act as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.”
We encourage you to read more of Prof. Heath’s leadership tips in the McKinsey article and in his book, co-authored with his brother, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.