Do you understand what I just said?
I can recall dozens of times my mother asking that question, usually when I was but one small step from incurring serious discipline. It was a question loaded with a serious warning. I have used that question, less as an advance warning of peril for my children, but more for ensuring that the person I was speaking to understood my meaning, particularly when I sensed some doubt or confusion.
As a recruiter, there are times when I have wanted to ask a candidate: Do you understand what you just said?
Yes, it is true, candidates of all stripes are capable of providing answers that make no sense. It usually occurs when they are asked a question they did not expect, or more than likely, did not want to hear. Some candidates make matters worse when they attempt to “mask” their answer with a heady dose of the latest business jargon, aka consultant speak.
Financial Times columnist turned teacher trainee, Lucy Kellaway, wrote a column that focused on confusing answers dressed up in the aforementioned consultant speak, something she called bunkum. Here is an example from former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts:
“In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhance assortments and dedicated, customized real estate in key doors.”
Ms. Kellaway wrote: “No, seriously. If this is not utterly incomprehensible, then what is? “What are all these doors? Did Burberry acquire …building supplies?”
If you can decipher the “what” of that tortured statement, then Ms. Ahrendts who, Ms. Kellaway aptly describes as a “living legend in a trench coat” was saying, good luck with that. Oh, by the way, Ms. Ahrendts is now Senior Vice President of Retail at… Apple.
But back to her statement while CEO of Burberry. If you can figure that statement out, would you mind helping me with another of her phrases, “democratizing luxury?”
As I recently re-read Ms. Kellaway’s column, I could not help but think about what a wise leader once said about communicating – that telling stories that help employees and customers connect with a brand, or product, or service, is an essential leadership skill.
Good stories inspire us, but to be painfully honest there was not much inspiration in Ms. Ahrendts prose, “…enhanced assortments and dedicated customized real estate in doors.”
I know a health system former CEO in the Northeast. He was, I believe, the world record holder for the use of words and phrases such as “platforms”, “distribution channels”, “portfolios of services”, “wholesale opportunities” and “enterprise specific options” in one sentence. That is a record no current, self-respecting CEO would want to top.
You cannot effectively lead people if they have no idea what you are talking about.