How do I get my team to understand what is important? When Jack asked me that, what he was really saying is, “How do I get my team to understand me?”

Hammering Nail
Five ways to hammer home your priorities. (Click to Tweet)

Jack was like many entrepreneurs. He was full of ideas, always chasing the next big thing, and his team was reflective of his personality.

But there was a big problem: they often ignored the big priorities, no matter how important they were to Jack.

“What are your priorities?” I asked. Jack rattled off a list of six items as if they were a part of a script.

“Does your team know those six things as well as you do?” I asked him.

“Well,” he stammered a bit at this point and appeared agitated. “I don’t know how to pound them into their brains. I don’t know how to make them see that everything revolves around these six things.”

“How many priorities would your team say it has?” I asked.

That stopped Jack in his tracks. They probably had hundreds.

I shared with him five ways to make sure his team knew those six priorities. To “pound them into their brains,” to use Jack’s words.

Five Ways to Hammer Your Priorities Home

  1. Keep it short. Jack had six. That is a safe number. Keep your core priorities limited to no more than ten.
  2. Involve your team. What do they think the priorities should be? How would they message them? They can be a big help in identifying missing or unnecessary items on the list, as well as how to best communicate them.
  3. Make them memorable. Rhyme them, make acronyms, or play off well-known catchy slogans or music. This step is going to require more than a long lunch break on a Tuesday to complete. Take your time here, seek input from others, and continually craft the message before rolling it out.
  4. Tell them why. Why are these the priorities? Why are these priorities important? What are the expected results of them focusing on these priorities? Your team needs to know the why.
  5. Repetition. Repeat them over and over again, the same way every time. If this sounds difficult, this post will help.

And he only became the President…

George W. Bush did an incredible job of hammering his priorities home in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial election. He ran on four priorities, four campaign themes. And only four: education reform, tort reform, welfare reform, and tougher juvenile justice laws.

He said them exactly the same way, in the same order, each and every time. He stayed disciplined with his message to the point that when a reporter asked him if he had a fifth priority, he said, “Yes. To pass the first four.”

That is staying on message.

Bush’s Formula

He kept his list short. Four priorities.

He involved his team. His list was the work not only of a highly-skilled team but also the voters of Texas. He ran on what was important to them.

He made it memorable. Voters only needed to remember six words: reform, education, tort, welfare, juvenile justice. And remember they did.

He told them why. He spelled out clearly the importance of each of his priorities. He explained how each of them would save the voters money, make them safer, and help the state of Texas succeed.

He repeated them verbatim. At every campaign stop, in every debate, in every interview…he said the same thing, the same way.

He hammered his priorities home. And it paid off. He won by seven points over an incumbent thought to be unbeatable.

What tips do you have to hammer a message home?

31 thoughts on “How to Hammer Your Priorities Home

  1. Eric Dingler says:

    Another stellar post. I hope this is okay… To answer your question, I do have some tips. I wrote a blog post sometime ago with tips on getting Core Values to become organizational culture. Here is a link to that post. http://www.ericdingler.com/getting-core-values-to-become-your-organizations-culture/

    The main point is what gets repeated gets remembered. We have five core values, and every staff meeting agenda is built on five questions directly worded from our core values. We interview based on our core values. We do everything based on our core values.

    1. Joel Fortner says:

      That’s pretty awesome, Eric. I love the discipline there.

  2. Christine Niles says:

    This is a great list…thanks! For me, i’d say the “why” is one of the most important elements of this strategy. First, as a leader, I’d better be able to clearly articulate the why. For my team, if they understand the why behind each priority, they are equipped to evaluate new things coming in and figure out how they fit, rather than needing to come back to me every time.

    1. Joel Fortner says:

      This is an excellent point.

  3. Let's Grow Leaders says:

    Say it 5 times, 5 different ways.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I would change that to “say it 5 times, the exact same way.”

      And change the 5 to a 30 🙂

      1. Bob Winchester says:

        Interesting Matt, I was thinking the same thing. Although, Karin has a point, by saying it different ways you may be more likely to get through to some people? However, repetition does rule here, I think.

        I’m curious to hear her thoughts…

      2. Matt McWilliams says:

        That’s a very valid point Bob. One I had not really thought of.

        Different people learn differently. Perhaps the exact same thing can be said 5 different ways…i.e. written on a poster like you suggest, spoken in a weekly meeting, written in emails, etc.

        Or should the language perhaps change up a bit?

        I too would be interested to know what @twitter-605025484:disqus thinks.

  4. Thank you for hammering that down, great way to start the day!

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Glad you got something out of it.

      Good use of the word of the day too!

  5. Joel Fortner says:

    Excellent list! Repetition and explaining why are key in my experience. It’s also important to remind and reinforce the priorities after a crisis or something that causes your org/team to drift, which will always happen. You have to be intentional about refocusing people and get about the business of tackling what’s most important.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Great point.

      It’s easy to talk about priorities when things are going well. But it’s critical to do so (and harder) when things are crashing all around you.

  6. Bob Winchester says:

    This is good stuff, as usual!

    Personally, I’m a creator…so I would create a poster or something and hang it up large and in charge!

    Also, it seems like this is a common problem. Once you’ve done the steps you show above, I think it’s very valuable to check in occasionally to make sure your are not off track. I think a great way to do this is anonymously without repercussions. This can be done via survey or secret shopper style.

    1. Christine Niles says:

      Bob, I *love* the idea of a poster!

      1. Bob Winchester says:

        Thanks Christine! I’ve been working on one for my day job. I’m sure I will catch some heat for it, but who cares! They can call me cheesy, but I love a good poster!! 😉

      2. Christine Niles says:

        Heat means they at least noticed it. Better than hearing crickets. 🙂

    2. Matt McWilliams says:

      Post it everywhere!

      I knew a CEO who had a giant piece of flip chart paper outside his door. Looked like it had been through a war.

      On it were the top 5 priorities for the year. Ironically, they had not changed in 3 years.

      You could not work there and not walk by his office at least twice a day…way in and way out. His team knew the priorities.

  7. Meet with your team for 15 minutes every morning and infuse them there.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Yes! Or even 5 minutes. I can get most people to commit to 5.

  8. Jana Botkin says:

    Matt, what are your priorities? That would be a good blog post (or 5 or 6, depending on how many priorities)

    Knowing the priorities certainly would have helped in some of those stupid jobs I had. Sometimes I wish I could go back to those businesses and just straighten them out! (at least 3 are out of business and the rest either ought to be or I have repressed the experiences and can’t remember where I worked.)

    I LOVE being self-employed. Sigh of happiness.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      I don’t know how exciting they would be Jana 🙂

      As an example, for my business:

      1. Grow client A by X% this year.

      2. Grow income from client B to $X in 6/12 months.

      3. Delegate 5 additional hours per week of my time by the end of June.

      The priorities are:

      1. Send a minimum of 2 newsletters per week for client A.
      2. Answer all emails within 24 hours Mon-Fri.
      3. Get in one new contract every two months for client B.
      4. Write at least one business thank you note each week.
      5. Monitor P&L bi-weekly and adjust accounts as needed for client B.
      6. Monitor revenue daily and adjust strategy as needed for client A.

      I have two others that wouldn’t make any sense if I wrote them here without explaining them more than I can.

      I have 8 in part because I have two vastly different clients and only two of them overlap (4 and 5).

      So basically I have 5 priorities for each client.

  9. Lily Kreitinger says:

    As a team we’re working on those. Interesting times when we all run off in different directions because our core values are not established, official and hammered into our brains. We just think we know where we’re going. It’s a cool place to be because we get to build from the ground up. I’m looking forward to see what this looks like a year from now.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Great perspective Lily.

      How exciting it is to think that you are just now starting to do this!

  10. Mark Sieverkropp says:

    This is a great list! Thanks for sharing Matt. I couldn’t help but think that this could be so useful with my 4yo daughter. Find 4 or 5 things that are absolutely essential and hammer them home with her.
    I think the key to being able to convey priorities is that you, as the leader, have to know and believe in the priorities so well that you can just rattle them off whenever. And when you do so, there better be some feeling and conviction associated with it!
    People follow conviction.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      Totally. They apply to anyone. Even yourself. Think about your goals…if you are going to really achieve them, you don’t write them down once and put them in a drawer. You put them on your mirror, fridge, pantry shelf, monitor, steering wheel. You write the exact same way each time. You keep the list short. You talk about them with your spouse and friends the same way each time. You measure them.

      So, yep, they work with everyone!

  11. Dan Erickson says:

    I agree that you should keep them short and simple: three priorities that can be explained in short sentences. And don’t try to pound them in your employees heads, let your employees learn them intuitively by example. Employees are not nails.

  12. Kent Julian says:

    Keep it short is something I’ve learned the hard ways over the years…but it’s a lesson well learned. The tighter the better. Good insights, Matt.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      It might have been learned the hard way, but it was learned. That is what’s important!

  13. Jon Stolpe says:

    Model it! The priorities cannot just be a bunch of great ideas. They have to be followed up with action – starting with the leader.

    1. Matt McWilliams says:

      So true Jon.

      And ask about them a lot.

      We ask about our priorities.

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