3.jpgHow much data can people realistically absorb? Particularly in a meeting or in a short time?

There is a reason phone numbers are separated by dashes! Three or four numbers at a time is the optimum amount of data for most people to absorb.

“Three slides, three points.” That’s the rule of thumb of James Schiro, the CEO of Zurich Financial Services (interview below). People “really can’t manage more than three or four things at the most…. They can’t walk away remembering a whole bunch of different things, so you have to have three or four really key messages that you take them through.”

Any time you want to convey information, it is important to boil it down to the key facts, the bullet points, the headlines. Unless you have a whole semester to teach rocket science to geniuses, three or four points is about all you can really expect people to take in.

If you REALLY want to drive your point home, tell a story. We remember best by stories with narrative arcs and emotional hooks that people can relate to in their everyday lives.

Our challenge in life is to do as well as we know. Often we are called upon to make decisions on the fly and under less than ideal conditions. Life springs pop quizzes. If the knowledge we need to improve our decision has been embedded in our memories with an emotional hook, a story, or other memorable mnemonic device, then we are more likely to recall it even when under stress.

Closing Quotes

“To know and not do, is to not know.” — Proverb

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw, winner of 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature

“The meaning of any message is the response you receive.” — NLP Principle


The C.E.O., Now Appearing on YouTube
Interview with James J. Schiro, chief executive of Zurich Financial Services, conducted and condensed by ADAM BRYANT
The New York Times
May 9, 2009

PHOTO CREDIT: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

PHOTO CAPTION: James J. Schiro, C.E.O. of Zurich Financial Services, is using the Internet to communicate with employees, and cut costs.

Q. What is the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?

A. It’s the ability to listen, and to make people understand that you are listening to them. Make them feel that they are making a contribution, and then you make a decision. I don’t think any one individual is so brilliant that they know all of the answers. So you’ve got to have a sense of inclusiveness. The other most important thing is making people understand the strategy and the message, and be out in front of the people so that they actually understand the mission.

I remember I had just been elected senior partner of PriceWaterhouse, and we had our new partners meeting, andColin Powell came to speak. I was talking to him before the meeting, and I said, “Well, what do you think is the most important thing?” He said, “The most important thing is the troops have to understand where they are going.” People don’t like change, but they can manage change. They can’t handle uncertainty. I think it is the job of leaders to eliminate uncertainty.

Q. Do you have a rule of thumb about how simple the message should be?

A. I say, “Three slides, three points.” You really can’t manage more than three or four things at the most, but I like to see it in three slides. I hate PowerPoint presentations. I learned that from Lodewijk van Wachem, who was the chairman of Zurich when I came here. He’d say, “We don’t need all these slides. If we only have 15 minutes and you come in here with 30 slides, we’re not going to get to the answer.”

Q. So is that a rule at Zurich?

A. Yes. People can submit their presentations, and we can read them. I prefer that people not go through a slide deck. If you’re working in an area, and you are running a business, you ought to be able to stand up there and tell me about your business without referring to a big slide deck.

When you are speaking, people should focus on you and focus on the message. They can’t walk away remembering a whole bunch of different things, so you have to have three or four really key messages that you take them through, and you remind them of what’s important.

Q. What are some of the important things you communicate to your managers?

A. The most important thing is mentoring. I think that gets lost. People ignore their responsibility to mentor. If you really hold a mirror up to yourself, you’d say, “There was a mentor that helped me get to where I am today.” It may not just be one; maybe it was several along the way, but you have a responsibility to mentor other people. That gets lost on people. They get caught up in themselves. So a common message I always give our younger leaders is, “What are they doing to develop the next generation of leaders?”

One thing I do is invite younger people into leadership meetings as observers to give us feedback on the way we are managing the business. Whenever I visit an office or location, I try to talk to a group of younger people in the organization. What’s on their minds? They seem to have a better idea of what’s going on in the organization than anybody else, but they have nobody to tell it to.

You also have to be comfortable using new tools of communication even though you’re not comfortable with it.

Q. Like what?

A. Young people today look at Facebook. They look at YouTube. They are in a totally different communication realm. I still read newspapers. But they are getting their information off the Internet. I went to our communications people and I said, “I’m going to use YouTube, and we’re going to set up a blog.”

We usually have a midyear meeting where we bring 400 people in. I said: “Look, we’re going to cancel that for cost reasons, but we’re not going to cancel the communication with people. I’m going to go on the road every week to visit the locations. When I come out of these meetings or have a message, we’re going to put something on YouTube, and tell people, it’s on YouTube. You can go here.” So there was a lot of pushback in the organization on this.

Q. Proprietary reasons?

A. Proprietary — anybody can see it. But when I give an interview to the newspaper, anybody can read it. Or if I give a speech at an investor conference, anybody can usually get it. So if I’m not willing to tell our people something that I’m not ashamed of anybody seeing, why am I saying it? So I have no problem with it being on YouTube, articulating the strategy, telling them where we’re going, what I want them to do, and what I’m hearing, good and bad, in the organization. The response has been fantastic in a short period of time.

Q. How long are the videos?

A. About a minute to a minute and a half. I get good feedback from my children, who tell me: “Stand closer to the camera. Make sure you are smiling the whole time.”

Q. Are you on Facebook?

A. I don’t know if I’m ready for prime time Facebook yet.

Q. Where did you get the idea for doing YouTube videos?

A. I just said, “Look, in this environment, it’s a cheap way of communicating.” It’s free access. If I am just careful in what I say, maybe somebody will see it and want to join Zurich.

Q. Is there a skill you’re looking for in job candidates now more than you did, say, five years ago?

A. I think technical competence has to be a given. I think interpersonal skills and a sensitivity to people are key. I always watch, even among my direct reports, who promotes the people working for them and the ideas that they have, as opposed to coming in and telling me themselves.

No one does everything. I don’t do everything. Someone gives you the details of a presentation, and it’s good to let those people present sometimes, and let those people be out there so everyone can see what kind of people you’re building behind you.

Q. How do you build that into the corporate culture?

A. A couple of things. I’ve always had a young person working with me. The person now who works with me, who is my assistant, I met on a road show. He was one of the bankers, and I said, “Boy, I’d like to talk to him.” He came in, and I said, “Philippe, how would you like to work for me?” He said, “Doing what?” I said, “I don’t know.” I said: “I’ve watched you. You understand this industry. You know more about this industry than I do, and you can just work for me for a year, and then after that year, somebody in this organization will hire you.”

When I travel, they come with me. When I make presentations to the board or somewhere, they are there. If a business unit leader comes to a board meeting to make a presentation, he should bring the people who worked on it. He doesn’t even have to allow them to speak. The mere presence that two or three of them are in the meeting, everybody knows that they are involved.

For them to hear the feedback directly from the board or from the executive committee is very powerful for them, and motivating for them. A lot of these people have worked on some of these projects for months sometimes, and then they never get to sit at the table when it’s presented.

Q. When you pick these people out of a crowd to be your assistant, they are with you for a year typically?

A. Sometimes six months, sometimes a year. Sometimes a little bit longer. Usually, everybody is trying to hire them after a while.

Q. What are you looking for?

A. Just a smart, bright, energetic young person. They are in their 20s usually.

Q. Is there some advice you try to impart to them?

A. I think they have to see how I operate and work. I mean, the worst thing for me is to tell them what they ought to be doing.