April 2023
Nudging, overcommunicating, and (sometimes) saying no
Eric Nehrlich
4 min read
April 12
Eric Nehrlich examines the role of the chief of staff in creating organisational alignment
As an executive coach who helps chiefs of staff (and other leaders) have more impact, and as a former chief of staff myself for six years at Google, I have spent a decade making the case for the value that a chief of staff brings to an organisation. While it’s easy to focus on what a chief of staff does, which can feel like a long list of little tasks, I believe the why matters more in providing clarity and focus for chiefs of staff. My view is that the chief of staff is a ‘multiplier role’ that helps to create organisational alignment, orienting the team around what matters most.
In his book The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni writes ‘The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organisational health…when its management, operations, strategy, and culture fit together and make sense’. This may seem like obvious advice, but in my twenty-year tech career across several organisations, I have rarely experienced this. I mostly had the opposite experience, including working at a company that went bankrupt due to a severe disconnect between its strategy and capabilities; working for leaders who couldn’t prioritise and buried their team in meaningless work; and seeing valuable customer work thrown away because it would have meant disrupting a more established team.

Focus on alignment and clarity

I have started using ‘alignment’ to describe the ideal organisational (and individual) state of health, where the different parts fit together to have greater impact. What I like about the concept of alignment is that it’s not binary, where an organisation is either healthy or not, but instead analog, where you can work to become a little more aligned each day. And, taking another concept from physics, the work is never done – due to entropy, the tendency of systems to become more disordered over time.
When there is little alignment, people can be working very hard but making very little progress, as they are scattered across several directions or are potentially even working at cross purposes to one another. If the same people are all pulling consistently in the same direction, they will have much greater impact.
Central to the idea of alignment is clarity about the organisation’s vision and goals. If you know exactly what is important to you, it becomes easier to say no to what will distract you. It means fewer meetings and miscommunications, as people understand how their day-to-day work fits into the bigger picture. And it creates greater impact, as less time is wasted on efforts that are not aligned with the overall vision, and on value or directional conflicts between teams.
But clarity at the leadership level does not translate into organisational alignment unless everybody knows what is being prioritised, and unless processes and incentives are aligned with those priorities. This is where a chief of staff can add tremendous value as the person who creates that translation and alignment.

Lean into overcommunication

It is tempting to think as a leader that you can deliver the vision once and then your job is done. And yet that’s not the way it works. Julie Zhuo, in The Making of a Manager, says, ‘Assume that for the message to stick, it should be heard ten different times and said in ten different ways’. Another way I’ve heard it described is that only when you are so sick of repeating a message that you can hardly bear the thought of saying it again might that message actually be starting to be received and internalised by others.
I learned this the hard way in my first year as the Search Ads Chief of Staff at Google. I had already been working within Google for four years as a financial analyst doing business modeling and strategy. As part of that, I had looked at the long-term trends, and had a very clear idea of what the Search Ads team would have to do differently to address those trends. I came into the role, and shared my ‘brilliant’ vision. And nothing happened. After a year of inaction, I was so frustrated that I nearly quit. Fortunately, I persevered, and leaned into overcommunication; I brought up the trends I was seeing in every single meeting I was part of, repeating the message multiple times for months on end. I knew I had finally gotten through when an engineering manager complained, ‘Eric, do you have to depress us at every single meeting?’ That overcommunication led to the leaders on the team internalising the change that needed to happen, which led to them making different choices and actions that changed the trajectory of the business.
‘Repetition doesn’t spoil the prayer’
One of my Google coworkers often said, ‘Repetition doesn’t spoil the prayer’. If you have a valuable message to deliver, keep repeating it in different ways and different forums until other people are repeating it back to you and are changing their actions in response.

Translate into day-to-day operations

All of the work of creating and overcommunicating clarity can go to waste if it is not reflected in action. If the leadership team says their values are teamwork and collaboration, but they promote the brilliant jerk who belittles those who disagree with him, people get a mixed message, and will generally follow their incentives. Translating the clarity into the day-to-day operations of an organisation is where a chief of staff can have an outsized impact on increasing organisational alignment.
It’s hard to say no to good ideas, and that’s why it is important for somebody at the organisation to make that part of their job.
When I started my chief of staff job, my job responsibilities were relatively undefined, so I asked my primary stakeholders what they wanted from my role. One VP responded with ‘value-added coordination’, saying that he wanted me to do more than just assemble information for his consumption, and communicate his message: he wanted me thinking critically about every aspect of that coordination, asking questions when things didn’t add up or align with his vision. For instance, one of my primary responsibilities was pulling together team OKRs (objectives and key results) for review each quarter, and I’ve seen many chiefs of staff who do that in a mechanical way with a spreadsheet template that pulls from the teams’ documents. That VP wanted me to examine the OKRs from an organisational perspective to figure out where different teams were not aligned, and where teams were not prioritising in accordance with the overall strategy. I appreciated him setting that expectation that reinforcing clarity was an important part of my role from the start.

The ‘nudge’ effect

When I tell chiefs of staff this, they often object by pointing out that if a chief of staff is not in charge of organisational incentives or processes such as hiring and promotions, there’s little they can do to affect people’s behaviour. While that may be true, a chief of staff can ‘nudge’ people, even without formal authority. An ongoing commitment to calling out misalignments can improve the organisation step by step. That involves making the time to look for such misalignments, and to talk about them with the people involved so they understand how to redirect their work to be more aligned with the rest of the organisation.

Another effective technique is positive feedback. Most people tend to focus only on how people are misaligned, and rarely reinforce what people are doing well. And yet using only negative reinforcement is like driving a car but only taking left turns – it can work, but it's inefficient because you're only telling people what not to do. Positive reinforcement helps them know what they should be doing instead.

Choose to say ‘no’

Lastly, a chief of staff can reinforce clarity by questioning activities that are not contributing to the stated goals of the organisation. It’s hard to say no to good ideas, and that’s why it is important for somebody at the organisation to make that part of their job. The chief of staff is well positioned to be that person creating value by shutting down misaligned work.
To do any of the activities described in this section will require time and energy from the chief of staff, who is often already overloaded. And yet this alignment work is possibly the most important work they can do, as getting an organisation even 2% more aligned will create more value than any work they can do by themselves. So the chief of staff will have to let go of other commitments and tasks to create the space to do this work. What can you say ‘no’ to so that you can say ‘yes’ to this work?
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Author Bio
Eric Nehrlich
Executive Coach Former Chief of Staff
Eric is an executive coach who draws on twenty years of experience in the tech industry to help leaders have more impact. He helps clients gain clarity on their priorities so they can consciously place their focus and attention where they can make the biggest difference. He loves to identify and challenge mindsets and/or habits that are holding clients back from their next level of leadership. Before becoming a coach, Eric spent ten years as an engineer and product manager across several startups, before joining Google and eventually leading business strategy and operations for the Google Search Ads team as Chief of Staff for six years.