Explanation and protocol of dining with kings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 February, 1993, 12:00am

I HAVE always been intrigued by the fact that many top athletes have little insight into how they do it. They are incapable of breaking down their technique and explaining it to a novice.

This is not too surprising. Much of what an athlete does relies heavily on instinct, touch and grace. These attributes are hard to codify and explain.

For example, I have never seen a golfer who could hook a golf ball better than Arnold Palmer. But if you asked him how to hook a shot, he'd probably say: ''You just hook it.'' He would grab a club and, largely by feeling it, hook the ball. The fact that he is the best at doing it does not guarantee he is the best at explaining it.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have golf instructors who are horrible at hooking the ball but who can reconstruct every element of your swing and rebuild it so you can hook the ball.

To be fair, I think Palmer knows the mechanics of a hook as well as anyone; I just don't think he has the patience to explain it six times, waiting for someone to get it.

In sports, those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

Business executives do not have that luxury. They are expected to do it and explain it well. If they are superstars at selling or negotiating or cost-cutting, they can strengthen the company by imparting that wisdom to subordinates. Unfortunately, not enough executives take the art of explanation seriously. They are too busy doing to make time for explaining.

I don't buy this. I learned long ago that taking five minutes to explain a task would ultimately save me 500 minutes of doing it myself or re-explaining.

When it comes to explanations, I am proactive rather than reactive. I do not wait for people to say: ''How do you sign a client?'' or ''How do you handle a meddlesome parent?'' By then it might be too late. I offer explanations before some of our people realise they need it.

In fact, my first book, What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, grew out of a series of talks I used to give to our people in the 1970s. We were a small, growing company in a field were we were basically writing the rules as we went along. I wanted our people to know how we did things, so I would periodically gather everyone in a room and deliver a mini-lecture on everything from ''the best time to renegotiate a contract'' to ''writing deal memos that our lawyers can understand''.

Old habits die hard. As I write this, we have gathered more than 100 of our executives in Cleveland for a three-day refresher course on client management. Our thinking is that someone in London managing a young violin prodigy can learn from someone in Cleveland managing a tennis prodigy - and vice versa. Plus, giving our company's heritage to new employees has some value.

No one asked for the course. But I realised we needed it when I noticed many of our newer people did not appreciate some aspects of client management that I had taken for granted. The first rule of explanation is: The more self-evident a concept or procedure is to you, the greater the need for explaining it.

In every situation there is the potential that the subject is being under explained or over explained - because the explainer is concentrating too much on the subject rather than the audience.

To explain well, you have to pay as much attention to the intelligence and experience of the person who needs the explanation as you do to the subject. You have to explain in a way that recognises all the things your audience does not need to know. With some people I only have to make one point to give a proper explanation. With others I might have to make eight points to get the message through.

For example, before a sales call, I could tell most of our senior executives, ''Be sure to let the other side name the number first'', and they would know exactly what I mean. They've heard the litany before.

If I gave the same instruction to a younger executive, he or she would probably accept my authority and carry it out. But the instruction would be pointless if I did not elaborate, if I did not justify it by citing examples where the technique had workedpreviously and if I did not provide step-by-step instructions for making it work this time.

If there is an art to explanation the artistry is here - in knowing the person you are talking to. If you know your audience, you will know which details are essential and which are extraneous.

I got a blunt reminder of this the first time I met the King of Sweden. It was at a dinner at someone's house in Stockholm. The invitation said 6.30. As 6.30 approached I became involved in a phone conversation in my hotel room. Figuring these affairs start off slowly with drinks, I was not too concerned about being late. I arrived a few minutes before 7 - and committed a major faux pas. The king was there. The protocol is: No one arrives after the king! But no one had explained that to me. Perhaps they assumed I frequently dined with royalty. But this was my first king. I'm told the king still jokes about it. But someone should have told me: ''Don't be late for this dinner.''