What the Best Leaders Say and Do
January 6, 2012
“I’m the chief information officer of a $30 billion company. I know technology, but communication just isn’t my thing,” my client confided. “If I can’t connect with our employees and customers, then this department will become obsolete. They’ll just go outside for IT tools. Can I learn communications skills?”
The answer is “yes.” Executives are often promoted for their functional expertise, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are also experienced communicators. Fortunately, communications skills can be learned.
Here are several critical communication qualities for leaders, based on interviews with more than 1,000 senior executives and their team members.
These skills are important for employees at every level, whether they are leading teams, managing colleagues or directing company initiatives. In fact, effective communication is particularly important for employees who don’t have formal authority but are required to influence others in order to accomplish a goal.
- Actively solicit input from your team members. After assuming a leadership position at a troubled organization, a newly appointed CEO immediately embarked on a “listening tour,” seeking input from workers across company locations. Employees responded positively, with one noting, “I like that she asked us for input bluntly, simply and directly. That tells me she’s a lot more sincere than our previous CEO and is really determined to make the right decisions for the organization. It was the first time I actually printed out what a leader sent, and I look at it now when I’m making decisions.”
- Spend time with customers and employees. You need to ensure that you are speaking in ways that are compelling to them. In other words, get it straight from the source. It’s essential to hear the language customers and employees use in real life so that you understand their perspectives and avoid your own jargon.
As a restaurant manager once explained, “I’m in the pancake business. I’m not a marketing guy. They send me this marketing information from the home office, and I don’t understand all of the words they use, but I’m embarrassed to call and ask them to explain — so I just throw it out.”
- Address issues honestly. After hearing about internal interview findings, one manager at an organization struggling with some serious internal issues asked his employees, “I’m ashamed. How did we get here?” He was willing to deal honestly with the issues and with his own employees to make improvements. When I heard this, I knew that he would triumph over the situation and get things back on track.
- Convey your messages clearly, directly and in your own voice. A Fortune 500 company division leader was concerned that she wasn’t connecting with employees, despite the fact that she provided regularly recorded voicemails and videos with company updates. “I listen to her messages, but that’s not the person I know,” explained an employee. “It sounds like she’s reading from a manual.”
We worked with this company leader to speak from talking points, ensuring that she delivered her messages in her own spontaneous style and wording. Employees responded enthusiastically to her more genuine approach, which she continues to deliver in her new role as company president.
- Ensure that your team members understand how they support the overall plan. Here’s a quick quiz: Which of the following employees would you prefer to have on your team? Three bricklayers working side-by-side are asked what they are building. One says he is laying mortar, another says he’s building a wall, and the third says proudly, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Workers like employee No. 3 don’t just happen. Every employee needs to understand the company’s purpose and where his or her job fits in to accomplish the goals.
- Back up your words. For example, if you ask for input, then you should then make yourself consistently available and approachable.
A business unit leader wasn’t getting the regular flow of information he needed from his staff, despite his espoused “open door policy.” Staff interviews revealed that their director’s moods varied so greatly that they had instituted a secret “red light/green light” system outside of his office. On days with a green light, they felt free to approach him.
But when the red light was out, they avoided him because of his angry outbursts. Communications coaching focused on helping this leader manage stress better as well as getting him out of his office and circulating with employees, behaving in ways that conveyed greater approachability.
- Address the tough questions head-on. Lack of communication or avoiding a tough question sends a distress signal with far-reaching cultural consequences that cascade through the organization. All of the employees in an organization are carefully watching what happens to those who take risks and ask the tough questions. If their career is negatively impacted, then they will be reluctant to follow suit, and the rumor mill will answer.
- Invite others to question and challenge your ideas. This is a critical step before you launch any new initiative. In an entertainment company that espoused “innovation” as a key priority, employees described numerous “doomed” projects that they were working on, pushed forward by a member of senior leadership who people were afraid to disagree with. There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t speak to or challenge someone at the top. As a result, we lose money, jeopardize future sales and miss months of revenue targets.
Once the company leadership understood the ramifications of this culture of agreement, they worked hard to encourage honest input from team members.
Effective communication is one of leadership’s most important skills. Every member of the organization must understand the overall company direction and how they fit in — and this direction needs to come from the top.
Copyright © 2012. JRS Consulting, Inc..
3 Things That Your Employees Want You to Know
- You have them at “Hello.” Employees want to hear from you. Senior leaders are their preferred source for information about the overall company direction and plans for the future. Your communication doesn’t have to be “perfect” or require extensive preparation. Just make an effort to regularly get out of your office and greet your team members.
- They feel more connected with you if you come across as a person with quirks and foibles, just like the rest of us. Tell a story about your kids. Admit a mistake and what you learned from it. Sharing these brief anecdotes will help employees relate to you and establish bonds across organizational levels.
- Communicate more often than usual during difficult and uncertain times. It’s tempting to say little when the organization is facing turbulent change, but that’s exactly when you need to communicate more often. Tell employees what you know, be honest about what you don’t know and estimate when you’ll have the answers. Your forthrightness will say more about you as a person than the content of your remarks. And that personal connection is what builds the trust that inspires change. — J.S.
Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and motivate employees and customers. Details: www.jrsconsulting.net.