By Cathy Converse
Consider two organizations, each with a new president. The first one came in at a time of serious upheaval in the organization and the industry, with multiple issues that required her immediate attention. Many changes were needed to put the company back on course, which put employees on edge. Morale was already low, and this president could reasonably have expected to have a tough time accomplishing all that needed to be done. But she clarified her vision and shared it with all employees in both large and small groups. In fact, the employees would often laugh about often she brought up mission and priorities, which by now they could recite from memory. She was honest and direct about where she wanted the company to go and solicited feedback from employees at all levels of the organization. Before long she knew the names of most employees. One employee in a lower level support position remarked that in the seven years he had worked for the company, this was the first president who had ever spoken to him. As you can imagine, she engendered enormous loyalty from her employees, morale improved quickly, and she successfully steered the company back on course.
At the other organization the new president came in at a time of tightening budgets, which also required significant changes. Employee morale wasn’t great, but better than it was at the first organization. This president held several large group meetings where she made it clear that the organization needed to improve performance and she shared how her experience would help the company achieve its goals. At every meeting she stated that having an engaged, positive workforce was crucial to the organization’s success and that each and every employee was important. However, she was somewhat vague about the organization’s strategy and her actions didn’t always match what she said in the meetings. She didn’t get to know employees beyond her executive team and often seemed to know very little about who did what and how to position employees to accomplish her objectives. Employee morale declined, and progress was slow.
Both these leaders were well-trained and had strong resumes and academic credentials. But they differed in one skill that is central to effective leadership: communication.
Communication as a part of Courageous Leadership
At Collaborative Momentum Consulting (CMC) we believe strongly that courageous leadership is an important solution to problems that hinder our growth as individuals, groups, organizations and communities today. Communication is one of the characteristics that make up this type of leadership, and there are several communication strategies we can use to expand our skill in courageous leadership.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” There are two components in this definition that are sometimes overlooked. First, communication is an exchange, i.e. it goes both ways. It is therefore broader than informing, which implies more of a one-directional approach. Second, it goes beyond speaking to include non-verbal or behavioral components.
It is estimated that leaders spend about 80% of their time communicating in one form or another and that communication is one of most important leadership competencies. Given its pervasiveness, it is important to understand how to communicate effectively, whether you’re leading a large corporation or your kid’s scout troop. Our literature review identified five components that comprise essential communication skills for leaders.
- Be honest. Trust is essential to a good relationship between leaders and their teams, and honesty is the foundation on which trust is built. Leaders should always tell the truth, even if the truth is that they cannot answer a question or share certain information at the time. If people trust a leader, they will be willing to take risks, invest time, and go above and beyond to accomplish the goal.
There are three components that most people use in order to determine whether a communicator is being honest. The first is past experience: has the communicator been honest in the past? A leader who has been less than truthful in the past will need to start building a track record of honesty now. The second is actions: do the communicator’s actions match what they say? Leaders who say one thing but do another will not be trusted, no matter how convincingly they communicate their message. And finally, does the communicator’s body language match their words? Research has demonstrated that people will pay more attention to body language than to words if the two are sending conflicting messages. Being truthful on a regular basis will ensure that your actions and body language will align with what you communicate and engender the trust of your team.
- Focus on vision and priorities. What you communicate is vital, and nothing is more important for leaders to communicate than their organizations’ vision and priorities. If employees are not crystal clear on the vision and priorities, it’s certain they are not working towards them in an efficient way. And it’s virtually impossible to over-emphasize vision and priorities. As Harvard Business School management professor Robert Steven Kaplan says, “as often as you think you communicate a vision with priorities, it is almost certainly not enough to meet the needs of your people.” He goes on to explain that this is especially true in challenging times:
“Human nature causes leaders to communicate less in periods of uncertainty: “I’m not sure what to say!” But the truth is, it’s exactly then—during these stressful periods—that the leader really needs to over-communicate the vision and key priorities. If there are troubling uncertainties, fine; acknowledge them. But always come back to what you want your people to be doing during this difficult period.” (Kaplan, 2011)
- Know your audience. Always remember: it’s about them, not you. Knowing our audience enables us to communicate both empathically and impactfully, because we understand our audience’s motivations, aspirations, and yes, their emotions. When leaders communicate, they can be sure that every person in the audience is thinking, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) The more leaders can connect the message to the audience, the more likely they are to inspire their audience to take the desired actions. Leaders who have developed relationships with their teams and can get personal in their communication will increase their impact.
No matter how well you know your audience, it’s important to look for feedback during the communication and adapt if necessary. Do they appear confused? Bored? Good communicators will constantly “read” the audience and adjust their delivery accordingly.
- Listen. Sometimes we forget that communication is a two-way street and that listening is at least as important as speaking. As the old saying goes, “we should listen twice as much as we speak; that’s why we have two ears and one mouth.” For leaders, whether communicating informally or in large groups, this is especially important. Leaders can find themselves in a bubble where they are exposed to a narrow set of ideas and information that typically reinforces what they already think or know. Seeking feedback by asking questions and actively listening to the responses with an open mind can increase a leader’s organizational awareness and help them see gaps and inconsistencies in their understanding. It can also build trust with the team, since everyone wants to be heard and understood.
To maximize the effectiveness of your listening time, keep these ideas in mind:
- Don’t interrupt (no matter how tempting)
- Don’t use the time when someone else is speaking to formulate your response
- Confirm your understanding of what’s been said
- Nail the delivery. How you communicate matters too, especially when communicating with large groups or in formal settings. Here are some practices that great communicators use in those settings:
- Prepare! Very few people can wing it effectively. Preparation shows respect for the audience, and part of preparation is to be sure you know what you’re talking about.
- Be clear, specific, concise, and direct. Avoid jargon that some people won’t understand, or that’s overused.
- Use stories and anecdotes to illustrate your message. They aid understanding and make the communication enjoyable and memorable.
- Be flexible and prepared to change your delivery if you aren’t connecting with the audience.
- Bring energy to your communication so that you can energize and motivate your audience.
Courageous leaders know that communicating is not about them; it’s about creating a vision that others will want to follow and inspiring people to achieve great things for themselves and for the organization. Following these five essential components of effective communication will reap rewards for all involved.
Alton, L. How Successful Leaders Communicate With Their Teams. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/285500. Retrieved June 2019.
Anthony, L. Effective Communication & Leadership. https://smallbusiness.chron.com/effective-communication-leadership-5090.html. Retrieved June, 2019.
Grossman, D. Leadership Communication Principles That Work. https://www.yourthoughtpartner.com/blog/bid/47211/leadership-communication-principles-that-work. Retrieved June, 2019.
Kaplan, R.S. (2011). What to Ask the Person in the Mirror. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press
Myatt, M. 10 Communications Secrets of Great Leaders. https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/04/04/10-communication-secrets-of-great-leaders/#469ccd3f22fe. Retrieved June, 2019.
Scalco, D. 6 Communication Skills That Will Make You a Better Leader. https://www.success.com/6-communication-skills-that-will-make-you-a-better-leader/. Retrieved June, 2019.
This article is one in a series on the components of Courageous Leadership. For more information, visit our Courageous Leadership web page.