How to Guide Leaders to Be Better Communicators
In my work with leaders, I see some natural communicators who understand the value they create when they share information.
Through their style, their choice of language and their ability to tell a story, they see when others are inspired and how results are realized as a direct consequence of their communication and interaction with others.
But I also work with leaders who are not natural communicators and have difficulty making the connection between a motivated workforce, a productive environment and exceeding targets and a strong communications plan executed with skill and consistency.
It is more than once I have referenced Lee Iacocca of the Ford Motor Company who said, “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere”.
In my experience, there are a number of reasons why a leader might not give Communication the attention it deserves: Perceived lack of time or conflicting priorities; Poor communications skills; Lack of subject-matter expertise; Limited understanding of the value; Lack of confidence.
Having the support of a communications resource, of course, goes a long way to ensuring the quality, consistency, and timeliness of communications.
But even then it can be difficult to change the mindset of a leader who is not an advocate of Communication and is (most probably) following in the steps of a leader they once worked for, who also placed limited value on Communication.
However, I believe that even though some people are naturally disposed towards strong interpersonal skills and communicating, everyone can learn enough to be effective.
If we can make it easier for our leaders to communicate, helping them connect with their teams and workforce, they will become more practiced and therefore more comfortable.
If we can advise and guide them in different ways to engage, they should also experience, first-hand, the benefits and results of effective communication, which should, in turn, help them appreciate the value of effective communication.
So, what could a leader do differently to better engage their people and inspire them to act?
In my opinion, listening is one of the key attributes of both Leadership and Communication.
Although written a few years ago, I think that Glen Llopis, a former C suite executive, explains very well why this is so important in the article he wrote for forbes.com. He states that 85% of what we know, we have learned through listening and although our typical business day requires us to listen for 45% of our time, only 2% of us have had any formal training or development to improve our listening skills.
This means that we are probably not taking in the amount of information that we think we are, and importantly, much of the time we do not listen to exactly what the other person says – we sometimes hear what we think someone is telling us or what we want them to tell us, rather than what they actually are telling us.
Also, listening means that we do not have to be a subject-matter expert and it allows us to focus the attention on others, helping with our own confidence.
By actively listening to their team, a leader can build trust, as well as gleaning important (first-hand) information and feedback.
Many organizations have tools and processes to capture feedback from employees, but I also believe that nothing beats making sure that a leader actively engages (asks questions, listens to the answers and has a meaningful conversation) with at least three different employees a week.
This can be done as simply as joining them in the staff canteen at lunchtime.
This approach can yield some extraordinary information, as well as creating a unique but informal communication platform.
It is also a motivating factor for a workforce to witness and experience a leader taking an interest in them as individuals.
A leader should consider what he or she expects from interaction with others. I imagine, if asked, they would say that they expect communication from their employees to be transparent, open and honest creating respect and trust.
Interestingly, this is exactly what employees expect from their leaders. I, therefore, believe that the leader should model the behavior they expect from others. This also is an excellent way of showing people what is expected of them whether that is committing to a new HR process, meeting deadlines or living the values of the organization.
Consistency is everything. Whatever form of communication a leader commits to, it is critical that it is consistent in the quality of its message and delivery.
Consistency will determine the leader’s reputation as it allows the organization to hold him or her accountable.
This creates a sense of stability, confidence across the organization and respect for the leader.
On the other hand, inconsistency breeds uncertainty and fear, which leads to a lack of motivation and issues with productivity – the start of a downward spiral.
Great leaders know that communication is much more than information sharing. It must also have the power to inspire, to create a compelling vision of the future, to motivate others to act.
Wherever possible, communications should be focused on a dialogue rather than a monologue. Developing relationships will make organizational communications both easier and more successful.
Communicating two of the most difficult subjects (bad news and change) will be less problematic, as people will have already seen transparency and authenticity.
The more personal and engaging the conversation is, the more powerful the outcomes will be. As the old saying goes, “no-one will care what you know, until they know that you care”.
A leader should be encouraged to think about his or her audience, not just in terms of how the message will be received, and the most appropriate style, but also to understand who are the key influencers in that audience.
By identifying the individuals who have the most influence in the group, determining what they will want and deciding the best way to communicate with them, will mean a greater opportunity to get buy-in from the whole group.
This coupled with creating a “safe” environment where no one is judged creates an encouraging environment for effective communication.
In essence, find an approach that will suit your leader best – creating the opportunity for your leader to tell a story in a way that works for them, allows them to make connections and become a powerful conduit for success.