← IC Matters · Best Practice

Too many managers have poor communication skills – and it shows.

Rod BulmerRod Bulmer·

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog suggesting that in my career I regularly observed internal communication covering for poor leadership. Let me explain what I mean by this in a little bit more detail.

In my experience, once colleagues are through that initial learning curve they are, with some exceptions, pretty damn competent at the job they do.

Indeed, I was often shocked at how good people are at the jobs you are asking them to do. However, for any business or team to be successful it is not just about individual competence it is about having a clear collective goal, and the team working together in pursuit of this goal such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

In reality, this is the role of leadership and this is what great leaders do really well.

In any organization, there are many leaders from first line management through to the CEO.

There are many types and many attributes of great leaders but those that deliver sustained success recognize the importance of clarity (of purpose and vision) and live and breathe the culture and values (the way things are done around here).

They set an example in what they are trying to achieve and how they are trying to achieve it. They almost always have an inspirational quality that compels people to go that extra mile.

It is rarely the same quality but their individual quality has the same outcome in compelling others (Allan Leighton – charisma, straightforwardness; Steve Murrells – emotional intelligence, he’s someone special; Antonio Horta-Osario – charm, intellect and drive to succeed; Richard Pennycook – absolute clarity and assurance).

They are all different but they all created the same compelling outcome for their teams.

However, here’s the rub. In my experience, many of today’s leaders lack the basic levels of communication skills needed to be successful in today’s modern business world.

Indeed, I am often shocked at how many managers and leaders I meet where I am left feeling that their poor communication skills are holding themselves and the business back.

To be honest, this is true of some of the CEOs I have worked with, and many managers in-between.

There are many occasions when managers, despite their best efforts, simply get in the way. They don’t mean to, they just do – sometimes you have to get a message out that requires immediate and clear action – health & safety, regulatory – and, despite your best efforts, managers put their own spin on it, often diluting the message.

Other times you want to hear opinions and thoughts from the front line – say on a new product launch or new campaign – and managers collate the input for you. What you end up with is a watered down version of the truth and a manager’s spin on it.

The ‘Fatty Middle Management Layer’ – spans of control necessitate that there are layers of management between the strategic leaders of the organization and the most important people in the organization, those frontline colleagues who are facing your customers every day of the week.

These managers are almost always hard-working and trying to do a great job. However, a variety of factors – interpretation, process, understanding – means that they can, at times, have a detrimental impact on the outcome.

The best businesses have great leaders, clarity of vision, talented managers, deep market and customer knowledge but even they will recognize this is a problem.

Middle-managers facing their boss?? I think middle-management is a tough gig.

The majority of these colleagues have worked their way up and hit the choice of facing their boss or continuing to face the customer. Let me explain.

The best people realize that facing the customer and meeting their needs is what makes them great and what gets them promoted.

However, once they get to management level they face a dilemma. Do they continue to face the customer (albeit through their team) or do they face their boss (usually the next level up middle-manager)?

The reality is that self-preservation means a large proportion start to face their boss. They find themselves delivering what their managers want to the timings their managers set.

Sometimes this aligns with the customer but over time they often disconnect from the customer and the ‘Fatty Middle Management Layer’ is strengthened.

For the first 15 years of my career, I think the reality was that you could get away with it. Communication was a more set piece, people stayed in jobs longer and built careers in a small number of organizations, face to face was the primary mechanism for communication.

Perhaps, more importantly, colleagues were less demanding. They accepted line management as part of a hierarchy, they didn’t expect to know everything never mind know it quickly, and they very often made allowances for the boss.

I think that world has already gone and the next generation of colleagues simply won’t put up with sub-standard communication and communicators, whatever their job title.

I would go a step further and say that in today’s digitized world all truly competent leaders need to be competent communicators across a range of channels.

Can they speak in front of large audiences? Can they participate in/host smaller group discussions? Can they communicate 1:1 across a range of channels?

Can they do video blogs without losing authenticity and the essence of themselves? Do they write in plain English with a tone that is appropriate? Do they understand and effectively use and participate in social media? The list could go on.

I would contend that Line Management remains a critical part of business success but not in the way we have previously known it.

Do you believe the travel brochure or take your guidance from someone who reviewed the hotel on Trip Advisor?

Do you believe your doctor or search Doctor Google to understand for yourself?

Do you fill in the staff survey and want to see the results emerging in real-time rather than waiting eight weeks for a full cascade briefing?

People, especially millennials, now expect to receive information in an instant. The role of the layers in-between is being challenged every day of the week in the way people simply now live their lives.

The truth is that world is not going digital it is digital. The choice you now have is how do you participate in it?

Change your mindset. People in your organization are not ‘employees’ who you can simply tell, cascade to and listen to.

Start a new way of thinking. Think ‘colleagues’ with shared common goals and open forms of participative communication. There will always be leadership and senior leaders.

It is a critical part of business success but it has to be different than it has been in the past.

I would stop thinking about spans of control and simple up and down communication and management.

Rather, I would think about the real value-add of line-management and start to think about how you develop this as a muscle in your organization.

It will require different and new skills but it will be far more stimulating for people and I bet you’ll find a few stars in your organization you did not know you had.

The reality is that for this type of organization to emerge your leaders and managers need to be great communicators.

Make it part of the selection process – not in an old-fashioned way with a classic powerpoint!  Rather, run a case a study and see how they embrace and understand the various channels and mechanisms available to them.

Train your managers and leaders to be good at it – ask yourself honestly how much time and effort have you really put into this. Are you thinking about this as a muscle that all leaders need to build and are you helping them build it?

Reward and recognize communication outcomes – great leaders build engagement. To me, this means that their teams have a real sense of ownership. They don’t just understand and agree but they own it.

But beyond ownership, they are prepared to identify with it. They are prepared to make it personal and put their name to it and proactively speak about it. Real engagement requires both ownership and identification.

I believe the best businesses will be those who are able to embrace the ever-changing workplace and engage with their colleagues in a modern digitized world.

Digital technology is a powerful enabler but a significant part of leadership is about being a great communicator. It’s the combination of the two that matters to your colleagues.


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