Leadership communication skills

It will surprise no one that communicating powerfully is one of the behaviors linked to a leader’s ability to inspire. If we think “inspira...

It will surprise no one that communicating powerfully is one of the behaviors linked to a leader’s ability to inspire. If we think “inspirational leader,” most of us would immediately think “terrific communicator.” While there is clearly an extremely high level of correlation between communication and inspiration, the two are not synonymous, nevertheless it rates highly in the leadership characteristics list. For example, we found leaders who were seen as highly effective communicators, but who were not perceived as being highly inspirational. Something sets the highly inspirational leaders apart from those who are not, and it isn’t simply that they are good communicators. After analyzing our data, we think it can be summarized in the following elements.

leadership communication skills


Seek Opportunities to Communicate

Inspiring leaders think about communication in a different way. They never see it as a chore. On the contrary, they welcome opportunities to communicate. They don’t turn down chances to talk at a leadership development programs or at a meeting of the company’s internal auditors. There are no bad opportunities to communicate if a group of company employees is assembled and if the event can possibly fit into their schedule.

Communication is not just a process by which leaders do their job; they see it as their job. It is a different mindset from the one held by the leader who dribbles out information reluctantly, on a “need-to-know” basis.

We earlier wrote about Andy Pearson, the chairman of Yum, who made such a remarkable turnabout in his own leadership characteristics. David Dorsey wrote about that transformation in his communication practices:

Pearson’s new leadership communication style is more than a way of relating to people. It involves the nuts and bolts of what he does from day to day, the processes that define the company’s operations. Where before, Pearson would have dealt with only a small team of direct reports, he now seeks contact with people at all levels. It’s his responsibility to motivate people across the company. He now believes that it’s less important to issue orders than it is to seek answers and ideas from below. His job is to listen to the people who work for him and to serve them.

“My old mantra was to influence the direction and behavior of a relatively small circle of direct reports,” Pearson said. Now he and Novak move their values and ideas across the organization through programs such as CHAMPS, which rewards employees for recognizing the best practices of fellow workers, and through regular visits to the restaurants, during which they study those practices and reward people for good work.

The transformation just described is huge. The recipients of Pearson’s leadership communication skills changed from a small circle of direct reports to people at all levels of a behemoth organization. It also changed from infrequent contact with that inner circle to a relentless pattern of visiting restaurants all over the world to connect constantly with employees.

Expand the Volume and Frequency

Andy Pearson illustrates this second element of the inspiring communicator. As noted earlier, widening the circle of people with whom you communicate and multiplying the frequency of meeting with front-line employees represents a complete reversal of thinking about how senior leaders communicate within a giant organization. We still encounter a few people with leadership qualities who hold to the old notion that communication should be on a need-to-know basis. The information that this person shares with subordinates and peers is driven solely by what these potential recipients require in order to perform their jobs.

In our consulting work, we meet these people. They are alive and well in many organizations. While their numbers appear to be in sharp decline, they see information as having value only if a person has an immediate need to use it. These “need-to-know” and “keep it close to your vest” communicators fear that information will leak to the wrong people or clutter the thinking of the person who doesn’t really need it.

This position is becoming increasingly hard to maintain in a world where so many have access to the Internet, which makes such vast amounts of information instantly available to everyone. Company chat boards have come to mean that few things are either sacred or secret. This democratization of information is in sharp contrast to the tight hold on communication practiced by the oldschool manager who sought to hoard it. There is not one shred of doubt about which of these philosophies will prevail in the long run. Information is simply going to be available in ever-increasing amounts and with everquickening speed. Those who seek to hoard information are fighting a losing battle and are completely out of synch with the world about them.

But this perspective has a seductive logic to it. Why take the time to communicate information that someone doesn’t absolutely need? Isn’t that wasteful of both parties’ time? Doesn’t it encumber others with data that really aren’t all that useful to them? Aren’t there risks in having information circulating among employees that could find its way to competitors.

The counter to all of these concerns and arguments is that communication is not primarily a logical issue. There is an extremely important psychological element to it that completely swamps the logical dimension. Providing people with information that is meaningful to them is far more than a simple cognitive interaction in which some fact or opinion is passed from you to me.

The communication process involves the exchange of some information, ideas, or perceptions. The process of making that exchange creates a relationship between the parties. This interaction and relationship are often far more important than the piece of information that was passed between the two people.

The level of people’s commitment and engagement is affected by how they are treated, and one of the key elements of that treatment is driven by the information they receive. People may not need to know, but they desire to know. Knowing gives them a feeling of membership or inclusion in the organization. They feel trusted. Rather than “sitting at the children’s table,” they feel like adult members of the family. If an organization wants to create unity and cohesion in its culture, then it must share information more widely.

Furthermore, the person withholding information may seriously misjudge when some information will be extremely important for a subordinate to understand. It isn’t always possible to foresee the emergencies or events that could arise that would require this subordinate to use this information. Can people be too well informed?

Max DePree, the former CEO of Herman Miller, was an astute student of good leadership skills and researched relentlessly on how to be a good leader?. DePree talked of the need for “lavish communication.” In contrast to the mentality that would communicate only on a need-to-know basis, DePree routinely communicated to the entire workforce about a number of important topics, including the following:
  1. Extensive financial information
  2. Productivity measures
  3. The status of new products under development
  4. Competitive information
  5. Customer satisfaction measures
  6. Quality statistics
  7. Review of the corporate strategy
  8. Refresher on the mission, vision, and values of the organization.
We applaud the concept of lavish communication. Imagine the impact that this has on the level of engagement and commitment of all employees. Every employee is now in a position to make smarter decisions whenever important issues arise. Beyond that, being trusted with that information, and having upper management take the time to communicate so extensively, clearly signals the importance of the front-line associates of the firm.

Go for the Big Issues

Individuals with leadership traits don’t shy away from important issues. In fact, the evidence is that such leaders prefer to move upstream to the bigger or thornier issues. If rumors of a reorganization are flying around, the leader is inclined to step right into it, asking what people are hearing, inquiring about the concerns they have, and then telling the listeners everything that is appropriate to be passed on.

Some topics are trivial and others are titanic. The more important the topic, the more attention and concern will be paid to it by those in attendance. Our experience has been that when leaders successfully convey that all topics are fair game for discussion, that leader’s influence goes up.

In a group meeting, someone asks, “Why did Al Hartman leave the company?” Answer: “In this case, for some legal reasons, I’m sorry I can’t tell you everything I know. But I can say that he was frustrated with me and didn’t agree with some decisions I made that affected him. I’m sorry to see him leave. Things will get back to normal in a couple of weeks, but in no way was he pushed out.”

That answer is much better than, “We can’t talk about it.” (Candor builds trust and is inspirational to the listeners.)

Keep It Positive

An extensive body of literature demonstrates the importance of communication being positive and uplifting, rather than being negative. Two researchers who were experimenting leadership development goals observed 60 leadership teams who were performing leadership goals like their annual strategic planning, problem-solving, and budgeting activities. These researchers were investigating why some teams performed better than others. Their startling discovery was that the one factor that was twice as powerful as anything else in predicting the teams’ success was the ratio of positive comments (approval, suggestions, praise, appreciation, compliments, and overall support) to negative comments (pointing out faults, disparagement, criticism, or disapproval). The ratio of positive to negative comments in the highest-performing teams was 5 to 1, in medium-performing teams it was just below 2 to 1, and in the lowperforming teams it was roughly 1 positive for every 3 negative.2 Studies done in both industry and marriage counseling reinforce the value of positive communication outnumbering any kind of negative messages by roughly 5 to 1.3 Organizations that achieve this ratio are far more apt to perform at an extremely high level.

There are times and places when more critical messages must be delivered, but that clearly works best if there has been a preponderance of positive messages preceding the negative ones.

Ask More Questions; Give Fewer Orders

Similarly, it has been shown that there is an optimum ratio of declarative or instructional messages to a leader’s asking questions. In high-performing organizations, the ratio of questions to instructions is slightly higher than 1 to 1, whereas in low-performing organizations, the ratio is more on the order of 20 instructions to every question asked.

Share the Spotlight

The leaders in high-performing organizations had roughly the same number of comments that were about others as that were about themselves. That equality in focus was in sharp contrast to low-performing organizations, in which leaders made 33 times more comments about themselves than they did about others in the organization. The behavior that conveys, “It’s all about me” reduces the level of motivation and commitment of others.

Step into the Listeners’ Shoes

The inspiring leader thinks about the listeners. There are many ways to approach presenting any issue or topic. If there’s a new product being developed, the leader could talk about how it was conceived and the breathtaking advantages of this new technology compared to the old ways. But the inspiring leader adds one more ingredient: WIIFM—“What’s in it for me?” The leader recognizes that many listeners will be thinking, “Will this new product be manufactured somewhere else? Will it cause the company to shrink or to grow?” So whether it is a new product, a rumored merger, a reorganization, the installation of a new enterprise software program, or a sudden decline in the stock price, the inspiring leader always connects the event to the listener and does everything possible to convey as honest and as upbeat a message as possible.

Stu Reed, the executive vice president of integrated supply chain management for Motorola, was the 2007 recipient of Communications World’s EXCEL Award. Reed noted that public relations professionals often work hard to create two paragraphs of eloquent prose, but when he looked at the essence of what they meant to say, it boiled down to a simple message, such as “Hang in there; times are tough.” Reed’s philosophy is to communicate with simple messages. He believes that people “pick up passion more than eloquence.” Reed consistently frames his messages in the form of stories that others can repeat. Finally, Reed ends every message by attempting to connect the problem or issue with the individual. So the ending of every conversation or presentation comes down to “What does it mean to you?”

Make It Two-Way

Inspiring communication is not just one-way, but more often a two-way transaction. Our emphasis is often on the sending or producing side of the equation. The need for the communicator to be the receiver or collector of messages can be easily overlooked.

Think again about the chairman of Yum, Andy Pearson, visiting a Taco Bell restaurant and talking with the front-line employees. He asks them questions about the best practices they’ve been observing on the part of their fellow workers. He listens and takes notes. This is two-way communication at its best.

For centuries, we have attempted communication “downward.” This, however, cannot work, no matter how hard and how intelligently we try. It cannot work, first, because it focuses on what we want to say. It assumes, in other words, that the utterer communicates. There can be no communication if it is conceived as going from “I” to “thou.” Communication works only from one member of “us” to “another.” —Peter Drucker.

Use Multiple Communication Techniques and Opportunities

Great communicators are seldom “one-celled.” They use a broad spectrum of techniques and find a wide variety of occasions to communicate. Here’s a quick review of some:
  • One-on-one dialogue. Communication is often between individuals of whom one has power or position. The key to this communication is that it be candid and direct. By its very nature, it should also be personal. Messages should be crafted with the uniqueness of the individual in mind. The most effective one-onone communicators have the ability to focus all their attention and energy on connecting with this one person. These interactions allow both parties to carefully observe facial expressions and body language, along with the words that are said. Individuals are inspired in their one-on-one interactions with their leader. The leader who uses every meeting as a chance to inspire is taking advantage of golden opportunities.

  • Attendee at a meeting. Let’s assume that you’ve gone to a meeting where you are a participant. You are not in charge. Effective leaders inject their opinion in meetings, make proposals for how to move forward, and in general are perceived as making thoughtful comments. They don’t just sit in any meeting, acting aloof and uninvolved because they are not running the meeting. They are comfortable with challenging ideas and bringing extremely different points of view to the surface. They help people analyze their own assumptions about an issue.6 They are not contentious and disruptive. Constructive behavior in meetings is a key element of inspiring and motivating others.

  • Conducting meetings. Leaders are in a position to organize and conduct many meetings. Each is an excellent opportunity to communicate important messages. There’s a big difference, however, between being in charge and being a smothering leader. When they are “in charge,” inspiring leaders refrain from dominating the conversation. They encourage ideas to come from others in the group, rather than being the one who always provides them. The best leaders never speak first on a complex topic unless it is simply to frame the issue. If the leader goes beyond that to express a strong point of view, that most often has a chilling effect on others speaking up and saying what they truly believe. By holding back and speaking at the end, the leader encourages others to speak. They then say what they truly believe. This avoids the frequent posturing that sometimes occurs that is primarily geared toward gaining the approval of the leader.
As Drucker pointed out, the charisma of leaders can become their undoing. Becoming convinced of their own infallibility puts leaders on a course in which they believes themselves to be above the rules that others must play by. Such isolation from the opinion and feedback of others leads to egregious behavior. But Drucker is presumably talking about an extreme case of someone relying on one or two charismatic qualities while forgetting what makes the well-rounded, truly inspiring leader.

One very useful tactic for improving the communication in meetings is for leaders to ask probing questions that convey the expectation that all individuals have the opportunity (and, to some degree, the responsibility if they have a different opinion from those already expressed) to weigh in on every question before they state their personal view.
  • Presentations. Another communication process involves making presentations. While we will argue that this is only one of several dimensions of being a good communicator, there is no question that the ability to make well-organized, dynamic presentations in front of employee groups, customers, and other stakeholders is an important communication skill. It is a moment that can be extremely inspirational.

We have colleagues who teach presentation skills to leaders. Often a leader’s career is frozen because of a lack of polish in making presentations, or because the leader is terribly awkward in public settings. These colleagues report that following a relatively short period of training on presentation skills and some coaching on ways to improve her “presence,” promotions often follow. While this evidence is clearly anecdotal, it provides some confirmation that poor presentation skills, because they are so public, often hold people back in their career.

The content of presentations needs to be well thought through. What’s said must be interesting, relevant, and organized in a way that the listeners can comprehend. We recommend a book by Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking, and Problem Solving, that is available directly from the author. For decades she trained McKinsey & Co. consultants to write and create compelling proposals, reports, and presentations. Her format for creating presentations and organizing reports is practical.

The best communicators, according to our research, are adept at tailoring the message to their listeners. That doesn’t mean that the story completely changes based on who the audience is. It simply means that the speaker is aware of the interests and concerns of those in the audience, and that the presentation is crafted to respond to those needs and interests. The speaker begins the preparation of the presentation by pondering: “What does this mean to my audience?” “Why should people be concerned?” “What will be seen as negative or positive in my message?” “What questions will immediately be raised?”

Tell Relevant Stories

One remarkable communication technique is to tell stories. (Stories is a word with multiple meanings. We obviously mean true stories.) Maybe this is a holdover from our childhood experience, but stories are both riveting and memorable. There is something about the narrative form and the specificity that draws people into the event. Stories become even better if there is some emotion injected into the story. When there is emotion, the story becomes a giant magnet that draws people’s attention and leads them to ignore many distractions. For every major point the speaker is trying to make, there should be a good story that illustrates that point. This has the double effect of creating greater clarity about the message and making it stick in the listener’s memory.

Inspiring presenters in public forums have learned a simple lesson: reading text is just plain boring. Telling stories transforms the presentation and breathes life into it. Humor and personal anecdotes spice it up. A presentation style that has enthusiasm and wraps major ideas in some emotion makes the presentation “zing.” For additional information on how leaders can communicate in a way that inspires and motivates others.

Keep the Pace Brisk

Today’s audiences are accustomed to fast-paced presentations. If you watch a movie that is a few decades old, you are struck by its slow pace. Scenes change every two to three minutes, whereas in modern cinema, changes occur every few seconds.

Communicate Passion and Enthusiasm

The most effective performers, as a rule, are those who throw themselves into the performance. The performer who is placid, calm, and sedate seldom captures the audience as much as the person who performs with intensity and passion. The same principles apply to the leader as communicator. The listeners hear the words, but they respond equally as much to the passion and emotion.

At a large conference attended by delegates from all over the world, an executive was speaking. One person at a back table turned to his neighbor and remarked, “I can’t understand one word he’s saying, he’s got such a strong accent. But it doesn’t matter. You can tell how excited he is about where we’re headed. It’s obvious he believes it. That’s all I need to hear.”

Shakespeare wrote Henry V nearly 200 years after the Battle of Agincourt (1415). Many feel that it is the finest dramatic interpretation of what visionary leadership meant in the Middle Ages. It was a deeply emotional message that served to lift the soldiers’ spirits to the highest level to prepare them for a battle in which they were seriously outnumbered.

Prior to the battle, the morale in the English line must have been extremely low. King Henry, rising to the occasion, spoke words of encouragement that rallied the English troops and carried them to a victory.



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Thought Leadership Zen: Leadership communication skills
Leadership communication skills
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