Leadership Communication – The NEXT Big Wave

Leadership Communication – The NEXT Big Wave

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I was reading an online HBR article the other day about leadership communication.  Here’s the HBR article –

https://hbr.org/2016/03/two-thirds-of-managers-are-uncomfortable-communicating-with-employees

I thought this might be a nice way to RE-explore leadership communication challenges. And a new twist might be some ideas on HOW to improve it.

But first, I want to share my favorite story to illustrate the communications gap that haunts most leaders today.

More than a few years ago I interviewed for a senior leadership position at a well know data storage provider. I vividly recall how each senior leader I interviewed with told me how “screwed up” the SQA organization was and how they’d support any/all of my actions. Even including firing most of the staff and/or moving SQA offshore. I had their “full support” for change.

This went on an on during the interview. And to say that I got a very skewed view to the capabilities of the organization was an understatement. But during those years, I likened myself to be a solid leader who enjoyed the challenge of turning around a struggling team. So, I accepted the role.

The first thing I did was to review the previous 3-years of performance reviews of everyone in my new team. There were approximately 100 folks in the organization, so that meant 300 reviews. Why you might ask? Because I wanted to find out what sorts of messages, feedback, and coaching this entirely dysfunctional organization had been told by previous leaders. I expected it to be bad…really bad.

Guess what I found?

Almost nothing. Very little in the way of clear, constructive feedback. In fact, it was the reverse. Some of the folks who were perceived the worst, had received high increases and a few had been promoted. Out of 100 people, perhaps only a handful of the written reviews were below average and went into performance improvement coaching. Yet the entire organization was clearly view as a failure.

How can that happen? Where’s the disconnect?

My experience says that it happens all of the time. That leaders talk a good game when it comes to judging and providing feedback, but the reality is that their deeds rarely align with their words.

And to finish this story off to some degree, the team was actually quite good. There were simply a few “bad apples” and they struggled to effectively communicate to leadership. But otherwise, they had a world-class SQA organization and simply didn’t realize it. What a shame!

In a recent HBR article the same points are made regarding leadership communication. My example above is +20 years old. You would think that we’d be continuously getting better with our communication. Especially since modern generations need more effective feedback.

But it appears not.

And bringing it back home to my “sweet spot”, agile teams who need honest and open feedback continuously.

So turning the tone of this article around, I’d like to get more positive and explore how leaders can become a communications dynamo when it comes to their teams?

This is a snippet from the HBR article. The following 5 communications areas were highlighted, with the follow-up quote:

  • Be direct but kind

  • Listen

  • Don’t make it personal

  • Be present

  • Inspire greatness

Respectful, direct feedback costs absolutely nothing but can make all the difference in individual and team productivity. In its absence, we become completely ineffective. Team communication breaks down. Leaders become irrelevant. But when we get it right, feedback can create better collaboration, a culture of connections, and sustainable change.

What the article inspired in me is that leadership communication effectiveness is probably the next Big Thing when it comes to improve agile organizational leadership. As we move towards more agile approaches, it’s placing pressure on our leaders to be better communicators, which clearly isn’t their sweet spot strength.

Here are some additional ideas or techniques to think about.

Get it “out there”

As you see in the HBR survey results, there is a general reluctance to communicate the “hard bits” to teams. One approach is to simply avoid all of the excuses and get the message “out there” no matter how ill-formed or uncomfortable you might be with it.

Listen for what should have been said

When you and others are delivering key messages to your teams, not only listen to what was said, but to what should have been said. For example, if you’re communicating a layoff, was there any shared empathy. Or honest thanks for everyone’s contributions.

It’s not for you, it’s for the team

One of the things that always inspires and drives me towards clear and honest communication, is thinking about my team. How they deserve to have clarity and honesty. How they’ve earned it. And how it’s my job to deliver it.

It takes tremendous energy, but it’s worth it

It’s unbelievable how much energy it takes to be a great communicator. Not simply in large meetings or email, but in every small interaction. Whether you like it or not, you need to communicate constantly and bring energy to each and every one.

Practice

If you’re afraid or avoiding it because of your skill or comfort level, then practice. I’ve found that it’s like any muscle. The more I practice at communicating within organizations, the better I become. And general public speaking is a good way to increase your abilities.

It’s happening ALL the time

Remember, communication is not simply an “event”. It’s happening all of the time. And you’re communicating with your body language as well. As a leader, your teams care about every aspect that you radiate. Even, as in the above, listening to what you didn’t say.

Keep it simple

I often hear leaders speak in “manager speak”. Often they use business jargon like synergy, alignment, KPI’s, minimal marketable features, boil the ocean, ecosystem, hit the ground running, etc. to communicate. They string the clichés together as if making a quilt. Instead we all need to revert to clear and simple “English”, communicating as if we’re at home having a conversation with a friend.

Say it, say it again, say what you said

Packaging is always important. While its “old advice” this method of introduction, sending the message, and then reviewing it has always been effective. You end up repeating the important bits in your message. But it also forces you to simplify your message because you have less real estate for more information.

Storytelling

I’m getting more and more fond of storytelling as I mature in my leadership experience. That’s a side effect for everyone as they age. But seriously, it can be an incredibly effective technique to “paint a picture” in a real-world story about what your trying to convey to your teams.

Use imagery & pictures

The more graphic you can be the better. I have clients who’ve used the painting of Cortez burning ships in the harbor picture to convey to their teams that “moving forward” is the only option with a new strategy and change initiative. The words are important, but everyone walks away with the graphic in mind as motivation towards a future state.

Related to practicing your communication muscles, there is in agile coaching the notion of a coaching dojo. I talked about it in this article.

I think the same approach could be used to sharpen your leadership communication skills. Try to find some like-minded and interested leaders and establish a pattern of dojo sessions where you run through simulated communications. You can not only vary the topics, but vary the environment or conditions as well. Keep things very dynamic.

You can also use this technique to prepare for more important or crucial event communications.

And to be clear, you’ll want to stay away from communicating important messages via email or anything textual. The more you can be visible, the better. If you can’t speak face-to-face, then a video message would be much better than a text message.

Stay agile my leadership friends,

Bob.

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