I’ve been asking leaders I run into on a daily basis about their biggest struggles and frustrations when it comes to moving their businesses forward. By far, the most common theme had something to do with communications — whether it be with their management teams, staff, customers or vendors.
Many of them have adopted elaborate communications plans that include things like formal listening sessions, employee feedback channels, “road show” tours to various plants, intranets, newsletters, weekly videos, social media, etc.
But while those are all good things and show an understanding of the need of a multi-prong approach to communications, some of those leaders are wasting their money. That’s because they jumped right to tactics, and didn’t spend the time going back to the basic building blocks of effective communications.
Great leaders are, first and foremost, great communicators. Some of the best don’t have a lot of fancy tools at their disposal. Rather, they’ve mastered the basics that allow them to be personally impactful and energizing to those with whom they interact. The best have some key leadership communication skills and behaviors in common:
11 Keys to Great Communication in Leadership
1. They have a solid vision, mission and values — It’s tough to drive forward as a team if everyone’s not on the same page about where they’re going. Clear vision, a compelling mission, and shared values are absolutely essential and the foundation for all leadership communications. They’re the flag you plant for the rest of the team to rally around. Without them, you’re going to be working a whole lot harder to keep everyone aligned.
2. They’ve developed an inspirational story — Everyone talks about an “elevator pitch,” but too often they’re just a ho-hum collection of facts about the company. Great leaders find some emotional nuggets to weave into the story. Think of it as the “why” behind what your organization does. What’s it’s higher purpose? That’s what your team and your customers will find compelling. And if they understand the “why,” they don’t have to memorize a staid “elevator pitch.” Instead, they’ll be able to tell it in their own way…and a way in which it means something personally to them. Others will be able to see their passion, which goes a LONG way toward making your staff and your customers more engaged.
3. They’ve mastered the art of storytelling — Management and leadership guru Tom Peters once said, “Leaders. Make. Meaning.” He advocated that their role is “storyteller-in-chief.” That’s because the way stories are told are so powerful. Take your corporate story and weave in some examples based on yourself, your team or your customers that illustrate its power. Think of the presidential State of the Union each year…some of the most powerful moments come from the stories shared about people in the audience that illustrate how policy impacts them in deeply personal ways. You can do the same, even if you’re only making widgets. You just have to look hard enough at how you make a difference.
4. They talk to both heads and hearts — I often talk about how alignment is focused on the “head” … ensuring people are understanding what it is you’re asking of them. Engagement, on the other hand, is all about the “heart” … helping them feel bought in enough to want to care. Both are important for leaders to address, and it’s why the stories above are so important. The best stories address both heads and hearts. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to social workers or engineers…to employees or customers…it’s the emotional triggers that justify our rational thoughts.
5. They keep it simple — A friend of mine runs a marketing firm that deals with doctors and scientists, who can get incredibly complex in telling their stories. They get lost in the details. The slogan for his firm is “We make the complex compelling.” And they do that by helping their clients take very intricate and complex situations and boil them down to a simple, clear thought that permeates everything else. If you do the work to get the single word or phrase that employees and customers can rally around, you can then begin to weave in more detail…that’s because the main point is always clear to them.
6. They’re authentic — Just be yourself and tell the truth. It’s not much harder than that. The annals of public relations, marketing and communications failures are full of examples of those who’ve attempted to do otherwise. Don’t join them.
7. They’ve embraced transparency — People don’t believe all is sunshine and unicorns. In fact, we’re hard-wired against it. And as soon as we see a crack in the story, it’s pretty much dead to us (and the storyteller is, as well). Much better to present the facts as they are while providing context as to what you believe they mean. Even when (and especially when) it’s bad news. That’s the quickest way to build trust with employees and customers. Besides, they’ll figure it out for themselves if you don’t share the real story.
8. They’re not afraid to get personal —Some of the best communicators are those who tell personal stories…they relate how they felt about a particular situation that impacted them or their company. They also make it about the people they’re talking to – relating on a deeply human level that stirs the heart and inspires people to relate to the story being told. Simply put: Get real. It will mean more than any elevator story or corporate line ever could.
9. They listen — To employees. To customers. To people. It doesn’t have to be a formal “listening session.” But it can make use of focus groups, etc., as long as you’re also out there truly interacting with employees and customers in everyday situations.
10. They use multiple channels — Not everyone hears, learns or takes in information the same way. Some are visually-oriented. Some prefer to read. Some want top-down, pushed information. Others want to find and digest information in their own way. Whatever you do, make sure your communications plan offers a variety of ways to take in information and give feedback. That means you should consider a good mix of print, verbal, video, social media, digital, etc.
11. They know repetition is important — Too many leaders feel like once we’ve said something, the message has been delivered. But in fact, it may take three, five, seven, ten or twelve times of repeating the same message in different ways by different people before the idea finally begins to grab hold in listeners’ minds. They may not be paying attention. The delivery channel may not be right for the situation. They may not comprehend due to complexity. But whatever the reason, remember to persevere About the time you’re sick of saying it is about the time they may notice that you actually mean it.
Those are the basics. And they’re vitally important to have in place before you start spending time and money on formal communications plans and tactics. But once you get them firmly ingrained, your leadership communications will be that much more engaging, inspiring and ultimately more effective.