Good communication skills are indispensable. At work, they are a necessity—especially if you want to be successful in your role and bring your career to new heights. There is an even greater emphasis placed on being a good communicator for executives and those in leadership positions.
Not everyone is great a communication, though. So how can executives become better communicators and stand out as good leaders at work?
Steve Barriault, Global Technology Sales Leader
At first glance, one may feel there should be a way to communicate that is uniquely more effective than others. That effective communication would then be a matter of following a time-honed tactic, a proven recipe.
But I would beg to differ.
The fact is, everyone has a unique personality. Some are leaders of a few words, and others are, on the contrary, word mills. Some have a knack for humor, while others can't crack a joke.
The last thing you want to do is to adopt a style that is not natural for you. Not only would this be counterproductive, but it is not necessary. Yes, we have great (AND awful) leaders in these different categories. So, effective communication is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
So, here is a simple trick from a sales guy: you need a metric. Like good sales leaders learning lessons from disappointing sales to improve their strategies, effective communicators will take cues from the feedback they receive.
Do your emails generate lots of questions? Re-read them, and try to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Was it clear? Even to someone with perhaps less info than you have, or someone with another perspective?
Actively seek feedback on the quality of your oral communication. Keep in mind that in many cultures, direct reports will avoid asking follow-up questions from a fear of embarrassing a leader—or, in a cross-cultural environment, out of fear of judgment on their oral abilities in a language that is not their own.
Talk one-on-one with them. Ask what these people understood, using their own words.
Don't fear judgment. Effective communication is inherently tricky. It depends on the speaker, the audience, and the surrounding environment. Just like any other skill, you get better at it through practice, more practice, and analyzing feedback.
Finally, albeit being an effective leader is essential for executives, do not underestimate the importance of the other half of communication: listening.
That is probably even more important. Suppose you do not get an accurate picture of the situation because of inadequate listening. In that case, you are trying to make excellent decisions based on a very partial understanding of reality. See the problem?
So, while asking for the feedback I talked about previously, how about you also ask their honest opinion on what you said? Who knows? Their feedback may help you refine your strategies!
Steve Barriault is a global technology sales executive with 18+ years of experience in business development on three continents. He is currently serving in a 3,000 employee-strong company providing embedded software testing solutions in multiple industries such as automotive, avionics, industrial systems, telecom, and others. Multilingual, he holds advanced degrees in business, science, and computer science.
Chris Rankin, Marketing Leader
If you hit the send button on an email but no one was in the room to witness the action, did the communication happen? It's today's version of a tree falling in a forest without a witness. Spam filters, syntax errors with an address, firewall settings, internet hub outages, battery life of the receiving device...
In the old days you could hold a meeting and see your team's body language for a read on their comprehension and excitement. With a remote workforce, every organization is seeing communication-related data spikes in email, chat sessions, texts, Zoom meetings, phone calls, and Slack groups. The data says it's happening, but why doesn't it feel as effective?
It's important to remember that "communication" isn't necessarily the act of expressing an idea, but the degree of effectiveness that another party receives and correctly digests that idea. That's what makes the kids game "telephone" so much fun. The original message has the potential of changing in hilarious ways with every person it filters through. Translating a concept stuck in your head into written form is one filter. Editing your document to project an appropriate "corporate image" because a written document is a record is yet another filter. The result is a communication stripped of most body language, individual quirk, and spontaneity. It's killing our ability to foster collaboration, creativity, and innovation, which is something we desperately need in strategic planning for 2021.
Digital communication channels are not the root of the problem. We just need to get more comfortable with being ourselves on these channels. To accomplish this, my organization has found inspiration from the video game industry. We found that introducing a bit of fun to internal templated communications puts people at ease, so they are more comfortable contributing their thoughts.
For example, we changed our content review email thread to read like a chain letter. If you recall, the format opens with an aspirational promise for passing the letter on within a time frame and usually details some sort of drama should the expectation not be met. Adding that bit of fun has resulted in faster turnaround because people look forward to reading and writing them. Other examples are modeling your competitive intel efforts like fantasy football, or holding your next product development sprint as a hackathon competition. Game formats put people at ease and allow them to be themselves without the pressure/filter of trying to present themselves as a corporate entity with corporate jargon. Even better, game formats are designed to create interaction allowing you to gauge how communication was received.
Chris Rankin is a marketing executive who specializes in brand and digital strategy. Her specialty is in reimagining e-commerce to deliver digital branding experiences that augment a customer's real world. She believes social influencers are the content creators brands should partner with and enable to achieve better targeting and authenticity. She holds 20 years in marketing experience for health, technology, and fashion with an MFA from the Academy of Art University and a BA from Principia College. She believes learning from each other is the fastest path to growth and she welcomes anyone interested in swapping stories.
Amy Hinderer, Business Management & Operations Executive
What is effective communication? It is the ability to actively listen and express yourself clearly to others. Being in positions of leadership carries the responsibility to effectively and consistently communicate with your teams especially during these uncertain times. Ask yourself, "Am I a good communicator or do I need to improve my skills in this area?" If you are someone who believes improvement is needed, I have good news for you: effective communication skills can be honed through practice using simple techniques.
Here are a few that I have found helpful:
Communicate more frequently. Since the pandemic, many employees are working remotely and, as a result, may feel orphaned. Leaders must reach out to their teams more frequently than before COVID-19. It's okay to over-communicate during disruptive times. Your employees will thank you for being transparent.
Practice active listening. Ignore distractions around you. For example, place your phone on silent, close all apps on your computer that are not required for the meeting, find a quiet room and close the door, and take notes and reflect on what you heard. Ask questions to open the door to understanding what people really think and feel. Let me share this thought by Stephen Covey: "Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating. But consider this: You've spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening?"
Be aware of your nonverbal cues during video meetings. Project confidence and openness by sitting or standing straight, maintain eye contact with the camera, and do not fold your arms. Also, engage with your audience by using simple gestures like "nodding" or "leaning forward."
Know your audience. As a leader, it is key to connect with your audience and understand their challenges and concerns, what they need, and how you can help. Keep in mind that today's audience is multi-generational ranging from baby boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z, so you must know how to interact with these different audiences.
Prepare properly. You know the saying, "Practice makes perfect," yet so many leaders skip this step and go straight to their messaging. They run the risk of rambling on or misspeaking. So, remember to practice, practice, practice.
Let me know what techniques have worked for you. I look forward to your responses.
Amy Hinderer is a business management & operations executive with 18+ years of experience in global enterprise and start-up businesses. She has managed teams ranging in size from 10 up through ~35K supporting revenues between $2M - $9B.
Rosanne Mao, CFO/Finance Director
In the evolution of workplace culture and digital innovation, communication is at the core of effective leadership. The daily coaching, feedback, insights, and praise help mold employees' expectations of their own performance. Building effective communication skills becomes even more important when technological disruption is leading to increased volatility and uncertainty. Leadership communication capabilities that foster meaningful collaboration, interaction, and engagement are principal skills for executives today.
Effective communication enables executives to rally the team around a shared vision, empower employees, build trust, and successfully navigate organizational change. When communication is lacking, important information can be misinterpreted, causing relationships to suffer and, ultimately, creating barriers that hinder progress. In times like these, the customers and employees need the wisdom and leadership more than ever, and we have a unique opportunity to move them forward in the midst of uncertainty. Focus on empathy rather than trying to create selling opportunities. Companies should rethink advertising and promotion strategies to be more in line with the current zeitgeist.
Today's global workforce is becoming increasingly flexible. Learn how to adapt to different styles of communication for different audiences, and communicate with different generations. In the multigenerational workplace, it's important to know how to interact with baby boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z. In the inherently stressful world of employee-executive relations, effective communication can build executive-employee rapport. Rapport builds trust, trust builds engagement, and engagement yields productivity. Practice empathy and transparency to influence and inspire the team, and do 80% of the listening and 20% of the talking. The better we get at acknowledging and understanding employees' feelings and experiences, the more heard and valued they'll feel.
Finance executives have to effectively communicate with internal and external stakeholders. Share more concrete initiatives and objectives than simply growing sales and increasing profitability. Make sure every member of the organization understands the business's long-term financial goals, and communicate about plans to achieve those goals. The finance function can gain a great deal of trust and credibility across the workplace when we communicate transparently. Financial executives must adopt virtual communications strategies in the day-to-day responsibilities to maintain team functionality, and also with clients and prospective customers. How we present across social media and in virtual meetings can have a big impact on the amount of respect we earn from our colleagues.
Active listening is a key part of coaching others. Executives must also be able to encourage team members to voice concerns and opinions. A good rule of thumb is to communicate two to three times more often with the remote employees as we did in person. During video meetings, take note of nonverbal cues, and give the other person your full attention. Focus on the body language, make eye contact to establish interest and rapport, and flash a genuine smile to convey warmth and trust. Confidence helps a team work together to achieve desired goals. Unleash the power of emotional intelligence (EQ) to build a stronger, more productive culture.
Rosanne Mao is a CFO/finance director with more than 20 years of financial management experience in a multinational company. She's helped the company enhance cash flow, maximize corporate profitability, improve investor relationship, and reduce risk. Her leadership strategy has successfully driven company EBIT to increase by 15%. She has strategically led the enterprise digital transformation with 37% improvement in financial productivity.
Being a good leader means you're also a good communicator. It's okay if you're still working on your communication skills as an executive. Just remember to listen more than you talk, and practice! You'll see results in your workplace and among your teams soon enough.
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