The importance of communication
Of all the skills a leader must possess, one of the most important is the ability to effectively communicate with people. I have met a number of leaders in my day who felt very uncomfortable in this capacity. They felt that in order to effectively communicate they needed to be great orators like Cicero or inspirational motivators like Knute Rockne. While these are certainly wonderful qualities to possess, they are not pre-requisites to effective communication. The most important aspect of being a good communicator is being authentic. The most important aspect in communicating is to “say what you mean and mean what you say”. People need to be able to trust what you communicate to them. They must also know that your words are backed up by genuine feelings and actions. There must always be congruence between your words and your actions. As the old saying goes “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say!” Great communicators are able to get their message across not because of the words they use but because of their desire to connect with people. You must have passion about the message and care deeply about the people to whom you are delivering that message. This comes across loud and clear. Unfortunately so does a lack of sincerity or caring! Before you communicate with people think about what you are trying to convey, why it is important to them, and how you can best help them to digest the message.
The importance of listening
I am a Type “A” New Yorker who over time has evolved from being a very shy person to one who has learned to love the sound of my own voice! I am certain that I am not alone. Many of us confuse communication with talking. While delivering a message is certainly an important part of communication, it is only one part. I would argue it is the least important part. My mother used to always tell me that “Larry God gave you two ears and one mouth. You should use them in that ratio.” My mother was a very wise person! Many people view communication as “talking at people”. The great communicator talks “with” people. That means that they are intently interested in learning about what makes the other person tick and what their concerns may be. Many times politicians have an agenda that they are attempting to push. Many a prospective candidate has seen their campaign crash and burn because their message was not congruent with the concerns of their constituents.
Are you a good listener? Do you give the people you communicate with the space, time and comfort to share their thoughts? Do you look them in the eye and listen intently when they speak? Do you attempt to process and feed back to them what you think they have conveyed? Are you present when you speak with them, or are you “multi-tasking”? Do you give them your undivided attention or are you thinking about the next thing on your to do list? Are you simply waiting for them to stop speaking so that you can start? This is an area of great challenge for me and one I continue to work on and struggle with. Being Type A I always have an agenda I am trying to accomplish. I also speak very fast and don’t leave a lot of “dead air” in my conversations. I have observed over time that if I don’t make a conscious effort to stop and provide others the opportunity to share their thoughts that my dialogues can quickly turn into monologues! I have also observed that when people sense that you genuinely care about what they think and have to share that they are not only more open to sharing their thoughts with you, but they are also more receptive to what you have to share with them. I am reminded (often) by my wife that listening is an active, not a passive, endeavor. She occasionally will tell me “you aren’t listening to me”. Being the wise acre that I am I will proceed in repeating back to her (almost verbatim) everything she’s said to me over the past five minutes. She will then say to me in an exasperated tone “I know you heard me, but you weren’t listening to me!” We live in a fast paced, interrupt driven, noisy world. It’s not always easy to take the time to quietly listen to others but it is critical that we do. I have also noticed that many times we have more patience and listen more closely to strangers than we do to the people closest to us either in our personal or professional lives. Isn’t it strange that we will sometimes be more generous with our time and patience with complete strangers than with the people who mean the most to us and have the greatest impact on our success and well being?
Who do I need to communicate with?
I have seen many so called “leaders” only make the time and effort to communicate with those who they feel can do something for them. Let me share a story with you. I once worked with an executive we’ll call Ed. Ed was a bright man. However Ed was only interested in Ed. Ed was interested in forwarding his own agenda. The amount of time, consideration, and kindness he would show a person was based solely by the number of “stripes” the person had on the shoulder of their uniform. One day Ed saw me speaking with Jim, the person who delivered our interoffice mail. Jim was a very pleasant gentleman who had a developmental disability. In spite of this challenge he held a job, was gracious to people, and was a positive contributor to society. He and I developed a relationship over time and I found that he always brightened my day when he came to visit and deliver the mail. After one of my encounters with him, Ed came to talk to me. He shared with me that he couldn’t understand why I would “waste my time” talking to this person who obviously couldn’t help me in any way. I was flabbergasted by this comment! At the sake of coming across as holier than though, I believe that all of us add value and are important. Since I genuinely believe this, hopefully it comes across to the people I interact with. Unfortunately for Ed, so do his feelings! If you buy into my premise that leadership is about influence and positively impacting other people’s lives, then who do you think is a better leader…Ed the guy with an Ivy league education and a position of status, or Jim a person perhaps with less God given gifts but more of a sense for what it means to be a human being?
A great leader communicates effectively with everyone around them. They engage their clients, their people, their peers, their management, etc. They take every possible opportunity to make sure that the entire cast of characters in their world feel listened to, understood and up to speed. A leader doesn’t “dole out pearls of wisdom” to the select few on an “as needed” basis. She develops relationships with everyone within her sphere of influence.
How should I communicate with them?
Once a person buys into the need to communicate with others, they often have a question as to the best approach to communicating. This is really two questions in one! The first question is around the concept of communicating with people on a one to one basis versus communicating to a larger group. The second question is about the best vehicle for communication – conversation, presentation, or the written word. Let’s reflect on both of these questions.
Individual vs. Group Communication
The decision regarding whether to communicate on an individual basis versus en masse has several variables. There are clearly times when speaking to someone face to face on a one on one basis is the right answer. Other times it is more effective to deliver a message to a larger group. Here are some questions that will help you kick start your thinking to help determine which approach is best:
Am I hoping to engage the person in dialogue or simply deliver a monologue?
How well do I know the person?
What level of relationship do I have with the individual?
Is there an existing level of trust?
Will the group dynamic stimulate interaction and feedback or will it stifle interaction?
If I am hoping for feedback, will the key individuals feel more comfortable providing it in private or will they have more comfort sharing their thoughts in a group setting?
How many people to I need to speak with, in what period of time and where are they located?
In general I have found that if you are hoping to engage in meaningful dialogue, don’t have a strong existing relationship with the individuals, or are delivering a difficult message it is often best to have the conversations on a one to one basis in a private setting. If instead you are simply sharing an update with a large group of people with whom you have a long track record a group update might work well.
Should I communicate via conversation, presentation, or the written word?
I once worked with an attorney whose response to many of my inquiries was “It depends”. She comes to mind as I attempt to answer this question. Primarily the vehicle for communication should be driven by the nature of the message and the audience. Sending written communiqués is best when providing a large group of people simple information to keep them up to speed. A perfect example of this is sending out a monthly newsletter or update keeping people apprised of project status, service updates, coming and goings, etc.
Presentations are often most effective when educating or explaining new concepts. For example, if you are trying to explain the benefits of a new project to a Board of Directors you may want to incorporate a presentation into your repertoire (of course only after you have pre sold the idea to people on an individual basis!). The best way to really reach out to people on a personal level is via conversation. This is clearly the most personal way to connect with an individual and it allows you to engage them on a much deeper level than the other potential approaches.
How often should I communicate?
Many times people are reluctant to engage in communication because they feel their message has already been delivered and they fear being redundant and repetitive. I have come to truly believe that you can never over communicate! I read somewhere that you have to say something at least seven times before a person internalizes your message. While I don’t know what the exact number is, I do know this… you can never over communicate (of course my family may not agree with this statement!). What may seem obvious and clear to you may not be to the other person. Many times we are too close to the issue to be objective enough to determine how effectively people have digested an idea. You must constantly reinforce your message if you hope other people will begin to internalize it.
One of my pet phrases (and if you ask the people I lead they will tell you I have plenty!) is that perception is reality. I have tried to instill this concept in my team to help them understand how a person’s perception of “the facts” is far more important than the actual facts themselves! I once started to have a conversation with a member of my team about a situation when halfway through my thought she exclaimed “I know, I know…perception is reality!” You might think I would be annoyed by this reaction. Truth be told, I was ecstatic! I had clearly gotten this message through to this individual to the point where it was top of mind when dealing with certain situations. I use a litmus test with people to determine how effectively they think their messages have registered with their audience. I’ll ask them “If you woke this person out of a dead sleep at 2 AM in the morning and asked them to react to a question would they be able to respond effectively without pause?” If the answer is not a resounding yes, then you still have work to do! Modifying any behavior, whether it’s changing your eating habits (a personal challenge for me!) or learning multiplication tables (an exercise today’s youth doesn’t understand!) takes practice and repetition. The key to learning any new behavior is developing new, good habits. Constant reinforcement of your message helps create such habits and learned responses. You will often see a football team be more effective running a two minute drill at the end of a game than they were for the rest of the game. The reason is that they constantly practice running this drill because they realize that there is often little to no time to stop and think under this circumstance. It also helps because you are simply reacting to the situation without over thinking! I am not suggesting that thinking is a bad thing (I try to engage in it occasionally myself!). I am only suggesting that you want to communicate often enough to create immediate, natural reactions and responses to some basic situations. We often practice disaster recover exercises. Many of us remember this approach in the simple exercise of fire drills that thankfully broke up the school day! The rationale behind this is that the time to figure out how to respond to a crisis is not while the crisis is happening! Repetition is the key (have I said that enough times yet?)
Say what you mean and mean what you say
In the highly political world of business it is often difficult to decipher the intent of people’s messages. People speak in double talk or beat around the bush to the point where no one is sure exactly what was said. I have a very simple rule that I try to use when communicating…”say what you mean and mean what you say“ First of all you should be honest and forthright in your communication. If something stinks don’t say it smells like a rose. Now I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a need for tact as well as a way to deliver difficult messages in a constructive and professional manner. Clearly there is and that is the approach that you should take. However you can’t leave the conversation thinking one thing and having the person you spoke with think another. I had an experience where a client of mine complained to me that another leader within the organization was not providing him the service he required. He asked my advice as to how to deal with this issue. I told him that I would be happy to observe the dynamic between the two of them and provide some feedback and ideas. The next time these two gentlemen met on a “sticky” subject it just so happened that I was in the room. The client went to great lengths to be respectful and positive with the service provider. So much so in fact, that the message of how dissatisfied he was with his support was totally diluted. The service provider left the room feeling no particular sense of urgency and the client left the meeting feeling an escalated level of frustration. I suggested to the client that in his efforts to be professional and keep the service provider’s ego in tact, he had not delivered his message. I have also seen people yell and scream like lunatics to the point that the actual substance of their message was drowned out by the sheer volume and emotion of their outburst. It is imperative in communicating that you take full responsibility for clearly stating your position and ensuring that the recipient of your message understands and “gets it”. I have heard people say that communication is a 50-50 shared responsibility. I disagree! It I am trying to convey a message to someone the onus is 100% on me to accomplish this objective.
The second part of my approach is to mean what you say. Later on we will focus on integrity. People need to know that you are a person of your word and that they can count on what you say being the truth. Therefore it is absolutely critical to mean what you say. If you intend to accomplish an objective by the end of the month don’t tell people you’ll have it done by the end of the week. If someone really screwed up and you are peeved, don’t tell them that it was no big deal and that you are fine with them. Speak the truth. This is a particularly challenging thing to do when you find yourself up against it. The temptation to tell people what they want to hear is overwhelming. I often will tell people that my responsibility is to tell them what they need to hear so that they can make informed decisions as opposed to telling them what they want to hear so that they are misguided to think that everything is going along swimmingly until the train goes off the tracks. Being honest, constructive and clear are the signs of effective communications for leaders.
The need for marketing
As a Chief Information Officer (CIO) I often have the opportunity to present to fellow technology leaders. Many of these people got into the field of Information Technology because they were stronger left brain people and were less comfortable with small talk and banter. On several occasions I have been asked to present on the topic of “Marketing the Value of IT”. Whenever I start to speak about marketing many of the people in the audience either softly groan or roll their eyes. First of all many of them don’t feel they should have to market anything. People should simply understand the importance of their work. Secondly most of them got into IT so that they didn’t have to engage in things like marketing! If they wanted to be involved in marketing they would have gotten into…well…Marketing! In order to break down this natural resistance to my message I often play a little game with them. I will ask the audience “How many of you are experienced in marketing?” Maybe two or three hands go up in a room of a hundred people. Then I follow up with another question...”How many of you are in a long term committed relationship?” This time most of the room raises there hands. I follow up by saying “So let me ask you the first question one more time…how many of you are experienced in marketing?” I go on to explain that I was fortunate enough to marry a beautiful, intelligent and lovely woman. If you think that convincing her to marry me did not require marketing you have another thing coming! Inevitably I get a chuckle from most of the audience and a lot more hands go up! My point, while it may seem trite, is that all of us at some time or another have been engaged in marketing. To me marketing is articulating a value proposition. It is educating people on why they want to listen to you, buy what you are selling, sign up for your program, etc. No one can succeed in any endeavor alone. Even a great artist who may toil in solitude needs someone to sell and buy her paintings. We all need the support and good will of many people in order to succeed. Marketing is a tool for soliciting that good will and support. However there is a key twist on this theme. Effective marketing is not about why you want people to support you. Instead it answers the question in their mind “What’s in it for me?” The best marketers don’t have to sell their ideas, programs, products or services. People simply want to buy them!
Marketing serves a number of purposes. First of all it educates people on the value of the work performed by your team. It helps them understand how what you do either directly, or indirectly impacts the bottom line of the organization and its ability to accomplish its mission. Secondly it creates the ability to ensure that your people are recognized for their efforts and contributions and allows you to build the platform for ensuring that they are rewarded for their excellence.
Marketing is especially important for IT organizations. Let me share a personal story. I am a huge hockey fan. I live and die with the New Jersey Devils and watch every minute of playoff hockey I can. During the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals I was watching my Devils play the Anaheim Ducks (they were Mighty Ducks at the time!) in game six when all of a sudden the picture and audio went dead! I was beside myself (kind of s scary picture there being two of me!). I checked the other TVs in my house and quickly realized that we had lost cable service. I immediately called the cable company. I was met on the phone (after twenty minutes!) by a less than motivated representative who started to explain to me in his vernacular what was wrong. As politely and patiently as I could I shared with him that I didn’t really care what was wrong. I simply wanted was to watch the hockey game! Those of us who provide good customer service know what it feels like and like to receive it when we are the customer.
For many executives IT is viewed as a utility. How do you think about utilities? When do you think about utilities? The only time most people think about the cable company is like me, when they lose service! If the only data point your clients, executives and board has regarding IT is when something goes wrong, how do you think they view you? Marketing the 99% of what goes right in a non self-serving way helps them have a fuller and more accurate perspective on the value of IT.
Let me share an example of effective marketing. As CIO of the USTA, my team is accountable for providing the technology to help run the most highly attended annual sporting event in the world. One year we worked with our major clients to develop a video outlining some of the things we have done to help them run the tournament. The stars of this video were some of our key business partners. Their “testimonials” were unscripted. Their messages were powerful. They shared some of the capabilities we have partnered with them to implement and how these services and systems impacted revenue, cut costs, facilitated operations and overall allowed them to run an effective event. Our business partners were the stars of the video because they deserved a great deal of the credit for the success. They were also very credible voices to our community. Having them share their thoughts on the value of our joint efforts and the investments we had partnered on to innovate and improve our event was provided a powerful message to our leadership.
What is your brand?
These days there is much more of a focus on what I will refer to as personal branding. We all know about product branding. Some companies go to great lengths to convey a message that their brand is about reliability. Others focus on the cache associated with their product being hip or cool. Whatever the case, companies spend a lot of effort and even more money to develop and articulate a brand strategy.
To me it is equally important to develop and communicate a personal brand. I always suggest to my clients that they ask themselves a few questions.
• What do I want people to think when they see me?
• What are the words I want people to use to describe their experience with me?
• Who am I and what am I all about?
I often go through an exercise with my clients where I ask them to come up with three words they want people to associate with them. For me these three words are:
• Integrity – I want people to feel that they are always working with a person of character who is dependable and honest when they engage with me
• Passion – I am a high energy and passionate person. I want people to know that I will attack whatever objective they entrust to me with a great deal of passion and focus
• Results – It is important to me that the people in my life know that they can count of me to consistently deliver results. No excuses, no BS…I will deliver for them
What are your three words? What do people think of you today? Is there a gap between people’s current perception of you and who you want them to see when they think of you? What are you doing about it? Brand in an essential quality for every executive. You need to spend some time and energy creating your brand and working to become your brand.
Leading a volunteer army
Many of us who are baby boomers grew up at a time when the prevailing approach to managing people was command and control. Management told us what to do, how to do it and when to do it. We did as we were told and were rewarded with a paycheck every two weeks. Those of us who interact with millenials know that this approach doesn’t play well with this new generation of workers! One of the many wonderful things about living in America is that we have options. Therefore the people who we lead also have options. One of their options is to jump ship if they feel they are working for someone who doesn’t value, appreciate or understand them. I always try to remember that the people who I am fortunate enough to lead are a volunteer army. Therefore my approach as a leader is not to coerce them to do my bidding but rather to motivate them that what I am asking them to do is not only in the organization’s best interest but more importantly theirs! I would strongly suggest that this approach is not only effective in dealing with our colleagues but also with dealing with our significant others and children. I once heard a story about a very accomplished and educated man who was trying to get his horse to go back to the stable. No matter now much he pulled and prodded the horse would not budge! A young farm hand saw his dilemma and she simply held a carrot in front of the horse and gently led it back into the stable. As a leader how much carrot are we using versus how much stick? As Dale Carnegie once wrote “you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar”.
Communicating tough messages
It would be wonderful if all of our communications were positive. We would all like to live in a place where all projects were successes, everyone did a great job all of the time, obstacles simply melted away and the streets were paved with gold. Anyone over the age of three knows that this place simply does not exist. Life is challenging. Good people make bad choices. Things don’t always go as planned (as a matter of fact they rarely do!). There will be many times as a leader that you will either have to communicate difficult messages because of the circumstances or because you need to deliver a personal message to an individual that he or she may not want to hear. While this is never fun, the way you handle these opportunities is often the difference between building credibility and long term success and resentment and mistrust.
The first suggestion I would share is to never take the “ostrich approach” to leadership. Too often I have seen leaders try to bury their heads in the sand in the hope that the challenging situation or behavior will simply “blow over”. Their thought process suggests that “maybe if I ignore it, it will go away!”. My experience is that problems are like a curable cancer. If ignored they will not only fester but will worsen until they consume the entire organism. However if treated early and aggressively, they can be eliminated and the person or team can go on to live a long successful life. Therefore when you are confronted with a challenging dynamic, the best approach in my opinion is to proactively work to nip it in the bud.
The way you go about communicating in these situations will say a great deal about the type of leader and more importantly, the type of person you are. Let’s take two types of examples and reflect on how to best handle them.
First let’s focus on having to share bad news. As I am writing this book we are all living through perhaps the greatest economic issues since the Great Depression. This has caused many organizations to have to rationalize their costs and make budget and headcount reductions. I have had to do exactly the same thing. The first thing you need to do in this situation is to honestly communicate the situation. What is happening? Why? What has led to this scenario? What steps are you planning to take? How does this impact the people on your team? How long do we expect this situation to last? For those who are being directly impacted why were these choices made? For those indirectly impacted what lies ahead for them? Is this the first phase of a wave of reductions? Am I safe? Will I be able to succeed in this environment? Will I be next? Should I be looking for a new opportunity? All of these are legitimate questions which will be running through the minds of your people. You need to get in front of things and answer these questions before they get asked. You need to let people know what to expect. You need to calm the storm and keep people’s focus on the task at hand. Most importantly you need to elicit their support to make them partners in fixing the problem as opposed to victims of circumstances. Ignoring the issue or glossing it over will simply magnify their concerns and have them heading for the exits! You can either get in front and lead the parade or expect to get trampled by the elephants! Publicly sharing your thoughts in a group setting and also reassuring people on and individual basis is the tact to be taken in these situations.
The second example is a more personal one. Very few people, me included, enjoy confrontations. We rather not have to deal with people one on one to share “bad news”. However as a leader you sometimes have to share difficult messages. What do you do if a person is under performing and not accomplishing their objectives. Once again ignoring the situation is not the answer. Not only does their lack of performance impact you, but it also impacts the rest of the team who are working hard to accomplish the mission. Ignoring the situation is unfair to the majority of people who are pulling their weight and making things happen. A leader takes a person aside in a private and dispassionate way to share their concerns and expectations. They give the person and opportunity to share “their side of the story”. Perhaps some mitigating circumstances are at play that need to be addressed. Perhaps the individual doesn’t even realize there is a problem. Perhaps they don’t care! Whatever the situation, you need to clearly and directly articulate your concern, the impact of the behavior and your expectations of what must be done to improve the situation and within what timeframes.
Honesty & Transparency
Many leaders are guilty of the next sin even though they are well intentioned. Instead of honestly sharing their concerns, they try to sugar coat the situation. Things aren’t really that bad. They are bound to get better. It’s only a temporary blip. Let me be clear on what I am stating. This is one of the most delicate balancing acts a leader will ever have to navigate. On the one hand a leader needs to be optimistic, keep the team calm, and articulate that she expects things to turn and for the team to succeed. However a leader also must be honest. Lying about your own concerns is dishonest and people can see right through you. However panicking and yelling “fire” is not the answer either! Let me share an example from my own experience.
When I took my current job I walked into what I can only describe as the most dysfunctional organization I had ever seen. Nothing was working. Our clients thought we were idiots. Client satisfaction was terrible. Projects routinely came in late, over budget and under value. The team had no credibility. My office had no relationships with the leadership of the organization. All in all it was quite a mess! For me to tell everyone that things were fine and that everything was great would have been a lie and stupidity on my part. However running out of the building screaming wasn’t going to help matters! I simply made it a point to build a reputation of being someone who was honest, constructive and transparent. Where there were problems I admitted we had an issue, but quickly refocused people as to our plans to address the issue. When we made progress we communicated it. When we screwed up, we honestly stated our mistake, shared why the issue occurred and the steps we were taking to ensure there would not be a reoccurrence. We instituted Client Satisfaction Scorecards which we administered twice a year. This allowed our clients to share their thoughts, frustrations and suggestions with us. We then would publicly report out not only on the results of the scorecard, but we went so far as to share every single comment we received! Many of my peers thoughts I was crazy! Why would you hang out your dirty laundry for all to see? To me I was trying to develop a reputation for honestly and transparency. If people knew they could trust me to speak the truth when things were bad, they would also trust me to share honest results of our progress. It’s also harder to take shots at a person who is being open than someone who is trying to hide from the heat. Over time this approach built our team a great deal of good will and credibility in the organization. I became known as a person who was honest and trustworthy. Many people embraced us and supported our team as we worked through the issues and evolved into a high performance team. I will summarize this thought by leaving you with a catch phrase I use all the time. “Say what you mean, and mean what you say”. Most people have a built in BS-ometer! They can tell when you are blowing smoke up their clothes and they resent it. Build a reputation as someone who communicates honestly, transparently and constructively.
Focusing on the issue not the person
I learned the hard way by screwing up many times how easily you can damage a relationship. The easiest way to hurt someone’s feeling and your good will is to focus on and attack them as people. All of us like to think that we are nice, good, hard working people. When we feel under attack we lash out and retaliate. However most of us are objective enough to realize that even when we try our best we sometimes miss the mark. Therefore focusing not on the individual but on the issue has helped me develop better relationships and more successful outcomes.
I have also noticed an insidious dynamic. Many times we are more patient and positive with total strangers or people we interact with at work that with the members of our own families and the people we love the most. We seem to use up all of our patience and skills at work and come home and act horribly with our loved ones. No matter how close you are to someone, you still need to be caring about how you deliver your messages. Always focus on the issue and never on the person. Let’s see if you can feel the difference between these statements:
• “You are inconsiderate!” vs. “I would appreciate it if you would please put the seat down!”
• “You don’t care about me” vs. “It hurts my feelings when you speak ill of my family”
• “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard” vs. “Perhaps there is a different approach we can take”
• “You are lazy” vs. “I think we need to work on that issue a little harder”
• “You always take the easy way out” vs. “There may be a better way to address the issue for the long term”
• “You’re a failure!” vs. “This wasn’t your best effort but I’m sure you’ll improve next time”