In times of major change or crisis, leaders often get advice to communicate, communicate, communicate, but all too seldom does the volume or frequency of communication have the desired effect. Leaders are often coached and supported about what they say, how they say it, etc., which is important. But if the technical aspects were sufficient, we should wonder why communication issues are so frequently blamed for all manner of problems from simple misunderstandings to major crises.
One major cause has little to do with how eloquent or clear a leader is. It has a great deal to do with connection. How well does the leader connect with people, in person and at a distance? How well does the leader help people connect to the purpose of the organization and infuse them with a sense that they play an integral part?
A stellar example is when Frank Blake was named CEO of The Home Depot, after the departure of his widely disliked predecessor. Blake’s initial communications were well received precisely because he immediately, and dramatically reduced the distance between the top executives and everyone else. His focus was on customers and employees, not on internal processes which had taken centerstage in the prior years. Blake communicated information clearly and simply and did so without fanfare. He simply told people what his focus would be and why. His tenure as CEO was marked by improvements on nearly every front.
Conversely, when two large companies in the consumer products industry merged, conflict was immediately ignited when the new organization chart was shared. The leaders spent weeks working on roles, reporting relationships, and titles, but no time in conversation with key players about what the new structure would mean to them. The result? A major dust-up among very senior people, top in their fields and who are needed for the merged company to fulfill the promise to investors.
Leaders can help people connect with the purpose of the organization, each other, as well as the leader, even in a large organization. Here are two strategies can have rapid, positive effect.
1. Learn in public. Leaders often say, whether or not they are genuinely willing to show humility, that they don’t know everything. These comments may be meant sincerely, but specific actions bring them to life. First, ask questions with a sincere intent to learn and then listen to the response. Avoid playing “gotcha” to create an atmosphere that encourages people to speak up and share what they know. Second, spend time with people who work in every area of the business to learn how things really happen. Third, deliberately express appreciation to whomever explains something, especially if it is new information.
Leaders who do these things find that more people will tell them what’s right and what’s wrong. Just as critical, leaders who model curiosity and desire to understand cause rather than look for who to blame, create a culture that makes it safe to learn, question, and speak up when something isn’t right.
2. Learn about people to understand what motivates them. Experienced leaders often become skilled at pattern recognition, which allows them to spot key characteristics in people. While this ability serves as a great screening tool, within it is the trap of oversimplifying and missing important features. One senior leader said to me, “We hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are.” This happens because even smart people place too much emphasis on skill, experience, and knowledge and too little on attributes and character. When people feel like cogs in a wheel, rather than important participants in a mission, they rapidly lose interest.
One Fortune 100 company in the financial industry was at the end of a CEO selection process when John, the board chairperson, realized that the decision to bring in an outsider, might lead to the resignation of David, the COO who wanted the job. John delivered the news to David, in person and told him with great sincerity, why it was important to the company and to him personally, that he remain. John went further, describing the man’s personal attributes and why the board had great confidence in him. David stayed for five more years and said of the encounter, “John’s words to me were sincere and very specific. No generic or verbose statements, but brief and heartfelt that showed me he understood and appreciates me.” The connection did more to achieve this result than the most eloquent letter could have.
The importance of communication is hard to overstate, but one of the ways it’s power can be enhanced is often overlooked because it isn’t technical. Every leader must find their own way to forge connections with people in ways that augment and make formal methods more valuable. The specifics may vary as widely as leaders do but when they include both high quality communication vehicles and attention to connection, the power of a leader’s message is super charged.