At least half my work is with mid-level up to senior managers who come from highly technical backgrounds, so I know how hard it can be for them to master the “soft skills” of effective communication. But even so, I was surprised by the extent of the problem described in this Quartz article, ”Almost 70% of US managers are scared to talk to their employees”.
The article cites research in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article which found that 69% of 616 managers surveyed confessed that “they’re uncomfortable communicating with employees”, with the biggest concern (37%) being their discomfort with giving direct feedback which their employees might take badly.
“Discomfort” may not be the same as “scared”, but if discomfort with a certain behavior prevents you from doing your job, it’s definitely a problem. If discomfort prevents you from saying what needs to be said, that’s a problem for you as a leader; it’s a problem for the employee who does not get useful feedback; and it’s a problem for the entire team.
It’s human nature to be uncomfortable delivering a difficult message, but it’s a necessary part of being a leader. The best way to get over the discomfort is to be good at it, and the only way to be good at it is to learn the appropriate skills. There’s a misconception that one automatically picks up the ability to be an effective communicator through osmosis—as is “soft” means easy. While I don’t have hard evidence, I’m convinced that the major reason for the Peter Principle is that people get promoted beyond their ability or willingness to communicate.
If you want to succeed as a leader, first you must learn to communicate. Hard skills may get you there, but soft skills will keep you there.
Bad leadership is on the march in the world today. The paradox of our times is that we have the best educated leaders in history, but the general quality of leadership they provide is so bad.
Let’s start with our political leadership. At all levels. Starting from the very top and going all the way down to the local level (which is an area I’ve personally been observing up close recently) appears to be rotten to the core. Sure, there have always been problems, and there has always been some endemic level of corruption, but recently we seem to be suffering from an epidemic of bad leadership. At least in earlier days, politicians had sufficient sense of shame to try to hide their transgressions. Nowadays, it’s all about winning and partisans on both sides are willing to excuse any behavior as long as their side gets more votes.
But politics is just the most obvious arena where we have a leadership crisis, business leaders are no better. In their relentless pursuit for shareholder value or a cover photo on Forbes, CEOs seem to be willing to encourage or at least pretend not to notice egregious violations of customer trust and even of the law. Get caught doing something wrong? No problem, just hire a few lawyers and PR flacks and it will soon go away.
What about religious leaders? Nope; too many of them seem to have become shills for the politicians.
Surely at least we can look up to our military leaders, right? Wrong again. According to USA Today, “Since 2013, military investigators have documented at least 500 cases of serious misconduct among its generals, admirals and senior civilians.”
It can be almost overwhelmingly tempting to observe what’s going on and simply withdraw into ourselves. For example, my wife reminds me that we were both happier before we got so familiar in the past year with what is going on in local politics. Maybe it’s best to ignore the crisis of leadership around us and just cultivate our own garden.
Unfortunately, withdrawing is not an option, because the growing power of bad leaders will simply mean that they will intrude more and more into our lives. The only way out of our leadership crisis for each and every one of us who cares about our own small circle of responsibility, our company, or our nation to fight the problem. We need to step up and be the leaders we want to see.
The first step is to do no harm—don’t add to the problem by engaging in the same behaviors and misconduct. If you succumb to the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality, the bad leaders have won.
The next step is to take ownership. Don’t sit around saying someone should do something about ____; that someone should be you. You may not be able to do as much as you would like, but you can probably do more than you think. And the example you set for others may turn out to be your force multiplier.
The third step—and this is exponentially harder—is to actively battle the leadership crisis. Speak up against what you see around you. If someone is abusing their power, call them out. Of course you have to be smart about it, but there are ways to speak truth to power without getting yourself fired. (That’s a topic for another blog post.)
In the end, we get the leaders we deserve, so it’s up to us to ensure we don’t let the bad leaders win.
This is the time of year when many CEOs and sales leaders are planning their sales kickoffs for the next year. In a time-honored tradition, they bring everyone together to share plans for the year, provide some training and opportunities for team-building and idea-sharing, and –not least—“fire up” the troops with excitement and extra motivation.
That’s where the keynote speaker comes in. Typically an outsider, maybe famous or at least semi-famous (depending on the budget), it is someone who imparts wisdom and timeless inspiration through heroic tales of struggle, sacrifice, hustle and ultimate victory. The audience is entertained, enthralled, and inspired –for about 20 minutes. Then it’s back to business, to the mundane world of quotas and new products, and the effect quickly wears off.
That’s not completely fair. There are many documented examples of people who have been especially inspired by a particular speaker, have stayed in touch, and have made a sincere and sometimes successful effort to change. I’ve had the honor of knowing some of these, and I still get occasional emails with progress reports from some of them. My favorite is the young Chinese engineer who went on to form a Toastmasters Club in Shanghai and who still keeps in touch. But the proportion of audience members who do this is easily in the very low single digit at best. One spark is usually not enough to start a fire.
It’s not the fault of the organizer, who has simply followed your instructions. And it’s not the speaker’s fault; she or he has delivered exactly what they were hired to do. But because most speakers make a living by talking to many clients, they can’t take the time to truly study each specific company or audience they address, master the intricacies and eccentricities of your industry, get to know key people individually, and remain involved after the speech to help instill and guide meaningful change. If they did, they would truly be worth their weight in precious stones; but they would also cost more than their weight in precious stones.
But, just as in the old Russell Conwell story, the diamonds you seek from afar may be just under the surface in your own backyard. The speaker you’re seeking who can actually do all these things is YOU: you know your industry, your company and your people, and you are there after the speech to reinforce the message and drive lasting change. (And you’re budget friendly!)
So, what’s keeping you from being your own keynote speaker and making a real and lasting difference? You may see two drawbacks, only one of which is real.
The imaginary drawback is your lack of an inspirational story. You haven’t climbed Mount Everest with your blind brother strapped to your back, you probably haven’t won a Super Bowl single-handed. That’s true, but if you are at the level where you’re making the decisions, you have probably faced and overcome adversity at some point, and it’s probably something your audience is more likely to relate to. You have a story. Even if you can’t think of one, you can always borrow examples from others who have, especially if it is an unsung hero within your own company. The stories are there if you look for them.
The other deficiency which may be real is that you don’t have the experience or the speaking skills of the professionals. That’s also true, but public speaking is one area where a reasonably competent but inspired amateur can outdo even the most seasoned professional. If your message is clear, sincere, and relevant, you can succeed. Truth trumps technique every time.
That said, you need to meet a threshold of competence and preparation, and that’s where a speaking coach can help. Someone who can help you distill your message, choose the right stories, metaphors and language to inspire and help you rehearse a strong and confident delivery.
It won’t be easy. It will take hard work on your part; even if you’re a competent presenter you may still need to raise your game to deliver an inspirational speech. It will force you out of your comfort zone, and it requires patient attention over time, but I can guarantee that the payoff will fare exceed your investment, and you will have a skill that separates great leader from good leaders. I know this because I’ve seen the effect that It has on employees when their leader accepts the challenge and personally delivers the truths they need to hear.
Leaders guide and inspire. You are a leader. Why would you abdicate that task to an outsider? Be your own keynote speaker.
Any leader who wants to be an inspiring communicator should first heed the words of Ronald Reagan, who said, “I was not a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”
Before you try the fun stuff like language and delivery, you need to be absolutely sure that your message resonates with your followers.
I set out to write about what leaders need to say to inspire their followers, but I quickly realized that’s the wrong question. The important question is, “What do your followers need to hear?” As a leader, you are defined by the actions of your followers, and their actions depend hugely on what they hear from you. As in all communication, you need to start from their wants and needs. Just as you can’t teach unless they want to learn, and you can’t sell unless they want to buy, you can’t lead unless they want to follow.
So, what do followers need to hear?
I profoundly believe that people—most people—want more from their work than just a paycheck. Employees will try harder, think more creatively, and pour more of themselves into their work when they have three things: direction, meaning, and confidence. A leader communicates all three and inspires their best work; a manager may hit one or two one and leave potential energy unused; a mere boss ignores them and drains the life out of the workplace.
How do you choose what to say to provide direction, meaning and confidence? To simplify, let’s borrow Rudyard Kipling’s “six honest serving-men”:
I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
Although Kipling probably did not have leadership communication in mind when he wrote those words, let me explain how answering these six questions will give you the ingredients you need for inspiring leadership communication:
WHERE are we going? The word itself, lead, implies a direction and final destination, so the first task of a leader is to offer a vision of a promised land which is much better than where they are today. Whether it is Churchill’s “broad, sunlit uplands”, or Google’s more prosaic “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, a shared vision guides, unites and inspires. Of course, it has to be something you truly and deeply buy into, not some buzzword-filled, meaningless pap conceived by committee.
WHY is it important? This a company’s reason for being. Jon Katzenbach said, “An intrinsic feeling of pride based on the relentless pursuit of worthwhile endeavors is a powerful motivating force.” People are inspired by meaning and purpose, by causes that are greater than themselves. Building a cathedral is more inspiring than simply laying bricks, even if the work is exactly the same. In a business environment, the purpose is unlikely to be as exalted as saving the world for democracy, but it should contain some service or benefit for customers. Put another way, what would they lose if your company did not exist?
WHO are we? There is a reason that Maslow put self-actualization at the top of his pyramid. We all have an idealized conception of who we are, and we will direct our most fervent energies and risk even our lives to act according to it. When Shakespeare’s Henry V utters the words, “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”, he knew that every man listening would stay and fight against overwhelming odds—because that’s who they were. Today, an excellent corporate example is Ritz-Carlton’s motto: “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.”
HOW will we conduct ourselves? This is a statement of core values that are absolutely inviolate. The old saying, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game that counts”, may seem quaint and outdated in today’s cutthroat business world, but at the end of the day, when your followers go home, they need to feel good about themselves and be able to look themselves in the mirror and like what they see. Besides, distinctive values can also differentiate you in the marketplace and serve as a competitive advantage that is almost impossible to copy. By the way, never forget that when it comes to values, your behavior as a leader speaks far louder than any words you can ever say.
WHAT do we have to do and WHEN? You can have the most powerful vision and compelling purpose and still fail to motivate your followers if they don’t have confidence that they can succeed. You have to show that you have confidence in them, and in your ability to win with them. At the same time, answering the what and when gives them the confidence that you are the appropriate person to lead them, because you have a realistic plan.
Answering the questions posed by these “six honest serving men” takes a lot of communication. It’s not something you can or even should attempt to do in one speech or meeting. In fact, especially if you’re taking over a demoralized or apathetic team, they won’t believe you at first. But if you’re consistently and insistently giving your followers what they want and need to hear—like a parched desert that finally receives rain—your message will sink in, take root, and bloom.