Great Communication Starts With A Great Leader

Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council, August 2019.

Many of us likely want to become better communicators, whether your goal is to speak clearly, concisely or persuasively. As individuals, we can work to improve our own communication through preparation and practice of a few crucial underlying skills. We can set out to know our audience, hone our message, create an effective slide deck and speak authentically and confidently.

Having individual employees who are great communicators will be an asset for any company, which is why my business specializes in helping you become a more persuasive speaker. But what about organizationally? What if the organization itself has dysfunctional communication? How far can individuals make an impact if the leadership and the system aren’t set up to facilitate their success?

Well-trained individuals can make a big difference for any company. But we’ve seen, time and time again, that the organizations that see the most powerful and immediate return on their investment are the ones that commit to great communication from the very top; they cascade common goals, skills and vocabulary from the top-down, rather than the bottom up. These companies develop a culture of continuous improvement and refinement of communication skills, which, in my experience, engenders greater employee satisfaction, efficiency, innovation and profitability.

Consider two examples from my time helping clients: At Company A, the very first enrollees in a communication workshop were three managing directors who wanted their teams to improve in communication. When it came time for their reports to take workshops, they were unfailingly more committed, more engaged and more willing to be vulnerable and take risks — because they knew their bosses had already done so, had already made the vocabulary of the workshop’s commonplace through the organization, and had already improved their own communication.

At Company B, executives were enthusiastic about communication workshops, but declined to take them on themselves; they didn’t have time, and they didn’t feel they needed to work on their communication anyway. Their team still improved their communication, but progress was slower. People were more wary of the vocabulary and the suggestions we made because they were encountering them for the first time, and the participants were both resentful that their bosses hadn’t bothered with the curriculum and worried that they wouldn’t support changes to their way of communicating.

Leaders who are committed to better communication can set the stage for success in a few key ways.

1. Establish a clear goal.

Set a concisely articulated goal that is observable and measurable, and make sure that all hands understand what constitutes success. The first step is modeling behavior: Make sure your own communications are clear and concise. Think about what you want to accomplish through better communication, for example, “We want to make sure that we are clear about our value as a company.” Set parameters for meetings as well. Make sure a clear goal for the meeting is set ahead of time, that specific, assigned action items are resolved and that meetings begin and end on time. Last, regularly provide feedback on how well your employees are meeting these expectations (see below).

Employee Feedback
Regularly provide feedback on how well your employees are meeting expectations.

2. Use a common vocabulary.

The language around communication doesn’t have to be highly technical, but everyone on the team should understand the fundamental concepts behind effective corporate communication. Effective speech avoids jargon, industry-specific terms and acronyms. For example, avoid discussions around highly technical concepts like “risk-adjusted returns” or nonsense phrases like “We will buy on weakness in your portfolio.” Instead, just say, “We will look for stocks in dependable companies that are currently cheap to buy.” (Of course, you need to also know your audience: If there is a common technical language that they understand and would appreciate, use it!)

3. Provide feedback.

Give specific, constructive feedback to your teams as immediately as possible. Specificity is crucial; simply telling someone that they did a bad job doesn’t help them improve for next time. In my experience, most organizations have a culture where feedback is avoided. I’ve found that people tend to avoid giving one another bad feedback and instead give generic, somewhat positive (and entirely unhelpful) feedback such as, “It was fine.” Instead, try to give people a few things they did well and a few things that could improve. Make sure to spend time on both sides of the feedback ledger.

4. Model what you want to see.

If an executive communicates in a way contradictory to the workshop training, what do you think employees will follow? Their boss, of course. Learn and understand persuasive strategies so that your example can guide everyone else. If you put your team through some training, make sure you know what is being taught, and make sure your behaviors are consistent with the lessons. If the lessons advocate for simpler, cleaner slides and the leader continues to produce highly busy slides that will create cognitive overload, then there is no good example being set.

I’ve learned that leaders sometimes fall prey to confirmation bias and think, “What I’ve done so far has made me successful, so I must not need to change or improve.” However, it’s important to remember that the most effective communication strategies are systemic, rather than individual, and the system is most powerfully influenced from the top.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.