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How to Communicate Like a Leader

If you’re a business leader, how would you estimate you spend the majority of your time? If 80 percent of your time is taken up by a specific task, wouldn’t it make sense to do anything you can to improve in that area?

And yet that’s not what most business leaders are doing. The average business executive spends 80 percent of his or her time communicating, more than 45 minutes of every hour. The average person is exposed to more than 3,000 messages per day, with nearly two-thirds of those pertaining to business. Do communication skills suddenly seem more important?

That was the thrust of the session “Communicate Like a Leader” shared by two VSCPA events in May — the Business & Industry Conference and the Leaders’ Summit. VSCPA Vice President, Member & Public Relations Tina Bates, CAE, gave a rundown of the most effective strategies for communicating within a business or organization. 

There are two basic types of formal communications, two main ways to share information within an organization — written and verbal. But there’s a third pillar as well that has more of a subtle influence. Interpersonal communication is about verbally sharing information, but it’s also about the relationships between the two communicators. Building a natural, mutually respectful relationship with your employees fosters an open two-way flow of information and dialogue.

“Successful organizations are built on a culture of trust,” Bates said. “Communication is fundamental to building trust, engagement and loyalty. And I’m not referring to the ability to write and speak effectively, though they’re important, I’m talking about communicating regularly in an open, sincere and authentic way.”

That means personal conversations can have a major effect as well. Authenticity in communications goes a long way toward letting employees know they can speak freely and have their input taken seriously. Small, frequent conversations with people you work closely with can help build that trust and authenticity.

One of Bates’s favorite resources on the topic is Speed of Trust by the late Stephen Covey, whom you might know from his seminal book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey cited the following behaviors as keys to building trust with employees:

  • Talk straight: Communicate clearly, including a clear declaration of intent, to ensure that you won’t be misunderstood.

  • Demonstrate respect: This can be done through keeping one’s personal values in mind, notably fairness, kindness, love (depending on the relationship) and civility.

  • Create transparency: Be real and genuine and tell the truth in a straightforward way.

  • Right wrongs: Make restitution and demonstrate humility instead of simply apologizing.

  • Show loyalty: Give credit to others when you can, speaking about them as if they were present.

  • Get better: Showing your own commitment to quality is a way of leading by example. Live the principles you expect out of your employees.

  • Confront reality: Tackling tough issues head-on facilitates open interaction and speedy resolution of issues by tapping into the creativity and capability of others.

  • Clarify expectations: This helps create a shared vision and buy-in on the front end of a project.

  • Practice accountability: Hold yourself and others accountable to generate trust.

  • Listen first: Take time to genuinely understand other people’s thoughts and feelings before offering advice.

  • Keep commitments: See also “practice accountability.” Show that you’re committed to the project.

  • Extend trust: Trust is a noun, but it’s also a verb. Trusting in others will strengthen the two-way flow of information.

One tenet of basic trust-building was left out of this list on purpose, because it’s a subtle form of communication in itself: Deliver results. This is perhaps the best way to convert cynics and establish trust in a relationship. It’s what got you to your leadership position, and continuing to do so shows what got you to that point in your career.

These questions can help you assess your leadership communication skills:

  • Do you take time for small talks with the people you work closely with?

  • Are you in tune with nonverbal, as well as verbal, signals?

  • Are you comfortable communicating negative messages?

  • Do you adapt or tailor your communication style to different audiences?

  • Can you disagree objectively without getting emotional?

  • Do you take time to prepare for complex communication scenarios?

  • Are you willing to accept and learn from feedback about your communication style?

The most effective communicators tailor their message and style to the specific audience they’re communicating with. Some of that has to do with whether you’re speaking up, down or laterally on the org chart, but it’s also helpful to remember the iceberg metaphor in dealing with people. Visible (conscious) behavior is just part of the information that you’re communicating — and only a small part of the way people take it in. Objective qualities such as accuracy, punctuality and tone of voice are important, but subjective, unseen qualities such as personal beliefs, motivation, emotions and self-esteem can have an even greater effect.
 
“When communicating with your team or your staff, I can’t emphasis enough the importance of empathy,” Bates said. “When you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it creates trust and helps leaders better understand the situation, feelings and motives. Studies have also linked empathy among teams to real ROI, including increased sales, productivity and overall performance.”
 
When in doubt, practice empathy in tough communications. Use “I” statements instead of “You” statements, which can seem accusatory and put listeners on the defensive.
 
It’s all about sending the right message in what’s said, unsaid and implied. Improving your communications skills can go a long way toward changing or reinforcing a positive perception of your leadership abilities.

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