WHAT KEEPS A project leader or the head of a company up at night? There’s no single answer, but chances are the rising expectations of stakeholders will top the list. The mandate is to do more with less, achieve higher targets, perform better, meet tighter deadlines – and do all that within budget.
There are seemingly endless challenges, but most of them can be overcome by adhering to a few basic principles. Most importantly, the mindset and behaviour of the team must be aligned with the company’s goals, and yet there should be freedom for individual initiative and innovation. To achieve this, the person at the top of the pyramid must be an excellent communicator.
As a leader, you communicate constantly. There are formal messages about the organisation’s vision or strategic direction, and routine motivational talks to improve sales, productivity or customer service.
Unfortunately, leaders sometimes forget that good communication is about delivering the right message at the right time, and in the right manner.
To make sure your communication has an impact, take the time to plan what you are going to say, and how.
When preparing, keep in mind the three Cs: context, clarity and congruence.
Context Have you ever left a meeting about a new strategy or restructuring, and thought: “That was nice, but where do I fit in?” It happens often and illustrates why a leader’s communication can miss its mark.
The problem is that the communicator is focusing on what management wants and not on what the audience needs. If individuals do not have their questions answered, they have little reason to take goal-oriented action.
As a leader, the first thing you should do is create a context for your message. Start by giving people a reason for listening and make sure they identify with it. Everyone should understand why it is important for them and what they will get out of it.
Once you have engaged their personal interest, move on to the intellectual reason or business rationale for what you have to say. Many leaders make the mistake of starting with the rationale, launching into details about market changes and the need to increase revenue. This will not win over an audience.
Next, go on to the “how” part, detailing the process and action points the team must now implement.
Finally, cover the expected outcome, showing what the future holds and how the team can assess its rate of progress.
By focusing on the “why”, “what”, “how” and outcome, and explaining their relevance, you will establish a personal connection with the audience. Any talk at the water cooler or in the lift will then be about what you said rather than what you did not say.
Clarity Leaders should know how to get a message across persuasively. Too often, they assume that calling for a meeting and making a statement is all that is needed. They forget good employees are paid to think, and are not inclined to follow instructions blindly.
Do not fall into the trap of expecting subordinates to respond as robots.
Make sure your comments are compelling – on a rational and emotional level. Talk about results and benefits. Be specific at all times because employees rarely pay attention to generalities.
Also, if you think the audience might overlook certain crucial points, highlight the relevance of such points. That is a part of your job.
Even a leader should be prepared to substantiate an argument. Seniority does not automatically allow you to speak with unquestioned authority, so you need relevant facts and figures to prove any point. You can also use case studies, visual aids, or anecdotal evidence.
Since people tend to be sceptical, especially when faced with impending change, there is no substitute for taking the time to plan thoroughly and present a message which is persuasive and backed by sufficient data.
Congruence In business, personal experience often shapes attitudes and opinions far more than a directive from the chief executive. Therefore, it is never enough for you, as a leader, simply to tell people what results you want.
The tone and non-verbal elements of your delivery must be consistent with your message and your body language must fit with the message. If you are talking about a vision for the company, maintain eye contact with your audience. If you are introducing a new cost control policy, make sure your voice has conviction, and give an example of what action you have taken.
How you explain something and what you do often has a greater impact than the words themselves. It is up to you to “walk the talk”. If you do not, colleagues will be quick to pick up clues that you do not really believe in your policies, and then neither will they.
Just consider the many instances of chief executives preaching the importance of customer service, but never bothering to meet any customer in person.
Make sure you create the right impression and remember that your gestures, tone of voice, movements and degree of eye contact say as much as your words do.
To inspire a team to follow your lead, you must also know how to speak the team’s language. That means showing an interest in their concerns and ideas, and making them feel you care.
Use the principles of the three Cs in your approach – each element is critical to achieving business targets.
You may still have sleepless nights, but at least the people around you will clearly understand their objectives and perform better as a team.
TIPS TO WIN
The Channel Senior executives have an understandable tendency to use email to communicate some of their most important messages. The reasons are obvious – instant circulation, immediate impact and consistency across recipients. But that may not be enough when you have to communicate something really significant. Before you deliver a crucial message to your team, ask yourself whether the idea is to inform, engage or persuade. Which method is the audience likely to prefer? Email and other electronic tools make it faster to share information. However, if you need to impress your team as a leader, it is best to communicate in person and follow up, if necessary, with something in writing. In a large organisation, where a face-to-face meeting with every employee is not possible, you could consider a webinar as an option. They are easy to arrange, cost-effective and more personal than email messages.
The Credibility Zone To strike the right note when communicating, every leader has to walk a fine line. At one end of the spectrum, you risk sounding too “macro”, falsely optimistic or too assertive. At the other, you can come across as obsessed with details, worried, or uninspiring. Either perception can lead to unwanted consequences. Just a few ill-chosen words or poorly phrased comments can result in a loss of support and trust – and inaction. The daily challenge for leaders at every level in an organisation is to steer clear of extremes and stay in the “credibility zone”. To do this, you must ask yourself what you want the message to achieve and what you think the audience wants to hear. The answers to these questions will help you communicate more effectively.
Seven Things to Observe The way subordinates perceive you directly affects their willingness to co-operate or go the extra mile. If they see you as unprofessional, you already face an uphill battle when attempting to exert authority. However, if you come across as competent and knowledgeable, the team is much more likely to work towards the goals you set. These perceptions do not have to be 100 per cent correct, but they certainly count. A leader must be sure to create the right impression and should be aware that people are forming perceptions by observing seven specific things: posture, movement, gestures, facial expressions, vocal delivery, choice of words and attire. It pays to take a moment or two to think about how you want to be perceived. Once you have done that, consider any changes to make in these seven areas to have a more effective style of leadership.