Say What?! Honing Communication Skills at the Top

To be effective, business leaders must master not only messaging but also delivery

By Elaine Varelas Feb 3, 2012
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An organization’s leadership team must have the ability to motivate and inspire, helping employees see the possibility and promise of what is to come, while making peace with the past. A company can’t succeed unless its employees are invested in its success, so they need to have the right mind-set to do so. Following are some actions an organization’s leaders can take to rally their troops and get them excited about the future:

Balance today with tomorrow. Leadership teams must balance organizational realities with a vision for the future. While acknowledging the here and now by being honest about the state of the company and the economy, they also must emphasize that they have confidence in their teams’ courage and abilities to overcome obstacles. They must help employees “see” the future by painting a vivid picture of the successes that are possible and the steps necessary to get there.

Set high standards. Leaders can help build a desire for excellence among employees by raising expectations, setting high standards, and encouraging individuals and teams to accept challenges. At the same time, make sure that the expectations are clear and the goals are attainable, and that strategies are put in place to measure and reward results.

Determine your skills and communication style. Are you a motivational leader? Look at your approach to motivating others. What is your style? Assess your skills to determine how you can improve your motivational capabilities.

Build confidence. There is no use in setting goals unless employees feel encouraged and supported to reach them. Employees must believe that they can meet the standards, and they will be more apt to believe in themselves if leadership has confidence—and communicates that confidence—in the organization’s teams.

Support work teams. Work teams depleted by layoffs might be struggling to keep up with the current workload. If they are expected to reach additional goals, management must give them the resources they need—including equipment, budgets, training, coaching and positive feedback.

Present a united front. Employees will feel more invested in an organization that portrays itself as a team. Leaders should present goals and objectives as things that must be reached together. Think in terms of “we,” not “us” and “them.”

Instill enthusiasm. Leaders need to demonstrate their passion for the organization, its people and its direction. They should get excited, communicate often, ask for feedback and encourage dialogue. Enthusiasm is contagious, but it must be cultivated.

Understand motivators. Employees will work hard for an organization if they feel they are getting something in return. Leaders can inspire employees to work hard for the company by meeting their needs. Consider what motivates employees while developing the organization’s management strategies. Here are five key workplace motivators:

  • Job challenge.
  • Accomplishment of worthwhile goals.
  • Skill development.
  • Personal development.
  • Autonomy.

Assess, Verify Communication Efficacy

Not all communication skills are innate, and executives who are dominant in some areas may still need work in others. Effective communication skills can make or break a presentation, a project, a deal or even a career. With so much riding on communication, it makes sense to put more thought and effort into honing those skills.

Many managers, however, don’t know how to rectify their deficits. Workplace communication runs the gamut from composing important e-mails, writing proposals, discussing issues, running staff meetings, delivering difficult messages—even giving a speech in front of stockholders.

Target specific communication skills that need to be developed by conducting a skills assessment. Assessments help to pinpoint areas that need improvement, such as presentation skills and one-on-one or small group interactions. Leaders often need to learn to deliver difficult messages or to communicate effectively via various technologies, such as by e-mail. For example, the BlackBerry has made it almost too easy to shoot off an e-mail at the spur of the moment. Most managers could benefit from working on collecting and organizing their thoughts and removing some of the emotion before hitting the “send” button.

Assessments also should include opinions from others. Ask trusted colleagues to give constructive criticism about leaders’ communication abilities. Such feedback can help target specific areas to focus on in skills development. For example, should the leader focus on developing stronger introductions, becoming a more dynamic speaker or more effectively engaging the audience? Should perceived defensiveness in addressing questions be addressed?

Focus on Messaging, Delivery

Once an assessment has been completed and colleagues’ feedback has been obtained, leaders’ focus then can shift to improving their techniques. Here are six key questions to answer when developing a more effective personal communication strategy:

Who is the audience? Know the audience and what its expectations are. Are you speaking to board members, colleagues at a staff meeting, new clients, a department, the entire organization or an external audience? Consider the setting as well: There is a vast difference between a one-on-one meeting, a small group or a speech in front of thousands. Communication is not one-size-fits-all, but it should be customized for each specific group.

What is the goal? Think about the desired end result to frame the communication. What must be accomplished through, or as a result of, the communication? Are you giving a report or trying to start a dialogue? Answering questions or asking them? Brainstorming ideas or trying to solve a business issue?

What are the messages? How many messages must be conveyed? It is important to be succinct and to have a deep understanding of each message to get one’s point across successfully.

What is the content? The content is the actual information that must be included in the communication. How will the information be structured, and what is the best format? In what sequence will the content be delivered via what technology? Does the messenger have mastery of the content and the technology?

Where can I get feedback? Reach out to others for feedback. What about your communication style needs strengthening? Are the messages clear? Does information in the message need to be added, removed or more clearly explained? Many people develop “tunnel vision” when crafting a speech, proposal or presentation; a fresh set of eyes can lend depth and perspective to the project.

How can the message(s) be refined? Use the information gathered from feedback sources to polish your communication style. This is a tricky step in the process: Spend enough time fine-tuning your work but not so much time that you overwork—and possibly weaken—it.

Successful leaders must possess effective communication skills. Identifying and addressing areas in one’s communication style that require honing can turn leaders into better communicators and better managers.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner of Keystone Partners, parent company to Boston-based human capital management firmCamden Consulting Group.

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