Take a look at most of the studies that explore the traits of successful leaders, and you’ll see communication is usually close to the top. In a study by the Leadership Council in late 2015, it came out as THE critical skill. We’ve all been witness to the talented executive who struggles to make it to the next level, held back by their abilities to inspire and influence on a grand scale. And in contrast, we’ve seen the charismatic leader push on, despite a less-than-convincing track record. I’ll leave it to others to suggest how to weed out the second category, but as far as the first is concerned, I’m convinced that with the right approach, every leader can make the communication grade.
It’s all in the approach, and frankly I believe that much of the communication support that is directed at leaders falls short. For example, I’m currently working with an executive who leads a significant chunk of an organisation, so he needs to engage his team. He happens to be responsible for strategy, so he has to explain that to the entire organisation, as well as to the Board of the holding company. These are all Big Ticket events, the problem is that our subject finds addressing any audience larger than a handful of people not just stressful, but potentially debilitating. The nerves come, the breathing shortens and the words seem to disappear. Imagine the anxiety he feels in the lead up, never mind the meetings themselves.
He’s been sent on mindfulness programmes, advanced presentation skills courses, he’s discussed it with his executive coach but the anxiety remains. The reason? All of these supposed solutions have been largely generic ‘tools and techniques’ that have no real bearing on this individual executives plight. They may be great in theory, but do they get to the root cause for an individual? They struggle to factor in variables such as national culture, corporate culture, personality traits and communication style.
This is where focused communication coaching makes such a difference. Not only do we spend time getting to know the person, we also get to understand the context in which they’re operating, and crucially we spend time discussing what they’re actually talking about. As it turns out, in the example above, the root cause of the problem was nothing to do with breathing technique or presentation structure. These were mere symptoms. At its heart, the problem was one of belief in the relevance of the message (‘I always seem to be on a different page to the audience’) and ownership (‘the Board take the final decisions’). So working through these issues has cracked the problem and our client is now well on his way.
As organisations become more complex, and we ask ever more of our leaders it is my view that providing personal and tailored support on this most stressful and important of topics is something every successful organisation must consider.
A lot of our work is angled towards the C-suite and senior leaders, with a healthy dose of development for emerging talent thrown in for good measure. But I’ve been asked several times in the last few months about communication support for frontline leaders, and when that happens, it usually means there’s something going on that’s worth exploring.
It’s funny how sometimes a word finds an idea, and once in the lingua franca, there’s no letting go. Up until a few months ago, I’m not sure ‘digitisation’ was a thing, but now it’s everywhere, and like a fantastic pop song, it now feels like it’s been around forever.