Want real leadership growth? Focus on strengthening as a communicator

Think about the significant issues renting space in your mind right now. Chances are if you peel the layers back, there's a communication issue close to the core.

Earlier in my career, I received some advice from a mentor: "Art, you'll go as far as you can communicate." I didn't understand the power of his guidance until a decade or so later, when I recognized that the outcome of every problem and opportunity in front of me was inextricably linked to my ability to communicate.

The situations I flubbed were dramatic communication failures. From feedback discussions that turned into long-winded therapy sessions to failed attempts to gain support for change, my communication deficiencies were front and center in these situations. Encounters with co-workers I labeled as difficult would go awry, with arguing over positions instead of digging down to uncover interests. 

Once my mentor's guidance kicked-in, and I recognized the connection between my communication effectiveness and my success as a leader, I learned to slow down, focus and deliberately strive to succeed at every communication encounter.

It turns out, everything important in our careers and working lives takes place in one or more challenging conversations, and every communication encounter is critical if you lead. And while we continuously strive via books, articles and courses to identify and replicate the secret ingredients of great leadership, too often, we ignore the centrality of communication effectiveness to effective leadership.

For a moment, put down the books and articles on leadership navel-gazing and focus on something you and only you can control—your effectiveness as a communicator. Leader, it's time work on your signal-to-noise ratio and how to strengthen it.

Getting results the right way

One of my favorite quotes comes from Jim Fisher, writing in his excellent book "The Thoughtful Leader": "What we want from leaders is more revenues or higher profits, software that works, schools that perform, agencies that deliver, and hospitals that serve."

Fisher reminds us to keep things in context. If you're leading, your groups, teams and organizations need to generate the right results. Said another way, "If you don't produce the right results, you don't get to keep leading."

It's my thesis that the right results are a direct outcome of the leader's communication effectiveness.

Where communication issues threaten results

Look and listen for the through line in all of these situations:

  • If your strategy isn't working, the idea may be flawed. However, it's more likely people aren't on the same page about what to do and when to do it, much less how to reflect lessons learned from trying things out in the marketplace. These are all communication issues.
  • When project teams struggle, it's always communication. Every time. Always.
  • Where change initiatives fail, it's because the change-agent is unable to communicate at a meaningful level what this means for the interests of the people involved.
  • Individuals on management and senior leadership teams struggle mightily to communicate on the right issues with the right level of clarity and transparency. The noise of power and posturing often interferes with the signal in these settings.
  • Run a post-mortem on decisions that failed to work out, and you'll find a baker's dozen of communication issues that clouded the situation.
  • No one aspires to be a difficult coworker, yet, we deem those who don't immediately agree with our ideas and approaches with this unattractive label. In reality, that so-called difficult coworker is someone you haven't figured out how to communicate with productively.

Should I keep going here? Add in your challenging leadership scenario and then dissect it. There's a communication issue near or at the core.

3 tactics for strengthening your leadership signal-to-noise ratio

Here's a bold claim: You'll earn a favorable and disproportionate return from investing effort in enhancing your communication skills. The returns are so high from this investment I'm surprised someone in government hasn't figured out a way to tax them. (Shhhh!)

Every situation is different, however, from a career striving to get better in this area and a decade helping others do the same, three tactics deliver significant returns in a hurry. You can put these to work today!

 

1. Listen harder

One of my careerlong idols, Tom Peters, in his recent book, "The Excellence Dividend," says it best: "Make listening (fierce listening) the centerpiece of your existence."

There's nothing you can do that is more powerful to improve as a communicator than to develop as a fierce listener. In the muddled mess that is human interaction, focusing all of your efforts to hear and understand your colleague's point of view and ultimately to uncover real interests and intents is the one superpower that will help you in all situations.

By clearing your mind -- a challenging exercise -- and focusing intently on the person in front of you, you are projecting empathy, showing respect and gaining critical verbal and nonverbal insights necessary to truly communicate. I checked, and empathy and respect are critical leadership behaviors.

 

2. Slow down and respect the persuasion cycle

Sales training early in my career helped me recognize that every communication process is comprised of a series of steps and that it is my job to help individuals move through those steps.

Much later, I read Dr. Mark Goulston's research-backed description of the persuasion cycle in his book, "Just Listen," and cheered. Goulston suggests you gain support from individuals by helping them buy-in via a series of steps moving from:

  1. Resisting to listening
  2. Listening to considering
  3. Considering to doing
  4. Doing to glad they did

As I work with emerging leaders in organizations who are increasingly involved in convincing others to support them with resources or to engage in change-initiatives, the power of the persuasion cycle comes through consistently.

Every person you encounter is busy. They have problems and conflicting priorities, and I haven't found a person yet who complains of too much time to get things done. The resistance is even stronger if the other party suggests you are asking them for something.

Proper application of the persuasion cycle suggests your first order of business is to help the individual move from resisting to listening. Achieving this jump requires you to do your homework, strive to understand the other individual's situation and, importantly, try to see what you are talking about through their eyes. Just the focus on empathy is often enough to help them make the jump. After all, as Goulston suggests, "People want to feel felt."

Starting now, cease expecting people to immediately agree with your ideas or proposals no matter how well-baked they are. Recognize the personal issue and need to move in stages and assume responsibility for leading them through each step. Start with empathy. Seek first to understand. And, ultimately, give them the power to improve their situation, and you'll be amazed at the results.

 

3. Design your critical communication messages

There's a fair bit of slow-down-to-move-faster in my approach to improving as a communicator. Developing as a fierce listener is essential. Learning to guide people through the persuasion cycle is game-changing. And for every high-stakes communication situation, the design of your messaging is mission-critical to success. I do this with message mapping.

A case study in message design

A bit of backstory on why I'm so passionate about this tool: several years ago, I engaged a public relations firm to help my inexperienced but eager team engage our industry thought-leaders and influencers. We fired the PR firm in short order for a variety of well-deserved reasons, but one of the tools we gained -- message mapping -- turned out to be priceless.

Over the years, the team members took this simple but not simplistic process and perfected it for almost every situation you could imagine. As a consequence, we had everyone on the same page, describing the same, well-developed and defensible message, at all times. The results included a market leadership designation by multiple hard-to-convince external analyst firms and a successful sale of the company to one of the world's largest software firms. While many factors led to the firm's success, message mapping was an important one.

Creating and working with the message map

Whether you are using the tool with groups or for your high-stakes communication sessions, the process is the same:

  1. Develop, test and refine a simple core message for the topic at hand.
  2. Identify the three or four core drivers behind your core message -- literally, no more than four.
  3. Identify examples and evidence for each of the core drivers.
  4. Test, refine and practice the map until it's muscle memory.

Once the message map is ready for prime time, you've got a powerful offensive and defensive communication tool at your disposal. The map enables you to article a core message or value proposition and describe the case in support of it.

The map also allows you to defend your message. An agile map user recognizes the ability to start from different points (core, driver or evidence), and to return to it (evidence, driver core) for every question. (For more on this technique, see my article "The Career Enhancing Benefits of Message Mapping.")

As important as the map is in planning for high-stakes communications, it also frees you to focus on your audience and their verbal and non-verbal cues. Instead of scrambling for answers in your mind, you've locked-in the narrative and evidence, freeing you to focus on listening and empathizing, as well as working the persuasion process.

The bottom line for now

The best leaders I've encountered understand that the source of their effectiveness is their ability to communicate. They work hard at developing their communication skills daily, and they strive to strengthen their signal-to-noise ratio in every encounter. After all, we go as far in our careers as we can communicate.

 

Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.

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