The Art of Leadership - Effective Communication

There is an argument for saying that the three skills underpinning effective leadership are communication, communication and communication. A leader’s role is, in many ways, all about communication. There is little use in setting a world-beating strategy for your organisation if you fail to communicate it effectively at all levels. People need direction, instruction, correction and encouragement and the bulk of the responsibility for providing it lies with the leader.

The leaders we spoke to when researching our book, What Do Leaders Really Do? all agreed that communication, in all its forms, was by far the most significant demand on their time. But what do they mean by communication? It’s not simply a matter of being a skilful orator, or of writing zippy emails that everyone wants to read. The leadership academics Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones argue that effective communication is a complex strategic matter: ‘Skilful leaders ensure that they use the right mode of communication,’ they say. ‘This requires a fine appreciation of the message, the context, the people you wish to communicate with, as well as your own personal strengths and weaknesses.’

Goffee and Jones, as well as the leaders we spoke to, all agree that there is no right answer when it comes to the level or form of communication, but that each leader should develop a communication strategy that works for them. The former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain, for instance, told us that ‘less is more. If as a captain you are constantly talking, the message becomes diluted. Some of the greatest people I have listened to don’t say much at all.’

In business, though, and particularly large organisations, the challenge for leaders is to seem as accessible as possible to employees who may be scattered across the globe. The larger the organisation, the greater the communication challenge faced by the leader. Technology has made the task much easier but it has also created traps that too many leaders fall into headfirst.

Take email, for instance. It’s an excellent way of communicating to a large group of people at once, and it’s instant. But how many employees, do you suppose, groan and reach for ‘delete’ when yet another email from the chief executive’s office pings into their inbox? The fastest way to lose your employees’ interest – and their respect – is to send out endless dull missives.

Greg Dyke was one of the few leaders we spoke to who favoured email communication as a way of keeping in touch with his thousands of staff while director-general of the BBC, but the crucial point is that Dyke is a writer by trade. While at the BBC he made sure that any email he sent out was to the point, entertaining, and written only by him. ‘Email is wonderful in many ways,’ he says. ‘It takes no time to send out a “well done” message to everyone when something has gone well, and that can really pay dividends.

‘The problem is that some people don’t communicate - they send out boring stuff,’ he says. ‘If you send out messages that are full of management gobbledygook or something turgid about what happened last week, you are dead. No-one will read it and once they stop, in an organisation of that size you have no impact on them as a leader.’

Perhaps the most important point is that there is a world of difference between information and communication. Communication has to be two-way. ‘Telling is not sharing,’ says Kevin Roberts, worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi. ‘Most of the corporate communication I see is one way – from the big shots to the little shots. I want people to ask me, tell me, say what they think.’

While Roberts makes intensive use of technology to communicate with his 7,000 employees in 83 countries – he write a regular blog, has his own website and makes videos for the group’s intranet – he stresses that there is no substitute face-to-face contact. ‘I spend around 250 days of the year on the road,’ he says, ‘and visit around 40 offices a year. I take part in a lot of Q&A sessions and people can also take part in Q&As on my website. Technology is so interactive these days, it makes it easier to stay in touch.’

‘We are all human beings and what we want is a conversation, and that is a real challenge in a large organisation,’ says Heather Rabbatts, the former chair of the London Borough of Lambeth and now chairman of Millwall Football Club. ‘I think it’s important to try and find ways of maintaining that intimacy in a large organisation, and that is a really big challenge. Technology helps in informing people but you still need to find a way of having that conversation.’ Rabbatts’ solution while at Lambeth was to hold regular lunches with small groups of employees in different departments, to ensure that she stayed in touch with the grass roots of the organisation and, most importantly, heard of any problems first-hand.

Communicating in small groups may be time-consuming, but it is particularly effective in getting across a difficult message (particularly when managing change, which we will look at more closely next month). We spoke to a number of military leaders in the course of our research who have led men through life-or-death situations. All of them paid enormous attention to communicating closely with their soldiers, making sure that they all understood what they were being asked to do and why.

Major General Patrick Cordingley, for instance, led a brigade of 5,000 troops during the first Gulf War. He says that once the plan was clear and a rough timetable for the advance into Kuwait had been established, he set himself the task of talking to each soldier in groups of no more than 100. ‘It is only in smaller groups like that that you can get decent eye contact with people and that it just what they want in a situation like that,’ he says. ‘Smaller groups also give them a fair chance to ask questions, which is an important part of the process of them believing in what you are saying.’

Cordingley touches here on the crucial point – credibility. A message is not necessarily going to be accepted just because it is understood. The military leaders understood that their troops’ commitment to them and to the task ahead was built absolutely on their belief that their leaders were telling them the truth.

Although the situations may be less extreme, the same is true in business. Most people can spot a phoney from a mile away which is why, as in any aspect of leadership, it is imperative to be authentic and to be, as far as possible, completely honest. Lose your integrity and credibility and you lose your followers.

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