By STEVE COATS
How do the really effective leaders communicate with their followers? The answer is “very well!”
If only it were that simple.
Truly communicating as a leader is a much different matter than merely giving a speech or sending a management edict. It is one thing to tell people what to do and how to do it. It is quite another to inspire them to want to do the things that are necessary for the life of the enterprise.
If there is one characteristic that most differentiates effective leaders from the rest of the pack, it is the vision of the future that they provide to the members of the organization. Although creating an uplifting and inspiring vision is difficult enough, it is not where most would be leaders fail. They fail in communicating the vision in a way that continues to enlist the dedicated, emotional commitment of the people throughout the ranks.
Over the years, we have asked hundreds of people how the visions of their various companies or organizations have been communicated to them by their leaders. Perhaps the most common response we received was “What Vision!” But that is another story. In the meantime, we heard a variety of different answers.
One of the more frequent responses was that vision tended to be communicated through speeches given to the masses by executives at some ceremonial type event (such as a beginning of the year kickoff meeting), or from interview excerpts with a key officer, published in a company magazine or newsletter.
A more interesting response was the number of people who immediately reached for a wallet or daily planner, and after some fumbling (and grumbling), produced the vision statement, neatly printed on a laminated credit card. We also discovered in most cases, that by merely turning the card over, we could find the organization’s mission statement and key operating values as well. How convenient! Perhaps they were symbolically given during a ceremony, or distributed in a memo to all employees, which again echoed the importance of vision.
And, of course, our attention was sometimes simply directed to the distinctive plaque on a nearby wall, where the word-sculpted vision was certain to be noticed.
Sadly enough, our investigation seemed to validate the fact that although many people had been exposed to the vision in one fashion or another, very few were moved by it, let alone guided by it.
Many of these well intentioned attempts to communicate are similar to the rather well known story about a wife who one morning tells her husband of 26 years that she doesn’t think he loves her any longer. The husband, a little surprised asks why she thinks that. She replies, “you never tell me anymore.” The husband then calmly reassures her by saying, “26 years ago, I told you I loved you. If it ever changes, I’ll be sure and let you know!”
Communicating as a leader is more than giving a one time public accounting of a vision or a statement of direction, either through speech or printed message. But like the remiss husband of above, many would be leaders believe that once they have stated something, it is fully understood and remains so over time, despite the daily upheavals and changes their organizations may be going through. It is simply not enough.
Failure to constantly communicate a vision through a variety of means is like a garden hose with a kink in it: nothing much gets through. And the trickle that does get through really doesn’t do much good.
Learning International conducted a study about vision communications a few years ago that produced some startling results. In their research, they asked a group of senior managers how many had a vision of the future for their organization. 82%, a remarkable amount, “felt they had a definite vision of where and what they wanted their companies to be.” But here is the rub! The survey found that only 38% of the executives felt their vision had been shared throughout their companies. In a nearly identical 36% of the instances, the vision remained in the private domain of the executive alone, and in 34% of the situations, vision was only shared within the executive ranks.
Clearly, the message is not getting through.
Unfortunately, it seems that more often than not, a vision of a company’s future resides solely within the head (and hopefully heart) of the top executive, or with a few of the chosen elite. For one reason or another, it has not been effectively communicated throughout the workforce. Ironically, it is those people, in all parts of the organization, doing the day to day work, who have the ultimate responsibility of making the vision a reality.
Numerous approaches have been offered to help people more effectively communicate their visions, but all too often these suggestions merely emphasize different kinds of techniques. Strong metaphors, vivid word pictures, timely humor are all examples frequently suggested to spice up a presentation. These and dozens of other techniques are extremely helpful, but they are not enough by themselves. You can no doubt think of many people, from high ranking politicians to game show hosts, who have mastered the various techniques, but are clearly not visionary leaders.
So then, what must leaders do to get the message through, to ensure their message has a better chance of surviving the various traps that people set, intentionally or unintentionally, to filter it?
Many executives, we have studied, rely most heavily, if not exclusively, on a repertoire of very public speeches, writings and symbols to communicate their visions and other vital messages. The reason is obvious – a wide range of people can be economically reached in a very compressed time frame. However, the leaders who are the more effective communicators, have added another dimension to this standard, public formula. They make it a point to frequently engage in private, one on one or small group dialogues with their constituents at every level. From breakfast chats with front liners to drop in visits at training seminars, they are fanatical about staying in touch well beyond their immediate peer group.
Although frequently ignored, the private, personal communication between leader and constituent may be the most valuable approach of communicating like a leader. No matter how clear a leader’s message may appear to be in the public domain, it almost always requires personal clarification. There are two compelling reasons for this. One is the phenomenon called change, and the other is the individual biases that each of us brings into any relationship.
Because of the growing impact of change in recent times, organizational life has been like the proverbial weather in the Midwest (if you don’t like it – wait a minute!). But today, we live in a world best described as the “nanosecond nineties,” where circumstances literally flip in a billionth of a second. The rate of change in the world today has become almost incomprehensible.
Think about how this kind of change will affect a leader’s attempt to communicate a vision. From the first moment it is expressed, changing events within and external to the organization, will immediately begin blurring the accuracy and intended meaning of the visionary message. The listeners will soon begin to perceive a mixed message, likely leaving them confused, cynical and ultimately uncommitted.
Yet, even without rampant change, the individual biases and selective filters that all people possess, affect the way they hear and respond to a leader’s message. Some will accept a leader’s vision as a great, inspiring course of new opportunities, while others can only see it as a precursor of lost jobs. Thousands were moved by Martin Luther King’s dream of a nation deeply rooted in freedom, justice, equality, and the other foundations of this country. Yet, many were not. In fact, haven’t we all felt a bit bewildered, when even our simplest messages (let alone our most far-reaching visions) have been misconstrued? Leaders encounter this dilemma on a regular basis.
In fact, if there is one problem that continues to plague leaders on a regular basis, it is the translation of their original thoughts and intentions throughout the rest of the organization. It is quite common for CEO’s to rely on their direct reports or other senior officers, to carry the vision forward (or downward) to all associates. Since these managers are often perceived as acting for political purposes or even personal gain, the original vision will immediately begin to lose some of its heart, take on a different meaning, or worse case, contribute to global warming as just more “hot air.” Remember: people will never believe the message if they don’t believe in the messenger!
Private, direct communications, one to one, or with a few, is absolutely vital to ensure that the intended message is getting through. There is no other way for a leader to genuinely understand how the message is being received, including whether people actually do believe it.
Conventional wisdom would indicate that individual or small group conversation is too time consuming and low in leverage. But leaders realize these are unconventional times, and that commitment by others to a vision requires both, an understanding of the message and faith in the leader. Through more personal, direct communications, the leader is able to provide more clarity and context, while instilling new hope and trust within all levels of the organization. Not only does this send a clear signal throughout the ranks that the leader actually seems to care about the individuals, it also creates an enormous source of new ambassadors, who will carry the intended message much further, faster and with perhaps even more credibility, to those many colleagues who have not enjoyed the benefit of a private dialogue with the leader.
Leaders know that when it comes to the relationship between themselves and their constituents, communications is at the heart of it all. Therefore, they must continue to personally get to the heart of all levels of the organization, or their visions will never be fully embraced.
Copyright (c) 1994 International Leadership Associates