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Rising to the Occasion: Evolving Your Leadership Communication and Contribution

Cailin K. O’Riordan, Ph.D. & Jonathan Z. Gottlieb, Ph.D.

Oct 28, 2021

There is a subtlety to the ways in which leaders have to effectively communicate that generally evolves as they progress throughout their careers. These communication refinements can trip leaders up because when they ask for advice or feedback around how to communicate more effectively, the responses they receive may be overly vague, may over or under correct their current approaches, or just don’t resonate with them. And as leaders advance to progressively broader or more senior roles in organizations, they are watched ever more closely for the underlying meaning of every word they say and the order in which their words are shared.

Our thoughts shared here represent the collective wisdom of our work with many leaders, along with some of the experiences and learnings they have shared. We invite leaders to consider these ideas and reflect on what they are doing well and what they might do differently over time to improve their leadership communication capacity, especially as they take on progressively challenging roles. We also invite those leaders who manage other leaders to consider the areas we outline as important to their development and success.

Advance the Conversation

A number of our clients have reflected on team members who talk for the sake of being heard, yet don’t add a great deal of value to important conversations. And some of our clients have received similar feedback from their team members and peers. This can take the form of simply confirming or validating what’s already been said, often in long statements, rather than advancing the conversation to a next stage. The challenge for many of these leaders is they may feel as if they have to consistently show their intellectual horsepower. Unfortunately, they are often viewed as adding little to no value or stifling others who may have something of value to say — ultimately having the opposite impact that they desire.

Our approach is to ask the leaders we engage with to think before they speak, and to ask themselves if what they are about to say will add value and advance the conversation. Advancing the conversation often includes demonstrating the capacity to think ahead or see around corners in ways others may not be considering, sharing implications, asking important questions to shape thinking, or adding new perspectives and commentary that advances the team’s thinking. This is a differentiator in conversational ability. And if it is important to confirm or validate, we suggest doing it with as few words as possible so that it is clear you are on board with the idea. A simple “I agree with what Suzanne just said” is much better than lengthy pontification.

Edit, and Then Edit Again

Both in oral and written communication, learning how much to say and how to say it is critical. Some leaders can sit down and write a beautiful, nearly perfect message or storyline, or they have on staff communication support to do this for them. Yet the vast majority of leaders have to edit their own stories or messages, and in the rush to get things done, they sometimes underestimate how time-consuming this artful process of editing their messages can be to ensure the desired impact. It’s important to know one’s
‘personal’ process, and either edit to the point that the message is clear and concise or use additional resources.

There is no ‘right’ process, yet leaders will want to manage their ‘personal’ process even more closely as organizations navigate the degree to which they will remain virtual in a post-pandemic environment. This context for communication is an adjustment for many of our clients who find it more difficult to make concise, impactful contributions on virtual calls. The learning curve to leverage technology to their advantage has been an important evolution in how they edit, clarify, and shape their messaging.

Not every leader has the capacity to write their own communications, and this is where using an editor, a colleague or other resource comes into play. That said, leaders still own the responsibility to shape their communications to ensure each one is representative of their respective voices and perspectives. For example, we have often reviewed and edited or at times developed communications for our clients to ensure they are delivering impactful messages. This is especially important when leaders are driving strategic organization change. And the back and forth of this can be an important learning opportunity to increase client capacity.

Adapt To Your Audience

Equally important to crafting messages is knowing the audience who will be the recipient of any communication along with being clear on expectations. All too often, we have sat in meetings with senior leadership teams when another leader is brought in to address an assigned topic. Not very long into the leader’s presentation and discussion, the leader is stopped by the CEO or one of the other senior leadership team members and asked to quickly share the key points and recommendations. In many of these situations, the leader responsible for the topic has failed to appreciate the audience or have clarity on expectations. The opposite can also be true when leaders present at All Hands sessions and fail to adapt their message to help people understand impacts of any changes on them personally. Leaders should always be asking “What’s in it for them?” as they adjust their messages to each audience.

Leaders can avoid these pitfalls by taking the time to know their audiences and what is expected. With senior teams, it may be more likely that a summary of key issues and a strategic viewpoint are what will bring true value to the team. This does not relieve the leader from having the details if asked, just that leaders presenting to senior team members should be conscientious of what information they need to advance the conversation or make a decision. With broader communications to the workforce, more
details may work to leaders’ favor. These leaders need to put themselves into the shoes of the people who will be party to their communications to ensure they appreciate the kinds of information that will be most helpful. Each audience will have unique needs based on its perspective, and knowing those can go a long way to more effective communication.

We have also found that when senior leaders view themselves as coaches to those they manage, it can be of great value. Taking the time to review what will be presented and discussed with a direct report is an excellent way to shape approaches for the present and future using real time situations. Then, following the communication event, these same leaders can debrief with those they manage in order to provide feedback and help them internalize learnings.

Manage Passion and Perspective

Many of the leaders who are recognized for their subject matter expertise (for example, engineers, strategists, technologists, scientists, clinicians), can blur the lines between what is their passion and having reasoned perspective. There’s a balance that needs to be reached by senior leaders to maintain their objectivity ninety percent of the time such that when they choose to convey their passion for a certain approach or course of action, it plays to their advantage. These leaders, who we have affectionately named ‘opinionated advocates’, have to work to draw other opinions out before sharing their own, dial back the urgency in their tone of voice, and evolve their mindset to be more open-minded to options or viable alternatives to their perspective.

Teams that work for ‘opinionated advocates’ leaders who are passionate about everything often find themselves challenged to understand the critical few priorities for focused work. In addition, it is more challenging to communicate a point of view to someone who has outsized passion. Leaders who are able to ‘right size’ or adjust the expression of their passion to each situation tend to be perceived as more objective, mature, and influential.

This works the opposite for leaders who may think and communicate more rationally. Instead, these leaders, who we refer to as ‘noncommitted diplomats' have to identify their passion and develop a sharp perspective rather than globally chiming in without advocating for a specific point of view or an informed course of action. The risk for these ‘noncommitted diplomat’ leaders to mitigate is a perception that develops suggesting they are conflict-avoidant and less comfortable being assertive when the situation calls for them to weigh in one way or another. As with many aspects of leadership communication, finding that right balance in each situation between the passion of the ‘opinionated advocate’ and the acquiescence of the ‘noncommitted diplomat’ and when to use a reasoned perspective can go a long way to contributing to communication effectiveness.

Develop a Point of View

One of us had a client who struggled with a team member who tended to bring problems to him without offering solutions, or to bring ideas without considering the execution challenges. The client would spend excessive time helping to solve the problems or talking about the consequences of the team member’s ideas. Through coaching, this client began to ask for solutions or suggest there would be consequences
to ideas, asking his team member to come back the following week for discussion. As a result, the team member brought fewer problems and ideas, and those he did bring were well thought out. And, the client learned that while helping his team member initially had made him feel like a ‘good’ leader, it ultimately did not empower his team member to lead from his seat by being solution-oriented and owning his role.

Leaders who think through ideas and put forward a point of view or develop practical recommendations or a series of progressive options tend to learn more than those who ask for advice before they have developed their own thinking as far as they can go independently. And leaders who generally demonstrate that they learn from the feedback or input received build both capacity and a brand as being worth an investment in time and energy.

In our work, we have found that it is important for leaders who want to bring a point of view to gain the perspective needed to contribute effectively. This often involves being well-read and informed, knowing the market or industry they operate in, and engaging with a well-developed network. This combination provides them with a constant stream of ideas on timely topics and well formulated points of view.

Our clients have also shared how invaluable it is to utilize their networks as ‘receptive’ environments to practice or pilot their articulation of points of view or recommended courses of action. Leaders also need to take the necessary time to think ahead. As one client has shared, “It’s important to always look out from the top of the mountain instead of the base as it forces strategic thinking and execution excellence.”

Always have an “Ask”

When a more experienced senior leader asks, “How can I help you?” that's typically a genuine offer and one that should be taken advantage of when the opportunity is presented. This is also good modeling for other leaders — having an ask of someone in order to take advantage of such opportunities with other leaders. If you set up time with a leader more experienced than you, also make sure it becomes a two-way interaction. Be willing to provide input and answer questions the leader may have of you. Stay connected, informed, and networked.

To have an ask and to offer support also involves believing a leader has something important to add to the conversation. Thinking about what you as a leader bring to the team and company is a way of starting to understand your own value. As an example, one of us was working with a client who was in a senior level role yet was not evolving his team. To help the client pivot, he was asked to consider what role he thought he should play in advancing the development needs of his team. The result was a recommitment to his team, including asking team members how he could help them develop while also advancing their efforts on behalf of the company.

Focus on Outcomes and Results

When measuring leaders’ performance, the volume of activity they generate does not equate to better performance when compared to measuring their ability to drive results or achieve an outcome. We have helped our executive clients review self-evaluations from their direct reports in order to crystalize feedback they want to provide. Often their (and our) main observation was that their team members focused on activity — meetings attended, talks given, other — rather than the net outcomes or results of their activities. Many leaders who gain success through process-based expertise and experience could benefit from shifting their focus to outcomes and results. They can also work towards a more efficient process that gets them to outcomes faster, without losing stakeholder buy-in.

In reality, most team members want to figure out ways to achieve outcomes and results rather than be told. They often focus on activity instead as a way of demonstrating that they are working hard. Communicating the importance of outcomes and results provides the freedom for team members to develop their own approaches. And the leader’s role then becomes one of guiding and coaching for results rather than monitoring activity.

Adapt Up, Across, and Down

There is a reason 360-degree feedback assessments have continued in popularity over the years. Most leaders tend to be better at managing up, across, or down. Each requires unique attributes and people tend to be naturally better in some areas than others. For example, one of our clients managed up by communicating in ways that reflected her knowledge, making it clear she was well informed about the bigger picture and had the requisite experience for her current and broader roles. She was able to be
brief, yet well prepared for questions, and she listened well — all critical characteristics.

When working with peers, the focus can be more about involvement, respect, and partnership in order to validate the relationships important for advancing the work. It is important for leaders to have the self-awareness to know where they thrive, also knowing where they feel less comfortable or where they need to develop capacity. And a leader’s role with her peers is dyadic — to have the curiosity of a continuous learner and the experienced or educated insight of an invested stakeholder.

When working with their teams, the classic shift from player to coach, includes closely monitoring work that has been delegated. This requires having appropriate distance to objectively assess talent on their teams, and creating a go-forward strategy that is practical in its execution and division of responsibility.

In summary, making an impactful contribution when communicating is an important capability for leaders. Those who are great at it can move their teams and organizations forward. Knowing how communication can be fraught with challenges, especially when leaders fail to pay attention to their own propensities, can make a huge difference between success and lack thereof. By increasing self-awareness and taking the time to get the differences in communication right, leaders can improve their effectiveness and ultimately the results they achieve in their organizations. And sometimes relatively small subtle changes made can have a much bigger impact.

Cailin K. O'Riordan, Ph.D. and Jonathan Z. Gottlieb, Ph.D. are organization consultants, executive coaches, and trusted advisors to senior leadership. Both Cailin and Jonathan have proven track records consulting to senior leadership regarding strategic organization change and alignment, and developing high-performing executive leaders and their teams all in pursuit of higher levels of organization performance. They bring a seasoned approach to the leaders with whom they work, one generated from years of diverse experience and educated intuition.

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