As a leader, you have a practical job to do. Leaders drive results through people. People need to pull together to meet targets and perform on behalf of the company and their customers. Shareholders and stakeholders want to be kept informed on trends and projections. It’s all about people: the ones who work for you, the ones you work for, and the ones who buy from you.
For many years, I’ve been telling my teams, my colleagues, and my clients that leadership happens in the conversation. It’s where you have the greatest impact as a leader every day. And, like chocolate, conversations can be rich, dense, and layered. What we say and what people hear can be very different. What we hear and think we understand can be misinterpreted.
Remember the great American Leadership Conversation? President Obama opened a dialogue with a broad group of Americans and brought them along on the beginning of his leadership journey. He had a huge vision and, as soon as he became the president, he began to implement it. Shortly into his presidency, however, the healthcare debate spun out of control and Obama seemed unable to control the spin and keep his message on track. Soon, even his supporters became disappointed as the conversation grew more shrill and adversarial. It may be true that some political issues— Social Security, healthcare and peace in the Middle East — are just explosive topics and no leader can guide a constructive conversation around them. I might agree but I have found that there are issues just as explosive in companies. As my colleague Gavin McMahon says, “Politicians are public executives.”
I have seen significant controversy in companies attempting to adopt a new technology that cannibalizes the core business, a shift that always causes different points of view to emerge. Changes in compensation benefit plans, and other reward systems are also fodder for controversy because they affect people on a personal level. Organizational changes can result in people losing power and influence. These may be positive changes for the company but may leave some people with ego wounds to lick. I don’t have to tell you how brutal those conversations can be.
Leaders have to have those conversations — one on one, in small groups, or in a public forum. Conversations can take place in someone’s office, over lunch, informally in the hallway, or formally in front of large audiences. Some conversations are televised, like webinars that CEOs have with far flung global teams or even State of the State and State of the Union addresses.
There’s no room for misinterpretation here. All participants have to come out of the conversation knowing exactly what’s changing, why, and how it will affect them.
The most brilliant change initiatives can die long, painful, expensive deaths. These Conversations can inspire and move people to action or they can erode people’s confidence, performance, and faith in the company leadership. Ultimately, everyone suffers, and the company struggles to regain its footing in the same way our country and many nations around the world are struggling to regain theirs.
Having conversations that truly communicate what you intend is vital to achieving your goals and to surfacing the potential concerns of others. Conversation is so much the lifeblood of an organization that it can be said, “Conversation is to leadership what water is to life.”
At the worldview level, almost everyone agrees that communication is critical. When you go beyond paying lip service to this concept and you begin to set standards for how you communicate— with whom and with what frequency— you can do more to lead effectively and move your company forward than you can with any other initiative.
Leadership happens in the conversation, and that conversation happens in the moment. It is a choice we make. When you manage a project or a process, you have time to plan. When you are confronted with the unknown, you have to act in the moment and respond. Those moments often define our leadership. Even when we are silent, we are communicating. People will read into your silence as well as your words.
I will go further and say that communication is so central to leadership that once an individual becomes a leader, he no longer has the luxury of casual conversations. People hear everything. When you’re a leader, the casual conversation that you have in the hall or the off-the-cuff remark you make could have significant ramifications. All of your remarks become part of the conversation your people are having; they’ll have these conversations with one another, and they’ll parse what you said, what you really meant, and why you said it. The senior leaders I consult with understand that every comment they make communicates volumes.
Communication needs to be authentic. It’s not about saying the right thing or using the right buzzwords. One might say all the right things, in the right tone of voice, and in the most positive manner— and, it doesn’t mean that those words will land as meaningful and true. Most people see right through someone who is talking in corporate speak or jargon. Speak straight, speak what you intend, speak from what you know to be true— and people will respond with their own conviction. You can then have a dialogue that is purposeful and moves your company forward.
If you think of every communication as a conversation and you are authentic and open, people will respond to you. Even when they don’t agree, they will feel they can express themselves, and then you’ll know why they disagree. This is a good thing. If you know that people disagree and you know why, you’ve opened a dialogue so that you can resolve the differences, align your people to you, and move forward into action.
You may not be the best presenter in the world, but if you are able to communicate in an open and conversational style, you will create receptivity and people will respond. You know people are responding to you when they give you feedback. This is how you uncover those unmet needs I talked about earlier. When you uncover the unmet needs of people, obstacles fall away and you are left with clear understanding that moves people to action.
Even the best communicators can be misinterpreted. It’s important to communicate with the understanding that someone is on the receiving end of what you are saying. People are going to interpret what you have said. Knowing that will encourage you to stay focused and speak straight from the heart.
I’ve met my share of superstar leaders, and even superstar leaders don’t start out fully formed. Putting experience aside for the moment, the fundamental attributes that great leaders have is the ability to convey a message to their followers that compels them to take action.
Let’s look at this for a moment. Napoleon, a short man with a grand vision, was able to conquer half of Europe. Winston Churchill, who successfully led England to resist Hitler during World War II, was a political outcast who spoke like he had a handful of marbles in his mouth. Golda Meir, a student who grew up in Wisconsin, established a nation state and led Israel solidly into the twentieth century. Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King both challenged discrimination in their societies despite being the targets of prejudice themselves. Rosa Parks sat on a bus and, in silence, led a change that significantly advanced the Civil Rights Movement. Mother Teresa, through compassion and tireless effort, communicated with her devotion and faith to make a difference for the victims of poverty in India.
All these leaders had courage, commitment, and vision. But what really set them apart — what made them leaders — was their ability to convey a message to their many followers to take action. They spoke from their hearts about what they believed. People responded and made those causes their own. What made these leaders effective was their ability to convey what was important to them and make it important to others.
Speaking naturally and authentically about what you believe in, whether it is a political position, a personal choice, or a business decision, will get the attention of your audience.
You can follow her on twitter @rosefass.