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Effective Communication: A Key Leadership Skill

By John Dillard

For the past few years, I’ve been supporting the strategic communication function of a large Agency Directorate in the Intelligence Community.  I’ve written briefings, white papers, emails from the leadership to the staff, and a variety of other products.  Through my experience here, and to some degree life in general, I’ve come to the conclusion that communication is one of the more important, if not the most important, skill for leaders to master.

Many facets of a well functioning organization hinge on effective communication: strategy, operations, employee motivation and morale, funding (public), investments (private), and a variety of others.  An employee will best execute his job when he understands the bigger strategic picture of what he is doing.  And how will he understand that if he’s not effectively told?  Likewise, how will a member of Congress be able to effectively fund an Agency if she doesn’t understand the value it creates through its operations?

At its core, authentic communication builds trust between a leader and his or her stakeholders.  And trust is a vital prerequisite for any highly effective organization.  Communication is always a tricky balancing act between telling stakeholders what they need to know and keeping private, proprietary, or sensitive matters confined to the appropriate audience.

One of the major failures I see in leadership communication is what I’ve heard people refer to as “excessive happy talk.” Excessive happy talk means just what you think it does:  a leader providing nothing but a rosy outlook for the organization without acknowledging the challenges and limitations of their current environment.  Excessive happy talk destroys trust and erodes leadership effectiveness.  I’ve seen this happen time and time again, and have actually measured its effect on operations through organizational culture surveys.

The tips that I typically relay to leaders whom I coach on communication are:

  1. You must believe in what you are communicating
  2. Be honest about what’s going on without instilling fear
  3. Be approachable and answer every question that is posed to you with sincerity
  4. Proactively bring up relevant topics that affect the organization even if no one has explicitly asked you
  5. Ask for feedback on your communication (Did I give you enough information?  Did I give you too much information?  Did I answer your question?)
  6. If there is a topic that you can’t or won’t discuss, just say so, but also say why

I’ve too often seen leaders use communication as a tool to manipulate their stakeholders.  The fact of the matter is people in general are quite adept at sniffing out insincerity.  And when they do, their trust diminishes.  And when people lose their trust in a leader, it is very hard to gain that back.

My favorite quote on communication is from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who states, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”  As I tell my clients, you can only be sure of effective communication when you observe an individual’s behavior change in accordance with what you told them.  Absent this change, your communication is just an illusion.