Leadership and communication: communicate or be out!
Current leadership theories describe multiple factors for a leader’s success. Perhaps the most essential of them is the ability to put forward a vision of the future that appeals to and mobilizes business partners and employees alike. That is precisely why communication skills increasingly make the top of the lists of the most desirable leader attributes.
Novel management concepts change the view of leadership and the roles of key people in the company. Authoritarian transactional leadership, which became the predominant management style as recently as the 1990s, rested on the belief that a company’s owners, CEOs and key managers were omniscient — their decisions were not to be questioned, their orders were to be carried out blindly. As this approach has become passé, new-type leaders emerged who listen to their co-workers and inspire and motivate them through their dedication and passion for the work. In business discussions on effective management, leaders are cast as talented coaches rather than overbearing bosses. They strive to display their ability to develop talent, cooperate as partners and ensure a free flow of ideas across the company. This view is supported by relevant scientific concepts, including those of transformational or servant leadership.
The idea of “iron-fist” management is at times contested with radical proposals. Some of these relegate leaders to positions of lesser importance, with management relying on collective power rather than the personal appeal of leaders. Some management theorists predict that companies will soon be run mainly by collaborating and mutually complementary business units. The concept calls for leaders to be democratically selected for a limited duration from within organizations in a natural process and to surrender their posts to successors as soon as the next project comes along.
Take a moment to ponder what counts and works well on today’s global market. Two significant challenges spring to mind that define the behaviors of contemporary leaders with far-reaching implications for the companies they run. One of them is a trend towards increasingly flatter organizations, partnership-based cooperation, the free internal flow of ideas and informal business structures, as observed in start-ups. The other is the global acceleration of technological change redefining the way modern leaders work. Some of the biggest challenges faced by every CEO are to process enormous amounts of data, cope with rapidly changing trends, ensure a continuous evolution of their organizations, deal with the presence of tech gadgets on every desk, handle constant change in customer needs and in the way goods and services are offered and sold, stay abreast of new approaches to marketing and customer service, and, last but not least, keep up with the changing dynamics of worker relations.
Both of these groups of challenges have something in common that is crucial for management. That something is communication. Let’s face it — it is virtually impossible to build democratic structures, activate workers, and promote the free sharing of ideas without a system of informed communications. The other challenge, game-changing technology, has actually become “inherently” “communications”-driven. Every change, no matter how innovative, rides on information that is either acquired or created and then promptly communicated at a meeting, in training, or, increasingly, e-mailed, texted or posted on a social network or shared on the intranet. The ability to skillfully navigate and fashion such a communication space will ultimately make or break the modern leader as an effective “visionary”.
Confidence in Twitter and the company website
The last two months perfectly illustrate the potential of a company’s communications to dramatically affect the lives of leaders and the fates of their companies. Hardly a week went by during that period without a report on Elon Musk’s decisions concerning Tesla and on the consequences of its founder’s actions. These actions could be summed up somewhat ironically as: “the CEO is twitting again”. Space constraints prevent me from recounting the entire story but it is no secret that Elon Musk’s communication activities on Twitter sent shockwaves with tremendous impact on his position and his company’s value, evoking strong reactions from its shareholders, partners, employees and the media. As I searched for more positive examples to show that communication is key, I came across a definition of “conscious leadership” by Melissa Reiff, the CEO of the U.S.-based company The Container Store. The company is a highly valued employer, one considered to be a role model and a champion of a business culture in which every employee has the right to feel appreciated and cared for. Let me show you another example, in which communication is a force for transparency that promotes a better relationship between employees and the company. Melissa Reiff (cited here after www.inc.com) illustrated that the “daily execution of practicing consistent, reliable, predictable, effective, thoughtful […] communication” breeds true leadership. Reiff believes that what her company was able to live up to such ideals owing greatly to its communication on the company’s website. “Nothing makes someone feel more a part of a team than knowing everything has been communicated to them. We know that some information we share could fall into competitors’ hands, but the advantages far outweigh the risks,” says the CEO of The Container Store.
Communication is recognition, dialogue and social media
To answer the blunt and straightforward question of how to successfully communicate in this day and age (in the times of rapidly changing management models and information overload), manage information and use the spoken and written word to improve one’s credibility and authority, I will share a few basic tips. Sometimes a few simple mechanisms suffice to produce positive outcomes. These fundamentals pave the way to an informed communications policy. So, if you are a CEO:
- Ignore any misgivings you might have and accept one thing as certain: those of today’s leaders who fail to speak out are sure to drop out of the game. Only good communicators make good leader. This fundamental principle should never be questioned.
- Use communications to recognize the efforts made by your employees and partners. Give them credit for the work they do and the contributions they make to your company. Make sure your message reaches every rank-and-file employee. Reiterate as often as possible that you welcome feedback, new ideas and suggestions. Communications experts should help make you communicate naturally and clearly.
- Build a culture of dialogue, idea sharing and learning throughout the company. Let the right people facilitate employee meetings and training to help exchange ideas. Don’t judge people during debates. A culture of brainstorming and design thinking can tighten interpersonal bonds and produce valuable business outcomes.
- Use modern social networks. Post your thoughts regularly where professionals will see them. Yet, bear in mind that Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like live by their own rules. Your activities on such sites should be natural but also well-thought-out. Consult your ideas with communication experts.
- Make sure your company has efficient tools for internal communication. Let the intranet become a genuine, real and vibrant forum for sharing ideas, a means of acquiring valuable ideas from employees and a crisis management instrument.
Leaders today are learning that information and communication are key for the success of individuals as well as companies. Everything suggests that this experience will get even stronger. The competent handling and control of information and its use to build an organization’s image and strengthen relationships between employees are the ABCs of the modern CEO. The role of communication professionals is to oversee this process and support leaders in key communication decisions. Sometimes it is a good idea to tell your boss that not everything will go over well on Twitter and that not everything that goes to the official website will be intercepted by the competition and used against you.