Leadership Toolbox: Communication Part 1

Communicating Like a Leader, by Jamie Hansen

This is the first piece in a series from Jamie Hansen, focused on how a new leader must develop his or her communication skills in order to maximize their impact. You can get the rest of the series in your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.

Many of us have seen this play out time and time again: A supervisory position opens up in the organization, and an internal team member gets promoted into the leadership position. They are a great strategic choice because they’ve been a high-performer in their individual role, they know the company and the culture, and it seems the natural next step in their career. The stars have aligned and it’s all systems GO, right? Well . . . maybe, or maybe not. Whether this individual has 30 years or 3 years with the company, they are essentially moving from a position of working through processes, managing operating systems, or overseeing machines, to leading people and teams. That’s a big shift that individuals and organizations may easily overlook, especially when they’ve got the “best person for the job” waiting in the wings. What happens next will determine if their leadership script starts off to be a drama, psychological thriller, slapstick comedy, or action/adventure film. So what makes the difference? 

What started as a single article on tools for the new leader’s toolbox began to evolve into a novelette of sorts. We receive numerous requests at Alloy to help organizations with tools leaders need, and we could write a 10-part series on the topic. I decided to prioritize that list and drill down to the one critical skill that sets a leader up for the greatest success amongst the others: Communication. Perhaps you would agree it’s a kind of power tool amongst the other tools effective leaders possess.

No surprise here, and it almost seems too obvious. Everyone knows that leaders at any level have to be good communicators in order to be effective. And that’s where the problem begins – this one-word concept, with nearly universal, agreed-upon importance suffers from a lack of clarity:   “Communication?  Check!”  How ironic – that there is a handful of key, diverse skills that go into being an effective communicator, and a person can be good at one or two while functioning poorly at others. So it depends on who you ask, “Is this person an effective communicator or not?” 

In the interest of bringing some clarity to the communication issue, especially as it applies to leadership, let’s drill down on six skills that contribute to one’s effectiveness as a communicator, and therefore a leader. As you read through these skills, I challenge you to ask yourself how much focus has been given in your own professional life to the effective use of these power tools – Has there been focused attention on learning and improving one’s use of these important skills? Or is it possible they’ve unintentionally gotten lost under the larger umbrella of “communication,” left to flourish or flounder on their own? Don’t fret if you find yourself with at least one foot in the second category. Most of us do, and most of us will always have room to grow – and therefore reap the benefits of continued growth – in the communication arena. To borrow language from the world of investing and finance, this is perhaps the highest return on investment skill for new leaders, and seasoned leaders alike.

Six High ROI Communication Skills for New Leaders

1. Assertiveness

Plain and simple, the ability and willingness to say what needs to be said, and to do so clearly, respectfully, and without inciting defensiveness in the other party. Issues come up, and without the skills to address them, the temptation is to turn a blind eye or wait and see with high hopes that a problem will resolve itself or quietly go away. This is dangerous on two levels: a) for lower-performing employees as it allows problem behavior (which they may not be aware of) to continue, and b) for higher-performing employees who see that problems in the workplace don’t – or won’t – be addressed. An assertive leader believes he or she can address any situation respectfully. They also have the self-awareness to know that if they don’t feel ready to address a situation respectfully, the likelihood that it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later goes up exponentially. Effective communicators use this sense as an indicator to pause, get their thoughts and words in order, and address the situation before there’s damage to trust or relationships among team members.

2. Listening Ability

Great leaders are great listeners, and it shows in their everyday behavior. You just know when you’re around a great listener. They stop, give you their focused attention (or ask for a moment in order to do so), put down the phone, turn away from their computer, lean in, nod, and let you finish your thoughts without interruption. They know that real listening takes time – well-managed time, and have learned how to manage and protect that time to get the most out of any conversation. They are not afraid of the time it takes to truly listen to people, because a) they’ve learned how to manage it well, and b) they know that effective listening is actually a time-saver in the long run.

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