(Adam Kazmierski)

book excerpt

Why communication is essential for great leaders

Special to The Globe and Mail

The following is excerpted from The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership, by Gary Burnison. Published by McGraw-Hill, 2012 Copyright © 2012 by Gary Burnison. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

For a leader, communication is connection and inspiration – not just transmission of information.

Communication is critical for building alignment and executing strategy. Yet it is often one of the most challenging leadership skills because it is so easy to say, but not so easy to do. Effective communication is far more than a one-way street that starts with the leader.

Communication is the leader’s “information highway”; it flows freely in both directions and in every circumstance – in good times and, especially, in challenging ones.

Whether spoken or written, and spanning both words and actions, the message must always convey both your vision and the organization’s purpose and values. What too many people fail to fully appreciate is that the message is not just what you say; how you say it is equally important. Communication is where leadership lives and breathes.

For Angela Ahrendts, an American Midwesterner (and proud of it) who is CEO of Burberry Group PLC, communication was her number one commitment from her first day on the job five years ago. At that time, she and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey pledged to communicate “very clearly, very consistently, and very openly” with employees so that they understood and embraced the company’s strategic direction. In fact, the very first meeting that Ahrendts and Bailey had with employees was a live webcast, during which they laid out a strategy to leverage the Burberry franchise – its brand, including its signature outerwear and its iconic check plaid.

“We said, ‘Communication is the only way that we can connect.’ Connect is such a big word. At that point in time, we had 5,000 employees around the world; there are 7,000 today. We asked ourselves, ‘How do we share with them? How do we communicate? How do we touch them in the most effective, most clear way, and on a very consistent basis?’ We needed to be very, very clear on what we wanted to do,” Ahrendts explained.

The leader is the message

Sharing information is critical, but it is substantially less than half the battle. Yes, you must communicate clearly about the organization’s strategy, speed, direction, and results. But you cannot stop there. Verbally and nonverbally, the way in which you communicate – humbly, passionately, confidently – has more impact than the words you choose.

As a leader, you must inspire others through your words and actions. And before you speak, make sure you listen and observe; knowing your audience is as important as the message you’re delivering. Communication informs, persuades, guides, and assures, as well as inspires. You must be willing to reveal more of yourself, to let others see your soul. If you don’t, you will undermine your effectiveness as a leader, and your followers may soon drift to the sidelines.

“I think that the larger and more complex the business gets, I have to listen twice as much as I speak,” Ahrendts says. “The sign of a great leader is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. I probably say that once a day. And I remind my team, and myself, too, that [no matter how] large and successful we get, we can’t lose our objectivity – ever. I always say that my job is not to think about today. My job is to look around the corner and feel and see what’s coming, and then warn everybody else.”

As I shared in the opening chapter, when I first became CEO, I was so concerned with the content of my message that I failed to appreciate that my tone of voice, my facial expression, and my body language – all of these things – were as much the message as the words I spoke. Why? Because humans are intuitive. We constantly read and react to nonverbal cues. As the leader, I had to be aware at all times of what I was projecting to others, whether they saw me as confident and optimistic or tentative and worried. Of all the responsibilities of leadership, particularly during challenging times, communication is the most powerful and enduring.

Ahrendts’s approach and the way she communicates reflect who she is and where she came from. She credits the Golden Rule of “do unto others” that she learned from her parents – her father, “the philosopher,” and her mother, “who had very strong faith,” as she describes them. “I was raised with very strong core values,” Ahrendts says. “Ninety-five per cent of the time, I put myself in somebody else’s position – that’s how I live. I’ve been in a lot of situations in my life, and regardless, I’ve always relied on those values to keep me strong and to keep my confidence.”

The alternative is to ignore the ground rules of communication and shut down the two-way flow of information. Consider the story of a new CEO. At his first town hall meeting with employees, he took to the podium with a command-and control style that showed that there was a new sheriff in town and things were going to change. With hundreds of employees in the audience, the CEO began speaking. Suddenly, he noticed a man in the corner of the room who wasn’t paying attention to him. Furthermore, the man wasn’t dressed like the rest of the audience; he was in jeans and a T-shirt, with a baseball cap on sideways. Here was a perfect example, the CEO thought to himself, to show employees that such laxity was not going to be permitted.

“You in the corner,” the CEO yelled out. “How much do you make a week?” Looking up in surprise, the guy replied that he made about $400 a week. With a smirk, the CEO reached into his pocket and pulled out about $1,000 in cash. “You’re fired!” he said. As the man in the baseball cap took the money, the CEO noticed the funny grin on his face, but he ignored it. Some of the employees were smiling; others seemed stunned. No matter, the CEO told himself; he’d made his point.

After his speech, the CEO called one of his lieutenants over. “So, how do you think I did?” he asked. “I sure made an example of that guy. By the way, who was he?”

“That was Johnny the pizza delivery guy. He was bringing us lunch, and he sure appreciated the tip you gave him.”

Before you speak, know your audience. Listen and ask questions. Notice the nonverbal cues, and pay attention to people’s reactions, facial expressions, gestures, and mood. Otherwise, you could be communicating the wrong message to the wrong people.

  • It is not only what you say, but how you say it.
  • What you say reverberates throughout the organization.
  • What you don’t say may echo even more.