Executive communications performance is highly valued by CEOs, not only for the results you can achieve through skillful communications, but also for what your communications style reveals about you. Every day, the words you speak or write, intense conversations and informal interactions reflect your level of self-knowledge and vision, awareness and perception, flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity.
This point was brought home during the last few months over of one of my favorite reads: the Corner Office column in the Sunday Business section of The New York Times. Every week a CEO reflects on the challenges of leadership and the skills and talents they look for in senior level job candidates. Every week, communications ability trumps technical skills as the most valuable asset as these CEOs cite the imperatives of team building, relationship building, consensus building and conflict resolution.
The leadership potential of executives — across industries, across generations, across the political landscape – increasingly is measured by their mastery of high impact communications. The first step toward learning these skills is to steep yourself in three dimensions that frame leadership communications.
1. Personal story: “One who understands others has knowledge; one who understands himself has wisdom.” The Tao.
As the author of your own story, you can make conscious choices about how to express who you are. Effective executives don’t have greater strengths and fewer shortcomings than others, but they are self-aware. Leaders tend to understand their own impulses and behavior and its impact on the people around them. This requires reflection and a reassessment of long held beliefs, about yourself and others, that leads to asking: Is this really who I am? Answering this question clarifies who you are, what you value, what motivates you and sows the confidence to express your most genuine self. People with this kind of authenticity are comfortable in their own skin.
Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, pilots hiring interviews outside the borders of the candidate’s resume, probing deeply for a personal story, looking for clues of character, purpose and motivation: “Communication skills is becoming more important and I don’t mean PowerPoints. You’re trying to find out about the intangibles of leadership. You’ve got to have not just the business skills, you have to have the emotional intelligence. I like to ask people what they’ve read, books they’ve read, and what did they enjoy about those. To get a sense of their values and to really understand them as individuals. So it’s not just education and experience. It’s education, experience and the human factor.”
2. Vision: “We are limited not by our abilities, but by our vision.” Anonymous.
Vision is the springboard to action — motivating yourself and other people to act. Our brains are wired for novelty, which partly explains why it’s human nature to lean in toward stories and to struggle to stay awake when presented facts and figures. An effective communicator creates a vision of the future that lies at the end of his strategic plan, a future that will inspire pride and loyalty to the corporate tribe.
“I hate PowerPoint presentations,”James J. Schiro, CEO of Zurich Financial Services, told the Corner Office columnist. “If you’re working in an area, and you are running a business, you ought to be able to stand up there and tell me about your business without referring to a big slide deck. When you are speaking, people should focus on you and focus on the message.”
Clarence Otis Jr., CEO of Darden Restaurants, is a Stanford educated lawyer, who believes, “ . . . writing in the business world is more functional than elegant. I do think language is important in leadership, and it’s critically important in oral communication. It’s worth thinking about exactly how you’re going to say something. It’s important for focusing people. It’s important for inspiring them. It’s important for directing them. The more senior you are, the more important it is, because your voice is amplified. I think to get a lot of things done, you have to be able to give a good speech.”
3. Mindfulness. “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” James Thurber
Mindfulness – the foundation of Buddhist psychology – is the mental discipline of alert concentration. To be mindful is to observe without reacting from your own conditioned responses, to be aware of the environment around you. Effective communicators integrate input from intellectual, physical and intuitive channels of awareness and to create a coherent context for their communications.
“Ultimately I won’t hire anybody who can’t write,” said Nell Minow, co-founder of corporate governance research firm, The Corporate Library. “I ask for a writing sample, the best example of your writing. It’s just tremendously important, their precision, their vocabulary, their sense of appropriateness of communication. If they’re using texting language in a memo, that’s a bad sign.”
Eduardo Castro-Wright, vice chairman of Wal-Mart Stores, suggests that business schools “ . . . could do more to prepare kids to deal with the often more difficult side of business management and leadership. I ask recent graduates, “O.K., how many courses have you taken on how you talk with an employee you’re firing?” Or, “How do you talk with the person who comes to your office late at night to tell you that her daughter is sick and she might not be able to come in the following day?” Or, “What do you say when they come in with issues in their marriage that are impacting their job?” These kinds of things are about 80% of what you deal with.”