Let us be clear: you have not communicated well if people have not heard you, understood you and felt motivated to think differently and act differently as a result of your words. You may have stood up and talked at them, but communication has only taken place when your words have had an impact. In any enterprise, leadership communication is all about achieving big goals. It is about changing behaviours. People listen from behind their own filters – filters that may be cultural or emotional, or that may be in place because of their unique perceptions or even misunderstandings.
You have to talk to people about their concerns, their issues, before you can be understood on your own. Every leader interviewed for this book, without exception, spoke of the need to be audience-centric in communication, and to recognize that, when it comes to communication, it is all about them. You have to set out to achieve change in how they think, feel and act, but that requires you to know how they think, feel and act now.
Quite often, the people I interviewed treated the subject of listening as if it were somehow distinct from communicating. They rated it an essential skill of leadership, possibly the hardest to perfect. Sometimes the simple act of listening, they said, is an act of inspiration in itself. ‘You have to give people a damn good listening to.’ There is something more fundamental at work here, though, and I call it The Listening Contract – first you have to listen, if you want to be heard.
When you listen and then respond with actions that remove barriers, or pick up on good ideas, you create enormous goodwill and demonstrate you are on their side, particularly when you encourage people to open up and create an environment where people can bring you bad news, express their frustrations and voice their concerns, without fear of repercussions. You have to listen beyond the words into the motives and agendas, into the context, into the performance KPIs and the financial numbers and the mood, and you have to show you understand, even if you don’t agree. You have to ask great questions and learn to unleash your curiosity and interest in people. It really shows.
Point of view
The best leaders have a potent point of view, and it is always the person with the strong point of view who influences the group, who wins the day. As a leader, you are going to have to stand up and give your point of view, time and time again. You will have to take a position on issues, be courageous and stand up for what you believe to be right. Too few leaders think about developing points of view, yet – when well articulated – they can help you win friends and influence people, and gain a stronger voice in shaping the future.
In a world where people trust the motives, judgement and competence of business leaders less now than just five years ago, shouldn’t we be talking to those issues more often, with more transparency, more conviction and, yes, passion? The ideal point of view should therefore bring together your purpose and your values, highlight your behaviours and draw attention to the benefits of doing things your way. And it should call people to action. Powerful stuff.