Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Power of an effective communication

Are you a leader at the helm of your organisation? And you think you’ve got all it takes to keep the organisation running and moving up? But if good communication skills aren’t among your credentials, your leadership is heading for storms. Effective leadership without effective communication is impossible.

A leader may have all other attributes; but if he comes short of good communication, his organisation will record more groans than gains. Of course, good communication skills aren’t the only thing a leader needs to achieve corporate success. If the leader lacks all other attributes such as love, courage, technical skills, visioning, judgement and dynamism, his good communication skills will achieve nothing. You don’t build and run a world-class company with sheer gift of gab.

Yet, communication is central to leadership effectiveness because it is something all leaders must do – and always do – to succeed. Can you name anyone among the 100 top world leaders in any field who isn’t good at communicating? Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, America’s Abraham Lincoln, Britain’s Winston Churchill, India’s Mahatma Gandhi, Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project’s leader, Robert Oppenheimer, Herman Miller’s Max De Pree, Europe’s business celebrity and former chairman of ABB, Percy Barnevik, General Electric’s Jack Welch, Chrysler’s Lee Iaccocca, and the brilliant constellations on the Fortune 500 CEOs … to name a few. All these are men skilled in the art of communicating.

In fact, down the ages, men who aspired to lead knew they had to have the ability to communicate well; otherwise their leadership would end in fiasco. The Biblical Moses appreciated this ability and confessed he lacked it. It was one of the reasons why he besought God to send someone else to lead Israel on a risky journey to Canaan. Moses didn’t take the job until God promised the smooth-talking Aaron would help out.

The importance of communication
A leader shuns communication skills at his organisation’s peril. Without good communication abilities, the most brilliant of all leaders will fail to deliver on the bottom-line. For, his organisation’s synergy will rupture, the workforce will be fluid, visioning will fail to catch, and progress will be a fantasy. How? Workers need to be wisely “talked into” commitment, loyalty and higher productivity. And bosses who snort at such pep-talks may watch their employees leave in droves. Monte Enbysk, Microsoft’s lead editor, claims that a study in 2001 of 20,000 exit interviews found that people leave jobs chiefly because of supervisors’ poor communication skills. So, it isn’t the poor pay that makes most workers leave. It’s the leader’s poor communication.

Also, communication serves as a potent weapon of influence especially when workers need motivation to buy into the leader’s progress plans. For example, consider visioning. You may birth a vision alone; but you would need your team’s support to shape, launch and actualise it. You would need to share the vision such that the workforce catches it, develops a passion for it, and resolves to be committed to its actualisation. Sir, you have no other means of doing this save by communication! Find out: Not all people in your team are willing to follow you on the vision trip. Most of your workforce might comprise people who are content with business-as-usual and would suffer inertia gladly so long as wages and fringe benefits are paid. Even in religious organisations, key leaders and workers aren’t quick to accept radical measures for lifting the organisation above conservative levels so long as they feel good and secured by the organisation’s routine existence.

So, your workers would need to be convinced that progress is necessary, and fresh ideas are required to attain new levels. They would need motivation to buy into your progress recipe and be committed to it until your organisation attains the new height. How do you go about achieving all this? By communication! Even if the nature of your organisation permits that things remain fairly the same for long, you still would need to keep the people on their jobs by communication. You would always have something to tell your subordinates; who relay your message to other leaders down the hierarchy and throughout the organisation. Thus, without communication you can’t function. Can you think of any leader doing anything in his organisation without engaging in communication? Planning, coaching, visioning, coordinating, counselling, evaluating and supervising are basic leadership functions; all of which can only be done through the communication process. See? Effective leadership without effective communication is impossible.

Explaining leadership communication
It is necessary to explain what communication is, especially in leadership. But I won’t bore you with various arguments about the right meaning of communication. You wonder how such a day-to-day action as communication has stirred up so much debate about its meaning. Leave the debates for scholarship circles; but we must clear some points about the subject. Remember: Our interest is in leadership communication. First, leadership communication isn’t a linear process (see diagram), but a cyclic flow of message and feedback. The sender sends the message through a channel to the receiver; who receives it and sends feedback to the sender. And the cycle continues as long as the process lasts.

Leaders still in love with inflexible top-down command-and-control leadership style miss this point and its advantage. They issue instructions and orders but seldom pause to find out if they are heard. They hardly wait for feedback, stopping the communication before it runs its full cycle. Later, they wonder why “Smith and John never do exactly what I say”. Leadership communication is an exchange. The sender and the receiver swap encoding and decoding roles; and feedback travels in both directions.

Donald Clark, a leadership writer and coach, was right to have said in one of his web-articles that it is “not just a give, as all parties must participate to complete the information exchange”. Doing this calls for effective listening by leaders – a communication skill only a few leaders know how to practise! A leader’s failure to listen effectively turns communication into a monologue, robbing the organisation of the gains that interactive communication attracts.

Second, effective leadership communication thrives on a good working climate. I mean the non-monetary working conditions that make the workforce feel wanted, appreciated, fulfilled and secured. Brent Filson, author of 23 books on leadership and president of The Filson Leadership Group Inc, underscores the critical presence of this element in the communication cycle; and recommends: “To best communicate an idea, wrap it in a human being”.

Filson counsels leaders to check on human relations aspects of their communication before they encode their message. Hear him: “Whenever you intend to communicate as a leader, you should assess not only the information you want to impart but also the human relations aspects of how you will go imparting it…” Yes, you must have in place some kind of homophyly, a degree of shared experience and commonness, and an air of civility. Otherwise, you won’t be able to use leadership communication too well as an instrument of inspiration for sustainable productivity and change.

Third, leadership communication isn’t a success joker in conflict times. You don’t communicate with your subordinates only when you have some ideas to sell, when you want to pass on a dream. You communicate to keep your organisation’s energy and synergy steady, steadfast and sure. You also employ communication to mobilise and motivate your workforce for change.

In short, you keep the organisation running through communication. Selective use of leadership communication is counter-productive. For instance, you fell back on communication to keep hope alive and dissuade workers from leaving when the going was tough. Then, you shunned it when the organisation soared into smooth-sailing. Result: Your team soon saw through the manipulation and resolved not to dance next time you play the hope tune.

Effective communication
Seeing communication is so important and central to leadership, all leaders should strive to be good communicators. I’m glad Prof David A. Owens of Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Management School says good communicators are made, not born. Which means you can study and practise leadership communication. You can assess your performance now and see where and what you need to improve on. And then take remedial measures.

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