Effective communication: skills that make leaders stand out from the crowd
Jo-Anne Facey - Mercer Human Resource Consulting
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Jo-Anne Facey, Associate, Mercer Human Resource Consulting

For more information about effective leadership communication skills and training, contact Jo-Anne, in Sydney, on 02 8272 6206, or in Melbourne, Sandy Hutchison on 03 9245 5316

While strong leadership is fundamental to business success, an organisation can only succeed when employees at every level clearly understand where the business is going, and they support, and do what is required, to achieve business goals.

An overriding objective of any communication program should be to effect a behaviour change. The desired change might be an attitudinal change or it may be a significant change in work processes to support a major shift in organisational direction. Effective leaders communicate strategically, translating important business objectives into terms through which employees readily understand 'what's in it for me?' In response, employees are engaged, align their actions accordingly and work towards propelling an organisation to success. All too often, communication programs fail in that they do not tell employees what the employees want and need to know.

Dynamic organisations acknowledge the significant value that effective communication can deliver, especially in the climate of persistent change. Communication is no longer considered to be the 'soft stuff' but is seen to deliver tangible results. Improvement in customer satisfaction, service delivery and product quality, increased employee satisfaction and retention of key talent are just some of the areas in which effective communication will impact the bottom line.

Whose responsibility is communication?

Effective communication should pulse in all directions through an organisation like a heartbeat. But it doesn't just happen. Nor is it solely the responsibility of communication functions. To achieve this level of permeation, responsibility for the communication process must rest with management at all levels across the organisation.

Poor communication is repeatedly cited as a key contributor in the failure of major change efforts. Not surprisingly, communication skills are increasingly regarded as a critical skillset for leaders, particularly in situations where the leader is an instrumental driver of change.

Rightly, communication skills, both in terms of personal ability and strategic capability, are being given increasing importance in leadership competency models. Leaders who stand out from the crowd are those with exemplary communication skills. Consequently, leadership communication skills training has become a core component of leadership development programs.

Leaders play three roles as communicators

Superficially, communication appears to be deceptively simple - write an email or send a memo. In fact, it's a complex process that must be addressed from many angles to achieve the best results. Leaders must understand all components of the communication process to apply them effectively.

To have impact, careful communication planning and management, and clarity and consistency of messages are key factors. Unfortunately, many communication efforts focus only on the delivery of a message, and neglect the vital planning and management of the process. The speed and volume offered by technology through such channels as email and intranet, are often erroneously equated to effective communication.

This model shows the three integrated communication roles a leader plays:

As a communication infrastructure builder, the leader must consider a number of issues:

  • the organisational culture;
  • the current communication climate;
  • identification of various changes that impact stakeholders;
  • integration of communication with other human resources practices.

In developing a strategy for any communication program, the leader should:

  • analyse each stakeholder and the impact of the change for them;
  • determine measurable communication objectives;
  • develop a clear, consistent message that is meaningful to the stakeholder;
  • select and use appropriate communication channels;
  • measure the effectiveness of the communication effort and adjust the strategy as necessary.

It is only at this point, in the leader's tactical role as communicator, that message delivery becomes important. The leader may utilise a range of fundamental communication skills, such as:

  • presentation skills
  • asking effective questions
  • listening skills
  • facilitation and problem solving
  • conducting high impact conversations
  • coaching and mentoring skills (one-on-one communication)

Components of each of the roles will be required in mixed degrees to effectively manage the communication challenges of different situations. The leader must understand these roles and determine the degree of attention that the current communication program demands from each role.

Drivers of effective communication - Leading, Involving, Listening and Informing (LILI™)

Overlaying the leadership communication model are the four drivers of effective communication: Leading, Involving, Listening and Informing (LILI™). Traditional communication approaches focus only on informing. However, this forms only a fraction of the communication equation. By looking at effective communication in this context, it is easy to see why communication programs that only inform fail to deliver results.

Communication is necessarily a two-way process. A communication strategy will evolve and adapt over time in response to many inputs. To shape a strategy that is meaningful and, as a result, effective, leaders should incorporate each of the four drivers, as appropriate to the situation.

The leader must know and understand his or her audiences and their information needs. Listening to and involving stakeholders in decisions provides invaluable input and feedback, essential to communication effectiveness. Leading by example, 'walking the talk', sets a powerful behavioural model of commitment, and sends a clear message in times of change.

Leadership communication competency models

In improving leadership communication effectiveness, an organisation must first determine the leadership skills and behaviours, that is, the competencies, that constitute communication excellence. A comparison of the current level of communication competence of an organisation's leaders with the desired level of competence will quickly indicate the nature and extent of the 'skills gap' and training needs of the participants. This assessment will guide the development of the tailored communication training process where leaders can readily acquire new skills.

Factors such as business context, organisational culture, and leadership challenges are taken into account when developing training programs. Customisation and careful evaluation of training programs will ensure that the training delivers a sound return on investment and positive business results.

Continued acquisition of effective communication skills is an ongoing process. Leaders must be encouraged to continually apply and hone these skills practically.

Effective communication: how do you rate?

Check your communication effectiveness by answering yes or no to the following questions:

  • Do you have a communication strategy that guides all your communication activities?
  • Do you know exactly what you want employees to understand, think and do in response to your communication?
  • Is your message consistently aligned with the vision, values and objectives of your organisation?
  • Is your communication a two-way process?
  • Do you measure the effectiveness of your communication?
  • Do you use the results of previous programs to adjust future communication initiatives to improve effectiveness?
  • Does your communication incorporate the four communication drivers: involving, listening, leading and informing?
  • Do you know how employees prefer to receive communication e.g. face-to-face, email?
  • Have you delegated responsibility for communication to your leaders?
  • Is your leadership team delivering a consistent message?
  • Do your leaders understand their role as communicators in your organisation?

How do you rate:

7 and above: Congratulations - you stand out in the crowd, your communication should be delivering value to your organisation.

4-7: You are on your way - the questions to which you answered 'no' will help to identify where you could improve the effectiveness of your internal communication.

4 and below: Your internal communication is not effective - how much could this potentially mean to your bottom line?


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