How we communicate has a direct impact on our career success and is the most visible sign of our leadership presence. Study after study confirms this. I’ve seen it play out many times both as a coach to C-level and rising leaders, and in the organizations I worked in earlier in my career. Our use of fine-tuned formal and informal communication skills is noticed and rewarded. On the flipside, our inability to present like a seasoned professional and communicate effectively with multiple stakeholders greatly impacts our short- and long-term success.
The rub, though, is that communication skills are not often taught (beyond just the occasional basic business communications training) and usually not updated to keep up with our career advancement. At the same time, people are expected to show executive-level communication skills earlier in their careers, to a wider group of stakeholders, and via a far broader network of platforms than ever before.
The reality is that if you want to succeed in influencing others, you need more than the training basics – you need to be intentional in observing the communication skills of successful leaders inside and outside of your organization; identify the communication culture of your organization so you can sync up to it in an appropriate and authentic manner; and create your own development plan for evolving your communication skills as your career evolves. This all starts with getting clear about where you are right now: what’s your executive presence? How is your communication perceived by others? Where do you need to be in terms of skill development for next level leadership opportunities?
Let’s look at a brief case study about a smart leader I worked with recently: Bonnie is a well-regarded senior leader at a large nonprofit. From the start she impressed her organization’s top leadership. She was a doer, but not particularly savvy in ensuring she was communicating her and her team’s multiple successes. Like many others, she believed her work results spoke for themselves. Fortunately for Bonnie, her COO was impressed with these results and committed to Bonnie’s professional development. He provided her with specific feedback about what he was observing, and then focused on the need for her to speak up at a polished, leadership level. Armed with this feedback and with the understanding that how she communicated mattered almost as much as what she communicated, she went to work. Here are the things she focused on:
- Know Your Audience: Understanding who you’re talking with is critical. This allows you to determine what information is most important to share and what’s the most appropriate way to deliver it. What’s the right level of detail (start from the perspective of what matters most to the listener)? And what’s the best communication style? For instance, when communicating with time-strapped senior leaders, get to the point quickly and factually and delete any ’emotional language’. Bonnie learned to lead with the headline rather than build a business case before getting to the conclusion. This subtle shift demonstrates greater awareness and a stronger more credible presence.
- Understand Your Organization’s Communication Culture: Every organization has its own way of formally and informally sharing information. Being sensitive to the nuances and timing of how your organization communicates allows you to be most successful. Observe how the C-level leaders communicate – notice when people speak up and when they hold back, when they rely on e-communications and when they gather everyone together to share a message. Bonnie learned that by observing her organization’s communication culture and best practices, the differences that once seemed insignificant, such as simply standing up when presenting information or where she sat at the meeting table, are in fact, revealing.
- Speak Up: It’s key that you commit to using your voice, speaking your mind, and ensuring your input is heard. Seeking out opportunities to present information in formal and informal situations is critical to success. There’s a reason so many people shy away from presenting information in public, including the added stress and self-doubt, particularly when speaking to senior leaders, as well as the time it takes to prepare. Bonnie learned to trust herself more and not allow her fear of speaking up as well as her old belief that her results could speak for themselves, hold her back.
- Prepare and Focus on Outcomes: When constructing your communications, begin with the end in mind. What actions or thoughts do you want your listeners to have as a result of what you’ve said? Then get to the point. Spending too much time on background or additional data can limit your communication effectiveness. Maintain focus and address only the things that are critical to the discussion or presentation. Be prepared for what questions your listeners may have and be in command of the details so you can engage in meaningful conversation. Bonnie learned that preparation, including the focus on outcomes, plays well to her direct communication style, and adds to her credibility and others understanding of her results.
- Practice Doesn’t Necessarily Make Perfect, But It Matters: Fine-tuning your formal and informal communication skills is hard work and takes commitment. You may never be perfect – that isn’t the goal – but ensuring that you keep growing your skills is key. Making time to practice, recording yourself, getting feedback, and then identifying one, two or three skills to focus on at one time is a good path forward. You might focus on message construction or word choices, the tone and quality of your voice, or your body language. All matter and all show up in both your in-person and e-communications. Bonnie remains deeply committed to her growth and decided to join a small group of women leaders that meets quarterly to share communication best practices. She’s currently working on using stronger body language to convey more passion as she seeks to motivate others.
Today Bonnie is thriving and continues to enhance and evolve her communication skills as she continues growing as a leader. How about you – are your communication skills keeping up with your career growth?