DesignIntelligence Media Group

The Not-So-Common Sense of Leadership Communication

by Bob Fisher

Nothing could be simpler, more commonsensical: spend less than you earn and save for when you need it. Few would argue against such sound practices. Yet according to the U.S. Federal Reserve, in 2018 American consumer debt rose to just over $4 trillion, up from $3.3 trillion in 2014. And according to the 2018 North-western Mutual Planning & Progress Study, one in three Americans have less than $5,000 in retirement savings.
A similar claim can be made for good leadership communication. Many preach its virtues, and guidance from published experts is straightforward and sensible: tell the truth. Be authentic. Use stories. Listen more. Know of what you speak. Yet in my work with executive teams and boards of directors in architecture, engineering, and construction (A/E/C) firms, I see far too few who effectively act upon the advice.

In the 2017 Forbes article “The True Cost of Poor Communication,” Dean Brenner blamed bad communication practices for five pernicious ills in organizations: lack of focus, failure of purpose, lack of innovation, drop in morale, and loss of credibility. One can easily imagine replacing “leadership” for “communication” in the sentence, which is a testament to the inextricable nature of the two.

Communication—and the connection it creates with those who follow—is one of the fundamental tools of leadership. Natural leaders are uncommonly good communicators. Their use of conversation and presentation come easily enough that they are exemplars without being fully conscious of their skill. Most of us, even those who have been in positions of leader- ship for some time, are not so blessed. And worse yet, many of us overestimate our abilities and effectiveness.

A short time ago, I had the good fortune to be at a pre-meeting breakfast with two exemplary leaders from different parts of A/E/C who have recently joined DesignIntelligence: Ken Sanders, a former managing principal with Gensler, and Glen Morrison, the former global CEO of the French flooring company Tarkett. The topic soon turned to the relationship between leadership and communication. “Communication is a huge part of being a leader,” said Morrison. “Leaders set the tone and tenor. They cannot be effective in the long term without strong communication.”

What followed was the sharing of stories and ideas about communication that were formed over decades of shaping purpose-based organizational cultures, aligning large groups of people to common goals, and motivating them to share the best of their talents. The picture that emerged was the antithesis of missteps I had seen in the field. Recognizing the spontaneous formation of a practical guide to leadership communication in A/E/C, I initiated a series of follow-up conversations with Ken and Glen on their experiences and perspectives.

At the beginning of our second conversation, Sanders warned of a natural dynamic that highlights the importance of communication in leadership. “Nature fills a vacuum,” he said. “When they’re not fully informed, you start to see people making guesses and speculating.” In such situations, people tend toward the most negative interpretation, creating a host of potential issues that could have been avoided.

The antidote is deceptively straightforward: ensure that everyone in the firm understands the true story and remains engaged. A simple idea, yes. Easy? Not so much.

In order to be successful, leaders need to understand the interplay of context, messages, means of communication, and, most complex of all, human nature.

According to Glen Morrison, effective messages must have three components: consistency, relevance, and authenticity. Glen Morrison articulated the final and most important axiom for leaders: “Actions are the most powerful form of communication.” Messages and the leaders who deliver them must set context, laying the groundwork for an audience to achieve understanding. Like so much in leadership communication, setting context is not a one-and-done exercise. “Someone needs to be contextualizing all the time,” said Morrison. “Context has several layers of meaning,” he continued, “such as how people in the organization matter in the bigger picture, and how a company can proactively communicate with the marketplace and internal audiences to set the right environment and build trust.”

Consistency is important because of the way in which people form their perceptions. Employees build their understanding of stories from multiple sources, and they need to hear the same fundamental message from all members of leadership. When they do, they can be confident that leadership is aligned and unified. When what they hear from leadership corroborates what they hear from peers and other sources, they have more reason to trust the message.

Relevance also has several layers of meaning, according to Morrison: “It explains things in terms that matter to the audience by making the issues relatable and concrete.” Understanding the audience’s perspective and what they care about within the larger picture helps a leader use context to achieve relevance, he says.

When you’re talking about communication on the plant level, it pays to go up about three levels in the company structure to provide appropriate context. Any higher than that becomes too much of an abstraction and not directly applicable to the audience. It pays to [frame broader] issues such as safety, environment, quality, operational metrics, and finances [by tying] them indirectly to the work of the plant. 

Like being consistent and setting context appropriately, authenticity contributes to credibility. “If you communicate authentically, you build a credit bank,” said Morrison, looking ahead to an occasion when leaders may have to draw down the account. “When you have difficult messages to communicate in the future, people will listen.”

Perhaps the most important ingredient of authenticity is transparency. In order to trust the message and leaders who deliver it, people need to feel nothing is being kept from them. Max DePree, the former CEO of Herman Miller, captured the essential rationale for transparency in his book “Leadership as an Art,” when he said: “The right to know is basic. Moreover, it is better to err on the side of sharing too much than risk leaving someone in the dark. Information is power, but it is pointless power if hoarded. Power must be shared for an organization or relationship to work.”

Sanders echoed DePree’s assessment. “Tight control of information is not a virtue of leadership,” he said. “People in my experience are more energetic, productive, and create more value when they not only are fully informed, but also feel fully informed.”

Transparency, perhaps more than other aspects of communication from leaders, requires a nuanced understanding of limitations, circumstances, and what best serves the people with whom the leader is communicating.

When Sanders accepted his first major leadership position as the newest partner of a firm, he learned that the position required him to change his approach to communication.

I would be out in the studio, talking to people individually, and even joking around. But I quickly became aware of the fact that more people were listening in and overhearing the conversations in a way they never did before. I didn’t expect that. I had to be much more aware of that extended audience. I also learned that while I could still joke around with people, the risk was higher that someone might take something the wrong way. So, although I didn’t want to change my communication style to the point of sacrificing authenticity, I did have to recalibrate.

Glen Morrison experienced a related leader-employee divide and developed an approach to quickly overcome it. “When a CEO shows up on the shop floor,” he said, “people see the suit, or position, and not the person behind it. The CEO needs to get to the person behind the position quickly; it is the CEO’s job to break through. The CEO can break through using something of common interest that is relevant and real. What breaks through differs based on geography and local culture, but it only works if you have a genuine interest in people.”

The importance of listening, which could rightly have led this article, is the crucial first principle of connection. “Attentive listening is essential,” said Sanders. “I think many new and emerging leaders feel that leadership is more about telling, and sometimes it is. You have to communicate a strategy, you have to make decisions, you have to tell people what’s going on, all of that is true. But listening is equally if not more important. Two ears, one mouth: use them in those proportions.”

The benefits of listening well reach beyond creating a genuine connection between leaders and employees. According to Sanders, open lines of communication help leaders in other practical ways.

When you build relationships, people come to you with problems rather than wait for you to come to them, which is what you want. Over the years, I’ve seen people do it really well and I’ve seen people do it really badly. If leaders get angry, they point fingers, and all that does is dramatically lower the probability that people are going to bring bad news to them in a timely way. They’ll either try to hide it or cover it up. Even if you’re disappointed or angry with them, how you respond is so important. If there’s a problem, do they feel you are there to attack them or help them? If they get you are there to help them, that’s a game changer. If they think your response will be to attack them, that will throw a wet blanket on communications.

Glen Morrison articulated the final and most important axiom for leaders: “Actions are the most powerful form of communication.” Without integrity between words and actions, a leader cannot build the authentic connections that are the foundation of trust. Writing in “Leadership as an Art,” Max DePree concurred: “The best way to communicate the basis of a corporation’s or institution’s common bonds and values is through behavior.”

Leadership needs good communication in all its forms, and it is incumbent on leaders to master the complexities of connecting with those they lead and others they wish to influence. To fail in that effort is to be ineffective. Sir Winston Churchill once said, “The difference between mere management and leadership is communication.” As he also demonstrated, leadership empowered by communication can lead to extraordinary accomplishments.

Bob Fisher is editor-at-large of DesignIntelligence and managing principal of the Strategic Identity practice of DesignIntelligence Strategic Advisors.