Imagination often arises from an ability to stop thinking literally. Management by contrast is a literal process. At the same time, good managers sometimes let thinks fly in order to create something new.
Creativity then is based on substance which in turn becomes transformed by the energy that an artist, scientist or entrepreneur expends in producing something new and something different. Most importantly, there is always purpose. The phrase “creativity for its own sake” gives short shrift to the intention that creator gives to the work.
Creativity nurtures the organization and for that reason it must be fostered and stimulated. Simple when you imagine it!
Some people I know work for large organizations that are faced with fiscal challenges, but few doubt their employers’ ability to survive long-term. What these organizations do not have is good leadership. Those at the top of the pyramid are effective managers but lack vision and the ability to inspire others that good leaders possess.
And I suspect that many organizations, both public and private, are in the very same spot. Their financials are acceptable but their leadership is lacking. What is missing is ability over the horizon to see possibilities and then mobilize others to action to fulfill those possibilities. Employees are drawn to leaders who have imagination and energy. The reason, as historian and leadership philosopher James McGregor Burns has postulated in his fine book, Leadership, is because they see in the leader the potential to fulfill their own ambitions and ideas.
Needed in this downturn are men and women who can inspire, not simply with the power of their personality but with the power of their imagination. Such vision need not be reserved solely for those at the top of the pyramid; rather it can be recognized and nurtured by those who are in position to groom and promote the next generation of leaders. Here are three attributes to look for.
Realism. Inspirational leaders are rooted in reality. They know the facts but remain undeterred. This sense separates them from fools who are quick to rush into things before considering consequences. Inspirational leaders are keenly aware of what could go wrong and are honest about it. It is his honesty that draws capable contributors. They sense the leader knows the facts but is willing to experiment as well as persevere.
Improvement. Wanting to make things better is essential to inspiration. Therefore inspirational leaders value innovations. They are inherently creative because they are not satisfied with the status quo. Very importantly they seek to open doors for people who can innovate in their function, be it product development or logistics. They encourage employees to think for themselves.
Optimism. You must believe in the better tomorrow. This is easy to do when the economy is rising but more difficult when it is shrinking. Optimism for the inspirational leader is not merely inherent; it is contagious. Others feel it and want to feed off it. This is essential to getting the work done now but developing next generation initiatives that will position the organization for success over the long term.
Inspiration is more than an emotional reaction. While inspirational leaders are often charismatic, as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were, leadership inspiration comes more from the power of possibilities. Bill Gates is an exemplar. Gates does not warm to the spotlight the way celebrities do. It is the power of his ideas, first at Microsoft and now at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that draw bright capable people to him the way moths are drawn to flames. As Dr. Burns has taught us, people want to work for projects that Gates shepherds because they will be able to achieve their own goals, too.
Leaders who can inspire others to achieve are a rare breed. But in times of crisis they are necessary to help their organizations past the dark times and more importantly shine a light, and help show others, how to follow that light to prosperity. “A leader’s job is to look into the future and see the organization, not as it is,” as Jack Welch once said, “but as it should be.”
Leaders are not futurists per se but they are people who can see potential where others see roadblocks. More importantly they can surround themselves with very capable people who can make the impossible possible.
Leaders must be the type who look at the glass as half-full versus half-empty. Why?
People need to be inspired, and they will only feel inspired if their leader is positively disposed — and joyful.
A leader inclined to be positive is one who looks at challenges as opportunities. A leader inclined to pessimism is one who sees challenges as roadblocks. One way to spread joy is let people know two things. One, you care about the work. Two, you care about them as people. That gives people joy.
Caring about them really means talking about the work, having a meaningful conversation about what they are doing, and how they are contributing. You provide them with resources and support, and you recognize them for success.
That is joyful.
We do not think of ballplayers as sources of management wisdom but perhaps we should do so occasionally.
Some years ago Jonathan Papelbon, the preternaturally gifted Red Sox closer, gave an interview to Esquire magazine in which he said, “It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that’s exactly what was happening” with Manny Ramirez, the all-star hitter the Sox traded last season. Ramirez was traded for journeyman outfielder Jason Bay. That is fine by Papelbon who said, “Johnny Ballgame (Bay) plays the game right, plays through broken knees, runs out every ground ball — and was like a breath of fresh air, man! Awesome!”
Papelbon is speaking for everyone and anyone who has ever had the misfortune of being on a team with a guy who may pull his weight, but makes such a big deal of the effort that he sucks the energy out of everyone with whom he comes in contact. While his work may be stellar, his ethic is off-kilter, and as a result sends the team helter-skelter.
Managers often find themselves in a dilemma over such performers for one simple reason: superstars produce. They make the numbers, be it in sales, productivity, efficiency and even customer satisfaction. But while they give, they often take away more. To make it worse such superstars often have friends, or patrons, in high places. The higher ups have little interaction with the superstar who is typically unfailingly polite to them and so the higher productivity is all they care about.
So if you are on a team with a spoiled star, what can you do about it? Often not much. There may be a temptation for individuals get together to sabotage the star’s results. That may get the star exposed but it also opens the others to dismissal, too. But there are ways to protect yourself.
Think straight. Know what you can do and what you cannot do. Think about how you will do your job by working around the spoiled star. If you can avoid being in his presence, do so. You will find yourself in plenty of company.
Do your work. Diligence will keep you focused on the task at hand. It will not get you noticed; spoiled stars have a way of sucking up all the credit. In tough times it may be easier to concentrate on considering the alternative.
Focus attention on your team. Collaborate with those with whom you trust. Work with people who believe as you do. Two people working together can sometimes do the work of three people — not because they work harder but because they work smarter, and more efficiently.
Superstars are not all bad. Their productivity can bring results. After all, the Boston Red Sox won two World Series with Manny Ramirez on their squad. There was little finger-pointing when the champagne was uncorked after the game-clinching victories.
Yet in the long run, spoiled stars who not only think, but act as if life is all about them, will kill team spirit. They will ruin harmony and eventually tank productivity. Baseball does have one legendary philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once said — among many things — “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” As well the Red Sox know.
When a leader demonstrates he is open to new ideas, he makes it known that he values others.
One executive I know in health care makes it a practice to keep her door open to anyone in the company. That sets the tone for other executives in the organization.
We all want to be respected by others, but how often do we show respect to others, in particular those who report to us? The more we can answer that question in the affirmative, the more respect we will get in return.
When that happens, people will be happy to share their ideas because they know they have a willing listener.
IQ gets you hired. EQ gets you promoted.
This HR adage has been around sometime and while certainly valid, it does not address the entire picture when applied to an executive on the rise. Certainly the individual must have smarts, a combination of old-fashioned “book-learnin’” and business acumen. Additionally, the executive must possess the ability to maintain an emotional equilibrium with self and with others.
Truly successful executives must possess more. According to my colleague, Kevin Butler, former chief human resource officer at Delphi, these executives combine two elements in their leadership. They are socially aware; they understand people’s needs, wants and differences. They socially manage; they know how to leverage differences as well as likenesses in order to bring people together for common cause.
Awareness plus management is crucial. It’s one thing to be able to understand people, but, as Kevin points out, you also need to be able to get aligned toward common goals. This requires true leadership.
Understanding people goes beyond knowing their work or even their personal history. It requires the ability to observe dispassionately so that you know how they work best and why. From a management perspective, you put such people into positions where they can excel. Such talents, coupled with skills, makes them a good fit for some jobs but not others. Too often, talented people are put into positions for which they are not suited, and they flounder.
For example, an engineer who loves solving problems individually may not be inclined to seek a management position. He may prefer to work independently — and can work well in teams — but he likes what he does and has no desire to go into management, where he must step back from problem-solving personally so that his direct reports can do the work. An executive with strong social management skills can read the situation, recognize those talents and keep the engineer occupied doing the work he loves doing.
A greater dimension of social management is combining the talents, as well as the differences, of others to get them to coalesce around a common goal. “Leadership,” as Dwight Eisenhower once wrote, “is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Such leadership requires inspiration. In others words, employees have personal priorities; it is the socially savvy manager who can get them to lay aside differences to work on the project at hand. Even better when a manager can get those individuals to make such work their own personal priority. Such a team is on the way to achieving results that are not simply achieved, but sustained.
The business case for diversity, as Kevin Butler argues, rests upon those leaders who are savvy in social management. Such leaders see opportunity in differences due to gender, ethnicity, age and culture. Not only do these leaders recruit for differences, they manage to them; inclusiveness becomes the practice when assembling teams, developing initiatives, and promoting people into executive positions. Managing in this way does more than create opportunity for others; it maximizes innovation and hence business opportunities. People from diverse backgrounds think and do things differently. Differing perspectives are vital when developing and delivering products and services for a global economy.
Another way of looking at social management is to look back at a principle of our Founding Fathers — E Pluribus Unum. One from many. While our Founders were thinking of independent former Colonies throwing their lot together as a single nation, the same applies to business. Consider this as many different points of view coalescing for a single purpose.
You can show someone a better way to do something, but they will not adopt your approach until they trust you.
Never is this more true than when trying to lead peers. Colleagues may resent or even fear assistance from a peer. Peer-to-peer leadership is seldom easy, but it is not impossible.
Leading colleagues rests upon two principles: understanding need and delivering value. You must understand the situation a peer is facing and you must have the skills to help him or her succeed. So, it’s important to consider what the need is and what value you can offer. So let’s define our terms.
When you deliver for others, they begin to trust you and become receptive to what you have to offer.
Corporate success rests on good leadership.
Or so we all believed. For at least a generation, we have praised corporate executives as examples of good management. To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the current recession — aside from financial insecurity — is the failure of leadership, especially corporate leadership. So the question arises, what were senior executives thinking? How did they allow this to happen? And why were they so late to respond?
In May 2008, just as the recession was gaining steam, management strategist Gary Hamel convened a group of business leaders and scholars together to consider the future of management.
Hamel wrote up the group’s 25 suggestions for new approaches to management in an article for the Harvard Business Review entitled “Moon Shots for Management.” The analogy to the nation’s great “stretch goal” of the 1960s sets the framework for thinking really big and acting even bigger. The Ideas offered by the group include re-thinking hierarchy, re-defining the purpose of work, leveraging imagination and humanizing the workplace. What better time than now, when so much of what we took for granted is no longer working, to begin anew?
And so I believe it is appropriate for those of us who teach and write about leadership to question our own assumptions, too. Here are three assumptions about how leaders manage that are coming under challenge.
It is important for organizations to set firm goals. People need to have direction so it is important to point them in the right direction. But such a single-minded focus on goals may end up damaging individuals and the organization says a study conducted by Maurice Schweitzer of Penn’s Wharton School. Relentless pursuit of goals tempts managers to cross ethical boundaries and abandon “sound business practices.” Unreached goals may then end up frustrating an organization rather than helping it to succeed.
Quick wins are essential to managers in transition. Executives in transition need to make an impact in their organization. While it’s necessary to build strong relationships, striving for “quick wins” may do more harm than good, according to a study by Mark E. Van Buren and Todd Safferstone. Such wins may end up sabotaging the executive’s ability to succeed in the longer term. As the authors write in the Harvard Business Review, “The relentless pursuit of a quick win is what ultimately prevents new leaders from benefiting from it. Knowing that they must rack up quick wins to prove themselves, new leaders often trip up during the quest for early results. In some cases, they manage to get the outcome they were seeking in a narrow sense, but the process isn’t pretty, the fallout is toxic, and their ability to lead is compromised.”
Senior leaders believe in their CEOs. Grousing within the ranks about the people in charge is nothing new. But what is somewhat surprising is that people at the top also have skepticism about their CEOs’ capacity to lead. A study by Booz & Company stated that nearly half (46%) of all senior managers surveyed doubted the CEO’s ability to navigate the current crisis. If senior leaders doubt the ability of the person most in charge, the company’s future seems ominous.
Challenging assumptions is a good thing for leaders to do. It may be even more necessary in times such as ours when executives and companies we judged as solid performers have proven to be so deficient. And so a byproduct of this recession might be the formulation of new assumptions that govern our thinking and doing. And that’s a good thing, something in an earlier age we might have called progress.
How often do you think about mistakes you make in your job?
As an exercise, it may be worthwhile taking the time to itemize a top five list of mistakes you have made in your career. By focusing on what you did wrong, you will realize your limits, and you likely will also realize something else — your ability to recover from those mistakes!
Those who succeed in their careers are those who are willing to apply a critical eye to themselves. There will be things to criticize. But there will also be things to praise. And there should be comfort in that discovery.
Jay Leno brought his act, called the “Comedy Stimulus Show,” to the Motor City for two shows this week; tickets were free. A car enthusiast, as well as a collector, Leno has long exhibited a kinship with this blue collar city. “This is one of the great industrial cities,” Leno told his audience. “This is a city that actually makes a product.”
To reporters Leno said, “GM’s not bankrupt yet, I was there today actually. I saw a lot of good product.” And now that the city and its environs are down in the dumps, Leno is doing what he does best: telling jokes and helping to take locals’ minds off the worst economic crisis to hit Detroit since the Great Depression.
Leno’s example is a good one for leaders to follow. While most leaders are not comedians, though lately a few in the financial sector have provided excuses for bonuses that have proven to be laughable, good leaders possess good people instincts. And right now most people, no matter what job they are doing, could do with a laugh. My point is not to turn you into a jokemeister, but rather to help you find ways to look at life from a different perspective. So, in that spirit, here are three ways to inject some levity into your workplace.
Point out absurdity. Leno is a master at satirizing everyday reality. “I don’t want to say our economy is bad, but now Mexico is building a wall.” Leno loves to poke fun at new products, want ads, and male virility. His long-running Jay Walking series in which he interviews people on the street illustrate just how hysterically unaware people can be about history and current events. Same applies to the workplace. We all operate on assumptions that someone else makes the coffee, buys the doughnuts and brings all the snacks.
Lampoon hypocrisy. “Now the government didn’t ask any of those Wall Street CEOs to quit. Isn’t that kind of a double standard?” Leno wonders. “If you build Cadillacs you are screwed. But if your chauffeur drives a Cadillac, you’re okay.” This joke underscores the double standard perceived by automakers who feel that those on Wall Street have been bailed out while those in Detroit have been put out. In corporate terms, this duality plays out when bosses reduce bonuses while employees reduce salary. There are always dichotomies between what we say and what we do.
Take the high and mighty down a peg. From his jokes about Bill Clinton’s “appetites,” George W. Bush’s work ethic, and Barack Obama’s bowling, Leno takes aim at presidents’ foibles. So in this spirit, start with yourself. Make it safe for people to make light of your shortcomings. If you tell a joke on yourself, you ease the tension in the room, especially when people are feeling uptight about work and their place in it.
As with all things humorous, tread carefully. Avoid jokes that lampoon gender and ethnicity; if you suspect a joke may be taken the wrong way, act on that assumption and don’t use it. The point of humor in the workplace is not telling jokes; it is to lighten the mood.
A leader’s job is to make the work continue. You see, even in Detroit, as bad as things are, the automakers are continuing to operate. And while the economic pallor remains shades of gray, people still have jobs to do. It is up to leaders to keep people focused. Reminding them of their humanity through laughter is a good way to do it.
One of the big reasons change initiatives fail is because people do not like to be pushed out of their comfort zones.
That is only the surface emotion; a deeper reason is that people are uncomfortable with learning something new. Changing will mean absorbing new information, processing it and acting upon it. Sometimes that is hard.
Learning is intrinsic to change. This video contains suggestions for leaders to engage in the learning process.
The operative word for leaders is to engage; get involved in the learning process as student and teacher and watch good things happen.
Sixty-two phone calls! That’s what it took a friend of mine, a former executive vice president for national sales, to land a meeting with a new account. He made those calls over a sixteen-month period; each call represented one more attempt to gain the client’s attention. And when he finally met face to face with the client, she thanked him heartily for not giving up. Needless to say my friend’s persistence helped his company win the business.
This story surfaced in a conversation about the need for tenacity in our down economy. It is easy to become discouraged at the deluge of bad news that threatens to swamp us in despair. I am particularly mindful of our twenty-something’s who till now have not endured such heavy weather. [And this is NOT a knock on their work ethic. I have found this generation to be as hard working as any previous one.]
It is up to more experienced managers to show them the right way to conduct themselves. Not with platitudes but with action steps. And so in that spirit I propose the “one more” solution. Consider how you might:
Make one more connection to a customer. Many customers are not buying. Do not let that dissuade you from reaching out and meeting with them. Those who stay close to their customers today will be those who reap the benefits tomorrow.
Make one more attempt to sell an idea upstairs. Tough times are great times to pitch new ideas. Some bosses are naturally resistant to change. But you can make an extra effort to demonstrate the benefits of your great ideas. Be certain to argue the business case. Use the downturn to reinforce your salient propositions.
Make one more effort to engage your employees in the challenges facing your business. Listen to what they are telling you. Learn from what they share with you. Find ways to put some of their ideas into play. Not everything an employee suggests is golden but you demonstrate a willingness to learn if you listen.
And finally, think about what you can do more of in your own job, your own function, and in your own business.
Doing all of these “one more’s” is no guarantee. You or your business may not be viable in today’s tough economic times. Hanging tough might help in an endurance race, but it will not generate new clients or new business if your offerings are not competitive.
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity,” said famed aviator, Amelia Earhart. “The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do.” Tenacity will pay dividends. Perhaps not immediately, but over time it will. Those employees and managers who exercise tenacity today will be those who have earned their resilience. That will hold them in good stead now and in the future.
Feedback, as Marshall Goldsmith taught me, is a gift. Even when it smacks us upside the head like a two-by-four! Rejecting feedback without thinking about it is foolish.
However unfair you may think the feedback is — and most often it is very fair — there is a grain of truth in it that is worthy of reflection.
As Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen write in their book “Thanks for the Feedback,” negative feedback knocks us for a loop. It upsets our self-constructed image of ourselves.
So as, Stone and Heen argue, it is necessary to learn from feedback. One, you can learn how your actions are impacting others. Two, you can learn about yourself.
Feedback requires humility to accept, as well as the common sense to put it to good use.
Boom! John Madden has retired from the NFL broadcast booth. With an analyst’s eye for detail but a storyteller’s ear for story, Madden brought the pro game to life, and in the process, helped make the NFL an enduring staple of sports entertainment.
Madden not only excelled in the broadcast booth; he was a successful NFL football coach, guiding the Oakland Raiders to their Super Bowl victory in January 1977. Madden’s outsized but affable personality made him a natural as a TV pitch man. He also embraced the video game business, helping to develop and upgrade annually the EA Sports NFL game that bears his name.
So what can you learn about leadership from John Madden? Let me itemize five lessons.
Commit to what you do. Football coaches immerse themselves in their craft. From recruiting talent to coaching it, along with developing game plans and spending hours studying film, football coaches spend their lives molding players and analyzing those actions. Madden took the same work ethic to the broadcast booth; he continued to study film, meet with coaches, and interview players. Broadcast partner, Al Michaels, noted that Madden never regarded himself as an “ex-coach” moonlighting as an analyst. Madden thought of himself a broadcaster and worked hard at this craft. Like Madden, leaders need to commit to their jobs and do what it necessary to push the team forward.
Innovate as you go. Madden turned the clunky Telestrator, a video graphics tool, into an artist’s pallet for illustrating games from a coach’s perspective. Broadcast professionals respected Madden for his football smarts as well as for his gift to communicate simply and colorfully. Madden also advised on broadcast coverage telling producers and crew about team and player tendencies. All leaders may innovate personally but they need to be open to new ideas and encourage others to think freely and without boundaries.
Tell stories. Madden imbued his broadcast narratives with heart. Digressing momentarily from the action, Madden would spin picaresque anecdotes of players and coaches that gave viewers insight into players as characters who were sometimes funny, odd, even tragic but always very human. He also punctuated his calls with old fashioned expressions like “boom” and “pow,” a style that annoyed some but also heightened his everyman aura. Bosses who tell stories are those who can communicate a sense of humanity to the job that encourages followership.
Love what you do. When he announced his retirement on KCBS Radio in San Francisco, Madden made it clear how much he loved what he did. Football and subsequently its analysis were his life. Work life is hard and if you do not enjoy what you do, avoid it. But if you love what you do as a leader then you will have a fruitful time helping others achieve their goals.
And finally know when to say when. Anyone in a position of leadership who is thinking about a career change or retirement would do well to study Madden. He retired as an NFL coach after winning a Super Bowl and posting the most successful record of any head coach, a record that stands till this day. Madden then pursued a career as a football analyst starting with a handful of games in 1979. Thirty years later the love for the game persists but love of family his stronger. He wants to spend more time with his wife of fifty years, Virginia, and their five grandchildren. His parting comments made it clear that he was not ill nor was he being shoved aside. His contract was in effect for a further three years.
The NFL game will go on without Madden but it will do so enhanced by his legacy as coach, broadcaster, and innovator. Boom, indeed!
Doubt, while annoying and irritating, can be a leader’s best friend.
When a leader hesitates, pausing to consider the assumptions as well as the options, she is doing what the organization needs.
How a leader responds to the second-guessing is a measure of his ability to withstand pressure. Knowing in your heart that you made the best call you could make at the time forms a foundation for going forward.
The leader has only her gut to trust. And when she can look into the mirror and say she made the best decision possible at the time then that is all you can ask.
Originally posted 4.23.2009
President Barack Obama visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia the other day to speak to CIA employees. In doing so, the President was doing what every senior leader needs to do in times of crisis: be seen and be heard.
People of good intention from all sides of the political spectrum have different views of the CIA, but inside the agency, employees have been feeling beleaguered and demoralized.
Therefore, in some ways, what has occurred at “The Company” is akin to what is occurring in many companies. It fell to the President, as it falls to all senior leaders, to rally the troops. While debate will continue to swirl around the CIA, what the President said and did at Langley is worthy of study for leaders seeking insight to communicating in tough times.
Come to them. When Director Leon Panetta introduced the President, he noted the employees’ enthusiastic response, “This is a very loud welcome [laughter] to a group that is supposed to be silent warriors.” Employees love it when top officials visit their location. It sends a powerful signal when the leader comes to your workplace. It demonstrates that what you do matters.
Affirm their worth. “You are on the front lines against unconventional challenges,” said the President as he itemized the work the CIA does to “support our troops,” “disrupt terrorist’s plots,” and help “destroy terrorists’ networks.” Therefore, the President said, “You should be proud of what you do.” Employees never tire of hearing their good work praised by people at the top, and need to hear that the work they do is consequential.
Stand with them. Knowing that many in the CIA are feeling under siege for the release of information on the torture memos, the President accepted responsibility for their release. But he made it clear that he would “protect your identities and your security” adding that he “will be as vigorous as protecting you as you are vigorous in protecting the American people.” Employees need to know that executives have their back because all too often when things get hot it is employees who suffer the heat first.
Do not pull punches. The President was explicit in expecting CIA to uphold the values of the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, “Al Queda’s not constrained by a constitution.” He noted that it may seem as if the U.S. is “operating with one hand behind our back.” No matter that CIA has “the harder job.” The President emphasized, “we will defeat our enemies because we’re on the better side of history.” Leaders need to have explicit standards, values and behaviors. Such things reinforce the culture and leaders need to endorse them.
Tough jobs in tough times demand solidarity from top to bottom. Leaders need to iterate what they feel and why they feel it.
Experienced leaders know that speeches may make headlines, but employees do the work. It will be up to the President through his appointed CIA director Leon Panetta to ensure that the CIA adheres to Administration aims when it comes to intelligence gathering. Showing respect for its work is a good first step; what happens next will matter to history.
Leaders can never assume that employees do not want to see and hear them, especially in tough times. What Obama did at Langley, senior leaders need to do in their own shops. Make the personal visit. Shake some hands. Give a pep talk. Take questions. Listen to what people are saying. And when possible, promise a return visit. When times are tough, the leader’s presence is an affirmation that what employees do matters.
Engagement is employees’ commitment toward their work. It is rooted in purpose.
You can begin to establish engagement by asking employees three simple questions.
In this video, I reveal that answers to these questions knit communication and follow-through together in ways that demonstrate that a leader is interested enough to listen, concerned enough to act and willing enough to offer assistance.
We need people who can communicate!
Raise your hand if you have heard this line at least a thousand times. In fact, you’ve likely heard it so much that it’s become meaningless. Communication, as I teach and coach, is the glue that holds an organization together. It is the means by which we exchange ideas, learn from each others, and perhaps most importantly, connect to each other.
“Communication and interpersonal skills remain at the top of the list of what matters most to recruiters.” That’s according to the Harris Interactive/Wall Street Journal business school survey published in September 2007.
So why do we ignore the relevance of communication until it becomes an issue? One reason may be because we don’t take the time to quantify what we mean by it.
That’s why I found Adam Bryant’s New York Times interview with Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Airlines, refreshing. In the interview Anderson proceeded to define his expectations for effective communication.
1. Know the fundamentals. “People really have to be able to handle the written and spoken word,” said Anderson. Express yourself well verbally, as well as on paper or through email. Failure to communicate coherently leaves people unsure of what is expected of them.
2. Think clearly about what you will say. Anderson is not a fan of PowerPoint. Bullet points without a “subject, a verb and an object” do not convey “complete thoughts.” With respect to Mr. Anderson, PowerPoint itself is not the problem; executives who use it as a short-hand for thinking are. Too many managers use it to sketch out thoughts rather than flesh them out.
3. Prepare for meetings. Documents for meetings should be distributed in advance and made clear and concise. Anderson also wants meetings to “start on time.” That’s all part of the preparation process. So often meetings go off track before they begin because managers and employees do not take the time to think about what they will say before they say it.
4. Engage in discussion. “I want the debate,” says Anderson. “I want to hear everybody’s perspective, so you want to try to ask more questions than make statements.” All too often, either due to the press of time or perhaps a feeling of over-importance, executives do not make it clear that they want to hear alternate points of view. Such an approach leads to “groupthink” because no one speaks up.
5. Listen to others. Discussions are meaningless if no one is listening. Anderson does not like to see his managers checking their BlackBerrys in meetings. Doing so shows lack of “focus” and is akin to reading a newspaper during the meeting, says Anderson. As little as we may tend to oral and written skills, we spend even less time on listening. For that reason, too many managers end up ill informed and, in turn, ill prepared to deal with issues that subsequently morph into problems. Time spent listening might have headed off such disasters.
“Measure what you treasure” is a saying used by compensation professionals in reference to aligning rewards to corporate goals. The same philosophy can be applied to communication. If you value communication skills you will recruit, train and hire for it. Oral and verbal skills are a baseline; organizations also need to look at the broader context of how such skills are used to inform, persuade, coach and inspire. That requires years of practice and example. It is up to leaders to show the way by communicating clearly — but also teaching others to do the same.