The path to successful turning points and recoveries from disruption is set at the top. That is, by our business leaders — and at the very onset of a challenge.
It’s clear what comprises real leadership: tone, transparency, empathy and compassion for your people while balancing goals of high performance. So if it is ‘people first’, then being a great boss starts with leaving your ego at the door, as documentarian and entrepreneur Soledad O’Brien puts it.
Leadership development specialist Gina Hayden wrote her book for leaders feeling disconcerted about their reality.
“What you took for granted as that which defines you — your goals, the pursuit of success, your achievements — might have lost its shine. You still want to be successful, but you are looking for a new definition of success, one that includes a better version of yourself. One that answers a deep call within you,” Hayden says.
This type of leader wants to feel, again, a personal connection with their work: “You want to lead in a way that allows you to bring more of yourself to the game.”
And according to YourStory, the new reality necessitates brave leadership.
Kristoffer Paludan, Regional Director of Michael Page Thailand says to breed trust, a sense of honesty and belonging to a common goal of ‘we will get through this together’ is paramount, particularly during times of uncertainty. “It’s crucial for the engagement and retention of your people: transparency breeds trust,” he shares. “Your people are much more resilient and rational than we sometimes give them credit for.”
Here are five key areas of focus for senior business leaders when it comes to effective communication.
1. Build exceptional communication skills
Being a great executive, according to career coach Jane Jackson, boils down to exceptional communication skills. Importantly, when things go wrong, that’s when true leadership is on full display.
“If you’re a C-suite executive, you’re a leader. In order to make the business successful, you must have a vision, very strong commercial acuity and understand why you are in business, so the financials side is essential,” Jackson says.
Leaders need a high level of self-awareness to really understand yourself, your own strengths and how you land on other people. Only then can you develop strong EQ.
“But a key skill that’s essential is strong communication — verbal as well as written. Take the time to improve on your presentation skills and your ability to be able to engage an audience because you will be standing up and speaking, you will be making announcements, you will be leading the direction of the organisation or team, and you have to be able to get the message across very clearly. Executives need to know their communication style but also, their communication style when they’re under intense pressure because very often, it changes without us even realising it.”
She advises business leaders to work on their influencing skills, because without your people’s buy-in, it will be much harder to reach success when implementing any change or initiatives.
2. Add empathy to the mix
Underlying strong communication skills is empathy, Jackson adds. As COVID-19 has highlighted, leaders who have shown empathy during the crisis have in fact been the most effective.
“Exceptional executives are those who understand their people, their drivers, have a vision and communicate it to inspire enthusiasm and the desire for everyone to work well together,” Jackson says.
Being a great executive boils down to exceptional communication skills. Importantly, when things go wrong, that’s when true leadership is on full display.
By opening up communication lines like never before, purpose and values are reinforced.
Furthermore, researcher and author Brené Brown explains in her book, Dare to Lead, that truly daring leaders are prepared to be vulnerable and listen without interrupting. They exercise empathy and connect to emotions that underpin an experience, not just to the experience itself.
She offers that empathy in leadership requires taking someone else’s perspective and understanding their feelings, even when that person is directly challenging you.
3. Emotional intelligence takes centre stage
Empathy is linked to the umbrella concept of emotional intelligence (EQ), arguably one of the most important traits for leaders, particularly in times of crisis and hardship.
According to Dr Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, emotions affect our ability to pay attention, our decision-making, our relationships, our physical and mental health, and our performance and creativity.
Leaders who spend time fine-tuning their EQ will find that each of these areas can be enhanced and therefore will better position you for efficient business recovery.
Brackett suggests leaders start by firstly giving themselves permission to feel, followed by opening up conversations with employees to understand how they are feeling and why.
Leaders should take advantage of courses, training and apps, as it takes constant practice and awareness to building skills of EQ, he says.
Andy Bentote, Regional Manager Director of PageGroup Greater China says it starts with leaders having a high level of self-awareness “to really understand yourself, your own strengths and how you land on other people. Only then can you develop strong EQ”.
4. Transparency is key
Communicate well and communicate often.
According to the McKinsey & Company “A Leader’s Guide: Communicating with Teams, Stakeholders, and Communities During COVID-19” Report, leaders should tailor their communications to the stage of the crisis that their stakeholders are experiencing, and to what people need most at that moment.
Scenario planning, therefore, becomes crucial to help anticipate where employees may be in dealing with the disruption, and the appropriate messaging that can help them as the world begins to recover.
In reality, we can actually control how we perceive the world, and acknowledge that our post-COVID plan and true emotional stability and agility can be quite seamless from an organisational ability standpoint.
During a Michael Page webinar on post-COVID workplace adaptability, international award-winning behavioural scientist Milo-Arne Wilkinson offered that if your workforce is to be comfortable and emotionally prepared for change, they have to know what that looks like in great detail to minimise anxiety.
“There is a tendency to sugar-coat the situation,” she warned.
“Be open about the evolving state of the organisation and the way people may be feeling, instead of avoiding it. Acknowledge the uncertainty and the situation, and that we may need to make a long-term effort to over the problem. Many leaders still don’t appreciate how important their messaging can be. From this point forward, leadership will be defined by what you do say, not what you hold back.”
Commenting on this, Matt Gribble, Regional Managing Director of PageGroup Australia says it will be crucial for offices that are reopening to build up the return to work with a very detailed communication programme that paints a picture of all that’s being done for employees.
“This not only ensures safe operations in this environment but also helps your people’s anxiety levels to be lowered and importantly, allows a build-up of confidence in that plan over time,” Gribble explains.
“I’ll also make a point about comments around feeling like we’ve lost control due to COVID-19. In reality, we can actually control how we perceive the world in a positive light and acknowledge that our post-COVID plan and true emotional stability and agility can be quite seamless from an organisational ability standpoint.”
Nicolas Dumoulin, Managing Director of PageGroup India adds that during uncertain times, it is only natural for people get anxious about their work prospects. “Giving them a clear and honest view takes this uncertainty away — and it will lead to higher engagement and performance,” he says.
5. Emphasise what’s working
Research has found positive leadership is generally linked to better outcomes versus negative leadership styles. For example, transformational leadership has been found to significantly contribute to performance, job satisfaction and extra effort.
According to Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, even in the most broken companies, “eight out of 10 things are being done right by good people”. Therefore one of the most effective ways to recover for the future and capture upside is to amplify the things and people that are working well.
“And the more you celebrate them, the more energy you give, the more support they get, the better they do and the better you feel,” Conant offers.
The benefits here are two-fold: it creates confidence for executives in their ability to lead in a recovering world and at the employee level, they feel empowered and gain a sense of direction.
As Jon Gordon sums up in his book, The Power of Positive Leadership, there is a power associated with positive leadership, which executives can start benefitting from with their teams: “Ultimately, being a positive leader is all about leading with faith in a world filled with cynicism, negativity and fear.”
New rules of communication for leaders
01 Know how your communication style changes when you're under immense pressure
02 Invest in fine-tuning your EQ and understanding your level of self-awareness
03 Regular scenario planning ensures employees can anticipate and accept changes and decisions
04 Lead in a way that allows you to bring more of yourself to the game