I sometimes tell a bad joke in response to a client’s question about whether the boss will improve as a result of coaching: How many executive coaches does it take to change a light bulb? Only one. But the bulb has to really want to change…
That bad joke has a very serious subtext. Executives won’t rise to the occasion if they don’t take seriously the need to continuously improve their communication skills. As Winston Churchill famously said, “The most important thing about education is appetite.”
Communicating Effectively is a Burden of Leadership
The 2011 film The King’s Speech tells the true story of George VI, who surprisingly and reluctantly became monarch of the United Kingdom in 1936 when his brother abdicated the throne less than a year after their father’s death. Early in the film, his father, George V, coaches the young prince on the burdens of leadership. He speaks about the need to connect with the people via the relatively new social media technology of radio—what was then called “the wireless”:
“This devilish device will change everything.… In the past all a king had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family has been reduced to the lowest and basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors!”
The rest of the film focuses on the relationship between the king, who has a debilitating stutter, and his speech coach, and on the king’s progress as he masters the leadership burden of connecting with his subjects.
Just as the emerging technologies in the 1930s created new expectations for leaders, the present environment of social media, of instantaneous communication where audiences have multiple sources of information available to them at any time, creates new burdens. Stakeholders expect leaders to be good at connecting with them.
In more than 30 years, I have coached more than 250 chief executive officers and thousands of executives and other high-profile people in complex fields, including doctors, lawyers, financial executives, and military officers. These leaders were in sectors as diverse as pharmaceuticals, heavy manufacturing, energy, biotechnology, computer software, financial services, law firms, advertising agencies, religious denominations, universities, and not-for-profit advocacy groups.
What they all had in common was a need to win hearts and minds. And a sense that they weren’t quite up to the task. Yet. They didn’t have the same obstacles as George VI, but they all needed to get better at this core leadership skill.
Getting Good at Communicating Well
The skills that get many leaders to the top of their organizations are not sufficient to do the work at that level. The higher one goes in a company, not-for-profit, or government agency, the more success is measured in winning hearts and minds rather than in the mastery of some technical skill—from medicine, law, finance, education, engineering, and the like. It isn’t that their core disciplines don’t matter—they do. But they’re table stakes. They’re what’s minimally necessary to get the job. But they’re not enough.
Rather, leaders need to be good at interpersonal verbal engagement—one-on-one and large group, in person and at a distance. I have found a high correlation between leaders seeing part of their work as continually developing their communication skills and their overall success.
I have one client—who is now the CEO and chairman of one of the largest companies in the world—whom I first worked with 13 years ago, when he was head of the company’s research and development subsidiary. He’s a PhD in one of the sciences, and he saw developing his communication skills as an essential part of managing his own career. We met at least once a year for a half day or full day just to hone his skills—plus in between to prepare for particular high-stakes events. Over the years he became president of the U.S. subsidiary, then chief operating officer of the corporation, then president, and then CEO. He eventually added chairman to his title. All the while, he would do an annual tuneup of his skills. I don’t suggest that he’d be CEO if he wasn’t also a good manager and brilliant scientist. But his own investment in his communication aptitude is part of his success.
Another client is the chief financial officer of a large financial institution. When he became CFO he was very strong at the numbers. But with the new position came the need to stand in front of large groups of employees and investors and to inspire confidence. He had never needed to do that before. And it was a bit scary. But he made getting good at it a priority. It took a lot of work. I meet with him every few months—sometimes just to build skills, more often just before a big event such as an investment conference or a quarterly earnings call. And he has risen to the occasion. He got better at it, and more confident about it, because he saw it as an investment in his career. Not as a duty to slog through, but as a way to build and maintain a core leadership competence.
One of the burdens of leadership is to get good at engaging stakeholders well. Leaders need to master basic skills, practice those skills, and continually enhance their capacity to lead verbally.
At a very basic level of tactical execution, being good at engaging well starts with understanding the physicality of audience engagement. The audience makes judgments based on nonverbal cues. A leader is judged based on, among other attributes, his or her bearing: how he or she carries himself or herself. First impressions matter, and the first impression is often visual.
The most effective leaders take seriously the physicality of their performance: Standing or sitting in a posture that creates a stable platform. Gesturing fluidly. Making eye contact and locking in the audience’s attention. Using visuals to amplify the speaker’s points, and not the other way around.
The fundamentals work. And from those physicality fundamentals a leader can build an effective presence to convey content well.
But executives need to take those fundamentals seriously.
For more, see Chapter 7 of The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively.