C-Levels: Is Effective Executive Communication Vital or Useful?

One of the biggest challenges all executives face is communication – face-to-face, remote and group. And this has become all the more so in times of Cloud-sharing, Webex and video conferencing. Gone are the days when all boards always met, weekly or monthly, in the same location. Yet communication, remote or not, is arguably the most critical aspect of leadership. Without good communication, the senior team runs the risk of not gaining commitment or buy-in from senior managers and their teams; with potential consequences including failing to develop rapport with their team. Without good communications, business chiefs can fail as leaders no matter how good their intentions may be.

It seems to be a common misconception that somehow the type of communications executives are involved with, amongst themselves or with other business partners, are different from those on the shop floor. If they are – in terms of style and tone, not content – the executive isn’t seeing the communication big picture. Think of the number of executives who have been pilloried in public or private, or fallen foul of shareholders or remuneration committees, because they either can’t, or don’t, communicate effectively with peers and teams.

I wonder if, to many executives, this sounds scary? It can – maybe should – be. Front-line employees simply don’t need the same level of communication skills as leaders do. But when employees – which is what executives are, though they’re sometimes simply seen as “different”: they’re not – are promoted to leadership positions, they must learn to connect with many people more effectively to get the job done. I remember in my first management (not an executive!) position, many moons ago(!), I had direct responsibility for approximately 40 – 50 staff and supervisors. I believed, wrongly, that I knew it all and – key – because I knew my previous job inside out, that it was the same as managing other people doing the same thing. I was rapidly disabused of that.

Executives have been seen to fall foul of thinking that the hype that sometimes comes with the job means they do not need to communicate as well at all levels. Wrong. Just think of Fred Goodwin and how he bullied the senior team to involve themselves in ventures which later cost us £45 billion.

So, executives need, on occasion, to be reminded of the basics – perhaps even to be tutored in them. Then learn, or recall, that they can enhance their communication skills with commitment and practice using a few key strategies that will help determine what, when and how to communicate effectively. Most are, in fact, basic and straightforward. But, like many, when I was starting out, I either didn’t think about them; or, if I did, didn’t think they applied to me. You see I knew it all (not). Think Fred Goodwin.

Listening – the most effective leaders know when to stop talking and start listening. This is especially important in three particular situations:

1 – In emotionally charged circumstances – e.g. a board meeting, say a merger or acquisition; or perhaps a senior colleague having been poached

Emotions such as anger, resentment and excitement require the C-level to view them from both a personal and a business standpoint – to try to imagine how that person feels, what his / her motivations are. Executives who ignore others’ feelings (yes even the board members are human with feelings!) distance themselves, ultimately affecting the working environment.

Emotions also cloud clear thinking. In a £multi-billion FTSE, that’s not good (understatement). Allowing employees to address their emotions helps them move effectively and quickly beyond the immediate, and get back to business. The resultant strategic relationship will be stronger and productivity enhanced; and, perhaps more importantly, each party will remember that, particularly at board level, their roles are entirely inter-dependent.

2 – In team situations – it’s critical to bear in mind the senior team – executives and non-execs, senior internal and external managers – is not homogenised – there are multiple personalities, complex dynamics and competing agendas. The “leader of the pack” needs to ensure that everyone is working toward the same goal – only achieved by listening, not constantly talking. Listening also helps managers identify and address conflicts early, as well as facilitating healthy working relationships.

3 – When sharing ideas – when decision makers stop listening to ideas, they cut themselves off from the creativity and expertise of the team. Sharing involves both listening and questioning. At C-level, listening is crucial – the front-end team faces the customer or client but if the CEO gets the strategy wrong by failing in 2-way communication, perhaps the business folds.

So, we know the key components of listening apply as much to the board as the new recruit. The C-level must be reminded or coached to:

- think about what’s being said, not to what someone may say next
- allow others to finish speaking before taking a turn
- repeat back what they’ve heard to give the speaker the opportunity to clarify the message
- facilitate – this in itself is a continuous cycle of three steps:

  • hearing what is said
  • integrating it into the topic at hand
  • saying something to move the conversation forward

The good senior manager will take the time to repeat what was said so that its accuracy can be verified; and will integrate each comment into the topic at hand. This will keep the team’s focus on the main objective
The key components of questioning are:

- good and bad
- open and closed (most of mine in my early days were doubtless bad and closed! Many senior leaders have been caught with closed bordering on the dictatorial – yes, we’re back to Fred the Shred; but also, Jeff Bezos, the undisputed run-my-business-by-heavy-use-of-data king, has a reputation for being curt, blunt and dismissive)
- personal – appropriate or not
- discretion

Executives need information but only (usually) top line; and they often aren’t sure how to get it. Do I speak to my HR directly or to one of her team who has more of an ear to the ground? Similarly, executives need to be skilled in both understanding that employees that may have information might feel uncomfortable giving it, or not know how to impart it. The executive needs to prove why they hold that role, set up immediately collaborative communication and ask “good” questions. Crucially, they also need to know that different kinds of questions yield different kinds of results.

Closed questions – essentially yes/no answers. These are beneficial when the CEO simply needs to check the status of an issue. Has the report been completed? Do you know what to do? Closed questions in those types of scenarios are perfectly appropriate.

Open questions – lead to longer responses – for instance, when seeking input from others, looking for information about a particular topic, or exploring a problem. What do you think would be the best way to go about this? How are you doing on that project? These kinds of questions should stop, sometimes, remote, executives making snap decisions which aren’t appropriate.

Personal questions – crucial but must also be recognised as potentially inappropriate or appropriate. I probably don’t need to go into this. Suffice to say, there are questions that both male and female execs might ask the other sex which would be inappropriate. In China, in December 2016, a senior manager at a China Minsheng Bank Corp Beijing branch was suspended after he was accused of trying to force a female employee to meet him in a hotel for a sexual encounter. In July 2016, a senior Edelweiss Group executive was booked by the Mumbai police on charges of sexually harassing a woman colleague for over three years.

Discretion – absolutely critical at the most senior level where communication messages are often nuanced and subtle. It is known that traders, when the US Treasury Secretary makes his announcement, are listening as much for what he does not say as does: he can be discreet by omission, pass a message to those who will respond (traders) without being explicit and perhaps frightening the wider public. Execs must understand that, as a leader, they must not only respect confidentiality, but must be seen to do so.

Directing – last on the communication list not because it is the least important, but it is definitely one to use less often. Giving directions clearly and unequivocally so people know exactly what to do and when, is business-critical. It is best used in times of confusion, or when efficiency is the most important goal. Although it can be effective, directing also can lead to complacency and that can damage both the executive personally, but also the wider business. By many accounts, Philip Clarke, erstwhile Tesco boss, allegedly never found the balance so veered between using his hands-on approach (having worked his way up) to, when that didn’t work, dictating. Ultimately both failed.

So, bottom-line, should executives be good communicators? Not should, they must be. They must balance explicit, implicit, inferred, suggested, advised, referenced and more. Some will use some elements more than others but that depends as much on the make-up of the board as anything. But if they can’t work out which to use when, or how to balance appropriately, the business will likely survive but the executive may not.

Written by

Cambridge University graduate and professional career sector writer.

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