The way good leaders communicate is changing

18 Dec 2018

The way good leaders communicate is changing

The message that you can’t be a good leader without being a great communicator is still as true as ever, but in a world of social media, how do today’s leaders do it well?

The sheer volume of information we receive daily is exponentially larger than ten years ago. Overnight, smartphones seem to have attached themselves to just about everybody. There’s simply too much to take in. This noisy environment is a real challenge for companies with more to communicate with their employees than ever before.

Throughout our interviews with 70 APAC leaders of MNCs, there was a common theme: the increasing difficulty in getting the message through to the broader team.

One global CEO said that “we are wrestling with the right way to communicate. There is so much information, that people don’t know what is happening.” He went on to describe how they are tackling this, by just going back to basics. “We are back to talking to people directly. One or two simple key messages each year.”

“There is too much information, but the people connection is what is important.”

Another of our interviewees made the point that, as a leader, he needed to adapt to new ways of communicating and take advantage of the new channels available: “The leadership message has changed, but leadership has not.”

Direct connection with leadership

In an earlier chapter, we explained how millennials demand a direct connection with leadership, yet they don’t hear the message if it comes via the traditional route. Millennials don’t read in the same way as previous generations, so some leaders are experimenting and finding success using new methods.

More frequent, shorter communications seem to work well. “As a leader, it’s important to comment authentically twice a week in a casual way.”

But a single channel is not the way. “You need six ways to get a message through to 50% of the people.”

Making friends with Facebook

There is no simple formula and trying something new may not work. The only way to find out is to try, as this CEO explained. “Until six months ago, our internal comms was still e-mail and intranet focused. Our ability to mobilise the workforce was decreasing. We hired a new comms person who wanted to use Facebook, had not convinced the exec team, but launched it anyway. This has been hugely successful with 60,000 of our 90,000 employees engaged.”

In contrast, this (younger) executive in a huge global company with a young workforce was critical of social media as a leadership tool and has gone back to a simpler way to spread ‘his’ message.

“I think there is an over-reliance on social media within companies. I get out into the field with our sales people and meet customers. This has greater value than any other form of communication.”

Social media allows the greater frequency of short communications, but many executives we interviewed are also investing more time meeting face-to-face with groups of people at every level within their organisation.

“I now run focus groups, rather than town halls. Bring a brown bag for lunch. 20 people.”

This kind of activity demands that leaders are authentic and listening to people. The communication becomes two-way. “As a leader, I try to connect on a human level, so people will talk to me.”

Listen up

Many leaders are used to being the person doing the talking. Changing this behaviour in themselves and truly listening takes an effort. If you ask people for their opinion, they expect to be heard. “When we ask people to contribute to the way we approach change, openly and realistically, they engage. They have a voice.”

Listening to people needs follow up, or more harm than good done.

“If I ask for feedback, I must be prepared to act on it, otherwise it stops.”

Too much information brings confusion, so a number of leaders were working hard to make sure they focus on what is important to their people. In this case, a CEO said that “every millennial we have, wants to understand our purpose and commitment to sustainability. I need to bring sustainability into the story.”

Cultural differences

As all veteran APAC leaders know, they need to modulate their messaging as they communicate across cultures. “All countries in APAC are different and I need to behave differently in each country because of this. In Malaysia, staff want their leaders to take them on the journey. In Australia, they want us there to support the journey.”

According to some, direct communication with people at every level explained above raises issues across cultures. “Skip-level meetings are not beneficial where the first language of the participants is not the same.” The same leader successfully trialled something novel in China. “I opened a WeChat account to communicate with people in multiple languages. They can write in Chinese and I see it in English.”

We heard several stories of companies using WeChat as a primary internal communication channel in Asia. In all but one case, these were regional initiatives that worked around global IT policy!

The language of simplicity

The importance of communicating a simple mantra that people remember, and that can be linked to every message is as relevant as ever. Just about every successful leader we interviewed does this.

Here are a few:

  • “We have created a mantra – Sustainability, Innovation, Collaboration.”
  • “There are three leadership priorities: Customer, people and execution.”
  • “Patience, discipline and purpose. This is the role of leadership.”

Tough talk

All businesses have cycles of success and challenge. Some of the leaders we interviewed, were in companies that are finding current conditions challenging. For them, getting tough messages to stick is more difficult than when times were good.

“Leadership messages only resonate where people are in a business that has a solid footing.”

That comment though, from an APAC President, ignores some of the best leadership lessons from history, where great things have been achieved against overwhelming odds. In the case of his company, there seemed to be a disconnect in communication, right from the top. He was feeling the authenticity gap.

By contrast, another leader, in the midst of a global turn-around, said, “Leaders need to be passionate and resilient to keep going and push through the barriers. Only when there is a success, do others follow. To get people on board, they need to see it for themselves.” His comment sounds theoretical, but he was clearly living this reality for himself.

In summary, it’s always worth remembering that employees have also been disrupted by technology. They want more from their leaders but are hearing less. This has become another leadership disruption, where leaders have to work harder to get the job done. There is no rocket science needed here, but rather an open mind to try new things that may or may not work. As this final comment underlines: “I am more in touch with my team these days using many tools. I do not matter which.”


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