Employees look to leaders to set the tone for the organization, so a leader needs to be authentic, relatable and transparent. Whether you’re creating a leader communication program or coaching a leader before a big meeting, focusing on communication skills is key. In this episode of Employee Buzz, we’ll discuss how you can set up leaders for success every time.

Episode transcript: 

Alyssa:
Hi everybody this is Alyssa Zeff, your college basketball fanatic, useless trivia guru, stitch fix enthusiast. I'm here with Darlene, one of Davis & Company's senior directors. She is a diehard New Jersey Devils fan.

Darlene:
Dying hard this year.

Alyssa:
Mom of four, that is three humans and one dog, and the queen of game shows; so, I'm sure we'll have some fun later. Today, Darlene and I are going to chat about a topic near and dear to I think many of our hearts: leader communication.

Darlene:
Yay.

Alyssa:
Thank you, Darlene, for being here.

Darlene:
Thanks for having me.

Alyssa:
So, we hear this from our clients all the time: “My leaders aren't communicating.” Why do you think leaders struggle with this so much?

Darlene:
I think leaders struggle for a couple of reasons and I go back to what you said to me about that I'm the queen of game shows, and I'm really not, but it was an interesting segue for me when I saw what we were going to be talking about because game show hosts are so comfortable and calm in front of their audiences and you wonder, okay they're performers, yes, then you look at leaders and we think, “My god they're just not that comfortable.” So, we look at some of the reasons why. I think some of them just don't have the communication skills; that comfort and that just ability to stand in front of a big group of people. Some of them don't have the depth of knowledge about whatever it is they're talking about, and then they're worried because they don't know what they can say and what they can't say so they tend to not say anything as a result. I think with leaders the big thing is knowing the topic and knowing what they can and can't say.

Alyssa:
Yeah, I think that those are really great points. Another one that I've learned over the years from my experience is sometimes leaders think they are communicating when they're not.

Darlene:
Yes, that's another one. Right.

Alyssa:
Leader communication is not what it used to be. What do you think has been the biggest change over the years when it comes to leaders communicating?

Darlene:
Well, I think the fact that we're talking about it is a big change. I don't necessarily know that in the past people talked about it and about its importance. But I would think the biggest change is not so much the communication but it's the expectation of what communication means. Right, so I go back to, my god, my dad was, I remember him in his brown suits in the seventies working for ITT and I don't think he thought about leader communication and expected the CEO or the President of ITT to come down and have a chat with the rank and file. I think the expectations today are so different. Employees want their leaders to be, what are the words? Candid, authentic, transparent, relatable. When we ask employees today what they're expecting of leader communication those are the words that we hear and it's really framed by how they experience communication in their everyday lives.

Alyssa:
I completely agree and I think it goes to the evolution of internal communication overall. It used to be a news function. So it used to be that internal communicators were responsible for pushing out news to employees because they had no other way of getting it. At this point, by the time a CEO, for example, stands in front of his employees for a town hall he can't announce the financial results or announce an acquisition or anything like that, employees already know all of that. So now he's got to translate it, he's got to be relatable, all of those things that you're talking about and make it really relevant for people. So he's not a source of news the way he used to be. He's got to be something that is making it real for employees.

Darlene:
Right. And I think a lot of people want to see his reaction to certain things. I hear a lot, what keeps him or her up at night, right? I know the news but how is my leader translating it and giving us the story that fills in the gaps?

Alyssa:
Let's break this down a little bit and talk about ways to help, I'm using air quotes, up skill leaders so they're effective communicators. Let's just volley back and forth, what are some ways to get leader's skills increased when it comes to communication.

Darlene:
Well first I'd say training. Leaders before they speak to the media they often require or request media training, give them communication training, it's the same thing. You're standing in front of an audience you need to feel comfortable; you know that guy probably didn't need that but my guy probably could have used it.

Alyssa:
Absolutely. So my first one will be making them make time for it. And one of the best ways to do that is just block it on their calendars. Work with their admins or their chiefs of staff or whoever it is who's in charge of their calendar and throughout the year block these communication opportunities whether it's coffee chats or a webinar or a teleconference, whatever it is. But get it on their calendar so they're committed to doing it.

Darlene:
Nice. And then they get good practice.

Alyssa:
Exactly, right.

Darlene:
One that I'm thinking of is we always have to provide briefing materials no matter what they're standing up talking about. We can subtly link how-to tips in there, sort of the how, the when, the how often you should be communicating.

Alyssa:
My next one is probably play to their strengths. We hinted at this in what we just talked about with the two leaders which is I was working with a leader who clearly was great at off the cuff and answering questions so creating opportunities for him to do that, where your leader was more afraid it was giving him opportunities to have dialogue without being scared of what he was going to answer. So create a plan that plays to their strengths. And you go, last one.

Darlene:
Yeah, 100% I agree. I think another good one is to prepare for pushback. Thinking about kind of the same way you create FAQs, a frequently asked questions document, you think of all the hard questions people might ask and then give that leader some answers, make sure that he's prepared with answers for some of the harder questions, especially during, like for emotional topics.

Alyssa:
Okay. So that's a good transition. A lot of our listeners are probably charged with creating leader communication programs. What advice would you give them in terms of what really should go into their programs and how should they tackle creating these programs?

Darlene:
Well I think there's a lot of things that go into it, particularly around the strengths of the leader, so you look at that. But when creating the plan, I think you lead with the data. You look at any kind of employee data, demographics, behavioral statistics, anything like that you can get, ideally employee feedback about leader communication, that's how you're going to make your case with your leader that this program needs to be either revamped or created or whatever it is. Leaders make decisions through data so that's how you're going to get their attention, that's how you're going to get them to decide to make this change or create this plan.

Darlene:
Secondly, we talked about it in the, I think I mentioned it about briefing materials. This is about providing them with the content, telling them what you can, what you can't say, clarifying the expectations of when you should communicate, how often, what format so is it coffee chat, is it you're going to make formal presentations, is it you're going to walk through a facility when you're traveling, that sort of thing. So if you provide them with that content and set those expectations.

Darlene:
And then I think it goes back to what you were saying as far as how we can up skill them or building it into their calendars. This is about building those opportunities for dialogue. So you go back to what our employees are expecting from their leaders. They're expecting dialogue so build those opportunities in. There's going to be formal communication that's necessary, you're going to need to make a presentation, you're going to need to send out a formal message, email, whatever it is, but you're also going to need that two-way dialogue with employees because that's going to satisfy their need as well.

Alyssa:
That reminds me of a story I recently heard. It was a relatively new leader of a business unit at a large company and he and a number of employees were going to some event on a bus and the bus ride was maybe an hour or something like that. And he just off the cuff took the opportunity to walk to the back of the bus, sit down and have conversations, hey ask me whatever you want, not scripted, not anything. And the viral buzz on that bus ride was more than anything at the meeting, any town hall, any message that had ever been done. And it was so eye opening to me because you can create, you can formalize the informality. As you're building these programs, you can build in those opportunities that don't have to be scripted but are really authentic and the ones that employees really remember.

Darlene:
And I would bet that leader had coaching on that.

Alyssa:
Yes.

Darlene:
I would bet that he knew what he could and couldn't say.

Alyssa:
Yes.

Darlene:
Because that could be quite a nightmare if he's just out there talking.

Alyssa:
Okay, last question Darlene. If you had a magic wand, what's the one thing you would fix about leader communication?

Darlene:
Let's see, a magic wand. I think I'd rather have the force.

Alyssa:
Obviously.

Darlene:
So I think I would Jedi mind trick leaders to just be themselves, relax and mainly trust their communicators. This is our profession of choice, we know what we're doing, we've dedicated our lives to this. We are going to build a program that plays on your strengths, I'm talking to the leader now, plays on your strengths. We're not going to leave you hanging in front of an employee audience. I think if we do that, if that were to happen I think that leaders would enjoy a lot more success and that comfort level would increase and some of those problems we talked about earlier will go away.

Alyssa:
Very nice. Well thank you so much for joining me today. Hopefully our listeners learned a thing or two about leader communication. And now comes the fun part. It's time to have some fun with our queen of game shows. Are you ready to find out what game we're going to be playing?

Darlene:
Yes, I think so.

Alyssa:
All right. You're going to spin the wheel of games. Spin away, Darlene, big spin.

Alyssa:
Yes well. Thank you again. Thank you, Darlene, for being here and for playing Heads Up! with me.

Darlene:
Thank you.

Alyssa:
Thanks for listening to Employee Buzz where practical advice meets fun.

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