Conversations are the lifeblood of business. Whether selling, pitching, communicating a strategy, dealing with a customer service issue, working an idea, sending an email to a colleague, or tweeting; you are having a conversation. How you have those conversations and how effectively you have them are critical to your success as a leader.
In our work — which spans CEO's and senior executives in F50 companies, leaders of transformation initiatives, to struggling visionaries and entrepreneurs driving growth — we see three common pitfalls which trip up a leader's ability to have effective conversations.
Mistake #1. Not facing into reality.
Leaders by nature tend to have an optimistic view. Usually it's a compelling worldview, "We will grow." "We will turn this company around." "We will be best in class." That visionary point of view inspires people to follow. But to people on the front line, dealing with the day to day, it can sometimes feel like drinking corporate Kool-Aid and out of touch with reality.
If someone talks to you about an exciting possibility for change while you're wrestling with tight deadlines, difficult customers and broken processes, it can be a little hard to swallow. Clearly they don't understand your situation, and the challenges and obstacles you face.
One of the toughest balancing acts that leaders face is communicating the hope and optimism of a visionary message with a clear-eyed recognition of the obstacles an organization has to overcome. As a leader, ignoring the day to day reality and concerns of people can undermine credibility and diminish trust.
Mistake #2. Episodic communication.
Although town halls, intranets and webinars are in vogue, the main vehicle for communication throughout organizations is the cascade. Senior leadership talks to the next layer down. They talk to the next layer and so-on. It's a PowerPoint-fueled game of telephone. The problem with the cascade is that the further from HQ or the originator of the message you are, the less familiar you are with a broader perspective of the business. Communication among the top layers in a company may be connected and well-understood, but by the time it reaches the front-line, the context is missing and the message is episodic. This is good for TV but bad for you.
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Leaders must repeat and reference. Message discipline — consistently and frequently talking about what is relevant to achieve your goals — is as essential for business leaders as it is for politicians. Message discipline, strategically used avoids the game of telephone, stamps out episodic communication and drives operational discipline in your organization.
Mistake #3. Communicating without a goal.
You may believe that communication without a goal never happens, but think how much you communicate, and how effective it is. Communication professionals — direct marketers and advertisers — have measured response rates in single figures. An email campaign that elicits a purchase rate higher than 5% is considered wildly successful. How much of your communication achieves its intended impact? What is your intended impact? Is it simply to impart information?
Most communication starts with a topic list. Worse, it's usually one-sided, the topic list of the communicator not the receiver. You can fix this by getting clear on your goal. Likely you want to frame (or reframe) the way people see the world, or to move them to action, or both. Knowing that goal, and thinking about what the audience wants, closes the intention impact gap.
Describing goals with metrics is a common communication mistake. Many large companies default to describing their goals through measures. It's either a set of financial targets, or those targets reduced to a slogan like 12/12 (12% reduction in churn over the next 12 months). Instead make it real, "yesterday 10,000 customers called into to our call centers. 1,500 of them ended their relationship with us. 730 of them were with us over 10 years. We need to win them back!"
Focusing on a metric is the communication equivalent of describing a trip to Paris, the city of lights, the city of romance and love as a 6 hour plane ride, or a trek of 3,624 miles. Don't do it.
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About the authors: Rose Fass is the founder and CEO of fassforward consulting group. She is the author of the book, "The Chocolate Conversation, Lead Bittersweet Change, Transform your Business." She blogs at leadbittersweetchange.com. You can follow her on twitter @rosefass.
Gavin McMahon is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.