Remember when you had only two direct reports? How easy was it to connect with your team through one-on-ones, hallway conversations and the occasional lunch? Communication was flowing. Everyone was on the same page, and issues were nipped in the bud quickly.
Fast forward to today, and suddenly, you are leading an organization of 50, 500 or 5,000 employees. You’re dealing with remote offices and multiple time zones, and there are people in your organization who you know only via spreadsheet. You may even be walking the office floors like a minor celebrity — faces and employees you have never met, but they know who you are.
As an executive, you’re always on stage. You can’t slip on a baseball cap and dark sunglasses and find a quiet corner to hide in. Every interaction with you, no matter how minor, will be a meaningful moment in someone’s day. They will relay the experience to someone else.
There are also folks on your team who may have never had an interaction with you (remember those names on the spreadsheet?). They will piece together your business performance, emails, anecdotes and their manager’s input, and generate a model of who you are and how competent they think you are.
So given the limitations of time, biology and physics, how do you communicate authentically through layers?
Purposeful communication is hard for time-pressed executives. Staring at a blank page doesn’t feel productive when missiles are coming in.
A simple model that I suggest to overcome this and get started quickly is the “Know, Feel, Do” analysis.
What do you want the audience to:
For example, in this article, I want you to:
1. Email: The biggest mistake I see is when executives let their communications or human resources team draft their emails. While these teams can provide feedback or double-check your tone and message to get started, this is too critical a task to fully delegate.
Emails full of corporate gobbledygook are the workplace equivalent of serving restaurant diners a plate of boiled, tasteless chicken. People are informed, but they are not inspired. Those with attention for detail will notice the same communications person is writing the emails for all the executives.
The key here is to write the first draft yourself, before asking for support or review (use the Know, Feel, Do framework to get started). Over time, a good communications professional will get a sense of your style, but this is hard to do if they always write the first draft. Aim for short, frequent and dynamic, rather than long, periodic and plodding.
As many executives rise through the ranks, they focus on honing their public speaking, presence and gravitas. Mastering the written delivery is just as important and can be a key differentiator.
2. Video: We live in a video generation. Recording yourself anytime, anywhere is standard social practice. Using video can help you connect on a more emotional and human level than email, yet it’s heavily underutilized by executives in general and the corporate sphere as a whole.
If you are a user of any social media platform, you’ve likely seen ads from personal development gurus like Grant Cardone and Tai Lopez appear in your feed. What do they all have in common? They are recording videos on their smartphones, oftentimes with zero production value. Why? Whatever you may think about their products or methods, they have figured out that people’s eyes glaze over when something looks like an ad or is overly produced.
So next time you are sitting in an airport lounge, record a four- to seven-minute video off the cuff. Fire up the camera on your device, and press record. Get personal, and just document what you’ve been up to. Share stories. Use good judgment. Some leaders are better than others at freestyling, so have a few bullets in mind if you tend to wander off track.
3. In-Person: Town hall meetings are tough to get right, especially as companies grow and audiences get larger. People often come to town halls with expectations that their individual micro interests and needs will be addressed. Every word you say (and don’t say) will be cross-examined and become the headline for the next 24-hour water cooler cycle.
No matter how much you prepare for a town hall, it’s rare to get feedback better than “It was OK.” How can you address the needs and interests of everyone in 60 minutes? You simply can’t. The more people you have at a town hall, the more generic it needs to become to be relevant to everybody.
In his research, anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that you can only cognitively maintain stable social relationships with 150 people. This has come to be known as “Dunbar’s number,” and it’s a good guidepost here. If you have a regular town hall with more than 150 people attending, it shouldn’t be a discussion about serious issues.
Some executives believe that formal and infrequent communication mitigates risk. But this reminds me of that report of Japanese soldiers emerging from the jungles of Southeast Asia decades after World War II ended. Without contact with their leaders (and, to be fair, the rest of the world) they were unaware the war had ended and were trying to evade capture or court-martial.
What did they know? Nothing. What did they feel? Afraid. What did they do? Hide. While this is an extreme example, it illustrates what we, as humans, do to fill in the blanks or what happens when we use third-hand information to make decisions.
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