Jason and Alex are two fast-rising stars at their Atlanta-based engineering firm. They love what they do and are very good at it. They have led project teams that have efficiently met their deadlines and successfully accomplished their goals. So when a leadership position opened up at the firm recently, both were seriously considered for the spot — and both Alex and Jason were interested, each feeling that he was ready for more responsibility and bigger things.
When Alex got the position, Jason wondered where he had fallen short. Digging below the frustratingly vague, “We felt Alex was better prepared to be a leader,” that he was told by his boss, Jason discovered that the senior team believed Alex had stronger communication skills. “But what,” Jason thought, “does that mean exactly?” Jason was well-liked, worked effectively with teams, was not shy about speaking up, and was an excellent engineer. What was missing?
As seasoned executive coaches, we know that one of the biggest professional leaps is to move from being an expert in a functional area, such as engineering, IT, or finance, to becoming a true leader in an organization. And in making that leap, communication skills are often THE skill that needs to be strengthened most. Here are four critical features of what it means to be a great communicator.
1. Simple. Concise. Clear.
Say it simply, be succinct, and make it understandable. This takes practice and preparation! Great communicators work hard to breakdown complex ideas and situations into clear, understandable pieces for their audience — whether that’s the board of directors or the third shift warehouse.
Great communicators are concise. Often, a strong message is lost because the speaker keeps talking (or writes an overly long email or report). In over-communicating, you create room for people to become confused about what’s important, or they simply tune you out. For more, read “Executive Presence Spotlight: Speaking Clearly and Concisely.”
This is often a challenge for engineers and IT professionals. They have is a tendency to over-share technical background information and use jargon. That’s OK when one engineer is speaking with another, however, it’s especially important to speak in layperson’s language, and concisely, when your audience includes senior leaders or non-technical employees.
Every situation is different, but to the extent you can, prepare in advance. Consider what it is you want to say before you say it. Improvisation rarely works. Think about the nature of your audience, the essence of your message, and the most important thing that you want people to understand, believe, or care about after you have spoken.
In our enthusiasm to be leaders, we often envision ourselves front and center, speaking, explaining, telling, inspiring, and motivating. How often to we imagine ourselves listening to others, carefully and deeply? Ironically, listening makes us better communicators and leaders. The old cliche, “We have one mouth and two ears and should use them in proportion,” is true in leadership. Listening is how leaders gather feedback and learn, how they connect with people in a respectful way, and how they bring people under their tent and increase their influence.
At Arden Coaching, we coach to “Level Three Listening.” Active listening (level two) tends to focus on what someone is saying. Level Three Listening takes into account how someone is saying something, why, when, and where they are saying it.
Confidence is often one of the first things we notice about someone. It’s the way someone carries themself, communicates, and treats others (treat others poorly, and you are seen as arrogant, not self-confident). Interestingly, the more self-confident we are perceived to be, the more readily our communication is received and accepted. Self-confidence enhances our credibility and the value of our communication. For more about self-confidence, read “Leadership Requires Self-Confidence.”
4. Respect Others
When someone is speaking to you, think about how you like to be treated, especially by someone in a leadership position at your company.
We are all more open to, and feel more positive about, people who remember our name, make eye contact when they speak to us (and when we speak to them), are active, connected listeners, and stay focused on us — they are not distracted by text messages or another person passing by. These are simple, but deeply meaningful practices. Do you model those behaviors yourself? Great communicators engage with others this way. For more, read “The Path to Influence.”
Learn more about these skills and practice them, and your capabilities as a communicator — and a leader — will grow significantly.