In this age of social media and world-wide Internet, message delivery from business leaders needs to change, just like the message changes from leaders in your personal lives. Just a few years ago, no one could have imagined getting text messages from parents, or a President prone to communicate via Twitter. Not only what you say, but how you deliver it shapes your impact.
In that context, I just finished a new book, “Leadership Material,” by Diana Jones, containing a wealth of insights, compelling stories, and examples taken directly from her coaching sessions with current business leaders. Based on my own experience mentoring entrepreneurs, I see the same things, and recommend the following principles for every aspiring business leader today:
- Communication must address content and relationship. Every act of communication now has two messages: a content message and a relationship message. The content is what you want to say, and the other half is how you express your attitudes and feeling. Either can get you valued and followed, or rejected by your team and your customers.
- With texting and email, syntax and punctuation are critical. In the new mediums, you don’t have body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, so every word, syntax, and context is critical. Ignoring the relationship considerations, and ordering people to act, causes resentment. Everyone wants their work and loyalty to be valued.
- Influence and collaboration trumps command and control. No longer can leaders consider communication as “information out, information in.” You can’t hide behind your technical expertise or a formally appointed role. To be a leader with influence, you must create a culture of engagement and participation, through your language in all channels.
- Message tone must align with your observable actions. With the pervasive use of video and instant messaging, people know when you are “walking the talk,” or not. They sense whether your emotional tone is genuine, and consistent with words received. Relationships and your impact quickly break down if you revert to old default behaviors.
- Engagement requires a clear use of “I,” “you,” and “we.” Careful use of these three words is necessary for positive business relationships. They can create engagement, unity, and collaboration, or cause alienation. People want to be included in the goals, as well as the results. Customers want to be part of your family, not just transactions.
- Be sure to talk to the team, rather than about them. How many times have you listened to a leader talking about their team, rather than to them? This is often the moment when the emotional tone of the group shifts from anticipation to disappointment, and a crucial opportunity for engagement is lost. The same concept applies to customers.
- Maximize inclusion by asking open-ended questions. Inclusive questions allow team members to tap into their thoughtfulness and experience, whether they identify with the main theme or not. Team responses give the leader important information for refining their content and adapting it to new contexts. Ask people to share personal perspectives.
- Avoid the impersonal and passive to close the gap. Relationships narrow the distance gap between leader and team, or teams and customers. Impersonal language forces listeners to make assumptions, interpretations, and associations, resulting in misunderstandings and broken relationships. Passive is always the language of distance.
- Demonstrate personal accountability without ambiguity. Leaders who never refer to themselves, or use the ambiguous “we,” appear to be dodging ownership and responsibility. In today’s work environments, with multiple locations, and people working from home, people have to count on your words alone to provide the right message.
These guidelines are especially applicable to aspiring future leaders and business professionals who simply want to be appreciated for their contribution. The language of leadership is far more important than title, tenure, or expertise. The new communication vehicles and expectations today gives you new opportunities to highlight your value, or hasten your demise. It’s your choice.