At The Grossman Group, we started the year gearing up to celebrate a big milestone: our 20th Anniversary. And come March, things changed.
We quickly shifted our plans, and our focus, like the rest of the world. In our case, we began providing our clients support for the pandemic, for social unrest, for diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging, and more. We did this to help organizations connect with their people in new and meaningful ways, and to facilitate the tough conversations on difficult, yet critically important topics people were, and are, grappling with in their personal and work lives.
As the calendar year starts to wind down, and some of the uncertainty settles into place, I’ve found myself pausing to think about all the great work communicators have done this year, despite being up against the most unprecedented personal and professional challenges of our lifetime. I think what’s served communicators and the leaders they support so well during the past months, is they relied on tried and true effective communications strategies to keep employees informed, engaged and focused, listened to, and set up for success.
As a way to honor our 20th year as a firm, I want to share with you 20 essential truths about exceptional employee and leadership communication that have proven true over the past year. But first, I want to go back to where we started.
Our Guiding Principles
As I reflect back on the early days, I think about the guiding principle that we followed, what I called “thought partner” communications. I wanted The Grossman Group to differentiate itself as an internal communications agency focused on strategic employee and leader communication.
For me, thought partnership wasn’t about simply helping leaders communicate through plans, presentations, letters, magazines and other traditional outreach to employees. Instead, it was about leveraging communications as the critical tool in leadership – the essential skill for leaders to achieve whatever strategic goals they set for the organization.
What is Thought Partnership?
Here is essentially how I defined a thought partner in those days:
- Someone who understands you, your business opportunity, and what you want to accomplish
- Someone who understands and asks the tough questions your stakeholders will ask and works with you on the answers
- Someone who brings to the table his or her life experience, best practices, and communication expertise
- A strategic business advisor first, a communications counselor second
Two decades later, that’s still what we are all about. I’m proud of the team we’ve assembled and our ability to elevate great communication as a critical factor in any organization’s success. I also know we need to keep pushing to achieve the very best thought partnership every day. After all, two decades of experience with global clients from a wide range of industries has produced a lot of valuable insights.
20 Essential Truths of Exceptional Employee and Leader Communication
In working with leaders and communicators at all levels over the years, we’ve acquired some key learnings about how to be a winning communicator. Here are my top 20 observations on the essential (and proven) truths of exceptional leadership communication:
1. You can’t not communicate.
Everything leaders do communicates, whether they want it to or not. All choices leaders make – how they spend their time, what they focus on, whom they interact with, the employees they recognize – communicates something. Given that not communicating is not an option, leaders should work to be exceptional communicators, what I call “leader communicators.” That involves being authentic and motivating employees to achieve great results.
2. Better communication improves business results.
Research consistently underscores that companies with highly effective communication get more accomplished. Just one key example: A Towers Watson “Change and Communication ROI Study” found that companies with strong communication and change management programs are 3.5 times more likely to significantly outperform their less effective peers.
3. Know your audience.
To truly move employees to action, you have to know what they care about and get into their mindset. Whether employees ask them or not, there are several key questions on their minds, starting with the basics, such as: What’s my job? How am I doing? Does anyone care about me? Those basic needs have to be addressed first before employees can begin thinking beyond themselves to ask larger questions such as: What’s going on with the business? What’s our strategy and vision? How can I help? Once employees feel heard, understood and taken care of, they become more aware of changes or initiatives happening outside their department or function, and naturally become more engaged in the organization’s success as a whole.
4. Connect the dots for employees.
I love the classic story of two bricklayers. You ask one what he’s working on and he says, “I’m building a wall.” You ask the other and he says, “I’m building a castle.” Leaders at every level have an important role to help employees connect the dots to see how their role plays a part in achieving the bigger vision of the company.
5. Take time to create understanding.
We often think that others think as we do and see the world basically as we do, but it’s more likely that there’s a lot of ground to cover between a leader’s perspective and the employee’s view. Employees come to their jobs with their own context. Whenever there’s a change initiative that requires them to think or act differently, it’s natural for them to essentially ask: What’s in it for me? It’s the leader’s job to help employees understand the collective context, including a personal perspective on the marketplace today and how that led to the company strategy. Leaders who can also help employees feel valued and essential undoubtedly make a much larger impact.
6. Be a two-way communicator.
Communication is far more than talking, emailing, or sending out the occasional memo or whatever your version is of getting the word out. In fact, good communication should be planned, consistent, and take into account employee needs and concerns. Leaders speak from their own perspectives too often. Instead, they need to look at every interaction with employees as a precious chance to meet them where they are. It’s important to take the time to find out what makes the audience tick, and how and when they are most receptive.
7. Share stories and work to be a master storyteller.
This fact has been proven out time and again with organizations we work with: employees follow leaders because of how they make them feel. Naturally, stories are the most powerful way leaders can make an emotional connection with employees. With all the slides and facts and figures, charts and graphs, commitments, acronyms and videos, it’s the stories that people remember and value. The most exceptional leaders we’ve worked with make a point to share stories that engage and inspire their teams.
8. Engage others to participate in decision-making.
One of the CEOs I’ve worked with frequently visits manufacturing sites and plants and always asks this pointed question: “What’s something really stupid that we’re doing that we could or should stop doing?” It’s amazing how many insightful ideas and perspectives he’s gotten from that question, simply because he takes the time to ask and is sincere in wanting to know what could be done better. As a leader, one of the best ways to get people to follow you is to help your team know that they matter, and that their perspectives are valued.
9. Foster innovation by empowering your teams.
Increasingly, great leaders recognize that transformative leadership isn’t about telling people what to do. Instead, it’s about equipping and then empowering teams to make smart decisions together, respecting the collective brainpower of the group. The best leaders see their roles as setting the stage, not always performing on it.
10. Plan for success.
Often leaders assume that as long as they have ideas, a vision, and a sense of purpose, that will be enough to lead the way forward. If only it were that easy. In truth, good leaders know the importance of planning and clearly spelling out the path ahead. You need to have a plan for communicating your vision, painting a picture of it, and helping people understand how it will affect them.
11. Start with the business outcome you seek.
Instead of thinking about the message or the vehicle, leaders need to focus on the business impact they want to have. When we speak with clients and leaders about “desired outcomes,” we often hear clients articulate a communications goal. (For example, they want to give a presentation or send a memo). That’s helpful to know but communication should never be the outcome; it’s a means to achieving a business outcome. The business outcome should be about what you want the communication to help you achieve, whether it’s a change in business performance, productivity gains, faster time to market, more highly engaged teams, etc.
12. Follow up with materials to help your audience retain the message.
Many marketing and advertising leaders understand that the average prospect needs to hear a message seven times before they take action. Employees don’t need quite this same attention – their number is probably closer to three to five times – but it still takes a few iterations for the message to truly sink in. Clearly, repetition can be your friend.
13. Be open to new ideas and seek them out.
Good leaders know that soliciting and listening to the opinions of employees can be a great way to gain honest insights and valuable new perspectives, but sometimes employees hold back without an invitation. It’s important to purposefully solicit views from the quietest people in the room. You could also simply state: “I want to hear different perspectives on this question.”
14. Ask open-ended questions.
One sure way to fuel conversations is with open-ended questions. Unlike questions that give people limited options for response, open-ended questions encourage others to express their opinions and ideas. When you listen to what they have to say, showing interest and respect for their input, it shows you care. The impact can be significant.
Too often, leaders spend too much time talking and not enough time truly listening. I advise leaders to approach each dialogue with the goal to learn something new. Additionally, one of the greatest skills that any leader can master is becoming comfortable with silence. Many people view silence as empty space that needs to be filled, but when leaders learn to accept it – and work with it – they open the door for others to speak and be heard.
16. Share your expectations, needs and hopes.
When expectations are shared more clearly, I’ve seen employees reliably rise to the occasion. There’s an important watch out here: It’s common for leaders to think that they’ve shared expectations, but putting them in writing and coming back to them often is critical. It’s also important for leaders to tell employees what they can expect from them and what they will personally strive to deliver. That approach demonstrates to the team that leaders are engaged and see the work ahead as a partnership, not a dictatorship.
17. Demonstrate that you can be trusted.
As a leader, trust starts – or stops – with you. Trust is contagious. When you trust others and demonstrate that you can be trusted, it builds an opportunity for others to trust and be worthy of trust. In a nutshell, establishing trust comes down to being dependable, reliable, and doing what you say you will do.
18. Have more calm, courageous conversations.
Many leaders have important thoughts that remain unsaid – conversations that would be valuable to have, but may feel too uncomfortable. It’s very important to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. It’s often through tough conversations that we build relationships and cement bonds.
19. Work on your blind spot.
We all have blind spots. In our personal lives, our spouses or best friends tell us what we need to hear, and they know us better than we know ourselves in some ways. Likewise, leaders have blind spots in how they lead. Leaders should ensure that they have a “truth teller” or two at work who can help when they get in their own way and don’t realize it.
A lot of people don’t think they can communicate well or don’t think they can develop the skill. But the truth is it just takes practice. If leaders at all levels of their organizations come to realize that, great things can happen for their companies. Based on many top leaders I’ve worked with over the years, I truly believe all leaders have the power to become courageous and inspirational leader communicators.
The Path Ahead for Thought Partnership
When I think about the next phase of growth for this agency, it still comes back to thought partnership. There’s this great quote from Booker T. Washington that sums it up nicely: “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.” We’ve tried to follow that philosophy here, working side by side with clients to come up with solutions together. That’s the essence of strategic communication. All of it has been a great joy, but what’s been especially satisfying is seeing how many more organizations truly understand that communication is in fact a key driver in achieving any meaningful change. Communicators now have a seat at the table and are increasingly seen as key strategic business advisors, not just the folks crafting the so-called “messages.”
I’m looking forward to the next 20 years and stretching us and that original notion of thought partnership even further. I’m sure change will be a constant in the years to come, but the need for exceptional, purposeful and inspiring communication will clearly remain.
What essential truth(s) of effective leadership and employee communication do you live every day?
To help you lead and communicate with employees during COVID-19, we've developed a resource page of tips and strategies that we're updating regularly. Click below to check it out.