March 23, 2006

Are you communicating clearly? Your bottom line is at stake

  • Successful leaders motivate and inspire their workers through clear communication.
    MAP Consulting

    Almost every week, an aspiring young manager or vice president comes to me and says, "Lee, you and your group at MAP work with some outstanding companies and business leaders. Tell me, what is the single most important key to their success?"

    I love that question. At MAP (Management Action Programs), we focus on business fundamentals, the daily blocking and tackling that every company has to master to be winners in their field. So we focus on the six basic functions of business leaders: leading, communicating, planning, organizing, staffing and controlling. And we stress fundamental virtues like discipline, accountability, strategic alignment, managing to your values, and empowering your people.

    We believe that one golden thread ties all of those virtues together: clear communication.

    When I tell young managers that, I often see their jaws drop because they had expected me to say something like inspiring leadership — or technological innovation, savvy marketing or far-sighted financial planning.

    Those are important components of business success. But ask yourself a simple question: How do the best leaders motivate and inspire their people? Through clear communication. How do the best organizations promote discipline, accountability and strategic alignment? Through clear communication. And how do market leaders sell their products and services? With clear, compelling ads and marketing campaigns. In sum, by clear communication.

    You see my point: In real estate the old cliche is "location, location, location." In business leadership, we preach "communication, communication, communication."

    Good leaders are good communicators

    There's no mystery here. I don't care if it's in business, politics, sports or the military; the most effective leaders are all first-rate communicators. Just consider Jack Welch, Steven Jobs, Ronald Reagan or John Kennedy. These are leaders who speak clearly, with passion and conviction. Their values are clear and solid, and what they say promotes those values. Their teams admire them and follow their lead.

    The upshot is obvious: If you want to grow as a leader and manager, you have to learn how to be an effective, compelling communicator. And if you want your company to succeed, you have to master the art of clear communication.

    How do you do it?

    When we teach leadership and management workshops, we start by emphasizing that clear communication is always a two-way process. It is not enough to speak clearly; you have to make sure that you are being heard and understood. To facilitate that process, we provide a primer on effective two-way communication.

    Here's the primer and some of its salient points:

    1. Prepare how you will communicate.

  • Clarify the goal of the communication.

  • Plan carefully before sending it or having the meeting.

  • Anticipate the receiver's viewpoint and feelings.

    2. Deliver the message.

  • Express your meaning with conviction.

  • Relate the message to your larger goals.

  • Identify the action that needs to be taken.

  • Confirm the other person is understanding.

    3. Receive the message.

  • Always keep an open mind.

  • Identify the key points in the message.

  • Value constructive feedback and use it to grow.

  • Confirm your understanding.

    4. Evaluate the effectiveness of the communication afterwards.

    5. Take corrective action as necessary.

    At first glance, this primer might seem simplistic: How can anyone reduce the art of communication to a simple list of how-to checkpoints? But you would be amazed at how helpful that primer has proved to be for thousands of leaders. Going into our programs, they were simply not aware of the basics of effective communication or what steps they could take to anchor the process. And I assure you that the simple, final act of "confirming understanding" always has a clarifying effect at the end of a meeting or conversation. It shows respect and it reminds everyone that communication is a two-way process.

    Primers, of course, are not enough. In our workshops we go deeper and analyze why internal communications are so poor in many companies and organizations. We also provide managers with an extensive list of potential barriers to good communication. With that list, they can examine their own communications skills and see more clearly where they need to improve.

    The stakes here are high: If you fail to communicate properly, you can poison the atmosphere between you and a colleague, and you can poison the entire spirit inside your company. So the next time you are drafting a letter, e-mail or policy statement — before you send it — stop and consider these potential barriers to effective two-way communication:

  • Lack of respect by either party for the other.

  • A poorly defined purpose for the communication.

  • Failure to establish the best medium for the communication (e-mail and cell phones are NOT the best ways to communicate serious material).

  • Communicator assumes the listener receives the message, but isn't sure.

  • Emotions or sensitivities are ignored.

  • Failure to get on the listener's level of understanding.

  • Intimidation by either party.

    Now let's go deeper. How do you produce strategic alignment inside your company? How do you get your entire team to actively buy into your business goals? How do you make sure that everyone understands and upholds your company's mission and values? Again, the answer is clear communication.

    Write it down

    At MAP, we have another belief that we constantly preach: Write it down!

    We believe that every company should have three clearly drafted documents: a mission statement, a values statement and a business plan. These are all essential to business success. And here's the best part: If you do it right, the process of drafting those documents will naturally produce common understanding, consensus, alignment and buy-in. The process itself promotes clear communication within your management team and, at the same time, it empowers your people and grooms them for future leadership.

    Whenever I beat this drum and stress the importance of clear communication, I always find a few skeptics in the room. "Come on, Lee," they say. "Success in business is about holding down costs and generating growth and profit. It's about the bottom line. Now what the heck has clear communication got to do with that?"

    Here I just sit back and smile. Mission statements define who you are and where you intend to go. Values statements are your compass, the needle that keeps you firmly on course. (If you don't believe in the importance of values, go have a chat with the boys from Enron!) And your business plan is the rudder that steers your ship.

    When skeptics question the importance of those documents, here is what I tell them:

    Think for a minute about Thomas Jefferson and the other framers of The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. They sat down and drafted documents that not only defined America and its mission, but laid the foundation of ideals, principles, values and laws on which the nation operates to this day. And guess what? They didn't just sit down one day and dictate it to a secretary. They worked the language and polished every word, over and over, and they used the process itself to promote alignment, consensus and collective buy-in. With words and language and clear communication, they launched a revolution and, on the shared values of liberty, individual empowerment, and collective prosperity, they built a nation of unparalleled wealth and economic gain.

    How's that for a bottom line?

    Lee Froschheiser is president and CEO of MAP Consulting, headquartered in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

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