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Leaders as communicators

Thornton May | Dec. 13, 2016
Honing your message is critically important, but so is choosing the right medium to reach your target audience

It is remarkable how many leaders seem to overlook the undeniable correlation between mastering communication and successfully occupying a position of leadership.

The evidence has been piling up for centuries. Just on this continent, the Founding Fathers, in the late 18th century, were masters of the printed word via such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. In the 1930s and 1940s Franklin Delano Roosevelt owned radio with his Fireside Chats. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan excelled at television. And the president-elect, Donald Trump, may owe his position to his ability to parlay a communications trifecta: the political rally, the reality TV show and social media via Twitter.

I recently asked a group of CXOs their thoughts about the communication skills they thought would be required by the leaders of the future. 

Top-down communication is so last century

One key to effective communication is to focus on the most current modes. The political rally is an ancient form, but it’s still relevant, and Trump has been a social media pioneer. Meanwhile, the campaign of his opponent from the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, relied heavily on email. There’s reason to believe she might as well have tried to reach people by circulating clay tablets.Similarly, there are CEOs in the world today who think that, once a strategy has been synthesized, they can use traditional information channels such as email to turn the ball over to underlings for execution. That’s old thinking. 

Part of the problem is that employees don’t open emails from their CEO. How a big a problem is this? Consider that the CEO of a major global manufacturer who converted the strategic program for the coming year into an email and sent it out to the entire employee population with the subject line “Urgent, Must Read.” Several weeks later, a consultant engaged to assist in the digital transformation of this enterprise asked the IT group to determine the percentage of the employee population that had actually opened the CEO’s email. The answer: 27%. 

The IT risk manager at another Fortune 20 company wasn’t surprised to hear this story. After all, in his organization, employees are specifically advised not to open electronic communication from senior executives because the message is probably a phishing attack. 

Even if that weren’t the case, as just about any chief HR officer will tell you, communication canyons exist in every organization, not just between the CEO and her direct reports, but also between every level down to the rank-and-file employees. That puts a chasm between the CEO and the rank and file that can’t be bridged without the right tools. 


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