Listening – a strategic communication capability

 

“Good communication is not just data transfer. You need to show people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.” John P. Kotter

 

I have just been listening to Thomas Bjørn the captain of the victorious European Ryder Cup team.  He said a similar thing to John Kotter when talking about the secret of his team’s success.  He emphasised that success lay in really understanding the motivations and desires of members of the team.  I’m paraphrasing, but he said of his team that: “They are all professionals at the top of their game so winning is not about telling them what to do but listening to understand what matters to them.”

It strikes me that these examples from John Kotter (a change leadership guru) and Thomas Bjørn (a contemporary leader in a highly competitive field) are relevant in this age of rapid digital transformation.

We need leadership communication that inspires, provides clarity of mission and purpose, and that enables people to operate with autonomy.  This is a style of leadership communication that is less about transmission and broadcasting and more about listening, and which places a premium on understanding the perspectives of others and building empathy.

 

The listening leader

Right at the heart of this discussion about change, Kotter’s quote above conveys the essential need to communicate at a personal, emotive level in order to stand a chance of getting people to buy-into new directions and ways of working.  It also captures the insight that inspiring people begins not with broadcasting but with listening.  To “address anxieties” and to “accept anger” requires an ability to be sensitive to, empathise with and tune into the concerns and emotions of the group leaders aim to influence.

 

This implies that the inspirational leader is not the stereotype of the extreme personality or the ego-centric CEO leading the charge.  Rather, the inspirational leader begins not with talking but with listening to what people think and feel.

 

Reflecting on personal experience

Bringing this down to the personal level, consider when you last felt completely engaged and committed to the goals of an organisation that you worked for, or with.  Take a minute to reflect on what drove that engagement.

Based on numerous conversations over the years I have found that a number of themes recur which emphasise how important “local” conversations and empathetic listening are compared to “inspirational” communications from a remote leader.

 

The role of listening and empathy in communicating strategy

In reflecting therefore on the need to develop more conversational approaches to change, and the 10 characteristics of effective strategic conversations, it strikes me that listening and empathy run through all the things that leaders need to do to communicate their strategy.   But how do you make this happen?

 

  1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision
    This is focused on making meaning for people. Leaders need to give people clarity about what the organisation stands for, who it aims to serve and what things should look like in the future when it is successful. The purpose piece requires a deep commitment to understand what connects customers, stakeholders and employees to an organisation, listening to the difference that it makes to others and what value that difference delivers to them.
  2. Develop shared goals at top
    Ironically often the piece that is missing and that is obvious if it is absent to others. The CEO or leader needs to get the top team to listen to each other and sets the example by ensuing he or she can advocate others points of view as well as his or her own on the way to defining shared goals
  3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what you do well
    Great leaders are sensitive to the things that matter to their employees and will recognise the talismanic quality of old brands or legacy organisations. Rather than dismiss these as outdated they will honour heritage and recognise the skills that went into building these. This is a true test of empathy as one of the common problems is that new CEOs, merged organisations or leadership teams building new brands often discount history and miss the emotional impact old symbols, brands and companies have for people.
  4. Build conversational skills and curiosity
    Genuine conversations involve being present and paying attention to the views of others. If we are waiting to talk we are not really listening and others will spot that lack of authenticity quickly. Effective strategic communication today needs to be cantered around high-quality conversations that allow people to explore the implications of strategy for them. Leaders at all levels need to pay close attention and be curious about the needs of others to earn their right to explain their vision and strategy
  5. Focus on the future
    Strategic conversations focus on how teams can influence events and take more control of their environment. Given the pace of change teams need to be responsive and fast which can only be achieved with leaders who are willing to listen to their teams and empower colleagues to take decisions
  6. Adopt an external perspective
    Strategy and its implementation do not occur in a vacuum. Listening to the needs of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders and paying attention to the actions of competitors and new market entrants ensures relevance and responsiveness
  7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience
    We live in uncertain times, yet we all crave more certainty and knowledge of what may happen in future. Great leaders can invite their people to discuss the implications of future uncertain events and lead conversations on what we can control and what we cannot control. Their ability to listen, empathise and focus on what we can influence helps build capacity for change.
  8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility
    Effective communication and implementation of strategy involves distributing intelligence around a business so that at each point there is a degree of clarity about our role in supporting the bigger picture. By understanding the essentials, we know what to do when we make local decisions, allocate resources or serve customers. This degree of flexibility and responsiveness is achieved not by telling people what to do but by listening, planning and working together to share responsibility
  9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking
    The leader in the modern day is not an expert orator but an expert facilitator. He or she is good at asking questions and exploring options to help people figure new ways of delivering – letting go but in the context of a clear framework
  10. Build relationships
    People want to connect with colleagues. Leaders and managers need to help people feel part of their “in-group” and help their teams build great relationships by listening and empathising with each other.

 

In summary, empathetic listening is critical to effective strategic communication.  It is the skill that must come first, and it is a skill that needs to permeate throughout the organisation to support engagement at all levels.

It may sound counter-intuitive to start with listening but the evidence from leadership researchers, neuroscientists, behavioural economists – and our own experience – tells us it holds the key to engagement.

 

By Mike Pounsford

Founder, Couravel

[email protected]

Mike works with leadership and with specialists in communication to clarify and communicate purpose, vision and strategy.   He founded his own business, Couravel, in 2001 and works to help define and share common meaning.  Clients have included global and smaller UK based businesses and organisations in the private, public and third sectors.

Mike is currently the Past President of IABC UK.