Gini Dietrich

Six Tips to Improve Your Leadership through Communication

By: Gini Dietrich | January 2, 2013 | 

It’s a new year. The Mayans were wrong. That means it’s time to buckle down and be an even better leader this year.

Study after study has been done that shows the very best leaders are great communicators. And, as a communications professional, I run into people all the time who think everyone communicates so there must be nothing to do it. Right? Wrong!

Being a great communicator takes incredible skill and years of practice.

In last month’s Inc., Jason Fried (the co-founder of 37Signals here in Chicago) talks about how he’s taking lessons in Ruby on Rails so he can better communicate with the programmers who work for him. Because his expertise is in design, he doesn’t speak the same language as the people programming the company’s new applications. He decided it would be smart to learn enough about what they do in order to communicate with them.

I love this. This kind of earnest curiosity is part of what makes him successful.

But I’m not saying you necessarily need to go back to school to learn how to be a better communicator.

According to SmartBlogs on Leadership, there are six things you can work on this year that will help you hone your skills: Three are foundational and three surround people.

Foundational Communication Skills

As leaders, we sometimes think we’re being extremely clear in our communication. After all, we’re the leaders so everyone must follow what we say. But what we soon discover is not everyone in our organization has access to the same information we do. That means we end up communicating at a level they can’t understand.

Following are three ways to increase your foundational communication skills:

  1. Public Speaking. The nice thing about public speaking is it helps you learn how to explain things in a way that make sense to every audience member, no matter how much (or little) information they have about your topic. But it also drives an incredible amount of referral leads to your business. In fact, speaking is our number one driver of new revenue for Arment Dietrich. Why not hone your skills and do business development?
  2. Messaging. As a communications professional, I’ve spent most of my career helping executives learn how to create clear and concise messaging that not only tells the story, but helps employees understand why you’re doing something. Bill Clinton is the master at this. Anytime you need some tips on how to better deliver your message, watch him do it.
  3. Planning. If I were speaking about this topic, instead of writing it, I would ask you – by the show of hands – how many get up away from their desks and walk the halls or the plants or the stores to talk to their employees. Typically it’s less than 10 percent of leaders. During this short week, take some time to plan when you’re going to have all staff meetings, when you’re going to do town hall meetings, when you’re going to take live questions, and when you’re going to leave your desk. A simple spreadsheet will do, but it will force you to get out there and communicate more efficiently. To get you started, Gretchen Rosswurm has a template you can download.

Employee Communication Skills

These are a little more difficult to define because they are softer skills, but if you work on the following three things, I think you’ll see a big difference in employee morale and company growth a year from today.
  1. Honesty and Transparency. When the economy hit us really hard in 2009, I had to quickly make a decision about whether to be honest with my team or (what I thought) protect them from what was going on. I chose the former, which allowed us to have crucial conversations about the health of the organization and what that meant for their careers. Today I run the business by sharing revenue goals and where we stand from week-to-week. When I tell other business leaders I do that, they cringe. But I’ve found that level of honesty and transparency allows us to focus on the right things instead of my team trying to figure out why I’m making the decisions I do.
  2. Rapport. This one should seem so intuitive, but it’s not. Shake people’s hands, look them in the eye, listen to what they have to say. I mean, really listen. You may not agree, but it is helpful not only from a communications perspective to listen, but it opens your eyes to how the decisions that are being made affect all of your employees.
  3. Feedback. This one is hard. No one wants to tell the boss they’re bad at something. But if you allow honesty and transparency and you build rapport, slowly they’ll begin to tell you the truth. Sometimes it will hurt and other times it will feel nice, but the important thing is you create a safe environment where people can give honest feedback that you’ll use to better hone your skills.
What can you take away from this to improve your communication skills this year?
A modified version of this first appeared in my weekly Crain’s Chicago Business column.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • ElissaFreeman

    Great post to start the new year, Gini! The point about rapport resonates with me. While social media is great, it cannot replace human, look’em in the eye contact.  You simply cannot discern a client/colleague’s reaction to an issue if you haven’t invested the time to actually sit across the table from them. This is especially true of the younger PR pros coming up the ranks. Everytime I’m asked to speak to a PR class, the one thing I reiterate is NOT to rely only on social media/email as a way of contact; but to actually pick up the phone or make the effort to meet in person.

    • @ElissaFreeman That’s why I love Skype and Google Hangouts. Technology has afforded us a huge opportunity to do work with anyone, no matter where in the world they live. But we have to make an effort to talk to one another via the technology that allows us to see their faces.

  • belllindsay

    I love this post. Honesty, rapport and feedback should be the *building blocks* of any great model of leadership. What is hilarious about this post (the timing of it) is that I had a horrible dream last night about you. In the dream I worked in Chicago, and was tasked with prepping you for various speeches and events. I kept failing spectacularly because you wouldn’t tell me anything about them in advance!! It was a very stressful dream. 🙂

    • @belllindsay Jeez, Louise. The holidays were supposed to be stressLESS.

      • belllindsay

        @ginidietrich Quite telling that it was last night, wouldn’t you say!? LOL

        • @belllindsay Don’t make me fire you already!

  • Because I work so closely with designers and developers on a daily basis, I’ve found it immensely helpful to find a common language. It’s part of the reason that I’ve been teaching myself HTML and CSS (as well as work in the HTML editor of WordPress or Markdown as often as possible). It makes me a more competent and efficient copywriter.

    • @jasonkonopinski I’m doing that because, well, I’m a nerd. But it doesn’t make me feel like a better writer. It makes me feel more nerdy.

      • GeekChicago

        @ginidietrich  @jasonkonopinski NERDS!!!  You’ll enjoy the #GalacticInterwebs so much more this year with this knowledge. Trust me!

        • @GeekChicago  You’ve been DYING to use that, haven’t you?!

        • GeekChicago

          @ginidietrich Simply saying “The Interwebs” is insufficient anymore; that was 2011, 2012.  This is 2013, and the expression is “The Galactic Interwebs”.  I don’t know why you’d think I have any skin in the game at all.  Sheesshhh.

      • @ginidietrich Yes. You are a nerd, as am I. 
        Think about it this way: if you’re dealing with spatial considerations in the body of an email or paid search ad copy (especially one that has hard-stop character limits), you have deliver maximum impact with an economy of words. Sometimes those design elements are CSS/HTML (padding, etc). If I understand the limitations of the design, that sharpens my writing chops for that task.  
        Make sense? @GeekChicago

        • GeekChicago

          @jasonkonopinski  Makes perfect sense to me, I’m a nerd!  You’re speaking my language JasonKonopinski!  🙂

        • rdopping

          @jasonkonopinski  @ginidietrich  @GeekChicago You not a NERD…’re a GEEK….spatial considerations in the body of an email? Holy jamoly! 😉

        • GeekChicago

          @rdopping  @jasonkonopinski  @ginidietrich The two are hardly mutually exclusive…. but you might be right.

    • @jasonkonopinski Same reason why I have been learning the same skills. The more I write online, the more I realize how integrated all these aspects truly are.

  • Some great skills to focus on to accomplish goals this year.
    Thanks Gini

    • @terence.stephens Hope it helps! Happy New Year!

  • You’re never too young to start learning leadership skills and you really should not under-estimate how important they are. Excellent find, oh and Happy New Year Spinsucks Crew 😉

    • @hackmanj It was always the focus on my reviews when I worked at FH. They pushed me really hard to develop those skills. Our country puts emphasis on those who have it naturally, but it can be learned. And Happy New Year to you! We have lots of work to do together this year!

      • @ginidietrich that was great advice. I think I started to understand the importance during my Toastmasters days, much later in my cycle than your exposure to it. Either way, better late than never. 
        Yes, we do have lots of work to do together, to the team! 🙂

        • belllindsay

          @hackmanj  @ginidietrich Poor Joe. LOL

        • @belllindsay  @hackmanj What do you mean, poor Joe? What about us??

  • I hate “great post” comments, but I have nothing to say but “great post”! All six things you mention are ones that are important to me.
    I do like the points made in the comments about speaking other people’s languages. My odd jobs taught me the importance of that and have helped me to be more confident when interacting with different people.

    • @Erin F. And, as a writer, you’re already in tune with that. It’s just about polishing that skill.

  • 100% we need to do things like this. I am big on self-education, because it has always been beneficial. I feel that looking into UX, Design, and Coding has made me a better blogger. I have a better understanding of how the “landscape” of my blog matters for readers. While I will never be in any of those fields, I can communicate and ask for help from my friends who are. 
    I think all leaders should take the time to speak to those under them. Find out what their interests are and find ways to use those strengths to help the organization. People want to feel that they matter and they do. We don’t always have to speak the same language, but we do have to have empathy and a willingness to learn.

    • @susansilver I really love your second paragraph because it’s always what we counsel our clients to do. We talk a lot about how people are not motivated by money, so if the leaders can figure out what makes each employee tick, they’ll have more motivated and loyal teams. Too many think if they throw money at people, they’ll stick around and that’s rarely the case.

    • @susansilver I echo what @ginidietrich said, but on top of that, it’s just a smart business decision. If you hire properly you should have some really sharp employees, and why waste time wracking your brain for ideas or getting outside help when you could be harnessing the power of those people in your organization. I don’t run a company, but when I work with people on a project (professional or more casual) I’m always interested in a) what they’re doing and b) what they think could be happening that would be more interesting/efficient. Heck, I don’t like having to do extra work when it comes to vision / improving things, it’s a real joy to connect with people AND get better ideas.

  • When I think about the people I liked best from a leadership standpoint they always share two qualities:
    1) They went looking for our opinions about whatever products/services we produced.
    2) They were accessible.
    When you feel like you are part of the process and that your thoughts are valued and that there is somewhere to take them it makes a difference.

    • @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Talk to me about the accessible one, if you don’t mind. It’s one I struggle with. I want to be accessible to my team, but sometimes my meetings/travel/speaking doesn’t allow it. I do make sure all of my direct reports get an hour of alone time with me each week and they all get an hour of my time during the weekly staff meeting. If we worked together, would that be accessible enough for you?

      • @ginidietrich  It sounds like it would be. Every situation is different but I see this more in terms of what happens when I try to reach you because a situation has arisen where I need additional help.
        If resources exist then going up the ladder usually isn’t necessary for completing the “daily” stuff so it is probably not an issue.
        It is more important to know that you are available when needed than to always be there.

        • @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes I think that’s something I have to work on this year. I’m not always available because I travel so much. I have to figure out a way to be able to do that, do my own work, and still be accessible.

        • belllindsay

          @ginidietrich  @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes You always answer my emails. See my comment above under Howie’s post – you can’t be everything to everyone. It’s just not possible. None of us can.

        • @belllindsay  @ginidietrich  @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Given all the fancy technology we have these days I think access to leadership is less about face time (although that’s important too) and more about the tone and honest investment in your employees. I’ve worked for people who were always “available” physically but their tone made it clear they didn’t really want feedback or to develop a real, effective relationship. And kind of to speak to Joshua’s point —> even now in my current job which isn’t so bad, people constantly tell me they want feedback (and sometimes I do provide it, even though it dead ends a fair amount) but they *never* come to me to learn what’s going on at my level. Access to leadership is a two-way street, the good leaders know that.

        • @joecardillo  @belllindsay  Thank you, both, for this. I was beating myself up a bit, but if you count online accessibility, I’m there 1,000%! @Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

  • HowieG

    This is problematic and I think everyone can improve if they try Ms @ginidietrich .First every industry has jargon. Every job type has jargon. STOP USING JARGON!No one else knows this stuff. The guy coding your hot new web service doesn’t care about CPM’s or ROI.
    To add to this
    I know Meyers-briggs pretty well and 75% of people are born Sensate Communicators and 25% Abstract. Two different styles. And some of us are natural tool users and other more emotional based.  Not sure the split.
    See so you are talking one big mess.
    But I would say Jargon needs to go in any organizations big enough to have layers of workers.

    • belllindsay

      @HowieG  @ginidietrich  I *love* this comment – not like – love!!  I’ve said it before – BUZZWORDS KILL KITTENS! I used to say to people at my last job – would literally put my hands on their shoulders – and say “Say that again to me in English please!” And we are all very different – we can’t be everything for everybody and we can know everything every single day either!!

      • KevinVandever

        @belllindsay  @HowieG  @ginidietrich Back in the late 80s, I was a programmer for a software development company. The other programmers and I loved to listen to the sales and marketing people spew their jargon.  A few of us took notes and eventually wrote the beginnings of “hand book” for the corporate salesman. Much of the book centered on the jargon of the time that we found so obnoxious. We never finished the book, but i think I still have the manuscript somewhere. I bet much of it would apply today, but there is also so much more material from which to choose. Maybe I should add this to the other writing projects that I can’t seem to finish.

  • PattiRoseKnight

    I can’t begin to tell you how many high level executives I have worked with over the years who counsel clients flawlessly but are extremely uncomfortable walking the halls and chatting with their own staff.  
    You are right about the honesty and transparency….that’s why I am with you to the end my friend 🙂

    • @PattiRoseKnight I need to do a better job of walking our virtual halls. You have to help me figure out how to do that!

      • PattiRoseKnight

        @ginidietrich with Skype it’s a whole new world!

  • KevinVandever

    Wait! Because the Mayans messed up, I have to be a better leader? They messed up. Make them be better leaders!
    Over the past two years, my colleagues have worked hard to become better leaders after a survey from our department showed we were lacking in this area (must have been the other guys). Communication, especially the points you highlight, is an area where we’ve put most of our effort. We even created a holiday-themed video a couple weeks ago where we poked fun at ourselves and gave folks a different look at those of us running the department. It went over so well that the employees are now extremely concerned about the heath of the department…and each of us. We believe the effort to improve communication has paid off big time based on morale and productivity in the department, but we won’t know for sure until the results of the next survey, which will take place later this month. 
    Great post. Happy New Year!

    • @KevinVandever Um, where is said video!?!?

      • KevinVandever

        @ginidietrich On its way to Caan and Sundance, I’m certain.

  • Brilliant

  • rdopping

    Great fundamentals here. It’s already been said by @HowieG but losing the jargon is huge to me. Our clients are intelligent but human nature prevails and if we don’t know something we pretend we do. I always suggest we be clear in a common vernacular and ask if our point is understood. There’s nothing wrong with asking someone if they got your point if you sense they didn’t (blank stare).

    • @rdopping  We have a client that produces their own dictionary for new employees. I guess losing the jargon isn’t so important to them.

      • rdopping

        @ginidietrich Understood but what about their clients. Do they get the dictionary too?

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