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Part 1 of this four-part mini-series looks at Executive Communications Skills.

Lots of people write about leaders having unclear aims, a confusing strategy, communicating it badly, de-motivating people and poor delegation. These mistakes are well-documented. They're in business books, articles, podcasts, videos and ubiquitous on the internet. But what mistakes do leaders themselves talk about?

I am lucky enough to have interviewed hundreds of global managers over the last decade and more. As a coach and consultant, I also have a background in finance and clinical psychology. That enables me to understand the business context and the human dynamics within a group. The interviews were part of a change management project or 360-feedback interviews on executive performance. All of them were one-to-one – a format where people open up more and share what is really on their mind.

This is what executives open up on and say are their biggest mistakes.

#1 Delaying tough conversations
A business unit is underperforming. A manager has a toxic attitude and is demotivating employees. Another manager seems to be ignoring the goals the team agreed to. The pattern is evident. But, like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, weak executives freeze. Denial and delusion dominate. Weak executives hope and pray the problem will go away. It won’t. The downward trajectory will continue.

Distance and time zones accentuate the problem – the temptation is there for global executives to concentrate on the high-performing countries. Weak executives reduce contact with “problem locations”. They start to make excuses for not travelling there – “Let’s use video-conferencing more!”

You can control what you say; you cannot control the manager’s reaction. What will stop him from getting the local employees to turn on you? It’s easy for him to portray you as the nasty boss from head office. He has opportunities, every day, to feed his version of this story. Faced with this barrier, many global executives avoid tough conversations, paying the price with poor results and disaffected employees.

Key point: Confront your own delusions then the manager as soon as possible. Executive delusions include believing nobody else sees the problem – they do – or nobody is annoyed by the problem – they are. There is little to gain from waiting. Confront face-to-face. Get the manager and all of his team in the same room at the same time. This prevents different interpretations and local manipulation, post-meeting. Be firm, polite, respectful, open, honest and start with the facts. Seek to understand and then to resolve the issues the manager has. Set 30-day resolution goals and move on.

#2 Ignoring employee feedback
Some executives are autocrats. They rarely want direct feedback from employees. They get it indirectly, from peers and colleagues. Although this management style is unfashionable at the moment, there is little evidence to say it cannot work for certain leaders.

Worse still, the democratic executive who ignores employees. A democratic management style has benefits. It raises motivation. Motivated people are more productive and innovative. Higher productivity and innovation leads to better business results. That’s all well and good, but it has a price: democracy requires two-way communication. Democratic executives must listen to employee feedback.

If not, employees see the pseudo-democracy for what it really is. Executives with this problem have come to me concerned that their employees are not speaking up. You see it first in process or product defects, efficiency issues or poor implementation of plans. You also see an rise in internal conflicts and (negative) power games.

Key point: Only ask for opinions if you are going to take action on them. If you don’t want opinions from people, don’t waste their time or yours by asking for it. If you do want people to give you their opinion: first, make time to listen. One senior manager I know blocks two days every year in his calendar for employee feedback. Second, understand. What is their viewpoint? What exactly are they trying to communicate? Most employees are nervous talking to the big global boss. Their message will have been going round their head for a few days before the big meeting. Also, they may be communicating in their second language which makes articulation harder. Third, dialog with the employees to find solutions to their issues. Fourth, evaluate and decide what actions to take. Notice that deciding who is right or wrong doesn’t even enter the process until the evaluation stage.

#3 Joining in gossip and office rumours
Very little good comes from gossiping. Executives are seen as political animals, not to be trusted or believed. The motivation for most executives is wanting to be “in the know”. Often the psychological driver is a “need to control”, a “lack of self-confidence” or a “damaged trust, i.e. an inability to trust others”.

A leader can’t be the boss and one of the boys. By definition a leader is up front, at the top. People look to you to set the standards. The boundary between professional and personal is quickly crossed with gossip, rumours and tittle-tattle. At worst, executives suddenly find themselves facing serious complaints of sexism, racism or worse.

Key Point: Accept that office gossip and rumours will always be there. These informal channels of communication have positive and negative effects. Accept also that it’s your choice and your responsibility for deciding when to get involved in gossip. If you must join in or like to join in, use positive humour by avoiding sarcasm. Practise developing your sense of irony instead.

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Leading this product launch has taught me to be effective doing what I find naturally easiest – using trust and supporting people each step of the way. It augments my chances of making sure future product launches are as successful as this one.

MN Vice Director - Medical Marketing Europe

This process allowed people to re-appraise how this [senior team of managers] group was functioning or, rather, not functioning correctly. The tendency for each member of our group to see himself as an isolated beacon of excellence – which acted against the vital need for cooperation between members – were eased and communication is already becoming more 'normalised'.

RS Senior Director

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