Communication may be the most critical component of effective leadership, says Francis Flynn, the Paul H. Holden Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business: “To achieve shared goals, a leader must be able to craft a compelling message, articulate an exciting vision, and galvanize a group around a course of action.”
Frequent communication was one of the hallmarks of successful leadership through the volatility of the past year as leaders grappled with the urgent coronavirus crisis. Many leaders took a more direct management role than they otherwise would have, speaking often with staff as well as with suppliers, regulators and shareholders.
Business schools are responding by giving communication much greater prominence — although some professors say there is still a long way to go before its importance is fully reflected in teaching. Stanford in California runs an entire self-paced executive education program in “Sharpen Your Communication Skills”.
“Communication is often treated as a peripheral part of the business school curriculum,” says Flynn. “Although it’s a core skill, it’s rarely a core course.” Stanford takes a different approach than most, focusing on hard evidence in behavioral science to highlight the best approaches to communication including mitigating biases. So what makes for effective dialogue?
“Being an effective communicator means being clear and being persuasive,” Flynn says. In the Stanford course, participants focus on how to account for the perspective of others. The pandemic has prompted a shift away from the traditional command-and-control leadership style and its accompanying forms of communication. Instead, the most successful leaders are applying a more human touch.
“The best communicators always adapt their approach to suit their audience, ensuring a greater level of understanding and enthusiasm for their message,” says Flynn.
More executive education providers taking communication seriously
While communication may not traditionally have been a recognized aspect of business training, education providers are recognizing the need to change, says Mary Groarke, Lecturer at UCD Smurfit Executive Education.
“While technology and complex work structures have always placed demands on effective communications, the wholesale movement of employees to remote working because of the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this need exponentially,” she says.
UCD Smurfit School in Dublin, Ireland, offers a range of executive education programs in communication, including the three-day “Communication for Influence and Impact” course. Participants draw on their existing strengths and personalities, challenge their perceptions and develop a communication style that suits them. They do this through a combination of communications theory, role-play, interactive presentations and discussions.
“In order for leaders to influence, empower others and drive change, they need to first be self-aware and observe how they communicate with others,” says Groarke. “Having a clear understanding of how they are perceived by others, and how their message is conveyed, can help leaders develop and enhance their communication style.”
Communication: practice makes purpose
One of the most important features of effective communication is that it doesn’t occur by accident; she says practice is essential.
Good leadership communication always starts with inner reflection, self-awareness and knowing your own values, strengths and traits so that you can present your authentic self to others, agrees Eric Saine, Executive Director of the McGill Executive Institute.
“Related to this is strong emotional intelligence, which not only helps you positively manage your own thoughts, emotions and behavior, but also guides you in approaching and connecting with diverse others through empathy and valuing different viewpoints,” he says.
The Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, puts on a seminar entitled “Communicating Effectively,” which is delivered online, over four weeks. Participants learn new perspectives and tools for developing a more productive workplace, whether that’s managing diﬃcult conversations, building trust or gaining buy-in. Importantly, leaders also learn to control their non-verbal communication and they also explore diversity and inclusion.
The seminar is action-based, so the executives have numerous opportunities to practice and refine communication skills.
Saine underscores the importance of such training: “Simply put, a leader with poor communication skills is the fastest way to sap team chemistry, enthusiasm and engagement,” he points out. “True leadership is anchored in the ability to inspire those around you to reach new heights, and that starts with communications.”
Saine insists that North American business schools take communication seriously and give ample opportunities for students to learn and, more importantly, practice their skills. In the Stanford course, for instance, participants are introduced to specific leadership challenges, like offering sincere words of praise or a heartfelt apology.
“Participants iterate on the best approach to handling each communication challenge and then execute their plan,” says Flynn. “Each assignment has high relevance — taking what you learn from the module and immediately putting it into practice.”
He points out that communication is the most fiercely criticized leadership skill. “The higher you get in an organization, the harsher that criticism will be, as people’s expectations become elevated and their need for crystal-clear messages from their leaders become paramount,” Flynn says.
Regardless of their other qualities, Groarke at UCD Smurfit says leaders are only as good as their ability to communicate effectively. “Business acumen and qualifications are important, but will ultimately fall short without the skills to inspire, empower, inform and motivate others in the pursuit of shared goals and objectives.”