Say What? Communication Advice for Leaders

tin-can telephone connected by wire on yellow background
Contributing Writer

10 minutes

It’s not only what you say; if you want to be heard, how you communicate matters too.

An executive was tasked with building a data center. The project was important and time-sensitive, and as a result, the executive led like a general, says Diane DiResta, executive speech coach and founder of DiResta Communications Inc., New York.

“Teams worked around the clock. Some had to stay overnight in hotels,” notes DiResta, whose company works with executives and leaders on improving communication skills. “The expectations and standards were high. The project was a success and the executive was hailed as a good leader … until he went back to day-to-day management, where his authoritative, take-no-prisoners approach no longer worked. People were resentful and didn’t like being commanded or micromanaged.” 

The executive’s error was in not altering his way of communicating to fit the audience and the situation, explains DiResta. She recalls another case, this one involving a talented female executive, where a failure to flex her communication style led to problems. This person was advancing rapidly, thanks to her effective leadership of a high-functioning team, says DiResta. But when she ascended to the role of CEO, gaining the board’s respect proved difficult.

“Her engaging, effusive style wasn’t appropriate in this venue,” DiResta explains. “She had to learn how to minimize small talk, change her body language and get to the point. She learned she could use one style with her team and another with the chairman of the board.”

It’s common for people to adopt a one-style-fits-all approach to communicating with others, says Susanne Biro, master coach and co-founder of Syntrina Leadership LLC, a boutique leadership development firm headquartered in Indianapolis that specializes in working with senior-level leaders and their teams. Some leaders will say, “That’s just the way I am,” but this is laziness, Biro says.

“Not flexing your style puts all the onus on the other person, rather than on the speaker as it should be,” she says. “To lead effectively, you must understand people—where they are emotionally, what they’re focused on and what you need them to understand. ... Connect with them first and then judge how to deliver the message.”

Carrie Birkhofer, CPA, CCE
Bay Federal Credit Union
I find it’s important to listen more than I speak to make sure to hear from my team members. … Once the CEO speaks, it’s typical that the conversation will end, because subconsciously, no one wants to contradict the CEO.

Listen, Question, Adapt

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, chief leadership consultant with CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC, a leadership consulting firm headquartered in Laytonsville, Maryland, says “emotionally intelligent leaders” understand the value of flexing how they communicate.

“There are many communication styles leaders use—directive, collaborative, passive, controlling, assertive, aggressive,” she explains. “Not all are useful, and some can get in the way of effective leadership. It’s important to understand the situation and the other person they’re interacting with and adjust their style accordingly.”

CUES board of directors member Kim Sponem, president/CEO of $3.7 billion Summit Credit Union, with 654 employees in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, describes her natural style as collaborative. Sponem has been with Summit CU for 25 years, serving in her current role for 18 of those years. 

“I like to get a lot of input as I’m formulating a path forward on an idea or even to get a sense of general direction,” she says. “Getting feedback early on, I learn quickly what some of the barriers might be. As more discussions take place and potential approaches come into focus, the stakeholders already recognize much of the near-final product because they had a part in creating it.

“Of course, this approach doesn’t work for everything,” Sponem continues. “When I have a clear understanding of the problem, and I’m committed to what I think is the right solution or decision, I will simply state it and move forward. Decisiveness is important to keeping this moving along.” 

The key is developing good listening skills and taking a curious approach, asking insightful follow-up questions, she says. CUES member Carrie Birkhofer, CPA, CCE, president/CEO of $1.1 billion Bay Federal Credit Union, agrees. Headquartered in Capitola, California, the CU has 210 mostly full-time employees. Birkhofer joined the credit union over 30 years ago and has acted as CEO and president for nearly 25 years.

“I find it’s important to listen more than I speak to make sure to hear from my team members before I provide input,” she says. “Once the CEO speaks, it’s typical that the conversation will end, because subconsciously, no one wants to contradict the CEO—the title automatically provides authority.”

Like Sponem, Birkhofer favors collaboration, with the team providing input and arriving at a conclusion together. They have worked on their communication styles on an ongoing basis, especially now that they’re utilizing Zoom conferencing

Birkhofer says she’s learned over the years that it’s important to be thoughtful with communication. DiResta applauds this mindset. Too many people open their mouths and just assume their message has been received and understood, she says. But checking back, questioning and listening are essential for effective communication and for bringing people on board. Flexing and adapting the way one communicates are equally important communication skills, but some leaders resist this, concerned it might make them seem manipulative or inauthentic.

“When a coaching client objects to flexing their style, I ask them, ‘Do you speak the same way to your children as you do to your husband? Do you speak to your husband the same way you speak to the chair?’ When you flex your style, you give the other person a gift,” DiResta explains. “You’re letting them know you see who they are and how they receive information and that you’re willing to enter their world. How could that be inauthentic?”

Flexing Strategies

The typical workday—even conducted remotely—offers myriad opportunities for flexing communication. Consider group or committee meetings. If the purpose is to persuade members to adopt a particular course of action or idea, DiResta suggests connecting first with the individuals comprising the team before making the group presentation. This will enable you to learn their concerns in advance and be better prepared to counter objections.

Sponem sometimes utilizes this tactic. It can be challenging to flex communication in a group situation, she notes, but not everyone in the meeting may be comfortable with her direct style. If she knows this might be off-putting for someone in the group, she’ll connect with that individual ahead of time, sharing her intent and desired outcome.

Once in the meeting, Sponem says she’ll adapt her approach to encourage responses from all participants. For example, if she observes that one participant tends to hold back or take time to respond, she’ll often start off by soliciting feedback from someone in the group who appears ready to jump in, since this can spark ideas, encouraging others to share.

Communication should also vary depending on the type of group, notes DiResta. For example, when presenting to senior management, go easy on the detail.

“They don’t want too much backstory,” she explains. “Get to the point. Lead with your recommendation and provide support. Executives are focused on results. However, when speaking to a group that will implement a solution, provide details and step-by-step measures and instructions. For sales groups, provide high energy, competition and results.”

Flexing communication in a one-on-one situation is often less challenging, since it’s easier to identify that person’s style and match it, says DiResta. You may be the chatty, friendly sort, but if your counterpart clearly wants to get down to business, forego the small talk. If you’re trying to paint a big picture and the person keeps asking questions, he or she is signaling the need for more data.

“You can have the right solution,” DiResta says. “But if you don’t communicate in the way the other person wants to hear it, the solution may never be accepted.”

Communication is affected by the level of trust established between the individuals involved, says Maddalena. Depending on the trust level, it may be effective to adopt a more assertive approach with a superior when sharing an idea or opinion you feel passionately about. Most often, however, a collaborative approach—asking questions and listening to the responses—brings better results, especially when this involves a direct report, she says.

“If an employee isn’t meeting performance expectations, a direct approach might be to call a meeting and tell him what he needs to do to improve,” Maddalena says. “A direct manager might ask, … ‘Why were you late today?’ This puts the employee on the defensive and rarely leads to a productive outcome.

“Using the collaborative coaching style, a manager can get better results by asking questions instilling ownership in the employee,” she continues. “For example, ‘I noticed you’ve been late four times this month. What’s going on?’ This opens up space for the employee to enter into a dialogue without having to be defensive.”

Susanne Biro
Master Coach and Co-founder
Syntrina Leadership LLC
Not flexing your style puts all the onus on the other person. … To lead effectively, you must understand people—where they are emotionally, what they’re focused on and what you need them to understand. ... Connect with them first and then judge how to deliver the message.

Taking Control

Flexing communication is especially important during conflict. Knowing your audience is critical in these situations, says Maddalena. If some individuals tend to respond defensively, getting their perspective and pausing to hear them can help you cool things down and arrive at a better resolution.

It’s also helpful to identify your own natural way of showing up, explains Biro. This requires an awareness of what’s happening to you internally, how you typically react when you feel that way and the impact of your response in order to effectively handle these encounters. Flexing the way one communicates requires thinking strategically and deliberately, slowing down reactions in order to determine the best way to shape the communication.

Maddalena suggests these tactics to effectively adjust your communication:

  • Know your triggers and in what situations you tend to respond negatively. “Having this self-awareness allows you to manage your emotions better,” she explains.
  • Pause before you respond. Make this a habit, she advises. “There’s a difference between responding and reacting; responding is more thoughtful whereas reacting is more emotional. Taking a breath and pausing can give you more perspective before responding emotionally.”
  • Take a one-hour (or longer) break if things become too heated and the conversation becomes less productive.
  • Use questions. “Questions are a very powerful way to bring the other person into the conversation and for him or her to feel heard,” she explains. “I love the quote by 
  • Stephen Covey: ‘First seek to understand, then to be understood.’”

Birkhofer says one trick she uses to slow herself down is waiting six seconds before responding. “This gives you time to think about what the person is communicating to you and how you plan to respond without responding too quickly or defensively.”

Bay FCU employees take an assessment test called “True Colors” that identifies their particular style. For example, “blue” signals someone more emotional and sensitive, so Birkhofer says she makes sure to acknowledge or inquire about that person’s feelings as they begin talking. “Gold” indicates someone who likes to get to the point. Consequently, Birkhofer will be more direct with those individuals.

“The point is, it’s important to know your audience, whether it’s a group or one person, and appeal to their style of communication to be most effective,” she says.

Flexing communication helps leaders lead more effectively—as Sponem discovered many years ago. She recalls meeting with an employee who came to her for help with an issue.

“In the meeting, a very clear option came to me, and I shared it with her, feeling helpful and efficient,” Sponem recalls. “I thought it went very well. Later I found out that because I had answered so quickly, she felt I was being dismissive, not willing to take the time to think about the issue.

“I was completely taken aback and revisited with this person,” Sponem continues. “This situation helped me get better at reading others and measuring the impact of my communication. It’s always worth working on communication skills for ourselves and those around us.”

Doing so can also help advance your career, says DiResta.

“Companies have become less hierarchical and more of a matrix or team approach,” she explains. “This calls for the ability to influence without authority. And the way to do this is through clear, effective communication and flexing to the situation.” cues icon

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Long Beach, California.

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