The credibility of CEOs is at an all-time low. Trust in authority is draining away in favour of peers and ‘people like me’. Everybody agrees that trust is key to business success (88% of all senior leaders) yet just 36% of Britain’s middle managers say they trust their business leader to a great extent.
Effective leadership communication is essential to building trust, and around a third of a CEO’s time is now spent on formal communication activities - even before you consider informal chats with employees or a daily walk around the office. What’s interesting is that this greater communication is not focused on more leadership presentations, all-employee emails or perfectly-edited video messages from the CEO. In fact, the most successful business leaders are doing quite the opposite, building credibility from the ground level, person to person.
Employees no longer want a filtered, polished version of their leaders. They just want real information in an authentic way - however imperfectly it’s delivered. Imperfection makes you human. It also makes you ‘one of us,’ as does showing vulnerability, emotion and a bit of who you are inside. Leaders in presentation, theatre or scripted mode will only ever be effective if they’re authentic, otherwise they inadvertently build barriers instead of break them.
Management being visible is nowhere near enough anymore. Employees, particularly the informed, empowered younger generations coming into the workplace, are looking for richer, more meaningful engagements. They want to understand how what they do fits into the business strategy, challenge that strategy with new ideas and fresh thinking and play a part in the future development of the company. This requires face time, interaction with business leaders and plenty of opportunities to ask questions - something that, with careful planning and technology, can be delivered in the event arena.
You don’t need to be Steve Jobs – or Richard Branson
Engaging with lots of people is essential, particularly in large companies, so leaders need to shine in a live event environment, but there are different ways to skin a cat. You don’t have to be an extrovert. We’re seeing more and more reluctant leaders in business - exemplary professionals, who enable autonomy and are able to appear apolitical. They’re not the obvious leadership choice but their social astuteness, interpersonal influence, networking ability, and apparent sincerity places them perfectly to lead. Indeed, the best extroverted leaders on the other hand are the ones who work on these ‘quiet’ behaviours.
Different approaches therefore work for different people. We’ve worked with leaders who take to the stage to deliver an interactive presentation, those where there’s no PowerPoint and only personal experience and stories and those where the stage doesn’t play a part at all and they’re at ground level undertaking an hour of completely unscripted open Q&A. I’ve also known leaders who, after briefly laying out the vision on stage, preferred to roll their sleeves up with their senior teams at live events and run employee feedback workshops to really bring that vision to life.
Here’s ten things for leaders to think about when getting on stage:
1. Use leadership theatre wisely - the majority of people believe direct, spontaneous straight-talkers over rehearsed and diplomatic communicators.
2. Tell your own stories - people remember a story so much more. Bring to life your message by sharing a personal experience
3. Think differently about the live event space - it’s great to get in front of your people but it doesn’t only have to be with PowerPoint from the stage
4. Create opportunities for feedback and challenge - the age of broadcasting is dead, we’re living in a world of exchange so enable people to give their view
5. Work with the comms team to support you not be you - avoid anything ‘on behalf of’ or anything that is ghost written - people always see through it
6. Be visible and accessible - some leaders like weekly drop in clinics or monthly town halls and others prefer live streamed Q&A sessions
7. Open your ears - make sure there’s some listening going on in-between the communicating (in fact more listening than talking works best)
8. Let others take the stage - whether it’s directors, middle managers or front liners with a big idea, a great leader gives others the opportunity to shine
9. Talk like you - try to sound like you in all of your communications by using language you would say and getting rid of corporate jargon
10. Human nature - employees want a human being more than anything so show them who you are, what is important to you and how it informs how you run the business
Nick Terry is the Founding Partner and Managing Director of leadership events and communications firm Top Banana. www.top-b.com