I’m a leader. Now what? [Leadership series, part 1]

The two most challenging aspects of leadership are accountability and communication. Whether you have attained a leadership role in your company, your profession, a volunteer organization, or even your own household, you now face two daunting prospects:

  • Failure will be placed squarely at your door.
  • Effective messaging is harder than you think.

No matter who you are or where, your leadership marks new territory in reporting, convincing, and guiding both action and decision-making throughout your organization.

New leaders can seek out multiple resources, education, training, even certifications in effective management.  These resources cover a wide range of topics and issues, from planning to accounting to the ‘soft skills’ needed for the hard job of managing people. However, the heavy focus on managing others misses one of the most powerful keys to success in leadership.

A hidden pain point for new leaders is communication to those to whom they are accountable.  Over a period of five years, I had the great privilege of conducting three ethnographic studies with executives to determine what they most wanted and needed in terms of decision support data and how it is presented.

The executive audience requires both precision and accuracy.

Whether, in your new role, you are accountable to a higher-level executive, a board of directors, an organizational membership, or even a constituency, you must master the fine art of executive communications.  To that end, as you embark on your own journey of communicating to influence, keep in mind these lessons learned.

Executives are under a constant pressure to perform, yet must motivate, track, and rely on others to complete the performance.  This means you; and these means those to whom you are accountable.  Many of these pressures are hidden from those that you lead, because they are at levels where failure would have a lesser impact on the overall success of the organization, or greater chance for error to be mediated by the effective performance of others.  Executive success is tied to corporate goals and benchmarks.  Any deviation must be justified and supported to the executive’s own leaders and stakeholders.

Key points to understand for yourself, and to convey to your staff are:

  • Leaders need to know where to place their attention, and require data-driven support for how best to apply resources.
  • Crafting executive communications takes logging your detailed information and data, then distilling, trimming, and deleting, again and again, to rapid summaries that are both concise and dense.
  • Craft your message until it directs executive attention to the key decision you need them to make.

For your message-crafting to have the best chance for success, observe your audience to find these answers to these questions:

  • What are the central goals of the executive audience?
  • What do executives need to support their daily situational awareness?
  • What do executives need for strategic decision-making?
  • What obstacles and pressures do executives face on a daily basis?
  • What information and presentation best support executives to achieve their goals?

See your own ‘leaders’ as your own personal customer.  Observe them through a customer-centered lens; then provide them with solutions on their terms and their own language.

Interestingly, executives who best learned the lessons of ‘communicating up’ also gained the greatest skill and effectiveness in their leadership of others.  Look to this area of learning, and tell me how it goes!