Talk is Chief: Why Leaders Must Be Great Communicators

Leadership and Communication

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of great communication skills for leaders. Whether sharing the strategic vision, negotiating difficult contracts, or having individual performance discussions, leaders are always communicating in written and oral form.

In Talk is Chief: Leadership, Communication and Credibility in a High-Stakes World , Jack Modzelewski makes the case to consider communication practices as you would any other critical skill like deal making or business transformation. Jack is founder and president of JackKnifePR, a business communications consulting firm. He has over thirty-five years of experience in corporate and brand communications.


Leadership is a Strategic Management Function

Talk is Chief. For those who haven’t yet read your book, would you give an overview of the importance of communication?

There is an inseparable link between leadership and communication. That is why leadership communication today is a strategic management function.

Of the highest importance is the ability for leaders to be heard and clearly understood in the complicated worlds in which they must lead or govern.The stakes in this new communication environment are high. Commentary about leaders, their brands and their organizations runs hot and cold through a proliferation of media channels.

Whenever leaders put words into action and actions into words, they put their personal reputations and those of their organizations on the line.  A leader’s errors in judgement or a few wrongly chosen words can put entire organizations on defense.  Ask Elon Musk, Ken Fisher, or others who have miscommunicated themselves into embarrassing and costly situations.

Communication takes 50 to 90 percent of the days of modern leaders, whether they recognize it or not.  They are constantly in customer or internal meetings, on phone calls, touring facilities, and responding to emails, texts, and sometimes to tweets.  They are lucky if they get a little mindful quiet time amidst all of that stakeholder communications.



Evaluate Your Daily Practices

In light of its importance, how do leaders best evaluate their own daily communication practices?

By having trusted advisors assisting them with their communications – advisors who are not afraid to give direct feedback to their leaders on when they communicate effectively and what they need to improve.  Those advisors generally have titles like chief communications officer, vice president of corporate affairs, or press secretary in the case of public officials.  Their job is also to prepare their leaders for daily communication activities and events.

Effective communication is judged by how it is received by others.  For more formal communications like speeches and employee townhall-style webcasts, leaders should pre-test their messaging on colleagues they can trust to advise them on tone and the substance of their remarks.  Those closest to customers can guide them on messaging that resonates best. With their daily informal communication, leaders can be more conversational – which makes them more authentically human – but they must always be careful.  As mentioned, bloopers along with misstatements and ambiguity are unforced errors that can cause an organization to “walk it back” or scramble for reinterpretation.



Talk about the interplay between culture and communications.

Organizational culture is shaped and sustained by leaders.  It is a key driver of why people choose to work for, buy from, or advocate for an organization. Culture reflects what an organization values and prioritizes. Culture plays a big role in how a leader communicates inside and outside an organization.  Peter Drucker put simply, “Communications is less about information as it is about facilitating a kinship within the culture.”

People expect their leaders to communicate clearly and transparently.  Leaders must embrace communication as a mission-enabler and as an empowerment platform for others.  The conventional wisdom about organizational performance is that people will do what gets rewarded.  But leaders can inspire their employees to new levels of achievement with their actions, decisions … and their words.   One executive quoted in my book said that “one of the central responsibilities of leadership … (is) to build an environment where authentic communication is valued and can take place.”

When trying to redirect an organization that has drifted from its purpose, leadership communication—and leadership by example—should be frequent, interactive, and personified by compelling stories of progress. Rewards and promotions must be aligned to financial and operational performance. They must also encourage the most desirable cultural behaviors.



Crisis Communication Tips

Crisis communication is a specialty area. What are some of the key lessons leaders should take note of long before a crisis occurs?

First and foremost, that they may be able to prevent crises.  Short of that, their organizations should be prepared for a wide range of possible bad events.  Good preparation before and execution of a containment plan can mitigate a crisis’s length and impact.

Leaders cannot emphasize risk identification enough.  Big problems occur when smaller problems are neglected or do not receive leadership’s attention. The best way to stay ahead of the risk curve is to create a culture that encourages more active monitoring, discussion and resolution of potential risks before they can turn into crises.

In my opinion, preventing bad things from happening does not get rewarded enough by board directors, shareholders, voters, and others who ultimately judge a leader’s performance.



What other communication tips are key for leaders? How do leaders best continue to grow in their communication expertise?

If leaders are not continuing to motivate and drive desired behaviors, they risk organizational complacency, irrelevance, and even failure. At the same time, it has been demonstrated that leadership can add substantial value to enterprise performance, marketplace advantage, and the loyalty of customers, workers, members, and other constituencies. Here’s why:

  • Communication provides the thematic skyway for people to visualize the pinnacle of performance. That’s why leaders must clearly tell people what they expect, congratulate them when they deliver on those expectations, and then tell them what they need to do next.
  • Strong cultures can be extremely productive so long as their leadership continually leads them forward, in both words and actions. That means constantly communicating new threats and opportunities, while reminding everyone what made them historically successful, if not dominant, in the past.
  • Leadership communication is the oxygen that breathes purpose, passion, and personalized meaning into the organization. It provides the “why us?” narrative, explaining why the organization exists and what makes its products, services, and standards superior to the rest.
  • Leaders also may be in a better position to head off existential risks before they occur, through better vertical and lateral communication within their organizations.

Leaders must act consistently to build and then protect the reputations of the entities they lead, in good times and bad. They must focus every day on communicating a sense of trust with multiple communities of stakeholders who work for, buy from, support, and invest in their organizations.



For more information, see Talk is Chief: Leadership, Communication and Credibility in a High-Stakes World .

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