Why don't more leaders communicate effectively? Companies tend to evaluate leaders on management and leadership criteria that do not emphasize this type of communication. And individuals may resist devoting time and energy to communication when there are numerous business priorities.
The result is that executives often don't "discover" they need to speak well until there is a problem. They arrive at a new level, and suddenly their skills are not up to the role. They may give PowerPoint presentations on their business, but those are informative, not visionary. And they do not know how to exude passion or describe a big vision in a way that gets people moving ahead together.
How to Help Leaders Develop and Communicate a Vision
A hallmark of great leaders is that their vision includes big ideas. Big ideas get people excited. Nobody wants to do something small. Leaders want to feel motivated about coming to work, because what they do matters.
Some examples of big ideas that most of us are familiar with are Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and President John F. Kennedy's vision for the space program: "We choose to go to the moon...not because it is easy, but because it is hard."
Great business leaders also know how to paint a vivid picture of the future. They make it look easy. However, most of them have worked hard to develop and articulate their powerful thoughts.
The creative process of developing a visionary statement consists of four steps: observe, reflect, write, and speak. Here's what I tell my executive clients about these processes — and what HR professionals can tell their leaders.
Step One: Observe
In order to determine a vision, you must become an astute observer of your world. You have to immerse yourself in watching, listening, and wondering. Pay attention, ask questions, probe, discuss, and gather information.
Step Two: Reflect
Now you turn inward. For example, you look at important events in the company or important events in your life and career, and ask yourself: What did I learn? What is this telling me? During reflection, you come up with stories and examples that form your vision and clarify your values.
Step Three: Write
Because we live in a fast-paced world, with little time for reflecting and writing, many people want to skip this step. That is a mistake. When you write, you discover how to say precisely what you mean. Many executives ask why they can't just speak off the cuff. That is an important skill. But when you are articulating a vision, writing it down is a critical step in the process.
Step Four: Speak
If you have followed the process, speaking and communicating your vision is a natural outcome. A leader is far more powerful and effective when he or she gets up to speak because of this process.
Speaking well requires practice. All the preparation in the world will not wow an audience if the leader cannot speak fluently and confidently. There is no magic wand that will make a speech great; no amount of thinking, writing, or preparing slides will be enough if the speaker has not rehearsed so that he or she looks and sounds like a leader on the platform.
The activities of observing, reflecting, writing, and practicing a speech are not usually on an executive's calendar — but they should be. A powerful vision, well articulated, attracts people to an organization, motivates them to take action toward progress, and drives business results.
Achieving Buy-in from Skeptical CEOs and Leaders
Organizations usually decide to invest, or invest further, in communication training and development as a result of one or several precipitating events or urgent needs. For instance:
- You place a leader in a new role, or bring on a relatively inexperienced team, and need to get everyone off on the right foot.
- You receive negative feedback about a high-potential leader or a current leader who has other valuable business skills, and you don't want to lose him or her.
- A survey or feedback program reveals a serious breakdown in communication among individuals or a group.
- You want to groom an individual or emerging leadership group to move the succession plan forward.
- You have a new initiative, a major change, or a new project or direction that requires you to communicate your vision clearly and win buy-in from internal and external audiences.
- The company wants to achieve a specific goal, such as increasing sales, improving the stock price, enhancing customer relations, or anything that would drive business results.
- You have a major upcoming event, such as an annual meeting, marketing conference, keynote opportunity for an executive, company-wide employee meeting, important board meeting, road show, or pending merger or sale.
- Part of the company's business strategy is to position some experts as thought leaders in the industry and attract positive attention through media or marketing.
As an outside communication consultant, I have learned to ask a lot of questions which eventually lead to buy-in. By this method, I find out about challenges the organization and the individual executive face. I also gain better information, build rapport, demonstrate my expertise, and lead executives to reach their own conclusions, rather than me telling them what they need.
Good questions to ask are:
- What do we want to achieve in the next 1-2 years?
- What is standing in our way?
- How does communication play a role?
- Where do you see our gaps when it comes to communication?
- What will happen if we do nothing?
- What difference would it make to us if we achieve these goals?
- What is it costing not to invest in this?
- How would you want to measure improved performance?
About the Author
Suzanne Bates is president of Bates Communications, a communications consulting firm that helps business leaders and executives articulate their vision and values, speak with an authentic voice of leadership, and get a competitive edge in business. Her firm's clients include Dow Chemical, Fidelity, Mellon, State Street, EMC, Blue Cross, and Cabot Corporation. Suzanne is also the author of Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005), which has been translated into Russian and Chinese. Prior to starting her successful consulting firm, she was an award-winning television news anchor and reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting