What you need to know about leadership

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What You Need to Know about Leadership, written by Jeff Grout & Liz Fisher, suggests that if leaders want to be heard they must make communication a two-way process as it’s the only way to ensure followers share the most critical information

Many business leaders see communication as a one-way street and this view is often betrayed by the words they use to describe the process.

Ask senior management to describe the communications strategy in their organisation and they will typically use words such as “telling”, “informing”, “cascading” or “briefing”. And if you were to ask people to assess the quality of organisational communication, comparing the responses of senior management with employees at all levels of the business, inevitably the senior managers would say it was excellent, but those further down the organisation would complain that it was poor and, crucially, that no-one ever listens to them.

While there are occasions when the best option is to tell someone what to do and make sure they do it, generally the best communication is two-way. There is a world of difference between information and communication, and between telling and sharing. Human beings thrive on interaction and crave conversation.

There are two important lessons here. The first is that two-way communication is the only way that a leader can stay in touch with reality. One of the biggest risks of leadership is that people will tell the leader what they think he or she wants to hear, rather than the truth. A leader can quickly become isolated from reality if they lose touch with what is really going on in the business.

The second lesson is that a leader is far more likely to earn the trust, respect and loyalty of their followers if they listen to what their followers have to say. As we have seen, modern leadership is based on forming a relationship of mutual trust and respect between leader and follower, and that cannot happen if the leader does nothing but issue orders from above, without taking into account the opinions of people who are doing most of the work. It’s relatively common to hear the complaint in business that a team is not listening to its manager, but that is usually because the manager is not listening to the team.

On a simple level, this means that the leader should be sure that they actively listen to the people around them. This may seem obvious, but how many of us can genuinely say that we listen well? Simon Woodroffe, the entrepreneur and founder of YO! Sushi, has deliberately developed a conversational habit which, on first meeting, is a little unsettling. If you speak to him or ask him a question, there will be a lengthy pause before he answers. What he is doing is making sure that he listens to the entire question, before he begins to think about how he will answer. He does this because, after a few years in business, he realised that he was beginning to formulate his response half-way through the question, and that meant that he was not giving the questioner his full attention and in some cases was assuming that one question had been asked, when in reality it had been another. So Woodroffe now gives 100 per cent of his attention to listening, then pauses to think, and then replies.

Followers like to know that they are heard, and that their opinions count. The best leaders create an environment in which honest feedback is not only welcomed, but acted upon. The larger the group, however, the more difficult it is to carry out anything that could be described as a conversation and in large organisations, addressing everyone at once is simply not feasible. Good leaders employ a variety of techniques to get around this problem, such as addressing people in small groups so they have the opportunity to look each person in the eye and to take questions.

The late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, came up with a novel solution to this conundrum. Every member of staff who joined the company was given an induction pack, which included a pack of scarlet red envelopes. The idea was that if you had a complaint or suggestion, or a good idea that could help to improve the business, you put it into a red envelope and sent it to the board of directors. Staff could send anonymous notes if they wanted to but if they signed their name, the board was obliged to respond to their comment within five days. The result was that staff knew that no comment would ever be ignored, and that their opinion counted.

Other business leaders have borrowed this idea in order to encourage a two-way conversation with staff, who might otherwise be too intimidated to ask a question, for example, during a group briefing with their leader. Turning communication into a conversation can be a challenge, but it brings dual benefits to a leader because it allows them to really understand what is going on in their team or business, and creates a vital sense of closeness between the leader and their followers.

A generation ago, it was perfectly acceptable for the leader of a business to work out of sight in a plush office, only appearing for an occasional rally of the troops or to tackle a crisis. These days, people want to see and hear their leader on a daily basis. Crucially, they also want to feel that they know their leader, which means treading a fine line between creating the distance that is necessary between leader and followers (necessary because, at some point, you might have to exert your authority or fire them), while creating a sense of closeness and intimacy.

Maintaining a sense of closeness is a challenge frequently faced by leaders as they move to higher levels of responsibility. The bigger the organisation, the more difficult it becomes to keep some sort of contact with everyone in the company. Add time pressure and the sheer volume of work expected of a CEO into the mix, and it’s easy to see why some spend all their time in a palatial office at company headquarters, and why few of their employees could pick them out of a crowd.

This is why many leaders of large organisations go to great lengths to make themselves as visible as possible to everyone in the company. This might mean, for instance, making sure that their office is located at a hub of activity, where people from all levels of the organisation often walk by, or by having an office with glass walls so they can be seen by everyone (an option perhaps only for the brave), or by keeping their door open as much as possible. Sometimes the most efficient answer is to eat with everyone else in the staff canteen—a technique favoured by Charles Dunstone, co-founder of the Carphone Warehouse. ‘You don’t want to patronise people, but just try to be as much a normal member of the team as you can,’ says Dunstone.

Extracted from What You Need to Know about Leadership by Jeff Grout & Liz Fisher, published by Capstone

You can purchase a copy here 

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Director is the magazine for business leaders. Free to IoD members and available to purchase through subscription, each edition is full of insightful interviews with entrepreneurs and company directors.

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