We know that employees want to be made to feel worthy, want meaningful work, want to be appreciated and stretched, and want to feel part of a community working to a common cause. Most managers, however, think employees want good wages, job security and promotion before all else.
It never fails to amaze me that all of the soft factors are often stripped out of a manager’s view of their staff. They think that commitment and energy can simply be bought for cold cash and promises of a step up the work ladder.
Whether you lead a major organisation or a small team, my focus has been on trying to understand what you need to do to bring out the very best in other people. After five years of research, I have now interviewed more than 120 CEOs, surveyed 3,000 managers and 6,000 employees, and read just about every book there is on leadership and communication.
I strongly believe that the most successful leaders use a system of communication that enables them to be engaging. By following just 12 principles, leaders can have a dramatically positive effect on the engagement and commitment of their teams, and deliver the respect that is such a prerequisite of employee engagement. Let’s look into this in more detail.
1) Be better at being yourself
As a leader authenticity is crucial. Followers will not commit if they do not trust you and believe that you have integrity. So, even if you are a highly introverted individual, you will have to learn to speak with more passion, talk to your values, and stand up more often to speak for your beliefs and values.
Followers must feel your passion, and believe that you believe. When you are clear with yourself about the things you really care about, you cannot help but talk to them with passion. Most leaders have not spent the time articulating those beliefs, yet the ability to draw on and display that passion and commitment, consistently and predictably, counts for more than skills at oratory, and communicates more effectively than even the most perfectly crafted words. You have to be true to yourself, but you also have to learn to ‘perform’ yourself better.
2) Have a powerful purpose and strong values
Leaders too often use financial or measurable goals to motivate people. They are more comfortable being rational and objective. Too often, followers say they don’t get out of bed in the morning to achieve financial or other numerate objectives. They come to work and want to be inspired by a sense of doing something important, something that makes a difference. A strong sense of purpose can help shape decisions to be made throughout the organisation, and is even more empowering when coupled with a set of values that your people know to be true.
You have to be true to yourself, but you also have to learn to ‘perform’ yourself better.
In this world of radical transparency, values have assumed far greater importance, for many reasons. Values define how people in the organisation behave in pursuit of their objectives, and their actions define a business to the outside world. Those intangible values – often dismissed as ‘soft and fluffy’ – translate into actions on the ground, which translate into hard numbers in the annual report. How you articulate purpose and values is crucial.
3) Formulate an uplifting future that creates value for all stakeholders
Every leader I spoke to used the future to drive the present. They knew precisely where they wanted to be in a given timescale, even if they did not know exactly how to get there. They were never satisfied with the status quo, and their restlessness was a tangible force. Every question they asked had to do with how people were progressing towards the goals, and they kept those goals under constant review. They painted a vivid picture of success, often describing the future both in rational terms (the numbers) and emotive terms (how it would feel for all concerned).
This bringing together of the rational and the emotional was key to inspiring people. Fusing the future vision (what success will look and feel like) to the purpose (what important thing we are here to do) to the values (how we do it) was what stirred hearts and minds. This future, though, had to be expressed in benefit terms for all the people with a vested interest in the performance of the organisation – customers, shareholders, local communities, suppliers and partners and, most importantly, employees.
4) Bring the outside in and give people a purpose that benefits others
Leaders have to live outside their organisations, constantly bringing stories of success and failure in external relationships into the organisation in order to keep everyone fixed on what needs to improve. Successful leaders know that relationships are the engines of success, and they keep a close eye on the state of all key relationships, and keep their enterprise focused on those relationships as well.
You have to set up “quivering antennae,” as one leader described it – a radar system that keeps you in touch with the outside world. Too often I heard about the “reputation gap” – the difference between the promise the business made and the experience customers or stakeholders actually received. Narrowing that gap, or even managing it away, is the goal, if you want to be trusted. And you do want to be trusted. Trust is now the most valuable but most hidden asset on your balance sheet.
Leaders are increasingly looking to make trust a strategic goal, measured and managed as preciously as any other key asset. Research shows that employees are much more motivated by seeing how what they do delivers a positive benefit to customers than by anything a manager can do to inspire.
5) Engage through more powerful conversations
More and more leaders are now measuring levels of employee engagement, and using this measurement as a strategic tool to find the ways to keep people motivated and committed to the cause. As we have already seen, study after study has shown that companies with high levels of engagement outperform their competitors, by some margin. Engagement is achieved through conversations – structured, potent conversations that allow employees to fully understand the big objective, and work out with their leaders what they have to do to help achieve the goals. It is in these conversations that the rubber hits the road, where the plan gets traction. Too often, these conversations are neglected, and middle managers are neither trained for, nor measured on, their ability to hold these critical conversations. Nor are they shown how to link local actions to the organisation’s higher purpose, and make them relevant and clear to every employee.
Worse, too often top management does not check on the quality of those conversations, or seek to get the feedback from those conversations in a systematic way. The more regularly these conversations are held, the more engaged and motivated the employees will be.
6) Be more audience-centric; start with them
Let us be clear: you have NOT communicated well if people have not heard you, understood you and feel motivated to think differently and act differently as a result of your words. You may have stood up and talked at them, but communication has only taken place when your words have had an impact. In any enterprise, leadership communication is all about achieving big goals. It is about changing behaviours. People listen from behind their own filters – filters that may be cultural or emotional, or they may be in place because of their unique perceptions or even misunderstandings. You have to talk to them about their concerns, their issues, before you can be understood on your own.
Every leader I have interviewed, without exception, spoke of the need to be audience-centric in your communication, and to recognise that, when it comes to communication, it is all about them. You have to set out to achieve change in how they think, feel and act, but that requires you to know how they think, feel and act NOW.
7) Be an outstanding listener
Quite often, the people I interviewed treated the subject of listening as if it were somehow distinct from communicating. They rated it an essential skill of leadership, possibly the hardest to perfect. Sometimes the simple act of listening, they said, is an act of inspiration in itself: “You have to give people a damn good listening to.” There is something more fundamental at work here, though, and I call it The Listening Contract – first you have to listen, if you want to be heard.
When you listen and then respond with actions that remove barriers, or pick up on good ideas, you create enormous goodwill, and demonstrate you are on their side, particularly when you encourage people to open up, and create an environment where people can bring you bad news, express their frustrations, and voice their concerns, without fear of repercussions. It is by listening that you show you care, and make them feel worthy. You have to listen beyond the words, into the motives and agendas, into the context, into the Key Performance Indicators and the financial numbers and the mood, and you have to show you understand, even if you don’t agree. You have to ask great questions, and learn to unleash your curiosity and interest in people. It really makes a difference.
8) Have a powerful point of view
The best leaders have a potent point of view, and it is always the person with the strong point of view who influences the group, who wins the day. As a leader, you are going to have to stand up and give your point of view, time and time again. You will have to take a position on issues, be courageous, and stand up for what you believe to be right. Too few leaders think about developing points of view – yet when well-articulated, they can help you to win friends and influence people, and gain a stronger voice in shaping the future. Not having a point of view, and not standing up for it, creates confusion and a vacuum, which toxic employees will quickly rush to fill.
In a world where people trust the motives, judgement and competence of business leaders less now than just five years ago, shouldn’t we be talking to those issues more often, with more transparency, more conviction and, yes, passion? The ideal point of view should, therefore, bring together your purpose and your values, highlight your behaviours and draw attention to the benefits of doing things your way. And it should call people to action. Powerful stuff.
9) Use stories and metaphor more
Getting people to listen to you is tough enough, but getting them to sit up and take notice, and then remember what you have to say, is a supreme challenge. Every leader uses stories, knowing that we are wired to listen, imaginatively, when we are told stories. Good stories get under the cynical radar and touch hearts. Backed up by facts to cover off the mind, stories have the power to move people.
Engagement is achieved through conversations – structured, potent conversations that allow employees to fully understand the big objective.
The best stories tell us about customer experiences, good and bad, or make heroes out of employees delivering the values of the organisation, or show up the frustrations of workers unable to do their best because of the system, or vividly portray the future, or reveal aspects of the leader to the audience. They deliberately avoid the tyranny of PowerPoint, and are the more memorable because of it. Some leaders I spoke with were uncomfortable with the word ‘stories,’ and preferred the word anecdotes, saying this was factual rather than fictional, as some stories can be. But they all used them and loved hearing them, then retelling them, over and over.
10) Be more aware of the signals you send
Actions speak louder than words. A cliché, you might say, but nevertheless one of the hardest truths for a leader to grasp. Being a leader means looking, acting, walking and talking like a leader. Countless times, leaders forget that they are in a fishbowl and are being watched all the time. A look of frustration here, a preoccupied walk through an office without speaking to anyone, a frown of frustration when someone is talking – all of these send powerful signals that staff take away and dissect for meaning. Great leaders communicate positivity and optimism, and they often do it through a smile, or by walking with energy, or by standing straight and tall.
Equally, there is nothing more corrosive than the conflict between saying one thing and doing another. For example, saying that bullying is offensive, but then doing nothing about a high-earning bullying manager. That says one thing, and one thing only: money matters more than staff welfare. Leaders who clearly love what they are doing, who show it in everything they do, in every expression, are hugely infectious.
11) Prepare properly for public platforms
Many a leader has had their reputation dented, or even shattered, because they have not prepared properly for speaking to groups of employees, or to external gatherings. Employees like it when their boss is good on their feet. They really do. And it can make a huge difference to motivation, as we shall see.
Employees want to be proud of their bosses, especially when they speak on public platforms. The more senior leaders get, the more likely it is they will have to appear on highly public platforms. Done well, such appearances can do enormous good, and drive up sales, calm nervous investors or unhappy customers, or persuade talented people to the cause. Proper training or coaching is highly recommended, but is not enough by itself. Practice makes perfect, and rehearsal is the best practice. Never get complacent – it is just not worth the risk.
12) Learn. Rehearse. Review. Improve
Humility is one of the things that followers most want in their leaders. Being self-aware, and humble, inspires more discretionary effort from employees. If you strive to be an excellent communicator, you will become a better, more effective leader. This is why all the leaders I spoke with focused on continuous improvement, fuelled by full and frank feedback on each and every performance.
Brilliant leadership can be the difference between outstanding performance and disappointing failure. Great leaders steer organisations to success, inspire and motivate followers, and provide a moral compass for employees to set direction. They spearhead change, drive innovation, and communicate a compelling vision for the future. The ability to motivate and inspire others is the characteristic most commonly cited as important when recruiting senior leaders. Communication is the tool that enables inspiring leadership. The simple truth is that you have to get better at it.
Creating a long-term impact on employees
These 12 behaviours, if delivered well, can have a dramatic effect on employees, and are the cornerstones of engagement. They are the way you can become a more engaging leader. They help you to construct a more powerful strategic narrative for your team or company, they help you to give employees a voice, and they help you to deliver your values consistently in your leadership. This is how you make people feel worthy, part of a community, working towards a higher purpose, understanding how they contribute, and willing to give of their very best.
This article includes an extract from People with Purpose by Kevin Murray is ©2017 and was reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.
Kevin is author of three business books – “People with Purpose”, ”The Language of Leaders” , and “Communicate to Inspire” . People with Purpose was published in February 2017 and features exclusive interviews with CEO’s, neuroscientists, and psychologists and gives every leader an insight in to how to use purpose to encourage super performance.
He has interviewed more than 100 CEO’s on how to be inspiring, speaks at conferences and leadership events around the world, and does exclusive leadership coaching.
Kevin is also a special adviser to the Chime Group, a London-based, international marketing services company. He has been with Chime since 1998. As a consultant, he specialises in strategic and leadership communications and business clients. He was chairman of the Bell Pottinger Group prior to the buyout of Bell Pottinger companies from Chime in 2012, when he then set up and chaired The Good Relations Group for Chime. He has worked with the CEOs and leadership teams of many global companies, across a wide range of sectors, for more than three decades.He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute.