Communication Is the Most Important Leadership Skill You Possess

Communication Is the Most Important Leadership Skill You Possess

An interview with Simon Heath, Executive Communications Coach.

Simon Heath: Executive Communications Coach at

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How can we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

Simon Heath: I think that’s an interesting question because I don’t believe that change and innovation happen naturally. I believe leadership is required for change and innovation to happen. For leadership to be present, the leaders have to be creating a culture where people can bring their full selves to work.

The biggest thing that we can do is talk to people like human beings.

To me, leadership sets the tone of how we talk to each other at the workplace. The biggest thing that we can do is talk to people like human beings. When we talk about speaking as human beings, part of that is the substance. The content of what it is that we’re talking about. Do we only focus on the business matter at hand, or do we recognize that people have lives outside of work? Is that being brought into the conversation? Are people allowed to bring their experiences into conversations? I think that’s incredibly important because it will inform the culture and interact with each other. But one of the most simple things that we can do is change the language we’re using.

Everywhere I work, corporate-speak is embedded in its culture. It starts with senior leaders. It’s in their presentations and meetings. Mid-level executives will emulate what the most senior leaders are doing. As soon as the CEO uses an expression, then all of a sudden, all of the VPs are using the same words.

Buzzwords and corporate-speak create cynicism. We all kind of laugh at it, and people roll their eyes. But the other thing is that it creates a division between the human being and the working person. If I go into a meeting and everyone is speaking corporate-speak, it creates a separation between myself and my professional self. I’m supposed to speak a different language. This way of speaking isn’t my language. All of a sudden, I realize I have to be somebody other than who I am.

People immediately start speaking in ways that they would never speak outside of the workplace. One of the jokes I talk about is getting rid of words that have ‘-ize’ in them. So, anything from monetized, operationalized, etc. One of the jokes I often make is you would never utilize a lawnmower to optimize the length of your grass.

We don’t utilize anything outside of the workplace. We use it. The words mean the same thing. Utilizes is fancier sounding. It’s longer — the minute you put me into a board room, I start utilizing things. Then we have KPIs, which are utilization metrics, and then suddenly, it becomes this institutionalized way of speaking.

People that I work with are smart. They’re intelligent people who want to do a good job. We have the sense that being professional means using this inflated language, which is distinct from the type of communication that I would use in my day-to-day life. If you get rid of that language, what you’ve got is the language we speak the rest of the time. The people that I know are articulate, smart, and creative. If you create a culture where people express themselves through their language, then what happens is that their personalities come out through their voices and language. When people’s personalities come out, then their creative sides and full selves come out. Then you get better relationships. People start to interact as human beings. You begin to build trust.

It’s a simple little shift to make to your language, but the far-reaching cultural implications are that all of a sudden, people are more themselves. When they’re more of themselves, they’re more engaged. You get more out of them because they enjoy being there more.

So much of the world that I’m involved in, people struggle with their Employee Engagement surveys. They find that there’s a lack of Engagement. There’s a lot of talk about workplace culture. But the thing is that we then develop a new layer of buzzwords to try to get to where we want to go. I’m continually being hired to help bring out people’s ‘authentic voices.’ Even talking about ‘authentic voices’ is an inauthentic way of talking about human beings.

Language institutionalizes how we speak and how we behave at work. If people talk their language using their words, then they start to express their ideas. All of a sudden, they become their full selves. Human beings are going to be more engaged, and they’re going to have better relationships. And when you have that, you have better culture. It’s a simple, simple concept, and it makes an immediate and huge difference.

Think about if your boss or manager talks to you like a human being in your performance discussion or weekly update and team meetings. If your manager is talking like a person, it’s going to change things. You’re going to let down your guard. You’re going to say things because you trust that person a little bit more. It changes everything, and it’s such a simple, simple thing to do.

What triggered us to get back in touch with each other was redesigning my website. All my business has always been through referrals. I had a terrible website that was just a placeholder that let people knew that I existed. At a certain point, I realized a need to get into the modern world and redo this. I was looking at what other people’s websites were saying. But within my field, it was all stock photography of people making successful presentations and happy people in business suits collaborating around the table. I just thought, “Oh my God, I don’t want to do that!” That is the opposite of what I teach because it’s not true.

I thought about it, and I thought, you know what? I’m a bird watcher. I love birds, and so the central theme for my website became a bird in song. I thought that’s an excellent image for communication. But it came out of actually putting aside what I am supposed to do because this is what you do in this corporate niche. It was incredibly liberating because it was me bringing my full self to what I do instead of trying to fit myself into some preconceived notion around what you’re supposed to do. I think most people try to fit themselves into a preconceived idea around what they’re supposed to do when they go to work. I believe the workplace benefits if actually, they don’t do that. When they are themselves, that helps to shape the workplace culture.

I’ve taught communications for 23 years, and some companies have ten-year relationships with me. When we talk about corporate-speak and buzzwords, I never hear anybody say I love that language. Everybody hates it. They say they don’t like talking like that, but they need to do it to succeed in their culture.

Culture is an aggregate of individual decisions. If you’ve got a thousand people thinking that they’re supposed to do it because everyone else is doing it, you’ve got a thousand people actively participating in building a culture that they don’t believe in. Individual small choices add up to making the culture that you have at the workplace, and then it becomes self-reinforcing.

What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

Simon: My answer to your question is: clarity and direction. People need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. One of the things I talk about is communicating strategy, but what I see in the workplace is directive. By directive, I mean communicating in a way that talks about ‘this is what we’re doing, how we’re going to do it, and how you fit within it.’

Remove tell and explainfrom your vocabulary and replace those words with inspire and convince.

One of the first things I say to clients is I want to remove the words tell and explain from your vocabulary. I want you to replace those words with inspire and convince. If you can convince people that this is a great strategy or here’s the direction that we’re headed and why we’re headed in that direction, why it’s a good thing, and here’s how you can help, then people bring their full attention. Why? Because people know why they’re doing what they’re doing and how they can help. It’s essential to move away from telling people information and move towards convincing people of ideas. When you convince people and focus on inspiring them, then you have their full attention.

I remember one organization that told me they had two types of meetings in their company. There are meetings when you walk out, and you have less energy. Then there are meetings when you walk out, and you have more energy. The vast majority of our meetings are the ones where you walk out with less energy, and very rarely do you walk out with more energy. We want more of the second kind. How can we do it? So I started talking to people asking questions to figure out the difference between these two types of meetings.

The meetings where people walked away with more energy were usually because somebody had an idea. They said they spoke their idea, and that sparked somebody else’s thinking. What became apparent very quickly was that it was the ideas that sparked the energy. But when they looked at the bulk of their meetings, they determined they had a reporting culture. Almost all of our meetings are update meetings. They are reporting back on status and progress. If an idea snuck into the meeting, it was by accident because the meetings weren’t structured in such a way to put ideas in the forefront.

What we did next was very simple – we worked on agendas. Every single meeting had to have a single clearly articulated point. For example – here is the idea that we are trying to address in this meeting. It was sent out in advance, so people could walk into that meeting thinking about the idea. What that meant was that people came prepared for the meeting. The meetings were shorter because they had clarity and purpose, and they sparked a lot more energy because they were built around ideas. When people are involved and engaged in ideas, that’s when you can have their full potential and best performance.

I teach two-day courses and talk to thousands of people. My favorite sound in the world from an audience is when you hear somebody in that room go, “Huh!” Because all of a sudden, something sparked an idea. What you find in the workplace is that some people naturally gravitate towards ideas. That’s how they process. Even if you give them a pure information dump, their natural predisposition is to translate information into ideas and how it relates to them. But that’s a tiny segment of the workforce.

If you’re able to change the culture around meetings and move away from information towards ideas, you will spark their thinking. When people think, that’s when you have their attention and their best performance.

The things that I’m looking at are simple. When you’re having a meeting, put forward a single point and idea that you will be discussing on the agenda. It takes absolutely no time. It’s the most natural thing to do, and you get far more engaged interaction between the people.

What do people really lack and long for at work?

Simon: In my experience, a sense of accomplishment. Did you accomplish anything? And that links back to my answer to the previous question, which is a sense of clarity and direction. If I don’t know what I’m trying to achieve, I can’t have a sense of accomplishment. I’m just doing the work and grinding my way through the day. I don’t know where I fit in. I don’t feel that I made a difference. I don’t feel that good about how I spent my day. I was just earning a paycheck. But if I have a sense of clarity and direction, then I can map that out to the activities over my day.

Clarity and direction are absolutely attached to a sense of accomplishment. If I’m communicating strategy, goals, and direction persuasively, then that means that people can then look at how they spent their day. They can then understand whether or not they accomplished what it is that we’re all trying to achieve together. If I don’t have that sense of clarity and direction, I’m not going to have a sense of accomplishment. If I don’t have a sense of accomplishment, then basically, all I’m doing is earning a paycheck.

I recently worked with a project management organization that said they were trying to shift from being project managers to project leaders. So I asked them, “How would you distinguish between the two?” They said that project managers are really ticking boxes to ensure that things are on time, scope, and budget. If there’s a problem, then you react to it. Project leaders understand where you need to be getting to. They are looking proactively at it and making sure that they’re guiding and leading in that direction.

Communication influences and affects every single aspect of an organization’s success. But it’s often an afterthought.

But what was interesting is that the bulk of the shift that needed to be made was around communication. Am I proactively communicating that something is coming up we’re probably going to have to be deciding on? Am I actively communicating with our vendors and partners? Do they see themselves as being involved within the organizational goals? Where the rubber hits the road on the shift from project management to project leadership is around communication. Communication influences and affects every single aspect of an organization’s success. But it’s often an afterthought.

When people get sent to me, it’s usually because they’re not good communicators, but they’re exceptionally good at what they do professionally. They were promoted, and all of a sudden, their communication skills are seen as weaknesses. I go, “Great. You recognize that you need to improve your communications skills, but everybody should be doing this.”When you shift into a leadership role, the bulk of your job is being a good communicator. That’s your job, and that is a skill.

Every every other area of the workplace, you have professional designations. You need to be qualified to do the job. We are continually putting people into leadership positions without giving them support or training on communication skills. The bulk of your job is to communicate effectively, but we throw people in and assume that somehow throughout their lives, they’ve developed the ability to communicate effectively. Maybe that’s true. Perhaps not.

What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

Simon: To me, this is simple and pragmatic. What can I fix for you?

If you’ve given people a sense of clarity and direction, people are then mapping out their sense of accomplishment against that sense of clarity and direction. They’re trying to do an excellent job because they believe in what they’re trying to do. If they encounter problems they cannot fix, they need their leaders to fix those problems for them.

What you want are employees engaged and thinking for themselves, trying to do an excellent job at achieving the organization’s strategy and goals. But sometimes, there are things that they cannot fix for themselves. It is their leader, their manager’s job to say, “What can I help you fix?”

One of the things I talked about is status updates at meetings. This is standard. I find updates fascinating because everybody basically who has a job gives people updates. They give their boss or manager updates. Everybody everywhere does this, and yet there is a vast range of updated styles. Some people will go through basically a shopping list of everything that they did last week. They talk about emailing this person and talking to that person. Someone else was on maternity leave, so they couldn’t get in touch with another person. They’re giving you a blow-by-blow of everything they do, which says, “I was working. I earned my paycheck.”

Then there’s the far other ends of the spectrum where people are resentful that they even have to give you an update. They’re saying, “Look, I do a good job. I’ll tell you if there’s a problem. Why do I have to have a weekly meeting where you look over my shoulder?” There’s absolutely no standard for how people provide updates. Every single leader I’ve ever talked to has said, “I care about two things in an update:

  1. Are things on track?
  2. What do you need?”

If I’m leading somebody, that’s all I want to know. Are things on track? Yes or no. Then what do you need? That question of ‘what do you need?’ is what I’m talking about here, which is asking, “What can I fix for you? What help do you need?”

That empowers the other person to be able to continue to achieve the goals. It’s a straightforward, pragmatic question. “What can I fix for you?”

What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

Simon: “Why?” That’s the absolute most important question an employee can ask a leader. “Why are we doing this?” And that question can get applied in a whole host of different directions. “Why is the strategy what it is? Why has the organizational restructuring happened?” The questions can be big picture why questions or they can also be on the day-to-day matters.

Many organizations allow you to have access to a personal calendar to book a meeting with somebody else. I’m a big believer in rejecting meeting requests unless they explain to me why they want to meet. Sorry, you don’t get an hour or two hours out of my Thursday afternoon unless you can articulate why this will be essential and valuable. Of course, you want to be polite about that. If somebody sends me a meeting request, my response can be that I saw your meeting request, and I would love to get it together. Just wondering if you can give me some idea about why you want to meet so that I can come to the meeting better prepared.

But I think that we should be asking the people around us why? Why are we meeting? Why is this the strategy? Why are we doing what we’re doing? When people get an answer to that question, it gives them a) a sense of engagement and a sense of belief in what they’re doing, and b) it empowers them to make good decisions.

Let’s say a manager tells their direct report what to do. The person goes out and tries to do it, but then all of a sudden, they encounter a problem. It isn’t exactly what they thought they were going to encounter. It’s not black and white. It’s a little bit gray as most things are in life. Then, all of a sudden, they’re confronted with a decision. Do I go ahead and do this or do I go back to my manager and say, “There was a problem here. What do you want me to do?” They have to go back to get more direction.

If leaders explained to them why they’re doing what they’re doing instead of simply issuing a directive that gives the individual the understanding with which to make an informed decision, it empowers people to make better decisions. Explaining why we’re doing something allows people to make better decisions and be more effective at what they’re doing in the workplace.

What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?

Simon: “Am I doing what I want to be doing?” We can talk ourselves into all sorts of different things. We can rationalize, but we need to be incredibly blunt and direct with ourselves to ask ourselves unavoidable questions. “Am I doing what I want to be doing?” Usually, I think an immediate answer will pop into your head, and that answer will be yes, or it will be no. I’m going to venture a guess for most people; the answer is no. Then you have to have follow-up questions going. What do I need to do to get myself to a place where I’m doing what I want to be doing? And it may not be straightforward.

You (Bill Fox) had the experience of suddenly waking up in the corporate world and said, “I don’t want to be doing this.” You left your job and didn’t have your next job lined up. You crafted it, and it sounds like living in Estonia doing these interviews you are doing is what you want to be doing! Not everybody has the confidence and the infrastructure in their lives to be able to do that. I have a mortgage. I have a family. I have whatever complexity is going on in my life. I feel some constraints prevent me from being fully fulfilled, committed, and engaged in what I do professionally. I think that’s the reality for most of us.

What do I need to do to continue to move towards answering the question with a yes? That answer could take a year, or it could take 20 years. But if we’re asking ourselves the question directly, “Am I doing what I want to be doing?” and if the answer is coming back no, then I have a personal need to move towards being able to answer that question with a yes.

In your article “Am I the only one who finds the term personal brand slightly distasteful?” you talk about treating communication situations as leadership opportunities. What do you mean by that?

Every single interaction with another human being is a leadership opportunity.

Simon: What I mean by that is that every interaction with another human being is a leadership opportunity, which means that my entire day is filled with them.

If you look at your calendar, chances are there are phone calls, emails, and meetings. There are people that you’re going to bump into in the hallways. It’s what we do as human beings unless we’re sitting at a computer coding all day long. For most people, the bulk of their day is spent communicating. Each time I interact with another human being, I have an opportunity to make a difference. That difference can be positive, negative, or neutral.

When I coach people, I help people improve their communication skills. My argument is that every communication interaction is a leadership opportunity. You can’t capitalize on that opportunity unless you recognize it as such.

People often hire me when they’re looking at making a better PowerPoint presentation, doing a better job of presenting to the board of directors or speaking with analysts on an earnings call. I can help you get better at those things, but those are a tiny fraction of what you do over a day. And frankly, they’re probably lower in terms of leadership opportunities.

But where I do have an opportunity to make a difference is in all the day-to-day interactions. If we’re going to actually become excellent communicators and communication is tied into leadership, what we need to start doing is looking at our day through the lens of communication and leadership opportunities. For example, how can I make a positive difference in this meeting? Where can I be contributing towards creating a better outcome?

I’ll give you a quick example. I was working with the director of HR for an organization. She was a lovely person but incredibly busy and often very flustered. One day she came into our session and said, “Oh, I’m so crazy busy. I’m really sorry, but I actually should have canceled our session. I didn’t have time, and I don’t really have anything coming up. I’m not sure how we’re going to use our session.”

I said, ”That’s fine. What do you have coming up after our session?” She thought about it and said, “I have I have a meeting with one of my HR managers.” I said, “Okay. Is there a thesis or a message that you want to get across in that meeting? A single idea you’d like her to walk away believing at the end of this meeting?” She thought about it and said, “Yes, I need her to take ownership of this one particular project and run with it herself. People are escalating issues constantly to me. I shouldn’t be that involved in it. But there’s a real development opportunity for her. She absolutely has the skills to be able to do this. She’ll really be able to grow within the organization and grow in confidence.”

So I said, “Okay, there’s your whys. You have one single point, which is your thesis. And you’ve got a bunch of whys. Do you have a sense of how she could do this?” She said, “Yes, absolutely. There are several different things. But honestly, if the meeting were going really well, she’d come up with those hows herself.” But I said, “Let’s just jot them down, and then they’re in your back pocket.”

So we built a mini structure, which is the structure I teach:

  • What is your thesis?
  • What are your whys?
  • What are the hows?

She had her meeting. Afterward, I asked her, “Is this how the meeting would have gone anyway? She thought about it, and she said, “No. I was going to go into the meeting and tell her what to do and ask her to report back to me.”

I said, “Well, that’s interesting because that’s the exact opposite of what you really wanted. You want her to take ownership and run with it. You were going to tell her what to do and ask her to report back.” She hadn’t considered this meeting with her HR manager as being a leadership opportunity. She hadn’t prepared a communication structured around an idea where she was trying to convince and inspire her. As a result, she was probably going to get the exact opposite outcome of what she wanted had she not taken the time to think about it.

That’s just a mini example. I have cases like that over and over where I’ll ask my client, “What do you have coming up next? What’s the point you need to get across? Why is that important? How can you do it?” You can go through every single item in your calendar and apply the same approach, and you’re going to find that you have better outcomes and shorter meetings. At the end of the day, you go, “Wow, did I ever have a lot of great conversations, and did I ever accomplish a lot!”

If there’s one idea you want readers of this interview to walk away believing, what would it be?

Simon: Simple. Communication is the most important leadership skill you possess. I’ll even go a little bit further because not everybody sees themselves as leaders. Communication is the most valuable professional skill you possess.

Communication is the most important leadership and professional skill you possess.

There is absolutely nothing that you can invest your time in that will have more of a direct impact on your career or your success and on your ability to advance and become better at what you do. And as you pointed out earlier in our conversation, communication is a bit of a blind spot for us. We don’t think about it.

Anything that you can do to improve your communication skills is going to be a valuable investment. It doesn’t matter if you’re right at the beginning of your career, mid-career and transitioning, or if you’re more senior later in your career. If you invest time in thinking about it, it will pay off. Do I think about the people on the other end of the call? Do I think about what I need to get out of this meeting? Do I think about the communication piece?

I put a lot of substance in the articles you’ll find on my website. You’ll find some pretty simple, clear, and practical things that you can immediately do and apply after reading the articles.

Not everybody can have a communications coach. What can we do to improve our communications skills?

Simon: I’m very blunt. I think there’s an awful lot of garbage out there. Most communication books are basic and tell you one thing in terms of structure. They’re going to give you a version of the hamburger approach, which is, “tell them what you’re going to tell them and tell them what you told them.” The structure I teach is an essay structure. It’s about two and a half thousand years old. It has a thesis, which is a single point. Then convince the audience of your thesis and return to your thesis and turn it into action.

Structure your communication around a single idea. Make sure that you’re persuading as opposed to telling.

Structure your communication around a single idea. Make sure that you’re persuading as opposed to telling. Then come back to that idea and turn the idea into action. That simple model can apply to emails, one-on-one conversations, presentations, everything. That’s incredibly simple.

I have a hard time advocating for a lot of the stuff that’s out there. I tried to do with the content on my site to fill that void and make sure that it’s useful and practical for people. Clarity is incredibly challenging to achieve. We often have coaches because you have the external perspective, but everything that I teach is around simplicity and clarity.

What’s the single idea that you want the human beings that you’re talking with to believe? Now, how can you convince them of that? How can you connect with them? All of the stuff that I’m talking about is incredibly simple, yet clarity is something I think we all struggle with and fight for, but when you get it, it’s incredibly liberating.