Insight

Your Most Important Skill

13 Forward Thinking insights from my interview with Simon Heath, Executive Communications Coach at simonheath.ca.

Bill Fox
Aug 26, 2021
8 min read

At Forward Thinking Workplaces, we discover the people, insights, and strategies that lead to Forward Thinking minds, leaders, and workplaces of the future — today.


13 Forward-Thinking Insights

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

2. One of the most simple things that we can do is change the language that we’re using.

3. Remove the words tell and explain from your vocabulary.

4. Change the culture of meetings from information to ideas.

5. Structure meetings in such a way as to put ideas at the forefront.

6. Provide a sense of clarity and direction.

7. Communication influences and affects every single aspect of an organization’s success.

8. What can I fix for you?

9. Why are we doing this?

10. Am I doing what I want to be doing?

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

12. Communication is the most important leadership skill you possess.

13. Structure your communication around a single idea.

Read the full interview at The Most Important Leadership Skill You Possess.


Question 1: How can we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?

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

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 how we interact with each other.

2. One of the most simple things that we can do is change the language that 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. Buzz words 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.

3. Remove the words tell and explain from your vocabulary.

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 inspiring and convincing. 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.

Question 2: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?

4. Change the culture of meetings from information to ideas.

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 what the difference was 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.

5. Structure meetings in such a way as to put ideas at 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.

Question 3: What do people really lack and long for at work?

6. Provide a sense of clarity and direction.

Clarity and direction are absolutely attached to a sense of accomplishment. If I’m communicating strategy, goals, and direction in a persuasive way, 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.

7. Communication influences and affects every single aspect of an organization’s success.

I was working with a project management organization recently 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 make sure 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. But what was interesting is that the bulk of the shift that needed to be made was around communication.

Question 4: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?

8. 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 be able to fix those problems for them. What you want are employees that are 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?”

Question 5: What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?

9. Why are we doing this?

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. 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.

Question 6: What’s the most important question we should ask ourselves?


10. Am I doing what I want to be doing?

We can talk ourselves into all sorts of different things. We can rationalize, but I think that we need to be incredibly blunt and direct with ourselves in asking 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.

Question 7: 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, and can you share an example?

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

Every single interaction with another human being is a leadership opportunity, which means that your 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.

Question 8: If there’s one idea you want readers of this interview to walk away believing, what would it be?

12. 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 is going to 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.

Question 9: Not everybody can have a communications coach. What can we do to improve our communications skills?

13. Structure your communication around a single idea.

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. 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.

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