Why clear communication is key

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C-suite leaders often reach their leadership position by excelling in a certain focus. For chief marketing officers, that might be the development of branded content strategies. For chief information officers, it might be mastery of integrating new technologies with legacy systems. For chief financial officers, it might be proven ability at managing risk. But what all c-suite roles also require are effective “soft” skills, such as superior proficiency in communication and relationship-building abilities. Some chief data officers say that the “D” in the CDO abbreviation for chief data officer really stands for “diplomacy.”

Recently, executive coaches, academic researchers and marketing gurus have emphasized the need for c-suite leaders to be constantly hyper aware of how they project themselves and their ideas to their peers, their business partners, their team members, journalists, stakeholders and customers. In the age of constant visibility (and scrutiny) via always-on social media (which includes internal social platforms) and big media coverage, leaders face pressure to shape and maintain their image as not only strong, but also authentic and empathetic.

While this might seem like a public-relations advantage, it is also a business strategy, as persuasion is a proficiency that can help push forward a leader’s vision efficiently by accelerating buy-ins both internally and externally. At the recent Chief Data Officer Strategy Summit in San Francisco, numerous speakers discussed the need for CDOs to master the art of storytelling as a means to gaining allies swiftly across the c-suite and departments, to shepherd rapid organizational change.

One tangible way that executives can test their communication ability is by asking for confidential feedback on how effective they are when they express themselves, advises executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith. This is because many c-level leaders are used to constant positive reinforcement that might not address any areas of improvement. In private, advisors to a CMO, CIO or CEO might feel more comfortable to offer candid suggestions on tone, for example.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Associate Director at Columbia Business School’s Motivation Science Center, agrees. “Research going back 30 years shows that our intuition about how we come across to other people is often wrong,” she says. “Too often in a work setting, we fail to signal warmth, a quality our brains equate with trustworthiness. Our basic neurology is primed to give us a fast read of whether a person is a friend or a foe, and whether they have what it takes to act on their intentions. So our goal as good communicators is to project both warmth and competence.”

The most effective senior executives who have built communication proficiency often start with what marketing guru Keith Ferazzi calls “a relationship action plan.” Such a plan articulates clear goals for establishing regular communication cadences that convey authentic warmth and trust with specific individuals or groups. This way, data-driven leaders can begin to benchmark and track progress in a “soft” skill that will likely have deep, long-term business impact.

Heidi Grant Halvorson
Associate Director, Motivation Science Center Columbia Business School

“Evidence shows the most successful people are those who project both competence and warmth. Those qualities together are what inspire others.”


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