In 1933, the United States teetered on the brink of financial collapse. The entire nation was in a state of panic. Until one man—President Franklin Roosevelt—took to the airwaves in his first ever presidential radio address and spoke directly to his people.
For me, this is one of the clearest and greatest examples of leadership communication. In an inclusive and simple speech, FDR managed to educate his people and sweep the country with a wave of calm.
This undoubtedly demonstrates the power a leader has through their words. And the importance of their communication. And it gives me hope. If FDR could quell millions of disenchanted people, surely business leaders can do the same for their staff.
This article will take a close look at some of those challenging leadership communications in business, with insights from real-life leaders. We’ll also look more broadly at why, how, and to whom leaders communicate in the general day-to-day.
Leadership communication: why, what, how, and who
Why and what leaders communicate
With the FDR example, it’s clear why leadership communication is so important when you’re in dire straits. However, even in times of calm, hearing from your leaders is invaluable. I believe there are three overarching reasons why leaders should (and do) communicate.
1. A leader sets the tone: In an organization, communication is the lifeblood. Clear communication keeps everyone aligned and moving towards the same goal; it’s what makes a company a company, rather than a group of individuals.
This all starts with the leader. A leader sets the tone and expectations for communication through their interaction with each individual and the company as a whole. They kick off a chain reaction that’s felt by everyone else in the company.
2. A leader keeps everyone informed: Beyond setting the tone of communication, a leader is responsible for communication because they have the most information and power in the company. They know the reality of what’s happening in the business and what must unfold.
Thus, leaders are part of a feedback loop; gathering information from corners of the business and distributing it throughout.
Not only does this keep everyone informed, it also establishes trust. Leaders are in plain sight, they’re being clear and transparent, and they’re giving the people someone they can hold accountable.
3. A leader communicates to achieve their goals: If a leader wants to be successful, they have to be a decent communicator. They don’t necessarily have to be charismatic, but they need to be clear and informative.
Really, if a leader wants to get their job done—if they want people to trust them, to listen to them, to respect them, to follow them—they need to communicate. Basically, if they’ve got any hope of reaching their own goals (at a minimum, to run a financially successful business) they need to be able to communicate. And to actually do it.
Who leaders communicate with
Everyone. I don’t think a company is ever too big. If the President of the United States can reach millions of people around the world, a leader can reach the people within their company. They just need an effective way to do it.
Some leaders will use a company-wide address (with video linking to reach satellite offices), while others prefer to share updates, or even a blog. These posts and updates don’t have to be long and time-consuming; they can be short and honest insights. In fact, they’re often better that way. An unpolished, personal update from a leader makes them that much more accessible.
For example, Rebecca Speight, CEO of Woodland Trust (a 400-person non-profit), publishes a monthly blog article on their Jostle® intranet. In a casual style, she writes about what the senior team has achieved during the previous month and what the organization’s aspirations are for the next month. Their Head of HR, Anne Lightowler, told me:
How leaders communicate
How a leader communicates will depend on two primary things; their personal preference and the needs of the situation.
For FDR, it was the fireside chat. But that wouldn’t suit every leader or every situation. Every human is different, and thus every leader is different. Some are comfortable giving introductory speeches to events, others would rather let them roll out naturally and connect one-to-one with people.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, was crippled by a fear of public speaking (and even social situations). He gave just two Inaugural Addresses during his eight years as President, preferring to communicate by the written word. And write he did.
Not only was he the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (quite a big deal), it’s estimated he wrote 19,000 letters during his lifetime.
Including one in which he clearly stated: "My great wish is to go on in a strict but silent performance of my duty: to avoid attracting notice and to keep my name out of newspaper.”
Both leaders were successful presidents despite their very different communication preferences (for which they both became independently famous). This is a lesson worth noting for business leaders; it’s up to you to know your communication strengths, and to play to those where possible. The most important thing to remember is, no matter how you communicate, you should communicate.
When leadership communication gets tough
The idea of transparency, integrity, and openness is all well and good when things are plain sailing. It’s when the going gets tough that it often goes to pot… when you’d rather fake it than actually delve into the hard stuff.
To deliver some truly useful examples, I spoke to three different leaders I know and asked them about tricky or large communication efforts they’ve had to handle. They shared some fascinating insights and noteworthy lessons learnt. Here they are:
1. When your company is under attack
This next example demonstrates the importance of frequency and transparency in communication. There are very few “hard and fast rules” when it comes to communication, and unfortunately this means it often goes wanting. In hard and insecure times, leadership communication can keep people calm and focused. And sometimes, that means company-wide updates are needed every single day.
“I once led for a 100-person start-up that became a public company… and ended up with its share price being lower than the value of the cash it had in the bank. So, a group of people (with a broken moral compass) attempted a hostile takeover. This degraded into a messy, 9-month proxy battle, which was tough for our employees.
“This long period of uncertainty was a breeding ground for speculation. To combat this rumour mill, and help everyone manage the stress they were under, it was essential to communicate clearly, openly, and often.
“To do this, I started every single day with an update in our communal kitchen. It was the simplest way to shoot down the rumours and keep people calm and productive. When the situation began to worsen, near the end of the company’s life, it was also the forum for giving advice for next steps. This added a level of stability to the whole situation, which I believe was very effective. Especially when you consider that zero employees quit during this adventure.”
2. When you're establishing brand values
Sometimes, business change occurs for the better. For example, the company is growing or you’re moving to a better office space. But even in these instances, leadership communication (and listening) is critical. Here’s a real-life example.
“Last year, I spearheaded a rebranding process at Jostle. We undertook this for many reasons, but, in brief, it was time to lay down the next plank of our brand’s growth.
“A key requirement for this process was to be inclusive and open. It was a collaborative project and we kept every employee up-to-date and involved through updates on our intranet and live company-wide meetings.
“To keep the project moving forward, there was deep work by a few focused individuals, heavy input from a diverse group of voluntary employees, and frequent sanity checks and creative input opportunities by everyone else. This clear and inclusive communication gave people ownership over the new brand and helped to gain trust and support through all the changes.
“One essential part of our communication was listening with respect. We listened to each other, challenged one another, and came to a consensus together.”
3. When your office is shutting down
In a previous role/company, one of Jostle’s leaders was assigned to rescue a big project that had gone way off track. The company had announced it was moving the project to a new office, and laying off all the people at the current location once the project was complete. He managed to complete the project (and keep the peace) by building trust and establishing honest communication. Here’s the story:
“There were 50 developers on the team, and my task was to project manage the team, get the incredibly complex project finished, and out of the door. When I arrived, everyone was totally disenchanted. If I wanted to make progress on the project, I had to focus on the people.
"To do this, I needed to look at the needs of the staff and help them with their issues. There were a lot of rumours, a lot of dishonesty, and a lot of fractions.
“When I was first introduced to the team, I didn’t make any bold claims or promises. I simply said I would speak with every person in the first few days; everyone would be heard and have the chance to be represented.
“During this time, there were two things I prioritized. One: Being honest and respectful. I encouraged people to give honest feedback during meetings and review processes, and I made sure to give complete, unvarnished status information to head office. Two: Identifying people’s needs, and providing what I could. Obviously, this was within reason, but I put things into action that allowed people to put their trust in me.
“For example, a whole segment of my team felt they hadn’t been properly trained in the software technology they were using, so we gave a three-day training course. Even though they weren’t going to be with the company long, it was something they said they needed and something I could provide.
“By the end of the project, I was happy with where we got to. Of course, we weren’t having lots of big social events, but we’d developed strong working relationship and a lot of trust. People held their heads high, got the job done, and departed gracefully.”
When communication means silence: listening
A leader who doesn’t listen closely is a poor communicator. Leaders need to be especially aware of this because people will often be hesitant to say something entirely negative to their face (leaders, even if wonderful people, are intimidating due to their status alone). Enquire with clarity but curiosity. Just because you’re a leader, doesn’t mean you’re an expert in every field of your business.
Leadership communication is a powerful thing. If it’s not approached with careful consideration and intent, it can lead to terrifying results. (Just imagine if FDR had been a terrible communicator. Where would the world be today?) Hopefully this article has helped you reflect on your own communication style and provided some ideas on how to better navigate the tricky but critical task of leadership communication.