Leadership Development for CEOs: Visibility and Volume

The following is an excerpt from my book, “Never Kick A Cow Chip On A Hot Day—Real Lessons For Real CEOs And Those Who Want To Be” from Morgan James Publishing. In Chapter One I explore “the seven mantras of successful leadership.” Here is the second—a leadership development opportunity for most CEOs.

Mantra # 2: Visibility and Volume: Great Leaders are Seen and Heard 

Most of us involved in organized religion follow and pray to a god that we cannot see and hear with our normal senses, though we most always have a physical representation of our god and the written word. However, in an organizational setting, asking people to follow you when they cannot see you and cannot hear you is downright crazy. While you might send out a picture of yourself to be placed in the lunchroom, and even ask employees to gaze into your eyes while they listen to your voicemails or read your tweets, great leadership takes a whole lot more than just being a pretty face on the wall.

I once ran a large, geographically dispersed division that had just hired a new CEO. In our first substantial meeting, he asked me if he could see my communication plan. My what? People actually have written communication plans? I swallowed my pride and told him that I had communication practices, but no written plan. He gave me a couple of days to put one together, and it was a great exercise. I now serve on a public company’s board that has very detailed communication plans for both internal and external messages with specific dates, events, communication medium, and spokespersons. They are clear, visible, and apparent for all to see and hear.

CEOs often fall into the trap of believing that if they say something once, or send out a memo, it will happen; like Captain Picard of Star Trek’s Enterprise when he said, “Make it so!” in his deep baritone voice. Sorry, but that dog don’t hunt! It takes so much more.

If a CEO has one key role, it is the keeper of the strategy—but more on that later. For our purposes here, just know that in order to execute that strategy, leaders must be visible and they must be excellent communicators. That doesn’t mean that you must have a voice like Nat King Cole, the charisma of Bill Clinton, or the word choice of Ernest Hemmingway. However, it does mean that you must maintain the ability to deliver compelling messages of strategic importance and carry the persistence to stay on task and in the trenches.

Think of the great leaders that you admire. They all have different styles. Some may be downright goofy, but they probably all have the ability to get the message across in a way that galvanizes action. Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, Margaret Thatcher, Jack Welch, Bill Clinton, and Martin Luther King are as different as night and day, but they are all leader’s who had the ability to get people to follow them through their use of language and their ability to be both seen and heard.

But how? My opinion is that great leaders are both seen and heard through the manner in which they communicate. These communication skills are fundamental, if not imperative, to the message you send and the medium through which you send it. If we are going to build great leaders, we are going to have to first create fantastic communicators. Through speech, writing, and any other way leaders offer the “message,” the goal has got to be to make it clear, precise, strategized, and fundamentally aligned with the company’s purpose.

Communication skills can be learned. If you are going to be an effective leader, communicating in a compelling fashion should be near the top of your list for personal development. The content (i.e. vision and strategy) is critical as well, or you’ll be—as they say in Texas—all hat and no cattle. To state the obvious, if you do not have the ability to get people to follow you, you’ll never lead effectively. And if your followers don’t know what you want, they wont know in which direction to travel.

Extemporaneous speaking is a valuable skill, but don’t kid yourself; most great communicators spend lots of time preparing. If you think long and hard about what you are trying to communicate, you’ll be able to respond quickly when necessary. What slows us down is not being mentally prepared.

There are a multitude of public speaking classes available and you can develop your vocabulary through some hard work. Likewise, writing can be taught as well. No excuses here!

Position authority (e.g. the title “CEO”) will only get you to the starting line. A title without a team is like a rancher with no animals. Unless you own the majority of the stock of a company, your title only confers the role you seek to play. If you want to be a real leader, you must be able to answer three simple, but not easy, questions: Where are we going? What will we do to get there? How will we do it? Once you answer these questions, you must be able to clearly and effectively communicate them to your team.

Real Lesson: If you don’t communicate effectively, get some training and put some effort into it! You must be visible (which in today’s world can involve technology), you must stay on message, and you must say it forcefully.

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