Alignment and Communication

Excerpt from “Aligned: Connecting Your True Self with the Leader You’re Meant to Be” by Hortense le Gentil (October 2019).

Aligned leadership in an aligned company can be a powerful tool in achieving extraordinary results. As a leader, to achieve personal and professional alignment you must follow the route of self-examination and take a good hard look at yourself. What makes you tick? What values do you care about deeply? Alignment means being authentically connected with who you are (now, not who you were in the past), what you want, and your innermost sense of purpose, as well as your unique strengths and values.

Central to aligned leadership is the ability to convey—communicate—alignment to others. Connecting with your team requires good communication. The concept of the need for good communication skills in a leadership role is not new—it just gets ignored a lot. No one is able to read your mind, so you have to make sure you properly translate your thoughts into words. Good communication involves sharing a clear and inspiring sense of purpose and direction, formulating a means on how to get there, and clarifying everyone’s role and contribution. It is through these three elements that you’re likely to get the best out of your team and be an even more effective and inspiring leader.

The old approaches do not work anymore. The model of leadership defining strategy, then directing middle management to ensure compliance with that strategy no longer holds true in the 21st century. Our context has changed, we are living in a far more fast-moving and volatile world. Moreover, people do not like to be told what to do—the subservient worker bee is a thing of the past, and, in any case, would be counter-productive in today’s context. Team members prize autonomy—and meaning: They like to know why they are doing things. For this, communication is once again essential. But communication is not a one-way street; it’s not even a two-way street—it’s more like a traffic circle with information and opinion going in and out from a variety of directions. For the leader to succeed, listening is paramount in communication. Truly and sincerely listening.

Take the example of a technology research firm where the company’s CEO always spoke last, listening to everyone’s point of view before expressing his own. When asking his team to look into a problem, he refrained from advancing his own theory and suggestions, knowing that “the boss’s answer” could stifle creativity and ownership, potentially nipping great new ideas in the bud. This type of collaboration makes it easier not only to craft initial plans but also to navigate setbacks and obstacles, changing course if necessary. It nourishes a sense of collective belonging and engagement in a common purpose. As one CEO told me, “I have two ears and one mouth, so I spend much more time listening than speaking.”

Getting your team to fully communicate with you and one another requires effort. First off, your company culture should foster what social scientists call “psychological safety”—a secure space and process devoid of the fear of ridicule or reprimand. Your team members should be able to speak their minds freely. Also, to avoid confusion, it should be made clear what decisions are made by different people in the organization. Who has input, who has the final word, and who has what decision-making authority.

Here is where aligned leadership deploys communication again, this time on the next level. Leaders solicit opinions, suggestions, yes, but they also must solicit purpose. Formerly, from the top came a cascade of strategies; today, there should be a cascade of meanings. Aligned executives must ask of their team members what they have asked of themselves: What makes you tick? What is your deeper sense of purpose, your “why”? Hubert Joly, the executive who inspired his team members to dramatically turn around Best Buy, then a failing retailer, attributes this devotion to determining individual purpose as crucial to a company’s performance, indeed, to its overall purpose. As Joly puts it, “Engaging individuals by appealing to what drives them personally can create irrationally great outcomes.”

Best Buy’s redefinition started with each member of the executive team sharing their “why” over dinner. A few months later, store managers and other field leaders were invited to share their own during an “all in—what drives you?” retreat. In other contexts, executives and managers can and should skip levels and go directly to the front-liners, those on the shop floor, retail space, front desk, etc. A good first question for these front-liners is, “What is your dream?” Their answer to this eventually can elicit their own sense of purpose and, in the end, align that purpose with that of the company. For it falls to management to be absolutely clear about the purpose of the company. And then co-creation can occur, where the inputs of ten or perhaps even hundreds are taken into account and an empowering sense of participation spreads across a company. Thus, leaders do not dictate strategy; rather, they create an environment through which a strategy can be collectively developed. Since everyone understands the “why” behind this strategy, when crises arise, the company can adjust quickly and coherently. 

This “alignment of alignments”—that of the company, its leadership, and its team members—ensures fluidity in communication. When leaders connect with the people around them, team members become energized, leading to outstanding improvement in performance. When this heightened energy informs a firm, anything is possible. The role of the leader is not to be the smartest person in the room, but to create an environment in which others can be successful.

So communication in aligned leadership takes many forms. Leaders must undertake to state clearly and unambiguously what they are thinking. And, we need hardly add, the messaging should be positive in its approach to challenges. While good leaders are aware of the negative aspects of any given situation, they should take care to focus on the positive. Even body language is important, so the temptation to perform an eye-roll or dismissive hand wave should be resisted. So, too, must divisive messaging be banished. One of the most important roles of the leader is to create positive energy for creativity to thrive.

Leaders must cultivate open-mindedness in themselves and in others. Listening is the cornerstone of this approach. A firm commitment to listening will pay off, as team members realize that they and their opinions and suggestions are valued. And perhaps the example of the CEO of the tech research firm could be tried: Why not be the last person in the room to speak?

Last, there is the cascade of meanings. Motivating people to share what drives them, what is their “why,” is perhaps the most profound and effective form of communication. From there, all those involved in a company then can reach the coveted alignment of alignments. 

Getting yourself personally and professionally aligned can be an important first step in the process. 

Excerpt from “Aligned: Connecting Your True Self with the Leader You’re Meant to Be by Hortense le Gentil (October 2019).

Hortense le Gentil is an executive leadership coach and Marshall Goldsmith #MG100 Certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching. She partners with leaders to analyze problems and determine best possible solutions. le Gentil’s coaching expertise includes cultural and self-awareness, entrepreneurship, leadership presence, leadership style, and organizational dynamics. Prior to coaching full-time, le Gentil spent more than 30 years in business in various industries, including media consulting, advertising, technological innovation, and entrepreneurship (in metals recycling). As director of Advertising at media conglomerate Lagardere and later at L’Express-Roulata, she managed advertising and strategy for clients that included Air France’s inflight magazine, Madame. Before that, she spent 10 years as a media manager with Havas Worldwide, where she oversaw media consulting and strategy for clients including Chanel International, Peugeot, Rhone Poulenc and Canal+. In 2007, le Gentil founded and became CEO of HLG Management, a metals recycling company for niche professions that developed a process to transform metal residue into reusable materials. She is a Thinkers50 nominee and founder and CEO of JAY Consulting, a firm committed to coaching senior, including C-Suite, executives and entrepreneurs toward positive leadership behaviors.