Do Your Executives Need a Communication Workshop?

When corporate goals are set at your company, do you find that they remain the best-kept secret among executives? If so, instead of having employees at every level who can quickly quote the same goals discussed in executive meetings, you find employees who aren’t sure of the larger context of their work.

New research from the 2014 Workplace Accountability Study, conducted by consulting and training firm Partners In Leadership, reveals that only 15 percent of organizations say key results are clearly defined in a way that employees at all levels can engage, “pointing to a large-scale and prevalent misalignment around key organizational goals. The result is widespread confusion, significant organizational underperformance, and failure to meet key objectives among the majority of the world’s companies.”

Key results are defined as the outcomes executives of an organization say they are striving for.

The rationale is sometimes a need to keep high-level strategy secret so it’s not leaked to competitors. That seems logical, but maybe there’s still some way to explain to those carrying out the work the larger goal they’re working toward. For instance, if it’s a new product you’ve tasked a design team to come up with new technology for, you could explain at least the hole in the marketplace the company would like to fill, without revealing all the specific details of the product you have in mind. Or if you’re asking employees to change a work process they’ve been happy with, you could point out how doing it the new way will enable the company to better serve customers or clients.

It often seems it’s arrogance that keeps high-level (or even mid-level) executives from sharing strategy information and other details, but it may just be an oversight or an inability to communicate. It’s strange to me, but I wonder if some who reach the high level of organizations do so because they pushed ahead bull-like, butting others out of the way, rather than by sharing information and collaborating. Some may be just super-competitive, driven people who don’t have a natural instinct for communication. It could be a competitive issue about not wanting to share information so they retain a strategic advantage, and it also could be a personality trait of many highly aggressive people. It might not even enter their heads to stop and explain what they’re doing—they’re more focused on doing than talking, and may not be proficient at putting their actions into words. The last thing you want is the other extreme—a talker who accomplishes nothing (an archetype I’m highly familiar with!)—but you definitely want executives who are good at explaining what the company as a whole is working toward.

Do you think it would be a good idea to add communication workshops and assessments to your leadership development seminars? Hands-on (or words-on) exercises would be helpful. For instance, you could have a hypothetical, though realistic, business challenge presented, and then you could ask each of the participants in the seminar to put into writing their suggested solutions to the challenge, along with presenting those solutions out loud to the group. Participants in the seminar then would anonymously rate how well they thought each of their peers did with this exercise. Those who get what your trainers decide is a low rating would be given extra attention, meaning not just an additional exercise and time with a trainer, but time spent with those they supervise to see if, in fact, communication is a problem area. Rather than just asking their subordinates what they think of their boss’ communication skills, ask specific questions about how new projects are explained, and whether they could explain to the trainer the details of a recent project, along with the larger goals of the project. A trainer also could sit in on group meetings to observe first-hand how the budding leader is communicating with his or her group.

There’s a chance that you’ll alienate some leaders with inadequate communication skills by putting them through added exercises and training work with their department, but communication is important enough that it’s worth the risk. If you have an up-and-coming leader who really has a communication problem, that’s a person you don’t want moving into a larger role at the company anyway.

Does your company suffer from bulldog leaders who know how to push ahead, but whose communication skills are limited to monosyllabic barks? How can you identify potential leaders who need communication help, and what ideas can you share on giving them the kind of help they most need?