When it comes to defining it as a competency, communication can be tricky. It’s a characteristic that’s apparently universally appreciated and desired, but it’s not easy to pin down what makes for effective communication. Is it nuanced or straightforward? Specific or general? Deductive or poignant? Humorous or stern?
According to Ron Crossland, co-author of The Leadership Experience, author of The Leader’s Voice and chairman of Bluepoint Leadership Development, organizational leaders face the challenge of grasping this generally valued yet seldom understood quality.
“Everyone ‘gets’ communication,” he said. “Every executive gets this, but they find it difficult to find the time to immerse themselves in a study of their own communication patterns. What happens is they hear the ideas, but they get cosmetic fixes. Most of them don’t do deep dives. Leaders think they’ve got the general context, which is where their bread and butter is — how they move constituents.”
Crossland developed a formal framework that focuses on three primary channels of communication: facts, emotions and symbols. Facts pertain to data, direct observations and literal interpretations of things and events; emotions relate to stirring the range of sentiments people feel; and symbols refer to metaphors, analogies and other representative illustrations.
“These three channels apply to any leadership model in the world,” he said. “They might not put it the way I do, with symbols, facts and emotions. A lot of people don’t walk around with that model in their head. But once they hear it, they’ll say, ‘That’s what I’ve been experiencing. I just didn’t have a schematic.’”
In particular, the rise of “executive presence” as a sought-after attribute among leaders has brought about a fresh examination of communication styles.
“If you look at the root of executive presence, a huge component of that is the ability to communicate in the moment,” Crossland explained. “Whether that’s e-mail, a videoconferencing or a town-hall meeting, that presence is felt through how messages are communicated. That’s especially true these days, when so much content is delivered virtually and long distance.”
To illustrate his point, he cited a recent appearance Bill Gates made at a technology conference via streaming video that was projected onto a large screen. Even though the prerecorded speech delivered via a 22-foot tall image of Gates might seem like a case of the medium overwhelming the message, Crossland insisted this communication is fundamentally the same as any other.
“People will experience that visually and aurally, but most of the substance of it will be through those three channels,” he said. “The better Gates is with [facts, emotions and symbols], the better he’s going to come across.”
Crossland argued that the weakest channel of communication among today’s leaders is symbolic, although the emotional channel isn’t used as often as it could be, either.
“Both the symbolic and emotional channels have atrophied compared to the factual channel,” he said. “Most for-profit businesses exist in a tsunami of data. We speak in the factual channel; it’s part and parcel of our lingo. In fact, if you can’t do that well, you probably won’t rise to a very high level of managerial responsibility. Unfortunately, we over-rely on that.”
Therefore, learning executives should devise a more complete definition of communication as a competency when developing organizational leaders in this critical area. Also, Crossland said CLOs can contribute by modeling these behaviors themselves.
“I think, in many ways, people in the [chief learning officer] role have to be exemplars of so much in the organization, and communication is perhaps paramount among them.”