How the world’s top business leaders communicate most effectively
Why should communication be at the top of the list of skills you constantly improve, especially if you are a business leader or owner?
In the words of Berkshire Hathaway chair and CEO Warren Buffett: “What’s really essential is being able to get others to follow your ideas. If you’re a management leader, you want them to follow you in business.” He goes on to say: “If you can’t communicate, it’s like winking at a girl in the dark—nothing happens. You have to be able to put forward your ideas.”
Secret #1: Are great communicators made or born?
Communication did not come naturally to Buffett. “Up until the age of 20, I was absolutely unable to speak in public.” Then Buffett took a course in communication and public speaking.
Most executives believe that you are born a great communicator. That is a myth. Some of us are, but most of us are not. Communication is a skill that can be learned like any other skill. Just as great executives are made, not born, so are great communicators.
I certainly found that to be true in my personal life. I had a hard time with communication growing up because I started to become a heavy stutterer at the age of 5. It was at times so bad that I was not able to get a word out in class when my teachers asked me a question. Today, I speak five languages fluently and get high five figures (dollars) for a 45-minute keynote speech. If I can do it, anyone can!
Secret #2: Communication starts at the top
In my work with countless business leaders around the world, I have seen how vital it is that anyone at the top of an organization masters this skill. If you cannot communicate well and get your vision across, you cannot motivate others effectively, and you cannot lead them through challenging times. You will fail to explain where the company needs to go, what its vision is and why that is important. Without proper communication, you will fail at getting your points across and reaching your and your company’s full potential.
The world’s best communicators make it a lifelong pursuit to hone their craft. Especially if you are at the top, you need to be able to explain the direction and strategy of your business to others so they can do what needs to be done. If you fail to communicate clearly, most of your ideas will be lost, even if you are brilliant. Profits and growth will suffer.
Secret #3: Listen
Great communication starts with listening. This is why Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, says that it is more important to “listen than to talk,” and he cites listening as one of his top leadership skills.
What is the underlying reason for that? The secret is that we all believe we see 100 percent of reality, but in fact we only see a tiny portion of it. We view reality through the limited lens of our own unique sets of strengths, weaknesses and character traits.
This is why we have to surround ourselves with people who are very different from us, who have different character, different viewpoints, strengths and weaknesses because they will see what we are missing. Business leaders need to make crucial decisions every day. And most companies are only one to two major decisions away from breakthrough or failure. This is why it is fundamental for any business leader or owner to get an accurate view of reality as much as possible.
Listening to others is essential in that process.
Secret #4: Stay within your circle of competence
We all have a circle of competence. The most intelligent decision you can make as a business leader is to know that circle and stay within it. For everything that is outside that circle, get as much expert advice and opinions as you can. Stay humble. Know your limitations. This will allow you to make much smarter decisions. It will also protect you against making fundamental mistakes that can cost you the survival of your business.
I have seen many talented leaders and business owners fail because they became overly excited about an area they had absolutely no expertise in and then mistook their excitement for expertise.
As Tom Watson Sr., founder of IBM, put it: “I’m no genius. I’m smart in spots—but I stay around those spots.”
Secret # 5: Collaboration and communication are the two long-term drivers of any business
They are the foundation for growth. It is not profit because profit is a result. The better people communicate and collaborate, the easier it is for them to solve new challenges and profit from unforeseen opportunities, and the faster any business will recover from crisis. This is why almost all of our clients, even if they achieve phenomenal profit increases, say that among the most valuable benefits they gain from working with us are collaboration and communication.
When you get everyone in an organization, from front desk to CEO, to communicate and collaborate at a much higher level, it empowers the entire organization to take down silos, reduce internal conflicts and future-proof the business.
Secret #6: Manage your teams like a rock band
I grew up with an education in business and in music. Composing music and playing in a band taught me a lot about how to manage teams.
One of the things I learned is that it can be very useful to have a bandleader to translate your vision to others, who can speak the language of the drummer, the bass player and all other members in the band.
If you are CEO or business owner and can speak like your chief financial officer, then switch to the language of the chief technology officer and then talk to your head of marketing in her own technical language, then you are indeed very lucky. But you are also a very rare breed; most of us do not have that ability.
This is why a lot of highly successful business leaders surround themselves with one or more key people, bandleaders, who understand them and then translate their message to others in the organization in their own special language, including all the technical jargon that goes along with it.
Secret #7: Sugarcoating leads to bad decisions
As a top executive, CEO or business owner, always encourage open and honest communication. Tell others you want them to give you constructive feedback and not sugarcoat reality. That is a challenge for most employees in the Philippines because of the cultural habit not to disagree and criticize each other openly, especially when it comes to someone in a leadership position, position of power or wealth. This is why this change of behavior will need constant encouragement from the top.
Otherwise, the truth and facts will be sugarcoated, and you will not see reality clearly to make the right decisions.
The more you enable open and honest communication between all levels in the organization, the better the decisions at the top will become.
Solutions and next steps
1. Vow to become a master communicator.
2. Commit to lifelong learning.
3. Listen before you speak.
4. Surround yourself with others who are very different from you.
5. Encourage open and honest communication and avoid sugarcoating. INQ
Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: www.TomOliverGroup.com or email Tom.Oliver@inquirer.com.ph.
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