Confident communication in uncertain times

This story first appeared a year ago in The Influential Executive newsletter. How applicable is it, still?—ed.

Why leaders must start a healthy dialogue with internal and external audiences— in the middle of the storm

By Joyce Russell, President & COO—Adecco USA

Leaders are currently walking into unchartered territory. Crucial issues such as volatile markets, rising gas and food prices, a tightened overall economy and increased pressure on corporate performance—all set to the backdrop of one of the most highly followed U.S. presidential elections in recent years—are coming to a head.

The resulting unease, among leaders and their constituents, is unfortunately likely to continue in the near term. In order to maintain a business culture that is productive, positive and high performing, executives will need to proactively and effectively communicate with their internal and external stakeholders. While people often shy away from talking openly and/or frequently during times of turmoil, these are the times when the best and most strategic leaders stay closer and more engaged with the constituents that matter the most to them and their business.

While there is a wide array of formats for executives and business leaders to interact with and form a di-alogue with their key stakeholders—e-mail, town hall discussions, small or large in-person meetings, confe-rence calls, etc.—there is a smaller, and far simpler, list of things to keep in mind as leaders try to navigate, and communicate, through the current uncertainty:

1. Be honest. The old adage remains true today: honesty is always the best policy. People can easily read through falsities and will not tolerate or respect a leader who tells them simply what they want to hear versus what’s actually happening. Whether it be delivering your company/group’s financial performance or managing a tough client engagement, being upfront, transparent and to the point will only earn you further trust and respect.

2. Communicate frequently. While the right message is an extremely important part of communication, so is consistency. The current eco-nomic slowdown is forecasted to last through the coming months and will require that leaders regularly touch base and talk to the people in their organization who matter the most to them. Set up regular discussions to continually answer new questions, provide updates on programs that are in progress and keep them feeling heard and valued. One touch point will serve as an initial solution, but effective communication only works when there is follow through and subsequent check points to keep the momentum going rather then letting the ball drop after one successful pass.

3. Listen closely. Communication exists on a two-way street. As leaders, it is often easy to get caught up in talking to people versus talking with people. Whether it be through garnering formal or informal feedback, be sure to reach out and understand the level of concern or uneasiness that exists in your organiza-tion to best inform your plan on how to combat it. What are their concerns? How would they like them ad-dressed? Who would they like to address them? Be sure to ask and answer questions—form a dialogue that is constructive and lets people know that they’re voice is being considered, heard and responded to directly.

4. Make yourself available. Being approachable is a very important part of being a successful leader. In order to effectively address concerns, people need to feel comfortable to come to you with what’s on their minds and in a real-time manner, before they’ve left the organization or spread their fears or anxiety to other colleagues or clients. Being proactive in building strong relationships, both up and down the organizational chart, is essential to leading and communicating well. If people feel that they cannot come to the leadership in their organization, they will go elsewhere with their issues, oftentimes a competitor or a client, which shouldn’t be their only available sounding board.

5. Don’t be an alarmist. Central to any leadership communication plan should be serving as a well balanced and constructive voice of reason. Where there is concern, there is often panic. When addressing their organization, leaders should be sure to have a calming influence. This does not mean hiding the truth or leading people to believe everything is OK if it isn’t, it means speaking factually and pragmatically and pre-senting challenges along with the proposed solutions. People want to know that their leaders are doing some-thing to effectively address what’s happening, so it’s important to clearly outline not only what’s happening but how the organization is planning to adjust or respond to the situation.

While effective communication is always important—regardless of whether you’re delivering good or bad news—it’s especially crucial today when people are concerned about so many different economic influences that are impacting them both on and off the job. As their concerns build, it is the responsibility of good leaders to step in and communicate to ensure that they can be a relied upon resource and guide to help their organization feel more confident and at ease now and in the future. It’s the organizations that stay closest to their people and their clients in the hard times that will have easier time holding on to them when the clouds part and the good news starts rolling in again.


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