Communicating as a Leader

Better Communication Skills — Email, Meetings, Phone Calls

Tom O\’Dea asked:


Better communication skills start with the right choice of communications media.  Good intentions are sometimes lost in misunderstanding that could have been avoided with honest, face to face discussion.  Yet face to face is not always practical.  How do you make the right choice? 

A Real Example

This is a story I’m going to tell on myself.  It’s true, and because it’s a bit personal I’m leaving out some of the details.  You’ll still see the point. 

Recently I emailed a good friend and business associate to ask a small favor.  In the email I also asked how he was doing, and asked about family as well.  It was a sincere inquiry, since we are friends, but it was casual. 

In his response, my friend immediately addressed my request for a favor, positively of course.  He then answered the family question by mentioning problems he was having with one of his sons.  Very little detail, but it didn’t sound good. 

In an effort to provide a little hope, I quickly responded to him and told him a brief story about my brother, who had similar problems when he was at the age of my friends’ son, but had outgrown the problem and was now a successful CEO. 

In my efforts to keep the email brief, I apparently didn’t word it very well.  He immediately emailed me back with a note expressing concern and wishing the best for my brother. 

Think about it — here my friend had shared a personal problem he was addressing, and my email back to him must have sounded like “you think you have problems, let me tell you about mine”.  Now that was not my intent of course, but I hadn’t taken the time to carefully read my own email. 

The good news is that we were emailing in near real time — almost chatting, really.  So as soon as I realized the mistake I had made I was able to set it straight.  And it’s a good thing I did, because just as I suspected I had come off as insensitive and self centered to my friend. 

The Perils of Email 

As the above story illustrates, written communication is often misunderstood.  Nowhere is this more evident than with email, a media which often masquerades as letter writing, but without the care, proof reading and editing that a personal letter or business letter normally receives. 

I had a boss for whom I’d only been working a short while.  On a weekend when we were having some operational problems, this boss sent me an email in which he vented openly about the breakdowns we were having.  He was not subtle in describing his frustration, and he was not subtle in his threat that heads were going to roll the next week. 

Now the only recipient on this email was me, and at the time I was the guy who was busting my you know what to get everything fixed and back on track.  I was getting results and frankly others were not.  But I got the menacing email.  You can imagine how I felt. 

I got so mad when I got his email that I quickly wrote a strong and not very subtle response.  Thanks to what was probably divine intervention, I didn’t hit the send button. 

My boss actually trusted me implicitly — enough to vent to me by email.  He needed to blow off some steam before he addressed real issues with other people more professionally.  He trusted me, and I thought he was threatening to fire me! 

Here are some guidelines when it comes to email: 

The more important the communication, the less you should rely on email.

Never use email for feedback, even positive feedback, except to reinforce something you’ve already communicated in person.

By all means take advantage of email as a distribution mechanism for other written documents, for scheduling meetings and agendas, etc.


You’re going to violate these guidelines; we all do.  When you do, hopefully you’ll be more aware of the risks, and hopefully you’ll treat the email you’re writing more like an important letter.  Take your time writing it, read it carefully before you send it, let someone else critique it if necessary.  You’ll save yourself a lot of grief by adopting these best practices. 

What About Meetings? 

Ahhh, meetings — the bane of existence in corporate America.   

There’s a popular IBM commercial running these days featuring several business people in a conference room with sprinklers from the ceiling raining down on them.  They seem oblivious, and someone pokes their head in the room to ask what’s going on.  The answer from the meeting leader is “we’ve got this room until 3:30”.  And the inquisitor leaves, apparently satisfied with the response.  Oh by the way, the meeting in progress is about disaster recovery. 

There are too many companies where that commercial is not far off the mark.  Those of us who’ve spent a lot of time in corporate settings have developed a healthy distaste for meetings, and embraced some meeting avoidance and meeting reduction strategies. 

These include things like holding standup meetings, where there are no chairs, no coffee, and no opportunity to get comfortable.  Get together, share the necessary information, and get out.   

Another is 15 minute scheduling, which changes the culture in ways that make 30 minute meetings seem demanding and 60 minute meetings monumental. 

Of course, there is the old standby, the PAL (purpose, agenda, limit).  I’ve heard many people mock the PAL, but it should be a requirement wherever meetings are held.   

Use all of these tools, and any others you may have in your bag of tricks.  Never attend someone else’s meeting if they don’t provide a PAL.  Respect others time, and get others to respect yours. 

Leadership Communication Meetings 

After all I’ve had to say about meetings, this may seem out of place.  But leaders must have occasional communications meetings with the organizations they lead.   People who don’t hear from you, their leader, or only hear from you by email and press releases, won’t align as strongly with you as you need. 

Effective leadership communications have the following characteristics: 

They don’t become routine.  Usually they’re not regularly scheduled, but event driven.

They are focused and always provide limited, specific information.

They are followed up by talking points, management guides, surveys to determine whether the message was well received, or some other means. 


Leaders seeking better communication skills should strive to accomplish all of these. 

Phone vs. Face to Face 

Conference calls are a necessity in a geographically dispersed work force, and there are unique considerations to executing these successfully.  I won’t address them all here. 

It’s amazing, however, to see how often people choose to meet by conference call, even when they are located in the same building, even on the same floor.  If the meeting isn’t important, don’t go.  If the meeting is important, then nothing will make it more effective than face to face interaction. 

Face to face lets you see people’s reactions, the wrinkled noses, the nods of understanding and acceptance, the bewilderment or the confusion.  You can adjust on the fly, and you can engage people in real dialogue.  Body language is powerful.   

If budgets, time and practical considerations don’t allow face to face meetings, then do all you can to overcome the limitations of conference calls.  But if conference calls are being held when in person meetings are possible, that’s an unhealthy sign. 

One more poi
nt about leadership communication.  Regardless of how global the audience may be, the leader addressing their organization should be in front of at least some of their audience when they speak.  This helps the leader by giving him or her a chance to see body language and tes
t their effectiveness.  It also goes a long way toward helping the leader seem more accessible. 

Leaders, use traveling roadshows to get in front of your teams if they’re spread out.  Video conferencing has come a long way as an affordable and effective technology, and may help bridge the gap as well.

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