Inherent to leadership is communication. Whether it is an organizational vision, leader priorities and areas of emphasis, or showing genuine interest and concern for your people – all leaders have much to communicate in order to be effective.
Communication is both verbal and nonverbal. It is also formal and informal. As a leader, you communicate by speaking in formal meetings, talking to someone one-on-one in passing, and even when / where you choose to be present or not. Leader presence is one of the most critical methods of communication to your people and organization. When and where you choose to be at any moment as a leader sends a message. Moreover, how you act in those times sends the most salient message of all.
In any moment you are around your subordinates or team members, you must show them that “being right here (with you) is the most important place for me to be.” Your words, actions, and attitude can tell your people that you value them and what they are doing. Or you can minimize a moment with constant phone / email distraction, not engaging in meaningful discussion, or having the audacity to convey that you have 19 more important things on your mind than what they are saying or doing right now. Geoffrey Tumlin, author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating, summarizes this idea in an incredibly effective and concise way: “listen like every sentence matters, talk like every word counts, and act like every interaction is important.” These habits can convert any interaction into an opportunity for a meaningful connection. However, it requires time and effort from a busy leader, which is why it is often ignored.
My experience offers a few simple recommendations on how to show your organization, subordinates, or anyone on your team that “being here is the most important place for me to be.” Ideas include:
- Afford time: Easy to say, but hard to do. If I needed to talk to one of my platoon leaders while in company command, I had two options: call them on the phone (quick method, but lacking face-to-face) or walk to their office (time consuming, but maximum conversational value). Unless other major considerations prevailed, I always opted to walk to their office. It not only made my conversation with the platoon leader valuable, but it afforded me the opportunity to see my Soldiers in-between offices (see my post on Leadership by Wandering Around regarding this). If I absolutely could not afford an additional 10 minutes at that time, I resorted to a phone call. I did not want to walk to and from the office, see Soldiers, and seem like I was ignoring them. That would convey the opposite message I intended to.
- Invest in the moment: I acknowledge that a leader’s time is often consumed by competing demands. However, showing your people that you are busy while being with them is a destructive message to send. As a company commander, for example, do not show up to your company’s weapons qualification range by immediately jumping to the front of the line to quickly qualify so you can get back to the office to “do all this work that you have to.” Also, don’t spend your time at the range on your phone with emails or texts. Show up, talk to your Soldiers, get in line at the range and wait your turn (use that time to talk to them). Check on the range detail, spend some time being a range safety and/or coaching some shooters. Take advantage of this time afforded to you with your people.
- Invest in the conversation. I tend to structure informal conversations with my Soldiers with the beginning and the end of it being about them. I start the conversation by asking “how is everything going?” or “how is/are ____?” (which can be a recent unit event or a family member). I ended conversations by asking them if there is anything they need from me and to let me know if there ever is. The middle consisted of the one or two topics of choice (e.g. me seeking feedback about another leader in the company, me asking how a recent unit event went in their opinion, what the Soldier has recently learned or what their current challenges are, and so on).
- Use non-verbal communication. Use the simple communication tools you’ve learned about since high school – they work. Maintain eye contact, use approachable and relaxed body language, and engage in active listening. Don’t just wait for the person you’re talking to stop talking so you can say what you want to. Ask questions throughout and keep the conversation focused on them. Often, peoples’ favorite topic to discuss is themselves. You can be a complete stranger and have a conversation strictly about them. That person could walk away from the conversation thinking you are an incredible leader and outstanding person by just doing that. Don’t underestimate the value of letting people just talk about themselves.
- Remember important information. You need to remember important information that comes from these conversations. Whether it is information about themselves (or spouse and family) that the Soldier is sharing, their feedback on a recent unit event, or a great idea worth pursuing later, it is important to remember critical insights. I have to record information like that in order to remember it. This is just one of the many reasons why I keep 3×5 index cards on me at all times.
Remember in every moment of every day: what am I doing to show that “being here is the most important place for me to be.”