You know the old adage, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link?” When it comes to leaders who think they are great communicators, a similar rule applies: Your communication is only as good as the worst bit of feedback you’re currently keeping to yourself. It sometimes surprises me how some people can barely speak with their cofounders and yet be perfectly transparent with their employees. Striking a healthy balance is required to create a healthy culture. How can you make your communication skills improve quickly? Here are some tips I find myself repeating in coaching sessions.
First, here are a couple of examples of different communication strengths. I recently talked with several executives in a startup who all stated something very alarming. They were all in agreement that the CEO would “capriciously change the roadmap” regularly but were reluctant to say that to him. To me, the most frightening part isn’t the fickle CEO but the fact that no one of his top leaders was willing to speak up. This is an “emperor’s new clothes” situation just waiting to happen. In today’s climate in tech, where companies are scraping any additional month of runway, can you really risk wasting months on a direction that makes no sense because no one spoke up?
Contrast that with one of the pairs of founders I’ve had the most fun working with in years. Whenever one voices a concern about the other, and I ask, “Have you told X that?” The answer is always either “yes” or they promise to do it soon… and then actually do it! Unsurprisingly, things always seem simpler after they talk than prior. That’s the power of great communication: it makes most of your problems trivial.
Similarly, a newly minted VP had enough confidence to plainly tell the CEO precisely where he felt he needed help and was worried about. That didn’t make the CEO doubt the promotion, but be more confident! What type of career do you want to lead? Let’s make it better.
Feedback Shelf Life
The first trick is to think about feedback and questions as if they were freshly baked focaccia (can you tell I just came back from Italy?). If you don’t use it soon, it’ll get stale and won’t be very useful. Waiting with feedback for the “right time” is fine as long as your criteria for that right time are sane. I’ve seen people wait with things months till they were scheduled to meet someone in person. Would you rather find out now over zoom that you’re underperforming, or in person after two more months have passed? Which option do you believe has more chances of helping the person receiving the feedback?
Therefore, it is fine to end a day’s work with a bunch of things you’re thinking about—you’re not supposed to simply shoot out anything that comes to your mind. But you shouldn’t have things unsaid for more than a few days in 95% of the cases. The sooner you get things off your chest, the better everyone will be.
You’d be surprised how often problems end up costing way more simply because no one thought there’s any value in “stating the obvious.” We see an issue and immediately think that it is trivial and that someone else must have thought of it already, and so we don’t say anything. However, making it a habit to always speak up is greatly useful.
First, if you thought about something, others probably did have the same thought. If you will voice it and you’ll see that the risk was already thought of, that’s great! Everyone else watching just learned that there is no punishment in stating the obvious from time to time. Further, for more senior people who have been in the company for a while it is easy to ask someone later in private and get an answer. That’s nice for your ego, but what about all the newer people in the meeting? They’re likely to keep going with those doubts and have no one to ask. A few extra questions won’t hurt the meeting and will help improve everyone’s communication strength.
Not All The Same
It’s natural for your communication strength to vary between your different work relationships. Your openness with your cofounders will not be the same as with your employees or a peer. I’ve worked with executives who felt that since things will never be “perfect” then they were damaged and there was no reason to even keep trying to improve their communication. That’s of course entirely wrong.
You should decide what your ideal communication bar is and then work to get to at least that level with everyone you work with. For example, are there types of meetings where you have gotten accustomed to disengage and sit quietly? Commit to yourself to change it in the next couple of weeks.
The longer you wait, the harder will it be to correct course. In my upcoming book, Capitalizing Your Technology I cover stories of communication that made all the difference for some startups I’ve worked with. To get a free sample chapter, sign up below and you’ll get one in a couple of weeks!
Get a sample chapter
Get the best newsletter for tech executives online, along with a free sample chapter of The Tech Executive Operating System 📖. Tailored for your daily work. Weekly, short, and packed with exclusive insights.