In an edited extract from his new book, Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond Jay Sullivan, managing partner at Exec|Comm LLC, shares his theory of leadership and explains the advantages of motivating and challenging others
To lead people, you must know where you want to take them and articulate it clearly. Your vision is broader than a set of specific actions, but more concrete than a vague statement of ideals. It’s a long-range goal for how you want your team or organization to be structured and function. It is, ultimately, where you are telling your followers that they are headed.
Martin Luther King Jr., verbalized his quest for equality through his vision that his children could one day be, “judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Note that he didn’t define success as the passage of a particular law; he defined success as an innate change in people’s hearts. He was leading us to evolution rather than revolution.
Leading is about others. But leading others to be complacent or to wallow in their own pity isn’t the goal of a positive, effective leader. Great leadership is about challenging and motivating others to achieve, to improve, and to grow. As with your statement of values, your vision must be about others rather than about you and it must be expressed in language that engages and motivates. You have to express ideas with the same clarity with which you express your values.
If you reviewed the minutes of the last meeting you led would you read a clearly articulated statement of where your firm is headed? How much of the language pertains to your group’s performance to date, rather than to the goal for the next 12 months? Does where you are now bear any resemblance to the goal you set for yourself last year? If the current plan is not designed to get you where you want to go, determine whether the goal is SMART:
If your vision doesn’t meet these criteria, you can’t achieve it, because it isn’t well-defined.
Once you have articulated your vision, and ensured that everyone understands it, you must determine what steps are needed to reach that goal. As with your values and your vision, when you communicate your plan, you must stay focused on your followers’ needs and use language with which they can connect.
For instance, your company determines that doubling the size of your department is essential to staying competitive. The company’s executive committee will undoubtedly convey to the entire organization what steps must be taken to make this happen. In business, we tend to be very good about telling the people below us what has to happen. We tend to be exceptionally good at telling them when it has to happen (yesterday would be nice.) However, we often come up short when conveying why the goal is important. Even when we do cover the why of an issue we often forget to focus on the why from the perspective of the individual we want to lead. From whose perspective do we explain why?
Why from the company’s perspective:
“To maintain this company’s reputation for innovation.”
Why from the department’s perspective:
“To help the R&D group become a key driver of revenue for the organization.”
Why from the individual engineer’s perspective:
“To give you greater professional opportunities and a richer career.”
The closer we can tie a particular set of objectives to the individuals we seek to lead, the better chance we have to connect.
Structuring each message
As a leader, the motivation for your public speaking falls into three general categories: to persuade, to inform, and to inspire. Let’s discuss here how to inspire. When you want to inspire people to move forward, stories should drive your message. Few people are persuaded by data. We need to know our data so we can back up the claims in our stories, but it’s the stories that engage people. When you inspire, you aren’t selling people widgets. You are selling an idea.
Most of us cannot process an idea on its own. We need context—a story, an example, an anecdote—to make the concept real. That’s why business school, where the content is conceptual rather than concrete, is driven by the case study method of learning. Law school, similarly, is driven by the case method. The cases are the stories that bring the concepts to life. When you want to inspire your audience, hone the message you want the audience to take from the meeting, then reflect on the stories from your experience that demonstrate the point you want to make.
Your actions are your most forceful message about yourself and your beliefs. As a leader, you can talk a good game about supporting others but if you consistently arrive late for meetings,
or play with your ‘phone or BlackBerry while others speak, your lack of consideration is what people notice, comment on to each other and factor into their overall impression of your professionalism and stature. You are a busy professional. So are the people who work with you. Your consideration of their time commitments, and their need for the information that only you can provide, contribute in large part to their willingness to get behind your ideas.
Years ago, I taught a program for the more senior leaders at the financial services firm Smith Barney. The president of the company attended the program, along with about a dozen other senior leaders. During each break in the day-long program, participants spent most of their downtime reading and responding to emails on their BlackBerrys. (This was in the days before smartphones.) As I called the group’s attention back to the class at the end of each break, the president echoed my invitation to return to the discussion, and then added, “Let me get rid of this thing,” as he shut down his BlackBerry and threw it into his briefcase. He wasn’t thinking out loud. He was sending a very direct message by modelling the behaviour he expected from his team. It worked. Participants understood the message that their full attention to the discussion at hand was expected.