A Key To Leadership When Being Smart Isn’t Enough

What qualities define strong leaders and managers? Knowledge and experience in their fields, certainly. But in our fast-paced and highly integrated world, communication, more than ever, is a powerful and decisive force for career success.

Being good is no longer enough to be successful.

Our communication style — how we connect with others — is of the utmost importance. So much so that while it is possible to have a successful career as an executive if you couple excellent communication skills with average (or less) domain experience, it is much more difficult to prosper as a leader with strong domain experience and poor communication skills. In order to assess and improve communication, it is useful to look at the dimensions at play when we connect with others, and to make clear decisions about what patterns best fit with our teams, our culture, and our objectives.

Organizations that communicate well are more efficient, leverage the most from every employee, and have higher morale, better productivity, and more resourceful cultures than organizations that communicate poorly. In fact, if you hire well and have good employees, communication, more than any other factor under your control, will do the most to advance your company’s performance.

There are a core set of communication factors that will dictate the effectiveness of communication in the team — and it’s up to each manager to determine how to use them effectively.

Passive vs. Active

Do managers wait for questions, or do they anticipate the needs of their team, meeting them with timely and proactive messaging? It is common for non-managers to take a passive approach to communication, assuming that if they need to know something, somebody will tell them. One key aspect of making the transition from team member to team or business unit leader is this idea of becoming an “active” communicator. Still, passive communication is surprisingly common among managers. But in a high-functioning communications regime, you will rarely find managers who are passive communicators — because it almost never works. The most effective managers are constantly managing the needs of their team members (managing up, managing down to employees, and managing to their peers). An effective communicator in management is active, looking ahead, anticipating technical and personal informational needs, and meeting them without prompting.


How often and how long we communicate are often dictated by cultural norms within organizations, and often come to us by default. Many organizations have “meeting madness” where everyone’s schedule is likely to be filled from morning to night with meetings, stand-ups, and conference calls. Effective managers take control of communication by choosing to have in-depth meetings less often, or shorter meetings more often. Meeting in-depth often is a recipe for communication overload, damaged morale, and poor efficiency because no one is getting any work done.

Listening vs. Dictating

Managers also have the ability to decide the extent to which they listen versus dictate to their team members. Effective managers frequently pause to ask for feedback during communication sessions, instead of filling the air with their own thoughts at the expense of everyone else’s.

Direction vs. Collaboration

Should managers communicate “like a boss,” telling the team what to do? Or should they collaborate and help the team to arrive at the best solution to questions that the organization faces? Depending on the circumstances, both ends of the spectrum of “direction vs. collaboration” can be appropriate, and it is good practice to be aware of where you are on this dimension of communication, as it can have a powerful effect on your degree of success.

“I’m the boss, so do what I say”

While some management domains function well with explicit control, it is more and more common for inclusive communication regimes between managers and employees. Inclusive communication sounds like:

“The company has a plan to increase sales, so what can we do to improve our performance?”

In communication, openness and inclusion are very important. If the outcome of a conversation is determined before the meeting even takes place, it can be demoralizing for high-functioning employees. Effective managers will direct explicitly when needed, but will look for as many ways as possible to elicit the feedback and ideas of team members, as this cultural norm is a powerful management tool to shape outcomes.

3 Important Questions:

  • As a leader, what communication patterns are the most important in your business?
  • As a team member, what management communication styles make the biggest difference for you?
  • What can you do differently today to be a better communicator?

Be a part of this Forbes column! Share your ideas on communication with startupkevin@gmaildotcom.

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Kevin Ready

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