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Leading leaders

Why HR professionals need to help leaders motivate employees, communicate vision, and move the company in one direction


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By Suzanne Bates

Question: What do the following executives have in common?

  • Fred Smith, founder of Federal Express delivered a simple but powerful message that it positively had to get there overnight. He became the father of the overnight delivery business.
  • Herb Kelleher inspired Southwest airline employees to take responsibility for creating a fun flying experience. His vision helped Southwest Airlines become one of the most successful in the history of aviation.
  • Apple CEO Steve Jobs led his company to launch two of the most successful technology products in decades, the iPod and the iPhone. He told engineers (who love to tinker for the sake of tinkering) that innovation for its own sake wouldn't make Apple successful. "You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company," he said.

Answer: The common denominator across each of these extraordinary leaders is that they had a powerful vision that set their companies on a sure path to success.

A leader's most important role

When you think about it, what is more important than the leader's ability to develop a powerful vision and rally people around it? By definition, leaders cannot do the work of the enterprise. They can only communicate the vision and inspire others to do the work of the organization. While great emphasis is placed on "execution" in business today, people cannot execute if they don't know what to do.

Employees have many roles and responsibilities today. They simply cannot do it all. When there is no clear direction from the top, confusion reigns; everything is a priority; urgent overwhelms important. Left to their own devices, even the best make haphazard choices. Without a vision, you have no alignment, and people don't know what to do.

Why it doesn't happen

Why do leaders fail to take the time to develop a vision and talk about it -- all the time? That's a question I asked the SVP of Human Resources for a large financial services organization. She said, "One of the fundamental flaws with executives," she said, "is they are too busy doing and not leading."

Executives are undoubtedly busy, so it's absolutely necessary for them to have help in communicating their vision and values. This is where HR comes in. HR professionals need to guide their executives and arrange for them to get help in deciphering their vision and values, outlining the company's goals, and communicating that to their employees.

Oftentimes, the communication piece is the most challenging. Most leaders do not master communication skills early in their careers. They rise through organizations because of their exceptionally strong business and technical skills. They learn basics like how to give a PowerPoint presentation and/or deliver employee feedback. However, there are few opportunities and little formal encouragement for them to develop sophisticated communication skills. They never develop that powerful presence and influence that comes when they know how to motivate and inspire people to action.

It would be easy and a mistake to assume that the leaders who "get it" are just born with this skill. They are not. Leaders develop the skills typically when their organizations place a high priority on it. Given the opportunity and resources to learn to communicate effectively with their important audiences, they invest time and energy. While we all know this in theory, the question organizations have to ask themselves is: Do we know this, or do we practice it?

What is a vision?

So what is a vision? There is actually nothing mystical about it. A vision is a picture of what could (and should) be. Great leaders talk about what could be -- big ideas. Nobody wants to do something small. When you talk about big ideas, people want to be part of whatever you are doing. The hallmark of a big idea is that it gets people excited. They're inspired. They "see" it, remember it, repeat it, and start organizing their activities around it.

The qualities we find that allow leaders to share a powerful vision are:

  • They develop a clear point of view about where the organization must go;
  • They learn high level communication skills to clearly articulate that viewpoint;
  • They internalize the message and repeat it frequently through many channels.

Making time

It's very common for executives to tell their bosses or human resources team that they don't have the time for this type of coaching because they are too busy running their businesses. However, as we know, the best leaders make time. It is often a career-limiting or fatal mistake for leaders to use "busyness" as a cover.

I once worked with the vice president of a bank who claimed she "didn't have time to be strategic." After we looked over her calendar, rescheduled meetings and delegated some not-so important activities, time was no longer the biggest issue. Sheepishly, she then admitted she had never, ever even spent fifteen minutes of quiet time in her office to think, analyze and write about her vision, and subsequently had never presented anything like that to her team.

In high-performance companies you can't get away with that for long. Jay, a new vice president, learned this right after he was promoted. His boss explained that the next big step from manager to leader required him to articulate the values and behaviors that he believed would drive the success of the organization. The boss said, "Jay, I want to know what it means to work in a Jay-organization."

The role of HR

The first step in helping your executives to develop these skills is to provide a reason that matters to them – it's about the business. Then you must recognize that most executives left to their own devices will not find the time. The organization has to provide an opportunity and give leaders the time and resources to do what they need to do to take their leadership to the next level.

One SVP of Human Resources in a Fortune 100 firm told me she sees the ability to communicate vision as the real key to a leader's long-term success. "There might be brilliant streaks of individual performance but at the end of the day," she said, "leadership is about getting people headed in a direction over a sustainable period of time." She observed that this is impossible, unless the leader is clear, crisp, focused, and disciplined enough to repeat the message, "over and over, in multiple channels, in multiple ways."

Eight secrets of leaders who speak well

1. Talk about big ideas
2. Speak in the moment
3. Keep it simple
4. Be a straight shooter
5. Use stories to make powerful points
6. Focus on the future
7. Be authentic
8. Stand for something

(SOURCE: Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results, by Suzanne Bates, McGraw-Hill, 2005)

Suzanne Bates is president of Bates Communications, a management consulting firm based in the Boston area, and is also a NEHRA member. She can be reached at info@bates-communications.com or by visiting Bates Communications.

Attend Suzanne Bates' workshop, "Ensure Your Leaders are Communicating their Vision and Values Effectively," at the NEHRA Conference in Providence, RI on October 18th. For more information, visit the NEHRA website.

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