“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."
– Alvin Toffler

Communicating as a Leader: Who, What, and Why

Whether you’re leading a company or a team, the bulk of your leadership relies on your communication. Communicating as a leader involves more listening than talking, but when you do speak, it needs to be with strength, clarity, and honesty. Being a strong communicator in a leadership position tends to boil down to three elements: the who, the what, and the why.

The Who

In today’s companies, leaders communicate directly with people at all levels of the organization. The way we communicate with one area of business is going to be very different from the way we communicate with another area. In fact, even from person to person will be different.

Communication styles vary individually, therefore your message, or how you frame it, will as well. And good leaders realize that the burden of the message falls on them more often than not.

If you want, compare general communication as a leader to marketing. The first thing you want to consider is the audience. Not only does everyone naturally have different styles of communication, but your audience may not be ready to have whatever conversation you’re prepared for. Consider if you need to take the time to build context, or establish where you’re coming from, or where your audience is coming from. True and productive conversation comes from laying the groundwork with all parties beforehand.

The What

The second element of communication is the “what”. This is the message: the idea, the instruction, the information. Good communicators, when they’ve identified their audience, consider what the audience needs to hear, and how they need to hear it.

What matters just as much as the actual information is the way it’s delivered. Whether the conversation is transactional or conversational, it’s important for there to be clarity. If the purpose of the dialogue is to send your team off with actions, make sure those actions are clearly stated with well-defined deadlines. The closing question should always be, “Who is going to do what by when?”

If the purpose of communication is to engage others, then authenticity and adaptability is a must. And I do not mean a facsimile of authenticity. Most people can see through that, and really, it’s easier to be honest. Additionally, leaders should be able to alter the message at the drop of the hat. Objectives change, and so do audience’s responses.

However, the situation does not always call for the leader to be the one driving the communications. Sometimes it’s the leader’s responsibility to listen. More often than not, it requires the leader to be prepared and have an open mind.

The Why

The “why” is the purpose. This can usually fall into three general buckets: to give information, to receive information, to have a dialogue. The first two are fairly transactional, but both parties still need to be active participants in all three situations. The primary way to be an active speaker or listener is to be prepared.

Sometimes leaders need to provide information or give instruction. When doing so, consider the elements from before: the who and the what. This will help you prepare ahead of time. Know what you want your audience to take away from this, and frame your message around that.

When the purpose of a conversation is for you to gather information, it’s important to prepare with the right questions, so that there are no gaps or unclear takeaways. Again, make sure to ask “Who is going to do what by when?” Clear delivery will lead to strong results.

A dialogue is a form of communication whose purpose is not as black and white as giving or getting information. But it often is the most critical as the results, while not always immediate, often set the tone for future conversations and situations. There are infinite reasons for a leader to have dialogue with someone in their organization, but regardless of the reason, being prepared and an active listener are the two basic requirements for any successful conversation. Being an active listener means being responsive to ideas, suggestions, or concerns. There are plenty of nonverbal cues that can convey your engagement in a conversation, but you also want to make it clear you’re coming from a place of empathy and understanding. The impact you have by being thoroughly engaged in a dialogue will be felt a long way down the line.

Communicating as a leader, in any form, involves preparation and follow through. The most powerful leaders of today stay engaged with their people, so that, more often than not, communications tend to be fluid. But regardless of its form, any interaction is going to involve the elements of who, what, and why. Good communication is clear, honest, and effective. And a leader who is clear, honest, and effective in their communication, both speaking and listening, creates an environment full of ideas and possibilities.