Communicate Influence

Communications and leadership

employee engagment

Damian McAlonan on communications and leadership

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Damian McAlonan

Damian McAlonan, CEO of The Boost Partnership in London, UK, talks to host Sheelagh Caygill about the importance of leaders being outstanding communicators. He discusses how poor communication can impact all aspects of an organization, including employee engagement, customer relations, performance, and profitability.

You can read more from Damian and also James Murphy In our series on employee engagement and workplace culture: 

Communications and leadership podcast transcript

Welcome to the Communicate Influence Podcast Damian.

Damian: Thank you for the invite Sheelagh.

Sheelagh: It’s great to have you here. How are you today?

Damian: I’m very good. It’s a very, very sunny day in London.

Sheelagh: That’s great. It’s raining here in Toronto, which is a bit unusual, but I’m hoping that we’ll have more summer as we move into the autumn. So today we’re going to explore leadership communication, but before I get into this Damian, tell our listeners a bit about your work with the Boost Partnership.

Improving company performance and productivity

Damian: Sure. The Boost Partnership was created initially to help improve companies with their performance and also their productivity. We do this by delivering what we class as relevant and meaningful workplace training. We believe that many organizations have the ability to learn and rapidly transfer their landings. And if they do this correctly, then they will obviously have an ultimate competitive advantage.

And what we do recognize though is that not enough businesses actually concentrate in that learning and development or provide training. Or when they do provide training they just provide the training, and they don’t see the responses and results that they should get, because primarily, the training often doesn’t have any measurements in place for outcomes, it’s not delivered in a formal kind of way where people can actually exchange ideas, and therefore it doesn’t transfer into the workplace, and also it has little or no regard for the ongoing support that’s required. So on those kind of aspects, the Boost Partnership and its work concentrates primarily on solving all of those issues.

Causes of poor leadership communication

Sheelagh: Let’s look at what causes some of the, you know, the lack of poor communication in leadership in senior managers.

Damian: Yeah. So I think the question itself identifies the root causes of poor leadership communication. I think the first thing is awareness, you see people aren’t aware really what leadership is about, and therefore they don’t see why or how communication is actually a priority. When I asked people around a boardroom what leadership means, how many answers do you think I get?

Sheelagh: Probably quite a few because they would all view themselves as leaders?

What exactly is leadership?

Damian: Exactly. And also, they will have different interpretations of what leadership actually means. The reason I think this actually exists is because of the journey that most people take to leadership. As you know, corporates have a hierarchical structure or the majority do, and they’re full – the way that you ascend to leadership can often cloud your vision of what a leader is about, because we become leaders often when we’ve been managers previously, but no one explains the fundamental difference between management and leadership.

And if you think about it, it’s not really taught at school, it’s not taught at college and university and in the workplace. So there’s a real low level of awareness that’s basically exacerbated by the fact that we believe that our past strengths will help us in the future. What I mean by that is that leaders are kind of lulled into a false sense of what got them there, which is often being a really good manager, and those are the same skill sets and traits that will make them a successful leader, but it isn’t.

Sheelagh: Yeah, Damian, that makes total sense. I mean, I would imagine that some part of being a manager, whatever proportion is about leadership, but it’s probably not enough to function 100% as a leader.

Damian: Exactly Sheelagh, and we need to explore this a little bit closer. When you consider good management, because obviously that’s something that we do also at the Boost Partnership, but whenever you look at it, you can see that it’s all about doing the things that you did yesterday but either faster, cheaper, or better.

In effect, good management is, it’s kind of like compliance. However, leadership is kind of a choice, it’s when someone steps up and makes a change that helps other people make a change as well. So it’s about being able to enroll other people to make a change occur and something that wouldn’t naturally happen if you weren’t leading.

Where is the organization going?

Now, if I think about this in communication sense and you think about the most important speeches in history, you can see that they all have this strong ability of a leader being able to paint a picture of where they want to go and also why you should follow them or join them in that journey. The mistake in our culture, I think today is the belief that leaders need to communicate how to get there and what we will need to do to achieve where they’re going, but we’ve lost sight of where they’re going.

Leaders must own their communication

So the reason that I think the leaders today kind of communicate or lean heavily towards the communication of how is because it’s safe and because you don’t have to basically own it, you don’t have to claim it. It means that if it kind of fails, it’s not your fault, so perhaps this is the result I think of people and how much emphasis that they place on leadership, that they think that leaders should have all the right answers. And so therefore, it’s kind of a misconstrued idea of what leadership is.

Whereas the difficult work of leadership really begins with describing a place for us to go and then owning it, and then owning every single failure along the road to success. And if leaders were more aware and understood that role, they would actually take more interest in how important good communication is, and obviously the many techniques there are of communicating their version to others.

Leaders need to be self-aware

Sheelagh: So we’ve got an emphasis there or mistaken emphasis on how we’re going to get to our objectives and business goals. So let’s unpack some of that Damian, that is, you know, there’s a lot that you’ve mentioned there, a lot of key factors in leadership, and the misguided notions about people thinking that leaders tell us how to perform, how to get there, when, as you’ve emphasized, it really is about where we’re going and focusing on that vision in the organization’s mission or business goals. So I would imagine that one of the key things here is self-awareness and a willingness to learn and openness to coaching. So how can you bring about some of these qualities or the openness to work with other people and receive feedback in leaders?

Providing leaders with feedback

Damian: So obviously, you touched on the point exactly. Once a person recognizes that they are a leader and that they can themselves accept or become more aware of what that role is, they’re able to be much more specific to the rest of the company and the employees about what they need to do. That in itself forms what kind of Buddha has once said, is the first step to all wisdom, and that’s the acknowledgement of, I don’t know.

It’s OK for a leader to say “I don’t know”.

By saying, okay, I know where we want to go, I don’t know how we’re going to get there, I don’t know how I’m going to be able to communicate this with people, there is a willingness to therefore gain help and assistance to do so, and that sort of willingness to gain that assistance can then be filled with some of the communication experts that a company so desperately needs and a leader desperately needs as well.

So their expertise then needs to come in – once the awareness is there, there is an acceptance that there is a requirement for help, and thereafter then clear objectives can be made to the communication.

Sheelagh: We are so focused on strength in the Western world in our culture of posing as a strong person that we don’t want to hear, I don’t know.

Damian: I think that a lot of people, especially leaders, and you can always see this not only through companies whenever they deliver news to shareholders, but also politicians whenever they’re delivering their messages, that it is essential that there is an awareness of a need and that there’s a desire to solve the need.

It’s not necessarily something which needs to be so very prescriptive and, in fact, leaders paint themselves into a corner when they are terribly prescriptive about what they aim to do or achieve and the timeline that they’re going to achieve it in. And we see that in so many different facets of communication, especially through leadership; we touch a little bit upon a certain amount of apologizing; if you think about how apologizing and being sincere in the apology was so important over the last 10 to 15 years, a lot of people would say, well, as a leader, you shouldn’t apologize.

But in fact, the culture that we’re seeing, is something totally opposite, whereby a leader who owns the mistake and apologizes for it and chooses to put things in place to get it right is somebody who is seen in much more credibility than somebody who chooses to be strong and say that they hadn’t made a mistake.

And because of that, as a kind of example, I think going forward what leaders are attempting to do is show a certain authenticity, a certain amount of empathy, a certain amount of recognition to a situation that occurs, and then explain that they truly want to resolve that situation and then go about doing it, but they don’t have to communicate everything in one go.

The authentic voice

Sheelagh: That kind of takes us into one of the other questions I wanted to ask you today, the issue of the authentic voice which we hear so much about. This has been something I’ve been reading about and listening to on another podcast for a long time; that, to some people, it comes very easily, they hit the right note, they sound like themselves in a relaxed and very self-assured way; and for others, it’s very difficult, and for some leaders too. So from your perspective, having worked with managers and leaders, how does one establish that authentic voice?

Define your values and act through them

Damian: It’s a great question because I’ve heard a lot of the arguments around the authentic voice and, in honesty, I think there’s truth in each and every part of what everyone’s saying. Now, a lot of people are saying there’s no such thing as an authentic voice; and depending on your circumstances, on your audience, on your situation, we all choose to perform a different role and therefore we have different voices; and because we’ve got different voices, which one is the authentic voice.

Whenever I talk to leaders, I genuinely believe that if people can actually define their values, and I don’t mean your company values, I’m talking about your personal values, and if you can actually find three of the top values that you hold to be true and then choose to act through them, it would actually be the closest you could get to your authentic better self.

We all want to give more, we want to be more, we all want to do more. And in order to do that, we have to choose to be the best person that we really want to be.

So by doing that, it would help so much more to develop what you believe is your authentic self, and then check in with people, get feedback, ask them whether or not they recognized what you were trying to deliver in terms of value or being genuine or authentic about things. And I think that’s probably the quickest way to get to our authentic selves.

Be authentic by living your values

Sheelagh: You can’t have someone teach it to you, you need to consider your values, the values of the organization, make sure they’re aligned, and kind of walk the talk, so to speak.

Damian: Yeah, because one of the hardest things to do is to live your values, because they are things that you aspire towards. And it’s about having a certain self-awareness of where you’re going to be able to communicate those values and how you’re communicating and through all of the different channels that you actually use.

So in every single day, how did you checkpoint or checklist that particular value in how you were communicating with people. And what it does is it makes probably a better you or the you that you authentically would like to be.

What happens when communication isn’t aligned to values?

Sheelagh: Now, let’s kind of turn that around a little bit, and when leaders aren’t, when they’re communicating and they’re not closely aligned to their values or maybe when they are and things go wrong with any kind of audience, internal, external, what do you think can be done to get things back on track?

Damian: So again, I think this is very similar to something that we touched on previously which is the whole apologetic side of things. I think it’s incredibly important that whatever happens that you recognize it and you own up to it. The recognition itself that you’re actually aware of the situation and you recognize the implications of it and what you’ve actually done is very, very important.

In being able to recognize that and communicate it and then put in place what you’re going to actually do about it, I think goes an awful long way with people. But here’s the thing, people will decide and judge accordingly. I think we can go a little bit too far to believe that we can control how people are going to think, feel, or act, by the way that we just communicate. I think what we have to do is be absolutely genuine if we’ve made a mistake, and go out there, recognize it, apologize for it, put things in place to resolve it, and allow the market to then decide from there on in.

Sheelagh: That reminds me Damian of someone I interviewed in Toronto recently, and they said the very same thing, that you can’t control what people think of you, or people’s opinions, you can do your best to follow your values and be open with people, but at the end of the day, people will think what they will.

Damian: Absolutely.

How marketing and comms can work with leaders

Sheelagh: Part of our conversation, you and I discussed earlier, but one of the key things for people working internally in corporate communications or in marketing teams, when you have to look for solutions, if you’re working with a leader, and if you’re coaching or preparing for a one-off project, can you touch a little bit on how employees at that middle level can establish a good relationship with a leader and keep that relationship strong and coach well?

Damian: There’s two parts to this, whether or not it’s a case of coaching or whether or not it’s a case of mentoring, because often to get people onsite, they would prefer not to be coached, but they would like to involve themselves in being a joint mentor. And I think that then enables both parties to invite one another, to help one another, in either their performance, productivity, or anything else that goes with that.

The last thing that leaders want to feel is to be coached, and I think it almost kind of touches on the whole issue around whether or not we would involve ourselves to a greater or lesser degree with a leader who felt like they didn’t need to be coached which is a kind of question that I get often asked in regards to,could you change a person’s behavior, even when they don’t want to change.

And the answer to that, I believe, is yes, you can, and the best example is actually being beautifully written by Dickens, which is A Christmas Carol. And if you actually examine how Ebeneezer Scrooge behaves and is changed through a mixture of events in his past and his present and all his future, alongside the motivation of fear, you’ve actually got a perfect model.

To work with a leader engage them

You get so much more with working with people who are already engaged with you, because you’ll be amazed at how much more you can contribute to their success and also the successes of those around them.

My kind of answer to that is why would you work so hard trying to achieve the impossible for the ungrateful, it doesn’t really make sense.

Sheelagh: I’m sure lots of our listeners ask that question when they go to work each day, and hopefully for them, they’ll find a job, not just a job, a career where they really make a difference and they inspire someone pass on a little bit of wisdom or knowledge. And I love the Dickens analogy. It’s one of my favorite stories, and the one thing that is striking about Ebeneezer is that he’s kind of infused with a sense of compassion as well, and I think that’s great because it opens him up to the messages he’s going to receive.

Damian: Absolutely, he suddenly recognizes the impact or effect of what he actually does.

Consequences of a lack of leadership communication can be dire

Sheelagh: So Damian, we’ve touched on what happens when leaders get the message wrong, and that happens with everyone, no one is perfect. But let’s go to the extreme when you have a lack of leadership communication, what does that lead to?

Damian: Let’s be honest about this, mediocre companies still make a profit; companies that have distant or are unrelatable or uncommunicative leaders, still work, but only for the short term; in the long term, we know that these organizations are not where employees are really engaged or want to stay.

So it’s not where employees want to grow, it’s not where necessarily you’re going to meet the best people in your career, and it’s not a place that lasts normally during competitive or difficult times. However, establishing a culture can drive everything that you do, and that culture is pretty much set by leadership.

When the wrong kind of workplace culture sets in

A lack of leadership communication allows often for the wrong culture to be set in, and we find this whenever we’re dealing with leaders who ignore their culture, not because they’re bad leaders, but because they’re so focused on actually getting the job done. And sadly, the hardest thing to change in any company is its culture. In fact, it’s probably easier to collapse the company and start again and some companies have actually done this in the UK. So the ramifications involved with a lack of communication from the top might not be seen immediately but its long-term effect is really significant and multifaceted.

Sheelagh: And the key message there is that if you want to have a high staff turnover, dissatisfied employees, and risk even losing your business, don’t communicate or do it badly.

Damian: Absolutely. I mean, what you have is you have a group of people doing jobs, you don’t have followers leading a vision with a purpose and a culture that brings them all together.

Sheelagh: There we have it, an experienced and insightful take on leadership communication from Damian McAlonan. Damian, tell us where our listeners can find you.

Damian: Yes, certainly. They can find me on LinkedIn, and they can also find me at the boostpartnership.com.

Find Damian McAlonan online

The Boost Partnership

LinkedIn

Twitter

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The Communicate Influence podcast is hosted by Pippa + Acast. I chose Acast for its AI transcriptions and snipper, along with a host of other features. They’ve generously given me a discount on their annual plan.

Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning writer, journalist, podcaster, and poet based in Toronto, Canada.

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