Without question, the most important leadership skill to master is effective leadership communication. When done well, it’s inspiring, transformative and spurs employees to greatness.
A study by Ken Blanchard's company indicates 43% of leaders believe that communication is their most important skill. 41% say their most significant mistakes as leaders arose as a result of miscommunication.
It’s clear then why impeccable communication skills ought to be at the heart of your business. Indeed on an individual level, for your leaders/partners and those in leadership roles, to experience a greater level of traction with all those who work for them, communication is the centrepiece for success.
If that did not already arouse a sense of challenge in you with respect to ensuring you and your firms’ leaders are communicating effectively, consider this. Law firms, and the legal system in its entirety, is by nature more conservative than many other professional services industries. They are steeped in tradition as you know and central to that is that the hierarchy can be very pronounced, often creating notoriously challenging environments for clear and effective communication.
Advocacy and advisory skills are not necessarily conducive to excellent communication in a business.
In my experience, while the desire for change is great in many law practices I have worked with, the ways of old can be difficult to shift quickly. Add to this that the more junior workforce, specifically up and coming lawyers, are typically, and indeed markedly, different in their needs for communication than those at partnership level. This can create a disparity that can feel difficult as practice managers to bridge.
Fear not. Although leadership communication is a key skill, and few truly master this subtle art, where there is a will, there is absolutely a way. The following three strategies can help you to improve your communication and increase your efficiency and effectiveness rapidly.
Communicating is not dictating
Many lawyers are exceptionally skilled in the oratory sense, they can craft a convincing argument about just about anything. Their advice and counsel is prized and highly valued. However, in my experience, they often fail at basic interpersonal communication for the very same reasons that they are so good at what they to.
This, coupled with a (at times) lawyers' natural disposition to be adversarial, given the nature of their work, can mean everyday communication can feel dictatorial and not an invitation for discussion, rather a one way discourse
Few other workplaces invite, nay celebrate, direct and lively debate in the way a law firm does. There is a high level of IQ that is expected or demanded and so with that often comes ego. Overlay the natural hierarchy of a law firm, and you have a veritable powder keg for leadership communication to go awry. That "command and control" style of speech and robustness of discussion (again, essential for the legal profession), can be confronting and counterproductive in everyday office communication. It is often not helpful or welcoming for the creation of trust and safety, which is essential for a thriving communication culture.
However, given the level of intelligence that is available to you, I also see an incredible potential for expedited change if this is brought to leadership as a group and explained simply and clearly as to what's not effective.
Change is inevitable, why not start with your partnership and leadership groups today?
Let's explore how this is enacted practically and simply from right now:
- We all know, communication is not just speaking “at” others, and delivering your message; it is a two-way street. To be an effective communicator, leaders must be engaged with others and must be as open to listening to others as they are to speaking.
- Listening and creating safety by welcoming feedback and comments without the risk of sanction are as critical as what you are actually saying. Remember this is not an opening statement in the Supreme Court or an interrogation. It’s a dialogue, be mindful of treating it that way.
- When someone does ask questions or gives you feedback, don’t assume that you know what they are going to say before they begin to speak. Don’t “jump ahead” in your mind and begin to prepare your response, but truly think about what the speaker is saying. Wait until the speaker has finished, and make certain that you understand their message before you begin to develop your response.
- It’s critical to establish a rapport with those engaging with you, reiterate or reframe what they have said, allow them a chance to confirm, and then engage with your response, while ensuring they are not diminished or made to feel small.
Active listening 101: hint - it's not simply hearing someone
Lawyers are excellent listeners. However, active listening is a challenge for most people. It requires immense effort at first. In addition to the actual words that are used by those communicating with you, pay attention to the speaker’s body language, and other cues, to discern the true emotions and motivations behind the words that are spoken. These are markers for what they may not, due to lack of confidence or not having the words or even basic fear, be able to convey to you. Keep these same tips in reference to yourself. Be careful with the words that you choose, as well as the body language that you use, while speaking. Body language makes up over 50% of our overall communication. Show respect to yourself and others and make certain that your actions match your words and that you remain honest, authentic and genuine.
Clarity of messaging and staying true to your word
Effective communication doesn’t happen by accident. If you want your communications to be understood and well received, it takes care and effort. Clarity of messaging at a leadership level takes thought and time. Lawyers know and understand this, and will welcome the challenge to hone their oratory craft, you know this, so capitalise on it.
Choose your words and tone carefully; anticipate what you believe will be the thoughts, feelings and reactions of others and show empathy and concern for others as appropriate. Your message should be clear, and delivered with enthusiasm and passion; devoid of this it’s just a monotone monologue that cannot be received.
Actively seek the comments, questions and feedback of others to make certain that your message was received as you intended it to be.
Does your leadership communication measure up?
If you really want to improve leadership communication within your organisation and clear out the any blocks to mastering this art, it’s a good idea to periodically review the performance of your messages and other communications. Run anonymous 360 reviews. Take time to reflect on your conversations and on ways you could have improved your delivery, and acknowledge where you have transgressed into old behaviours.
If upon reflection, you find that your message was misunderstood, take action immediately to correct misimpressions. This is an especially important step to take if you find that you have misstated the facts or if you discover that your choice of words or delivery has caused miscommunication and led others to feel hurt or offended. Ownership of where you have made mistakes to those that are impacted is an incredibly powerful way of building trust and rapport and makes people feel truly heard and seen, both of which are fundamental human drivers.
Great leaders use leadership communication to build trust and mutual respect in their people and help them feel safe so that they are empowered to take risks and create things that are new and unique.