If you haven’t heard the audio of AOL chief Tim Armstrong firing an employee during an all-hands meeting that was ostensibly meant to reassure nervous workers after the company announced its plans for scaling back its network of hyper-local Patch portals, you can check it out at Business Insider. Approximately two minutes into his prepared remarks that, frankly, sound more threatening than reassuring to begin with, you can hear Armstrong call out Patch creative director Abel Lenz for taking a photograph and dismiss him without a moment’s hesitation. A few moments of silence later, Armstrong resumes his presentation as if nothing strange had happened.
The outburst — lasting no more than a few seconds — resulted in a spate of news stories and caused even Armstrong’s biggest supporters on Wall Street to remark over the black mark this makes on his reputation as a generally even-keeled, highly effective turnaround CEO.
Clearly, this isn’t the first or only instance when a seemingly minor communication SNAFU by an otherwise effective executive has sent louder-than-intended negative signals to the workforce at the company or the marketplace at large. I could point to examples from virtually any sector, but for the purposes of this post let’s stick close to AOL’s home and look at the talk of a few more tongue-tied technology leaders.
A Talking Tour of Poor Leader Communication
A few short years ago, Tumblr’s Dave Karp told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times in no uncertain terms that advertising “turns our stomachs.” Mind you, this didn’t stop Tumblr from introducing its own paid advertising products in April of last year as it began its march toward monetizing its monster audience, and seemed not to factor into his gushing praise of the ad industry’s vision and creativity (side note: even most people working in the ad industry know it is sorely lacking in vision and creativity these days) at the Cannes Lions Festival earlier this year. It’s amazing how the very thing that turned his stomach then gets him salivating now, following a big ticket acui-hire by ad-dollar-dependent Yahoo!
This past spring, Google’s Sergey Brin stood in front of a TED crowd in Los Angeles, sporting Glass, and declared the act of using a mobile phone to access information to be “emasculating.” Was his remark offensive? Sure. Patently ridiculous? Of course. Out of synch with the near term business interests of his company? Considering that Google’s Android is the dominant mobile OS and continues to be a growth area for them, I’d say so. A reporter for Discovery.com called Sergey’s misguided boast for what it is: “bovine manure.”
As I’m writing this post, online shopping site Fab is laying off 100 staffers, mostly in Germany, even after closing a record-breaking $150 million round. No worries home décor mavens, the business is doing just fine; it is simply pivoting its strategy and the operation of regional flash sale stores is no longer part of the plan. As a startup leader, you will have ample opportunity to direct similar pivots of your own. But Fab CEO Jason Goldberg tripped off more than a few bovine manure detectors in a company-wide email (subsequently leaked to Bloomberg) when he informed his staff not that some would be let go, but rather that some were being given an “opportunity to start your new job search immediately.” Talk about trying to turn shit into shinola.
I trust that you’ve already picked up on the common theme that runs through all of these examples: Inarguably poor communication from inarguably successful founders.
These are far from the only examples I could have highlighted, and communication encompasses much more than just the words we speak. Every element of posture, each facial expression, those distracted glances at your iPhone during a focused conversation, your clothing choices, and even the smallest behaviors all communicate volumes to your peers, employees, investors and customers.
When Mark Zuckerberg arrived to an early investors meeting sporting his trademark hoodie, one high profile analyst took to Bloomberg TV to denounce Zuck’s choice of sweatshirt as a sure sign of his immaturity and his disrespect for his new financial stakeholders. To this analyst, a clothing choice was a communication vehicle that spoke louder than words. Ironically, this television diatribe had the unintended effect of making the analyst sound clueless, old fashioned and (as The Next Web wrote) “stupid in a suit.” So clearly, communication isn’t just a challenge for startup founders – it causes struggles among well-regarded big business executives too. In fact…
Communication Is the #1 Challenge Facing Business Leaders Today
At face value, you might think you have a strategy problem, a sales problem, a marketing problem, a morale problem, a delivery issue, an innovation issue, an uncooperative team member, or a lack of vision. In truth, a communication issue most likely underlies every one of these. And despite being taught to speak as toddlers and studying our reading, writing and arithmetic into our late teens (or early twenties for those founders who actually did attend college), few of us arrive in leadership positions with a strong sense of how to communicate with clarity, influence, power and presence. But without this skill, leaders can’t wield the influence necessary in order to achieve the results they want.
5 Tips for Simple, Powerful Leadership Communication
Reading a blog post won’t make you a better communicator, although I do hope reading this blog post will make you more aware of the importance of communication as a critical business skill and the likelihood that you or others in your organization might not have mastered it yet (and that this could be at the root of many of your perceived business challenges.) Let’s dive into five tips to help you avoid communication breakdown and exhibit more powerful leadership communication.
While opinions and perspectives change over time, doesn’t Dave Karp’s embrace of the ad industry seem just a tad suspicious coming only after his company was acquired by one of the web’s largest paid media money-makers? Look, every organization has places where what leadership says and what leadership actually does do not match. When you can bring what you say and what you do into alignment, you make significant strides toward authentic communication (not to mention authentic leadership).
Be the Message
Showing up to investor meetings in a hoodie may have been authentic Mark Zuckerberg, but if his message was “I am an effective CEO who is worth your time and money” he wasn’t conveying that message in his clothing choice. For that matter, the analyst who slammed him wasn’t quite “being his message” either since, despite his misgivings, he still recommended that investors buy into the social network’s IPO. The language you choose, the examples you set, the behaviors you model set the tone for your entire organization, as well as for the stakeholders throughout your entire ecosystem.
Communicate with Clarity
Nothing cuts through the clutter in complex times like simple, powerful communication — except unclear, convoluted poppycock. A layoff by any other name is an, erm, “opportunity to start your new job search immediately.” Or as Merck president Mark Timney wrote in a single 2011 internal memo, a reduction in the workforce, a necessary action, a change in underlying operations, a removal of positions, and — yes, you guessed it — an “opportunity.” Constituents have never been more sophisticated and watchers never more jaded. The failure to communicate core messages simply and powerfully can’t help but cast a negative light on you and your organization.
Listen with Purpose
Many top executives have two distinct states while in conversation with their colleagues:speaking and waiting to speak. They think they have the greatest impact through the way they speak, when in fact we often have the most impact in the way we listen. Powerful communicators are powerful listeners who tune into the words of others with intent and intense focus. While none of the examples in this post derive from a failure to listen, the skill is so fundamental to communication (and so sorely lacking among many business people) that I’d be remiss to omit it.
Approach Communication as a Critical Business Process
Like leadership itself, leadership communication is a process. As a matter of fact, most organizations might be viewed as little more than a series of conversations – among leaders, across departments, between people and technology, with customers, with prospects, with investors and with partners. Strong leaders know how to set the tone for those conversations and create an environment where the right conversations are happening up, down and across the organization. Gone wrong, you may find your organization focused on the past, on what went wrong, what never was, and what should have happened. Conversely, great leaders use conversation about what the company could do (its vision), should do (its plan) and will do (its future) to create the momentum that company needs to power through tough times or achieve its most audacious goals. I suppose you might say that Tim Armstrong’s highly publicized outburst is a handy example of a communication process problem — a momentary filter failure that sent the wrong message to colleagues and sent negative sentiment rippling through the market.
I’ll close this post out with one final point . It is a reality of the social era that anything that can be on-the-record (read as: everything) will, in fact, be on-the-record. Statements made to one intended audience can — and often will — make their way in front of any number of unintended audiences. Communication skills that have always been important now find themselves highlighted in stark relief by the light from millions upon millions of laptops, tablets, and smartphone screens. This is a truth of our times — and as the examples in this post illustrate, even the most technology-centric executives among us could stand a refresher on how to make the right kind of impact when communicating in the age of hyper-connectivity and utter transparency.