Your leader pipeline is invaluable. Organizations that take the time to create leadership competency models to guide their work and investments reap the rewards in countless ways. Not long ago, an iconic Silicon Valley tech firm did just that. It established a leadership development practice inside its talent organization and then generated a proprietary leadership competency model to suit its goals.

The leadership development practice leaders soon realized that each pillar required a successful leader to also have strong communication capability, but this configuration raised challenges on how best to reflect this need. If they left communication assumed, they risked undervaluing the skill. If they made communication its own pillar, they risked people’s missing the holistic role it plays with other competencies. They ultimately realized that communication capability is the foundation on which all other leadership pillars are built. How can an effective leader influence and inspire, drive for results, or innovate without strong communication skills?

It’s often effective communication that sets great leaders apart from other strong contributors on a team. This is not only true for corporate rock stars on the big stage, like Coca Cola’s Wendy Clark or Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. For an enterprise to be successful, this kind of communication needs to happen from leaders at every level in countless offices and conference rooms every day.

The Foundational Role of Communication Capability

The holistic, foundational role of communication in leadership is often not made clear in competency models. In fact, it’s often the norm either to assume the need or to list it as one of many separate skills. One example of a leadership competency model that assumes communication capability is the State of California’s model. With over 800,000 employees, the State of California is one of the largest employers in the nation. It uses a comprehensive six-part leadership framework, each broken into five levels, from novice to expert. “Communicating clearly” is mentioned under the header “vision and strategic thinking” multiple times, but there are no descriptions of the actual communication skills required. Effective communication undoubtedly also plays a vital foundational role in successfully performing the other five proficiencies.

To see the value in adding a foundation of communication to your leadership competencies, let’s look at several frequently used capabilities that require an effective leader to be a strong communicator. Since it’s obvious that capabilities like “influence in all directions” or “inspire others to take action” require effective communication skills, here are three examples where the connection is less obvious.

1. Drive Results.

Leaders need to know how to communicate the “why” in each drive for success. As John Hamm describes in a Harvard Business Review article, leaders often ask their teams, “Focus on results!”, but individuals can easily misinterpret this directive to mean, “Do whatever it takes,” sometimes to the detriment of the organization. When leaders can effectively articulate the “why,” and people understand the reasoning behind what they are striving for, they are more motivated to achieve the desired outcomes.

2. Set Vision and Course of Action.

Leaders must understand the need to communicate consistently when setting new goals and directions. Big changes can be unsettling and daunting to everyone involved, and a lack of solid and consistent communication from leaders can contribute to stalling and even stagnating plans. In a Forbes article, John Kotter writes, “Most companies under communicate their visions for change by at least a factor of 10.” The solution? Clear, concise and consistent messaging from leaders at all levels that creates a vivid picture of what to expect.

3. Innovate to Stay Ahead.

Leaders need to know their market in order to innovate, but they also must communicate complex information credibly and persuasively. The trick to successfully pushing through any innovative idea, however, is convincing others that there is a need for it and that they should stretch outside their comfort zone to try it. All too often, innovation failures are really leadership communication failures. The leader must communicate innovation in such a way that the team:

  • Easily understands what the leader is suggesting
  • Sees compelling value in the leader’s thinking
  • Trusts in the leader’s competency

Leaders Have Many Communication Moments of Truth.

In their leadership competency research, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman identified 16 skills that leaders need at every level. While “communicates powerfully and prolifically” was ranked in the top five, it’s easy to see how this particular skill plays a vital role in the effective performance of the other 15 competencies. No matter where an individual may be in an organization, from high-potential individual contributor through manager to senior executive, their communication capability will often determine the success or failure of their smart thinking and hard work.

Leaders must be able to deftly communicate up, down, across and even outside their organization. Whether in complex conversations or high-stakes presentations, leaders need a comprehensive communication skillset that enables them to achieve results by:

  • Creating clear, compelling messages that demonstrate the value in their thinking
  • Influencing with memorable, emotionally connected storytelling
  • Interacting in ways that build trust and rapport
  • Engaging with genuine and authentic executive presence in every situation

What Does Your Leadership Competency Model Look Like?

Is communication capability implicit or isolated? With the high value that your leader pipeline brings to your organization, it’s worth rethinking your approach and ensuring that communication becomes the foundation of all of your leadership goals.