“In times of uncertainty, employees crave clarity. As a leader, you won’t always have all of the answers—no one expects you to—so you must be open to listening and learning from others. Once you understand a particular challenge and outline the options, you have to be confident in making bold and optimistic decisions” (Marillyn Hewson to Fortune Magazine).
Employees are working from home. They’re juggling their jobs, homeschooling their kids and trying to manage the day-to-day tasks of keeping the home running. There’s a lot of potential for distraction, multitasking and brain overload. Combined with the stress and anxiety of “What if I get sick?”, “What if a loved one gets sick?” and “What’s going to happen next?”, this situation creates a lot of noise for managers to cut through.
Because managers put strategic plans into action, secure employee buy-in on company strategies, ensure day-to-day operations run smoothly, and communicate progress up and down the organization, their ability to inspire confidence and trust through their communication is critical.
To better help their employees navigate through this uncertain time, managers need to communicate like the best chief executive officers (CEOs) do: clearly, concisely and confidently. There are two pieces to this equation: what to say (message development) and how to say it (message delivery).
What to Say
What do you want your employees to think, feel and do? After you figure out the answer to that question, it’s time to develop your key messages: the content. What do your employees need to know, why should they care and why is it relevant today? Using that framework, write three key messages you want team members to take away from each call or meeting.
Less is more. Use the fewest number of words to deliver the most impact. Drop the backstory, unless it’s particularly relevant. The more you ramble, the more likely employees will be to zone out, check out or be confused, and your messages will be lost.
To help messages stick, use sound bites (“See something, say something”), rhymes (“Set it and forget it”) or song lyrics (“Here comes the sun”). If you can boil down key messages into something memorable and easily digestible, there’s a better chance employees will remember what they need to do and why they need to do it.
Speak in Headlines
Front-load the most important information each time you communicate. Instead of sharing the “moral of the story” at the end, deliver it up front. Newspaper articles always start with a headline and then share the most important information in descending order. Front-loading key messages, rather than burying the lead, helps ensure that employees hear it.
Repeat Key Messages
The best CEOs stick to their key messages. You know how kids ask a bunch of questions, and their parents reiterate the same response? Do the same with employees, when needed, with empathy and understanding. However, don’t repeat key messages (or use the “because I said so” response) simply as a way to dodge the question. Your team will become angry with you, and support will wain.
Stick to the Facts
Avoid speculating, if you can. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know, but offer to provide an answer within 24 to 48 hours. If you start to speculate, you’ll paint yourself into a corner, and your words may come back to haunt you.
If you deliver key messages with success but bomb the Q&A, all of your preparation will be for naught. Anticipate the questions you’ll receive. What questions would you ask if you were in the employees’ shoes? What scares you? What’s the silver lining? What are next steps? Your employees are likely asking the same questions. After you craft key messages to respond to these potential questions…
How to Say It: Deliver with Confidence
Vince Lombardi once said, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” If your words say one thing but your body language says something different, employees will question your credibility. Also, because we’re wired to mirror the emotions of other people, if you’re anxious, your employees will be anxious. If you’re confident, your employees will be confident.
Reading an FAQ or email and delivering messages in a clear, calm and confident way are two ends of a spectrum. It’s one thing to read the message. It’s another to deliver that message to your stakeholders with unshakeable confidence.
“When you’re a leader at any level of any scale, leaders are defined at times of crisis” (Mark V. Hurd to Fortune Magazine).
Encouraging managers to deliver messages like a CEO is critical during this uncertain time. It also provides an opportunity to build a key skill that’s critical to addressing one of the most pressing challenges facing human resources (HR) and talent development professionals over the next decade: developing the next generation of organizational leaders. Training your middle managers on how to speak like CEOs is a major step in that direction.