Shawn Jenkins Blog

Why, How, and When Leaders Should Communicate

Early in my career I saw an interview with the legendary CEO Jack Welch that has always stuck with me. For the life of me I can’t find the interview anywhere. But in my memory I can see Jack waving his hands and in his thick, raspy New England voice passionately explaining why a leader must always be communicating. His eyes are wide and I can see his whip-smart mind searching for the most vivid example to illustrate his point… and then he finds it: “I want you to communicate until you puke. And then I want you to wipe your mouth off and start communicating again.” 

Memories are funny things. Out of all the videos and all the talks I’ve seen in my life, I still can’t shake this one. Its message has impacted me so profoundly that I have replayed that phrase to myself and others for years. Let’s unpack it a bit.

What Methods Should I Use?

Another interview that has always stuck with me is one with Jack Nicholas. A golf reporter asked Jack if he thought it was appropriate to use a tee on a par three. His response was immediate: “If the rules allow for it and it provides for a better outcome, then use it.”

For whatever reason, many golfers avoid using a tee on a par three. There may be some physics behind not using a tee with a lofted club like a nine iron, but I think the main reason stems from a sort of cultural phenomenon that “real golfers don’t use tees” on such easy shots. 

In a similar fashion, we build up errant thought patterns concerning communication. When someone has an idea to use a short web video or a tweet or a written sign taped to the front door, we can recoil and think that’s not the proper way. When in fact we should listen to Nicholas—if the method gets the point across, then we should use it.

Keep in mind that your advisors will have their prefered methods. Some people love the written word. Others swear by the use of video (even some swear by swearing in videos). And we all love our visual artists and statisticians who like to use slides or images to make the most important points. Use them all. Use them often. In doing so you’ll learn what works and how each method affects how your message is received. 

Which brings us to our point about frequency…

When to Communicate

Until you puke. And then wipe your mouth off and start communicating again.

It’s easy to laugh at such a graphic image, but the reality is even after all these years that image is still as vivid in my mind as the first time I heard it. And more importantly, it still reminds me of that critical truth: I should always be communicating more.

People crave familiarity. They crave connections, especially during times of stress, and that connection comes through frequent interaction. 

Frequency trumps grammar and perfection every time. Don’t wait for the PR firm to clean up your sentences. If you have particularly horrible grammar, then use a plugin like Grammarly or create a rapid way for someone else to proof your writing. With today’s tools, there are no more excuses. Just get your message out! 

Don’t Outsource Your Authentic Voice

Not knowing how to communicate in new situations can drive you to reach out for help from experts. You have to be careful here because you can lose your true voice when you succumb to competing inputs.

I have seen leaders “group think” an announcement and create a cut-and-pasted Frankenstein email that goes out without any clear, consistent voice. It’s better to convey your true voice than allow others to water down your message for the sake of grammar. Trust is built on consistency and familiarity. 

Think of the people you know best and communicate with most often. It’s not their perfect grammar or complete information downloads that make you trust them, it’s their consistency and authenticity that you learn to trust.

Speak to a Friend

You communicate because you have something that needs to be shared with someone you care about. A friend. That friend may be a co-worker, a customer, a member of the public. But they are still just one friend. 

Set aside the legalease and “we should include this because everyone else is” paragraphs. Just settle yourself and talk to your friend. 

What does your friend need to know?

What simple facts, dates, places, points do you want your friend to possess after you complete your communication?

What words, examples, and tone do you normally use when speaking with this one friend? Use those now.

A Final Word on Frequency

I’d like to circle back to Mr. Welch and his urgent plea: “Keep communicating things that are important. Do it until your physical body gives out. And then find a way to keep doing it.”

I don’t think leaders need to constantly communicate in an array of methods because employees are “too busy to pay attention” or “people don’t care.” I think we humans, all of us, need to be connected to each other. Like a strand of lights on a Christmas tree, when one becomes disconnected the current flowing to the rest is dimmed. 

Keep the current flowing. Be familiar. Be present. Be authentic. Jack was right, we need to hear from you.

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