Regardless of title, executives are, first and foremost, leaders. Companies rely on them not only for their technical expertise in areas like finance, marketing, human resources and operations, but for their ability to conduct themselves with poise, professionalism and candor. As a result, you’ll find commonalities in the traits among executives across different types of businesses and fields.
Today, the common executive skillset is changing. Why? Because communication is changing. The rise of distributed teams, hybrid workforces and digital-first operations has changed the way the business world interacts. It’s vital for executives to also adapt, so they can lead from the top down. Here’s a look at six new skills executives need to communicate effectively within their organization, with corporate partners and with the public.
1. Social-emotional leadership
The lines between private life and work are more blurred than ever before. Topics like social justice, mental health and personal wellness occupy both sides of the coin. Leaders need to be comfortable talking about these issues and relating to their employees outside of a superior-subordinate capacity. Mindfulness of human conditions is a strong indicator of leadership in the next age of work. It can also help improve everything from company culture, to talent retention, to brand advocacy and more. Social-emotional leadership comes down to treating people like people and having the empathy to see beyond their skills and abilities.
2. Active listening
Hearing and understanding are two different variables. It’s vital for executives to hear and understand the people they’re talking to. More important is the active part in active listening. Maintain eye contact. Nod or shake your head in affirmation. Avoid multitasking while you listen. When people walk away from a conversation, they need to feel like you hear and understood them—and that you care. Learn how to practice active listening to bring elements of empathy and compassion to everyday conversation, and to make ever exchange productive and meaningful.
3. Observational communication
Observational communication is a skill adapted from social work and healthcare. It encourages executives to start framing the context of communication with observed variables, to glean more from the exchange. What’s the demeanor of the person as they discuss a certain topic? Are there extenuating circumstances that surround the context of a conversation? Observational communication relies on exchanges within context, which means having a thorough understanding of that context through careful observance. Be attentive and process context clues in real-time to communicate on a level, transparent playing field.
4. Socially-aware communication
Issues of race, gender, politics, socioeconomics and numerous other hot-button topics play a role at every level of business. Public-facing businesses need to take a succinct stance on issues, and it’s executives who will lead the charge. Internally, executives need to set the tone for company policy and values, which means being clear. This mindfulness and comfortability in talking an honest stance on difficult issues is something every executive needs to learn, because these issues aren’t going away anytime soon.
5. Adaptive communication
Email. Zoom and video chats. Messaging platforms. Voice calls. Memos. The modes of communication executives are expected to master are many and growing by the year. Each medium comes with nuances that dictate how effective your message is based on how it’s created. On the phone, you need to speak clearly and articulate. Over email you need to provide context for tone. Messaging apps demand succinct communication. It’s not enough for executives to adapt to these many channels, either—they need to switch seamlessly between them.
6. Transparency in communication
Executives are held to extremely high standards of transparency and accountability. It starts with communication. The words of an executive carry weight, which means they need to be rooted in facts and honesty consistent with the reality of the situation. Gone are the days of spinning bad news and covering up mistakes. Today, executives bear the burden of being upfront and transparent about everything: the good, the bad and the ugly. The ability to convey with transparency is what distinguishes strong leadership.
Mindful Communication Makes Great Leaders
Leadership, no matter the level, is steeped in the ability to communicate effectively. For executives, it’s as much a prerequisite for the C-suite as a refined business skillset or the ability to see the bigger picture. And, as business evolves, the communication skills needed to facilitate will also change. It’s important to start practicing the six listed above.
Individually, these skills serve a practical role in making leaders more relatable to the people they’re communicating with. Together, they form the bedrock for stronger leadership in an age where communication is growing more important as it becomes more complex. Executives need to master these skills and employ them in every interaction, no matter which seat in the C-suite they occupy.