Martin  Leuw
Martin Leuw Non-Executive Chairman
22 Dec 2023

Reproduced with permission from The Times Enterprise Network. To subscribe click here.

There I was, facing the final interview panel. The job on offer: to succeed a founder in the chief executive role, a position he had held for 20 years. “What would you do in your first 30, 60 and 90 days?” came the anticipated question. Judging by their reaction, my response was not anticipated: “I’ll start by having one-to-ones with every employee.”

“Really? That’s a hundred people; it will take up a lot of your time,” they said.

Fortunately, I convinced them and landed the job. The one-to-ones were undoubtedly the best investment of time I could have made to ensure a successful handover.

Each session started with two key questions: “Tell me about yourself?” and “If you were CEO for the day and could change one thing, what would it be?” As well as getting to know everyone and discovering how the business had been run, their overwhelming response was: “Please improve communication.” One individual, who I was told later barely spoke much normally, was happy to chat for more than an hour to me, overjoyed to be asked his views.

    Information silos, even in businesses of a hundred people, had become a business obstacle. The managers, rightly or wrongly, felt that they were inhibited from acting by the leadership and so had not tried to resolve it themselves.

This experience, among many others, has shown me the vital importance of soft skills when hiring, alongside the specific requirements for the job. Communication skills still rarely feature on the school curriculum. When I am asked to give a talk to business leaders I will often start by asking: “How do you define communication?” Sometimes it takes a bit of prompting to get people to fully appreciate that it is the receipt of the message as intended, rather than merely the transmission, that is the crucial factor. “I told them/sent the email,” or “It’s on the intranet/our website,” is not good enough. It is hardly surprising, then, that in our work, as well as our personal lives, our misunderstandings often multiply and become entrenched.

Not everyone appreciates that we all take in information in different ways: visual, auditory, tangible, feelings. Also, we learn differently, as Benjamin Franklin wisely wrote: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Or as George Bernard Shaw put it: “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Nowadays we are more overwhelmed than ever before by multiple information channels and the challenges of distinguishing between reliable and unreliable sources.

When creating our first marketing brochure for a medical communications business (before the internet) I was told that most adults had the attention span of an eight year old. Fortunately, I had an eight-year-old daughter to hand and we only printed the brochure when she could explain to me from the graphics (a telephone keypad with pills for buttons) what we were selling. When you want to communicate something, I suggest trying it out on a child first as it keeps it simple. We add complexity at our peril.

As businesses grow I have found that the leadership team in particular can get swamped with information, usually comprising too many emails, too much reporting and too many meetings, which ultimately slows them down. “Show me the headlines and I’ll decide whether to read the article,” became a common phrase of mine, to enable me to identify where best to focus my energy.

Software tools such as power business intelligence graphs with red, amber and green colour coding and narrative explanations help considerably, as do slide presentations with fewer words, more graphics, pictures, interaction and storytelling. They all help to ensure that the message is received as intended by an engaged target audience. With investment pitch presentations, the best ones ensure that each slide answers key questions that the audience will want answered. The same goes for board presentations.

One aspect of communication that often gets overlooked is our emotional response to information, as both employees and as customers. Since one of the greatest areas of lost value in a business is employee turnover and customer churn, getting it right can make a real difference to the bottom line.

To illustrate this, one of my favourite seminar icebreaker questions is: “What’s your favourite brand and why?” The answers are less about the brand itself, but the visible body language associated with a positive brand relationship. Having done this exercise with thousands of people, the answers break down into four main categories: it does what it says on the tin; it’s value for money; it’s cool (music, tech, fashion, environmental and/or social impact); I hear it’s a good place to work. So, a question worth asking your employees and customers is which of these categories do they most associate with your brand?

Leadership is something many of us get promoted into because we show aptitude in a functional area rather than our proven ability to manage people, so we have to learn on the job.

My first directorship was in a cleaning business where the managing director used to say to me: “There’s no such thing as a bad cleaner, just a bad supervisor.” If we recruit well, we need to get the best out of people. If we recruit badly, we cannot. Either way it is our responsibility and at the core of our role as business leaders is our ability to communicate and to help others to communicate better. I hope that is all clear?

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