It was happening again. I was sitting across from my client—in this case, the president of a mid-tier mining company—as he explained why one of his staff needed communications coaching. I felt like I was watching Groundhog Day, because I’d heard it all before:
“She’s very capable, knows her stuff, and really delivers project results. But the board and the senior team just feel that she doesn’t know how to talk with us. She goes too much into what’s wrong with her projects, and she asks for things we just can’t give her. I’m worried that pretty soon no one will want to listen to what she says. Should we give up on her?”
What’s causing these senior leaders to lose confidence in this capable project manager?
It’s the same problem that causes a buyer to back out of a company sale based on a perceived “poor people fit.”
It’s the same problem that alienates venture capitalists who love an entrepreneur’s red-hot business idea.
That problem is simple: these people have broken the rules that govern successful business communication without ever knowing they exist. Leaders who understand and master these rules build up their political capital, forge strong relationships and win followers. Those who don’t will fail.
Here are four of the most crucial unwritten rules you need to know if you wish to lead when you communicate.
1. Know who has the power
Poker players often say that if you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s probably you. They mean that if you want to have a chance to win, you need to know your strength as a player relative to everyone else at the table. If you can’t gauge your relative strength, you should be playing at a different table.
The same thing goes in the business world. Whether you’re in a meeting, a one-on-one conversation, fielding tough questions or making a presentation, you need to understand the power dynamic in the room.
For example, I had a client who headed up the sales division for a cement company. When the time came to tell customers about a price increase, he put together two different scripts: one for the customers who held all the power and a second for those who held none. For the company’s big customers who needed to be convinced that the increase was fair, he wrote a robust script backed by sound research proving the company’s pricing was still competitive. For smaller customers that the cement company had deemed to be too time-consuming and, consequently, barely profitable, he wrote a brief script that made little attempt to justify the new pricing.
If you don’t know your strength relative to another player, keep your mouth shut until you do. Once you know who holds the power, you can tailor your message accordingly.
2. Know how much political capital you have
Power and political capital are different. Power is tied to hierarchy and the ability to compel. You can be given power quickly. You can measure political capital by how much weight your words and ideas carry with the audiences most important to you.
This isn’t just a rookie mistake—senior leaders often underestimate their credibility with their management team, their customers or their board.
For example, the new CEO of a company is immediately imbued with ample power, but it takes time to accrue political capital. A new CEO comes in with relatively little political capital and has to trade wisdom, favours and so on to build political capital within the organization.
You have a different amount of political capital with each audience, so it is crucial that you understand how much you have before you stick your nose out. The most influential leaders do this continually, often consulting with advisors and third parties to assess how they stand—and what they can do to increase their credibility.
3. Spend your political capital carefully
Some audiences are not open to influence.
Consider the example of a young leader I once coached who was frustrated that his board refused to support an acquisition he wanted the company to make. “It’s the right business for us to buy!” he kept saying. Yet, he didn’t clue into the fact that the board members—who also were the majority owners of the business—were happy with their returns and had little interest in taking on risk to grow the business. When he realized that it was a waste to try to persuade them otherwise, the young executive was able to focus on championing an organic growth strategy—something he believed in that he could actually sell the board on.
If you stand for everything, you’ll get support for nothing. Pick carefully where you want to place your bets—and make sure that your audience will actually be open to hearing you.
4. People don’t want to hear the negatives—even if they are true
The truth may be negative, but that doesn’t mean you need to be.
I once had a client who had started his own successful hedge fund but was struggling to build an investment team that could support the fund’s growth. Because he was a brilliant investor, he was able to attract talent; but they always left. In exit interviews, people consistently said that their boss was “a downer.” He didn’t deny that he could be negative, but he explained: “I tell it like it is and never want to sacrifice my personal integrity when I communicate. People know I’m willing to deliver the hard message, but that it will always be the truth.” Sadly for him, his employees could not handle—or weren’t interested in hearing—the truth.
Once he realized he could speak honestly AND positively, he stopped losing his employees.
Try replacing “We had a rotten month and I’m not happy about it” with “While our last month wasn’t good, I’m confident our investment discipline is still sound.” You’ll see that it makes all the difference.
Bart Egnal is an executive coach and a Vancouver-based partner and president and CEO of The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.
More columns by Bart Egnal