Effective leaders are effective communicators.  Executive coach Heather Stark shares how to improve our communication skills and why leaders need to be good listeners, authentic, proactive, inclusive, intentional and mindful.



Heather Stark & Stark Coaching

References & Resources

Talk About Talk & Dr. Andrea Wojnicki


Dr. Andrea Wojnicki: Thank you so much, Heather, for joining us here today to talk about communication skills for effective leadership.

Heather Stark: Great to be here, Andrea, thanks a lot for having me.

AW: All right, let’s get right into it. Can you tell us what are some of the most important communication skills for leaders?

HS: Well, I think right off the bat, one of the most important things is the ability to listen. And when I say the ability to listen, I mean the ability to really make people feel seen and heard, and to be listening with the intent to care, and learn from what somebody is saying, I also refer to this as  humanizing the communication. So using some empathy, having that ability to listen to the emotion behind the words that people are saying, and then being really clear with what you’re going to say, setting clear goals for the conversation so that people feel like there’s a purpose for what the communication is. Being inclusive. Again, especially now, so that people feel like they’re part of the bigger picture. And being collaborative, which goes back to listening, so that you can really get the people involved that you need and get their feedback and contribution. And planning ahead so that you don’t go into a situation without knowing what you’re going to say. You can be on-the-fly every once in a while. But when you have a big moment, finding those anchors to keep you focussed on the main ideas/ideas you want to communicate and help you through those big moments. And then another very important piece is knowing who you are as a leader, and really being able to use your authentic voice. What I mean by that is, knowing who you are, what is important to you, what you value, what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, even what gives you energy and what de-energizes you because all of these things go into enabling you to come across as being more confident.  It also helps you be more aware of the nonverbal cues you may be projecting when interacting with  other people. Having that really strong sense of who you are as a leader is also a very key part of being a great communicator, as a leader.

AW: It’s interesting from this list, I’m thinking you know, for example, listening would apply to anyone at any level and of course particularly a leader, but as you went through the list, it dawned on me that some of them are even more important for effective leaders and that authenticity point, your last point in particular, I think people when they’re not quite in leadership positions yet, it’s okay to conform to the group, right? But once you’re the leader, you need to be more authentic to your true identity, you need to create an identity and then communicate it. How do effective leaders do that?

HS: You know, I think it’s a real mixture of things. Almost everybody that is at a leadership position has at some point taken some sort of assessment that tells them what color they are according to their personality, or what their strengths are and what their general weaknesses are. I use a strengths assessment that gets to the next level.  It  talks about how people use their energy (and other things), which really helps effective leaders understand which things they’re doing that are going to make them feel great and they’re going to come across as really, really comfortably, and which things they’re going to have to work with a little bit harder at or they’re going to feel a little bit less energized by. It might show up when they’re talking or when they’re when they’re leading a meeting with their teams. For those situations that may be a bit more de-energizing, I get them to have an energy sandwich.  When you’re really aware of what works and what doesn’t work for you, and if you know, for example, that you’re going to be spending all day asking people, how are you doing through this crisis? What’s going on with you? How are you feeling? If you think that at the end of the day, you’re going to feel really tired, well, maybe you can’t do 10 of those one-on-ones with people back to back, maybe you’re going to have to do something that’s going to energize you in between those conversations so that you can show up for those conversations with your full energy. And so when you know what your strengths are, even what your weaknesses are, when you know what’s really important to you, it does shine through and it makes it easier for you to use the voice that shows your confidence. It also makes it easier for you to adapt because you start knowing when you need support.  Being able to say I’m going to bring in this team member to help me in this particular area, because I know that that’s not my area of strength. And that’s not a weakness to understand who you are. That is a real strength. And so when you understand what works for you as a communicator, and what doesn’t work for you, as a communicator, that’s how you’re going to really shine.

AW: So you use the term energy sandwich, which I haven’t heard before, but I get it right away. And we have talked in previous episodes about giving feedback with the proverbial poop sandwich, right? And if you start with a strength, and then here’s the opportunity that you need to work on, and then oh, by the way, everybody loves you because of whatever. But the energy sandwich is about kind of doing that with yourself. So figuring out what you love to do, what drives your energy, and then maybe alternating that with things that may expel energy or take too much negative energy out of yourself. And I love that. That’s a great managing your day.

HS: It’s a good reminder for people because sometimes at the end of the day, and especially now, people just feel fatigue as the leader. You’ve got to shine somehow. You’ve still got to show people how to move forward. And it can be really exhausting. I don’t talk about energy as kind of an airy fairy thing. I talk about it is something that you use all the time when you’re connecting with people. And that ability to connect as a leader, it can be really tiring, sometimes it’s not the way that you’re comfortable connecting with but as a leader, you’ve got to be adapting to the way other people connect as well. And maybe you have to use a medium of communication that’s not your preferred medium to really connect with somebody. So you’ve got to be able to find a way to feed yourself so that you can go out and then share of yourself with other people.

AW: So I love your point about energy. And it actually reminds me about in a recent podcast interview negotiations and emotions expert Tatiana Astray said that if you initiate a negotiation or even an interaction with a signal of enthusiasm than the other person will automatically have a positive response to you. And I feel like you’re basically communicating that you have energy to give to this interaction. So it kind of links nicely there. At the beginning, when I asked you what the most important communication skills are for effective leaders, you started with listening, why is it so hard for us to listen?


HS: You know, I think because it takes real intent to listen. So when I talk about being a strong listener, it’s going beyond downloading and listening for what you already know. That’s the first stage of listening that most of us follow. We download what we already know. We go check. Yeah, I knew that. And we’re sort of agreeing with ourselves. When you go beyond that and you listen for the emotion, when you listen to what the person is actually trying to share with you, it’s another level of listening. When you’re watching for the nonverbal cues, when you’re listening to the tone, the inflection that requires engaged, empathic and what also called generative listening, you’re listening to what that person is actually sharing with you. You get to the level of what they’re trying to impart to you both through what the words are saying and also the language that they’re using, the cues that they’re using all the things that they’re bringing to it.  That’s when you can actually go to the stage of generative listening, where you’re actually helping to think together about the possibilities in a more collaborative way and move forward.

AW: I love your description of the stages of listening, right, so not just validating what you already know, but looking for other cues. And then the generative listening, which I can imagine is very critical for effective leadership because one of your main objectives is to hire the right people, and then to motivate them to make the decisions for the organization. And if you have a generative, collaborative relationship with them, where you’re truly listening to their ideas, and then building better ideas together that that sounds ideal. One more thing before we move on. I just wanted to ask you to elaborate a little bit on your second point about humanizing and it sounds like it’s related, right? Like you’re really looking for the customized individual cues?

HS: This is a very important part of the nuances that I see as a coach.  It is understanding when somebody says, oftentimes Yeah, how are you? I’m great, or I’m okay. Or I’m fine. And you can hear the lilt at the end. So you’re not fine. So there’s something we’re going to find out during conversation that is leading you to not be completely fine right now. Fine is a reflexive word as opposed to actual information. And so learning to discount some of those things, too, when people just reflexively answer, I’m okay or I’m good. And getting to that next level of what’s actually going on with you. Because really, leadership and communication is a tool to help bring out the best potential in people. So as a coach, that’s my tagline. You know, helping people reach their maximum potential. As a leader, that’s what you can do through communication:  help people be their better self. And so if you’re really listening in a generative way, if you’re listening in an empathic way, you’re listening for those cues that can help you move your team forward and yourself as well.

AW: So let’s move on then to what do you think are some of the biggest or most common mistakes that effective leaders make in terms of their communication.

HS: There’s also the ability to be agile as a leader. And if you don’t have that adaptability, then that can impact you because being able to shift and to be able to change your communication style to fit the needs of the situation is important, so you’re not stymied. When you come into a situation that’s really challenging that you can go, Okay, this is going to be a difficult situation, I think I need to pivot the way I’m approaching my team.  Or,  I think I need to pivot the way the organization is receiving information when you see a change happening so that you can be thinking ahead. And so it’s important that you have good people around you, that help you and give you feedback on how you’re communicating as well. And it’s equally important that you take that feedback, that openness to learning about yourself is really important. I think that for many leaders, something that happens is you say it, and it’s done. It’s been communicated. I’ve had a situation with founders of organizations where they’ve been in a mode where they’ve been selling the vision of the organization as they raise money and build their team.  Now they’ve got a bigger team in place. And they’re wondering – why things aren’t getting done. I had one found that said I don’t feel like people are really getting what’s supposed to happen. And really, there was a missing step, there was a gap. So there was the vision for where the organization was supposed to go, five years out, and then there was the day to day tactical stuff that needed to happen. And so instead of having that intermediary step, so that there’s a purpose in communication to the people feel that they’re working toward something, there was a sort of gray zone and people weren’t sure you know, how they were connecting the vision to what they’re doing on a day to day. And so really being aware that not everybody’s in your head that you can be great at selling your vision of your organization as an important skill. But you also need to take it into a way that’s translatable for people, so that they have a goal. They have goals. They have annual goals, quarterly goals, weekly goals. They need clear goals so that they know what they’re working on and what their purpose is. And this relates to meetings as well. So that there’s a clear plan so that people come in knowing what the agenda is. So that when you’re talking about things, there is an end goal. Otherwise, people are kind of guessing. And when people start guessing about what you want, as a leader, there’s going to be mistakes. So that’s a disconnect that I found often.

AW: I’ve heard of many leaders getting into trouble because they are promoted because of their visionary perspective, but then they sometimes they’re not an effective leader because of the lack of implementation. And I was going to ask you, how do you clarify with your staff to make sure that they know what to do? And I guess the easy answer is to hire the direct reports, the vice presidents and the directors, that make that happen for you. But aside from that, how do you personally ensure clarity to the message?

HS: I have a program, something I do with a lot of teams, which is moving from vision to practical reality. And so it’s a matter of realizing that this vision is great, but how are we actually going to make this happen on a day to day basis. And taking the vision and doing strategic planning to set strategic goals for your organization, so that there is clarity, there is purpose. Just like I talked about having anchors when you’re going to be having a very important conversation, a goal is like an anchor. It helps people understand the connections.  Oh, this is connected to reaching a 10% growth in sales this year. This is why we’re talking about this particular situation right now.

AW: It occurred to me as you were saying that it’s not just sharing with the team, what you’re doing, but it’s also why and even how,…

HS: Yes, yes. If goals are made in a vacuum, and the reason for the goals isn’t shared with the with the employees, they can feel really disconnected. And especially as you trickle down as the leader.  When you’re the leader of the entire large organization, you’re not going to be able to touch every single individual in the organization. That’s an important factor for you to understand. You’re not going to be able to ( if you’re in a larger organization), actually have conversations with each one of the employees but you can set things up so that there’s a great trickle-down effect.  By that I mean when you communicate with your team, your team then communicate with their teams, and so on. So it goes down through the organization. So there’s a clear message throughout the organization. And not feeling connected to the overall message of the organization is a way of things fragmenting so having this consistent message is important.

AW: Yeah. And again, I’ve been in organizations where that has happened, and it’s ended up as a catastrophe, basically. So yeah, I think that’s a really important point is making sure that everybody on your team, even if you aren’t interacting with them directly, understands clearly what their purposes and that could be a fatal flaw of an otherwise effective leader who perhaps has set a fantastic vision back to your previous point, but then is not translating that with the how and the why. Are there any other specific communication skills that come to mind in terms of things that limit managers promotability into leadership positions, or that may HS: Yeah, back to the communication-culture connection, I’m going to just touch on that for a moment. In an organization, you’ve got the overall culture of your organization you want, then you have the actual culture of the organization, it’s happening. And then you have these micro cultures within an organization where perhaps the marketing team has their values and their ways that they deal with each other, maybe a little friend groups, and then each individual brings their individual culture, their values, their priorities, their norms, what’s important to them. And so sometimes what happens is that an individual that’s been having trouble moving up within the organization, might not be fitting exactly with the micro culture within which they’re working. So maybe their communication style is a little bit different than everybody else’s. So sometimes a way of helping them is to bring in a coach or to bring in a mentor. And give them very specific feedback about what people are seeing with them. Perhaps doing a 360 with them to provide feedback so that they can understand, what and how they’re saying things that people aren’t getting.

AW: Yeah, that’s great. You’ve actually started to answer what I was going to ask as my next question, which is, how do people develop communication skills that they’ve been told they’re lacking? So I can imagine someone going to an annual performance review and hearing that they’ve maybe got great people skills, and definitely great technical skills, but they’re lacking in communication skills. So what should they do? And how do you identify what the actual communication skill is?

HS: I think that like many things, feedback can be very vague. Or if you’ve been told that you’re not a good a communicator, go back to the person that gave you that feedback and ask, can you give me some specific examples? If you have specific examples, you’ve got something to work with. So getting that specific feedback, I think would be a very important first step. And then asking for help. Ask for a mentor. Ask for a coach, asking for, a buddy, I think it’s great to have a buddy that you’re working with. Maybe somebody that’s on the same level as you. I had somebody that had somebody that they really respected that was on the same level of them. And they were in a lot of meetings together. He asked for feedback from that person, so that he could learn, and in order to do that there has to be an openness to learn about yourself, too.

AW: Okay, that is all great advice for leaders and future leaders about how to optimize their communication skills. Is there anything else you want to add before we move on to the five rapid fire questions?

HS: You know, Andrea, I think the most important part is just being really intentional. Any of my clients will tell you, I talk about intention. You’re going through life, really being present, in the moment. And it’s the same thing when you’re communicating with other people. Know yourself, show up as yourself, be present. Listen, ignite that light. So the people really feel like they’re being heard by you. And move forward in a way that you feel like you were connecting with people, engaging with people, smiling, being open. Actually one other thing I didn’t talk about is having that courage. When I talk about being an authentic leader, and using your authentic voice, it actually takes a lot of courage to do that. To share yourself, make yourself a little bit vulnerable. That is something that really helps people connect with you. And that connection is what’s going to really help you when you’re trying to motivate people and trying as a leader to bring out the best in people, to bring out their potential. These are the kind of things that are going to help you build the strongest teams in the strongest organization.

AW: Absolutely. So I heard two sort of meta themes in that answer. So one is just engaging and being mindful, which is absolutely critical, right. And then the other thing is the authenticity. The vulnerability. If we can check those off, we’d all be brilliant communicators, wouldn’t we?

HS: Yes.

AW: Okay, are you ready for the five rapid fire questions?

HS: Yeah.

AW: Ready? Okay, first question. What are your pet peeves?

HS: Okay, so this is one that my kids laugh at. It really bugs me when somebody drives really slowly in the fast lane, on the highway, that far left lane. It really drives me nuts. And then also when people don’t listen. And I live in a house full of boys, so…

AW: I’m with you on both counts. Okay, next question, what type of learner are you?

HS: I would say that I’m a combination, mostly a visual learner. And I think part of that is because I really do connect by looking at the whole person and seeing what they’re doing as well as what they’re saying. But also that listening piece, I think I have those auditory cues that are really important to me as well. So those are the two main ways.

AW: Question number three, introvert or extrovert?

HS: Yeah. Definitely an extrovert. I like to connect with others. So you know, what I’m doing for a living is the perfect thing.

AW: That’s great. I knew you’d have a good answer for that one because you were talking about managing your energy, right?

HS: Oh, yeah.

AW: So you get energy from meeting with your clients.

HS: Absolutely.

AW: Okay. Next question. What is your communication preference for personal conversations?

HS: So I think for me, it’s basically text and phone. With family, it’s phone all the way. And with close friends, it’s usually a text and picking up the phone as quickly as possible. I like to connect on the phone and hear somebody’s voice. But if I’m in a hurry, I’ll text to sort of get a placeholder for a conversation. I could communicate in any way, my preference is in person conversations

AW: Last question, is there a podcast, a blog or an email newsletter that you recommend the most lately?

HS: Well, other than Talk About Talk. I would say I took this course a long time ago, through the Greater Good science center, and they stand out. It’s through UC Berkeley and they send out this great newsletter and I found that recently, I’ve been trying to read a lot about how to sort of uplift myself, my family, my clients. And I find that they give great tips on not just on how adults can move forward and be grateful and build gratitude and happiness into their lives. But also for Kids, for teenagers for adults. So I really find that that helpful. It’s the science of happiness, and I find that you’re reading about happiness actually makes me happy. And I also took a course through Yale that Dr. Laurie Santos she has a blog and I just find reading that is really helpful. It just gives me ideas and a different way of thinking about things and moving forward in a positive way. So the happiness lab. So there’s a theme for me, I like to read about happiness, because I find it really renewing for me.

AW: Well, those both sound like great recommendations, and I’ll be sure to get the details so I can put the links in the show notes. Is there anything else you want to add?

HS: Just thank you very much for having me. It’s been really great. And as a person that gets energized from these kind of conversations, I’m feeling really energized. It was really great to speak with you.

AW: Me too. Thank you so much, Heather.

HS: Thank you.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai


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