The Communicator’s Journey

Most days I work with people who want help solving for something that is right in front of them: an upcoming meeting, an important conversation or a client presentation. And, we have an impact on strengthening their confidence and driving their impact with listeners in all of those settings.

But, if you asked me the best way to develop as a communicator, I would tell you that it’s a skill that evolves better as an enduring marathon than a short sprint. Mastering communication is a journey, and what you really hope to master is consistency. Consistency comes with practice, awareness and feedback.

Consider this: communication is one of the few durable skills across a career path. From the day you start your career, it becomes a skill that sets people apart. And until the day you end your career, it will be a skill that defines how others relate to you. You’ll be hired for it and evaluated based on it. You’ll be praised when it works and critiqued when it doesn’t. And if you stumble along the way, it will be listed as one of the gaps that blocked your path.

Becoming an effective communicator isn’t a “check the box” skill. It’s a “recurring assessment and evolving expectation” kind of skill. Our talent development colleagues track progress on your skills. And, their expectations for an individual contributor aren’t the same as their expectations for a new leader. So, you may excel at communication in one role and just one year later, you may under deliver on it.

I’ve spent this year working on our third book, Storylines & Storytelling: What They Remember and Repeat. I was surprised to learn that many people don’t tell stories because they think it’s an advanced communication skill. Some say it isn’t worth the risks.

Communication is all about risks. It is the most vulnerable, exposed and electrifying skill that a leader can develop. It’s the skill no one will master for you, no one will deliver for you…and no one tells you about that until you experience it. The higher expectations of a communicator may show up at your first large audience setting, your first big employee keynote or your first customer conference. But, expectations will show up. And, it feels like the weight of the world because the success of the event and the takeaways of the conference are riding on your ability to set it up well. It all comes down to your communication skills.

It is a powerful feeling – and a very intimidating one. It is all about the ability to connect. And, it isn’t acquired overnight. It’s the marathon, not the sprint.

If I could go the distance with each of you and shape your development as a communicator, this would be my playbook.

In your EARLY CAREER, my coaching would be centered on you. You need to focus on how you show up and how you get heard. I would talk to you about first impressions and how to be more intentional about how people experience you. We’d work on the fundamentals of style and raise awareness of choices you make and how others perceive you because of those choices.

Think interviews, opportunities and impressions. You want people to see and hear you as confident and credible, but you may not have the credentials to prove it yet. Your style can establish your right to be there, and I would help you understand impressions and strengthen them.

When people are asked to give feedback on an individual contributor, they always talk about your personal style and how they observe you.

By MID CAREER, our focus would shift to how you influence others. Managers usually learn the hard way that it isn’t about what you said but how you listened. If you want to manage others, then you have to learn how to communicate in a way that influences them. At the midpoint of your career, you need to focus on how you organize your thoughts and how you get others on board with ideas. It’s a shift from talking at people to talking with people.

It may be the toughest point in our journey because the objectives change dramatically from how people see you to how you see people. But, if you have good awareness of impressions, then you’ve already made progress in thinking about what drives influence and what doesn’t. A good manager likes putting others first, and your style work will bring good instincts to this. The communication journey focuses more on how to help others understand something. You become a manager, a coach and a teacher all in one.

When people are asked to give feedback on a manager, they share insights on how others talk about you and respond to direction from you. Influence has become the measurement of an effective communicator.

And when you reach your PEAK CAREER, I’ll tell you all the skills you’ve acquired on the journey aren’t enough. Because leaders can’t just tell a group what they’re thinking, they have to share with a group how they’re feeling. The expectation of communication has reached its pinnacle and leaders have to shift from competent to compelling. It’s the last few miles of the journey, and it’s what you’ve been training for all along.

As the coach, I didn’t shift the playbook on you, your listeners did. Their expectations are much higher now. They want to know more than what you need from them; they want to know why it matters and where you’re headed. You’re in a critical position for the entire team, and in an instant, they’ve captured their impression of you and aligned it to their expectations for their future, their role and their next steps.

To some leaders, it’s daunting. But for those who’ve been training for it, it’s electrifying.

When people are asked to give feedback on a leader, they react to the leader’s ability to inspire a hundred and make it personal to an individual. It’s all about what listeners feel, what they remember and what they repeat.

So, where are you in your journey as a communicator and what can you do to keep your skills evolving?

Many of you are just weeks away from that end of the year conversation where someone will evaluate your contribution and performance for the year. Whether these conversations happen once a year or all through the year, it’s a moment in time when you could get insights on how you’re perceived by others. Don’t miss the opportunity for feedback!

The accomplishments usually come first with a look at goals and how well you met them. Even though these sessions are all about you, take advantage of the opportunity to ask about everyone else. Get impressions into the conversation by asking for feedback:

  • How is my brand perceived in this organization?
  • What did others say about the project?
  • If I could strengthen one element of my impact with groups, what would it be?

These questions draw out comments and anecdotes that others have shared about you. And, that’s the feedback that you need most of all.

Once you’ve gotten that feedback, think about communication as that durable skill. It’s the investment every employee should make to keep their skills evolving across every phase of a career. And if you think you’ve focused too much on sprinting from one situation to the next, call us and we’ll help you think about communication as more of a journey.

We’re the coaches who want to help you go the distance.

Call us when you need us.