The route to success

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Written by Clare Timothy on 1 March 2014 in Features

Clare Timothy sets out the how, rather than the what, of effective communication

If there is one core skill that plays a crucial role in engaging employees, influencing stakeholders, building effective relationships within an organisation, it is the ability to communicate brilliantly. Effective communication is an essential component of professional success. In a recent Forbes study1, nine out of the ten traits of exceptional leaders were rooted firmly in strong communication skills. But you can’t develop great leaders if they don’t build, develop and hone their communications skills. So why is it that communication is one of the abilities taken as a given when it comes to developing good managers into great leaders?

Communication skills have never been as important as a leadership competency. Not only do today’s leaders work in increasingly disruptive environments, they have the added complexity of multi-dimensional team dynamics and large organisational structures to overcome. Most spend the majority of their time communicating – whether in face-to-face meetings, presenting, on email or over the phone.

Technology has truly changed the way we communicate: we now have 24/7 access to emails, texts and phone calls and are rarely far away from our smartphones, tablets or laptops. This is blurring the lines between our professional and private lives. But, where businesses benefit in terms of the speed, accessibility and the opening out of communications opportunities, they lose out in terms of easily being able to set a context, impart tone and ensure messages have been understood and interpreted correctly. The sheer volume of messages and information we receive on a daily basis has become far more distracting and – since we are often compelled to respond instantly – we pay the price in a lack of focus and deep thinking in our work.

Being an effective communicator can have a big impact on how leaders are perceived in the business. The consequences of poor communication have cost companies vast sums of money. They may not have actually calculated it, but think employee turnover, think disengagement, think unmotivated employees who aren’t working to their full potential. All of these are symptoms of not communicating effectively. Mindful communicators are able to inspire and motivate a team around the strategy; set clear direction on a project; get the best out of difficult situations; build relationships with people at all levels of the organisation, and have a positive influence on external stakeholders. Great communication really does make great business sense.

The key to becoming a skilful communicator is rarely found in what has been taught in the world of academia. It is about feeling, judgment, empathy, adaptability and, most importantly, ownership. Unfortunately, communication confidence doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you don’t have the skills to tell a convincing story, interpret context and meaning, and listen to colleagues, you’re simply imparting the facts with none of the feeling. The problem I see in many global organisations is that they get caught up in communication tools, channels and outputs, instead of focusing on how they communicate.

Of the many leaders and managers I have trained in communicating effectively, when it comes to presentations, I would say they spend 95 per cent of their time ensuring their slides are perfect and only 5 per cent of their time preparing for their role in the presentation. I believe the emphasis of the time spent should actually be the other way around because what people notice most when watching a presentation is the person: their words, their communication style and their body language.

Leaders actually have an incredible amount of power over, and choice in, their communication. Putting in the time to develop a more rounded and flexible style places them at the centre of any communication and allows them to take ownership of their ‘communication brand’.

DPA has developed a model to explain the ‘five factors of effective communication’ (above), which we use when working with leaders and emerging talent to help them develop communication skills and improve performance, with specific emphasis on how a leader chooses to communicate. This also helps them to think about who they are communicating with and how to get the best outcome by using the right language, in the right context, delivered through the most appropriate channel. The model helps managers to prepare and plan for all communications, whether communicating to individuals, teams or large groups. By considering the factors of your audience, situation, objective, message and, most importantly, communication style, leaders and managers can ensure a successful outcome to any interaction.

Using our model means leaders ensure they have a clear head to create a meaningful communications strategy that results in deeper insight and understanding. For me, there are several elements of effective communication that leaders can develop to improve their performance and professional success:

You The theories of Marston and Jung indicate the two basic dimensions of personal style – assertiveness and expressiveness – and this categorises our communication behaviour. Assertiveness is the degree to which a person’s behaviour is forceful or directive. Expressiveness is the degree to which a person’s behaviour is emotionally responsive or demonstrative.

Providing insight into a person’s dominant communication style can heighten their self-awareness and help them to be more considerate of the style they use and the styles of those around them. Having an awareness of our own potential triggers or non-verbal cues is also invaluable in being a skilled communicator. Being able to flex and adapt their communication style depending on the situation and audience creates managers with a more balanced and adaptable style, which achieves greater results.

Preparation and consideration of how you want to be through your style in any given communication is a critical element of being a good and effective communicator.

Your audience We’ve moved far beyond ‘one size fits all’ communication. Thought and consideration needs to be given to who you are communicating with, what their needs and motivations are and how you can find alignment with them in order to build positive relationships. Attention should be given to generational differences in your audience – whether Generation X or Millennials – and also to the implications of communicating with a diverse group of stakeholders, sometimes across many cultures. Doing this means even the most difficult communication or conflict situation can have a positive outcome.

Preparing for any communication, with the audience in mind, will create successful outcomes for any leader: think about how you want to impart your message, your body language and also your use of physical space.

Active listening is one of the most important skills for communicators. In our busy working lives and environments, it’s easy to let the mind wander in meetings or disconnect during a presentation. I’m sure we can all think of a time when we have been listening to someone speak but have not taken in, or tried to understand, what they are saying. Active listening is when the listener makes a conscious effort to hear, as well as comprehend, the meaning of what is being said. It helps to build relationships, teamwork and trust, and requires a combination of many skills and behaviours, along with a high level of self-awareness.

For me, three things a leader can do to improve his active listening skills are:

  • use body language to show he is listening, eg nods, smiles and open posture
  • provide feedback through periodic questioning and paraphrasing
  • suspend judgment and be curious about where the other person is coming from and what’s important to them.

Your situation When communicating, it’s useful to gain greater context and the bigger picture around the particular situation: what is the history or background information you need to be aware of? What processes, systems or ways of working do you need to keep in mind?

Sometimes you might have to communicate when there is a conflict with others. The word ‘conflict’ conjures up images of aggressive confrontations and arguments but it is simply any situation in which one person’s concerns or desires are different from those of another. The distinction lies in the importance of the issue and the amount of energy you put into it.

In times of conflict, it is easy to feel like your options are limited but, by knowing how you manage conflict, based on your level of assertiveness and co-operativeness2 in any given situation, you can ensure your communication is clear and effective. Learning to remove the emotion from the situation and work through different scenarios can also make sure that the correct resolution is chosen, leaving both parties feeling satisfied. This is an extremely useful tool when the conversation or communication is critical.

Your objective It often surprises me how little time is sometimes spent preparing and planning for very important communications and interactions. By not preparing, we run the risk of leaving the outcome in the hands of others, or not achieving the objectives that we want. By planning with the end in mind, we have a far better chance of coming to a win:win solution for all parties.

It’s essential to have a clear idea about what you want to achieve from the communication or interaction before you enter into it. What is the perfect outcome? What are you happy to negotiate or compromise on, should you need to? It’s also useful to consider the areas you don’t want this communication to fall into and what you can do to manage this.

By thinking through potential ‘worst case scenarios’, we can use our communication skills to mitigate the risk of them happening.

Your message There are now so many channels at our disposal when it comes to communicating that we are sometimes guilty of focusing too much on channel and not enough on message. We often speak to managers who are eager to have a social network or an online discussion forum in place, even though they have no proof that these are channels that their teams want to see and use.

By firmly establishing your key messages, you can make an informed decision about which channel is going to be the most effective and impactful for delivering them. So keep it simple and identify your messaging, and then look at your channel options. For example, text messages might work brilliantly for reporting a new client win, or profit announcement, but are entirely the wrong channel if you need to make someone redundant – which requires careful thought around messages and face-to-face interaction.

The best proof is experience

Even though we work across a wide range of countries and industries, we hear the same anecdotes about the difficulties of getting communications right and also about how small changes can have a big impact. One senior leader told me: “When I am busy, it is easy to skip the prep and planning that communications desperately need and then blame miscommunication on the audience. My light bulb moment is remembering that I have full control of how I communicate and it is up to me to make sure I get it right.”

Preparation, preparation, preparation!

It’s sometimes the smallest personal shifts or changes in leadership behaviour that can lead to the biggest improvements in communications to an audience. Everyone has choices when communicating, and it’s only truly effective if it causes an action or behavioural change in others – put simply, it’s about getting things done, to improve performance.

My experience tells me that you can’t be a great leader unless you’re a great communicator, and are prepared to develop and hone the necessary skills.

Groundwork and planning in all communication is crucial. Placing a really strong emphasis on preparation and focusing on the how – ultimately ourselves – rather than the what can make the biggest impact on the success of any communication.

Essential reading

What Every Body is Saying Joe Navarro
Brilliant Communication Skills Gill Hasson
Effective Communication John Adair
The Power of Communication Helio Fred Garcia



2 Thomas Kilmann

About the author

Clare Timothy is a consultant at DPA. She can be contacted via


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