Technical Leadership, Part 1: Communicate Your Way
The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” —Ronald Reagan
At Parsons, leadership takes many forms. There’s the front-line technical lead, who drives a team’s daily technical execution. There’s also the contract chief engineer, who ensures that the client receives the best technical capabilities to fit their requirements. And then there’s the portfolio technical leader, who ensures all contracts in their portfolio have the resources to drive key business objectives forward. Although each leadership role has its own skillset, all leadership roles require key leadership skills. These leadership skills are especially necessary during remote technical operations like those we’re conducting during this pandemic. And for any leader, the most important skill, which cannot be overstated, is the ability to communicate with your reports, your peers, and your leaders daily.
Step 1: Develop A Personal Communication Plan
A personal communication plan is a leader’s approach to handling their various forms of daily communication. Your plan should include how to deal with at least email, voice mail, texts, and verbal communication. Each communication method requires a consistent plan. For example, for email, a plan could involve quickly scanning for high-priority items and answering only those right away. For items that need attention by the end of the day, a plan could entail replying that you will get back by the COB that day, flagging the items in Outlook as being due that day (i.e., today), and then filing them away so that your inbox stays clear. A plan could also include checking texts only every two to three hours and answering voice mails only at the end of day. However you set up your plan, it must work for your specific environment, it must be consistent, and it must enable you to deal with interruptions. To effectively communicate, leaders need a plan to communicate effectively.
Step 2: Develop A Personal Communication Schedule
Leaders must communicate regularly with their peers, leaders, and reports to maintain lines of communication and to support important working relationships. You should regularly schedule communication with your reports so that they know you have dedicated time for them to communicate openly and freely with you. Schedules for organizational superiors are often chaotic and hard to coordinate with, making finding the time for regular communication challenging. Your communication schedule must be flexible to ensure that you have undistracted one-on-one time with your superior (as frequently as your superior’s schedule allows).
Often overlooked, peer-to-peer communication typically spurs cross-organization team building, collaboration, and innovation. Your peers often face the same business and communication challenges that you face, and sharing ideas, techniques, and tips often can apply to your own approach to communication. Although conversations with your peers need not occur as frequently as conversations with your superior and reports, your peer-to-peer relationships can present the greatest opportunities for overall organizational growth and innovation. To be an effective organizational change agent, effective leaders must make time to communicate with superiors, peers, and reports.
Step 3: Know Your Audience
Effective communication depends on who the recipient is. Your personal communication plan and schedule give you the tools and methods to communicate effectively and allow you to decide how frequently to communicate. You can use your experience to determine which techniques work best for your audience. Often, leaders are too busy to read emails longer than two or three paragraphs. Bullet points, quick summaries, and bottom line upfront (BLUF) statements are effective ways to reach people who don’t have a lot of time. Some people receive so much email that messages may get lost. For them, other means of communication (with their approval), like text messages, can be a much better way of corresponding. In addition, text messages require that people be pithy and that they quickly broach talking points/conversation takeaways and raise questions. You must also determine which type of communication—verbal, written, or visual—works best for your recipients. Every form of communication has pros and cons, and these can vary based on the recipient. Effective leaders understand what the best communication medium is to deliver an effective message to their audience.
Step 4: Embrace Change
As shown by events like the COVID-19 pandemic, your communication plan must evolve and embrace new forms of communication, including WebEx, Microsoft Teams, and other remote-access communication tools. In addition, with employees located around the world, you may need to change the tempo of your personal communication schedule. Communication methods for peers, superiors, and reports could also change. You should constantly evaluate whether your messaging is effective, especially with little to no in-person face time, changes to work schedules due to remote work, and other disruptions due to the pandemic. Ask for feedback. For example, ask others to review your communication strategy or to help you try new communication methods. You can also self-evaluate your communication approach. Effective leaders embrace change, embrace new communication tools, and adjust their communication style to ensure their messages’ readability and effectiveness.