Ask a group of CEOs in any industry how they got to the top, and 99 percent will say it wasn’t their technical prowess but their strength as communicators. And I’m not just talking about dynamic speakers who can bring a room to tears and cheers. It’s really a talent for plain speaking and patient listening. Most of all, it’s the ability to avoid costly, embarrassing misunderstandings.
If you have a high tolerance for wishy-washy answers, half-baked commitments and people who mumble, then you won’t make it past middle manager. Leaders don’t accept ambiguity. They demand clarity so they can learn and make the right decisions.
I can’t stand people who refuse to give me clear, frank answers. I won’t hire anyone who always skirts around an issue or seems afraid to state a bold opinion. If someone makes vague comments, I’ll ask “What are you saying?” until the vagueness becomes something concrete.
If I’m in a charitable mood, I’ll keep paraphrasing what someone says until we both agree. My favorite line is, “So what you’re saying is ...” They’ll usually correct me a few times before they say yes.
Another danger is how you delegate. If you hand off a project, you’d better make it clear what you want.
When my first boss asked me to analyze some data, his parting words were, “Go to it. Just get it done,” before he rushed away. I figured that meant, “Drop everything and do it now.” When I turned in my analysis the next morning, he said disappointedly, “You couldn’t possibly have come up with anything so fast!”
I learned that his “Get it done” order meant “I need it in two weeks.” By misunderstanding him, I fell behind on my other work and made it look like I wasn’t giving the analysis enough thought.
Improve your word power
Misunderstandings happen when managers hear what they want to hear. Years ago I asked my secretary, “How much did we authorize for travel vouchers?” Her answer didn’t scare me. But the CEO chewed me out later for my unit’s bloated travel expenses. It turns out I was asking how much we budgeted for employees to spend, when what I needed to know was how much they were really spending!
If you don’t listen, you’re dead. It’s easy to race ahead and think of what you want to say next, but you may miss a word that changes everything. The more you concentrate on what you hear, the fewer misunderstandings will result.
“Z” offers insights into what it really takes to get ahead. This 25-year veteran of the corporate battlefield has climbed the ranks to head a $100 million information services company. We have agreed to protect Z’s identity in return for his promise to hold nothing back.
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