Communicating as a Leader

Communicating as a LeaderLeadership is not a set of skills that you must go off and get at some seminar—they are habits, ways of interacting with others—that achieve results.  The raw materials are inherent in each of us. Like a performance art or ability in a sport, all we need is awareness and practice to perfect these skills.

Two of my favorite topics are leadership—especially women’s leadership—and future law. The rapid changes engulfing the practice of law and the meaning of professionalism in that shifting paradigm of law practice has an important interface with women’s leadership.

It is no news flash that the internet has changed the availability of information and, thus, the practice of law. In the pre-internet world, the world of books and complicated research systems, lawyers had access to information that others did not. This gave us a natural place of leadership—like the scribes in ancient times.

Senior lawyers in an organization sat on top of that silo of information like it was a throne. The accumulation of experience was the royal robe. The senior lawyers knew more and learned more because they were able to direct junior lawyers in their organizations to research the legal precedents and frameworks. And then they made the decisions. Once a leader reached a certain status, they were expected to have all the answers. And then they got to issue edicts based on that knowledge.

Vast Amounts of Information Means No One Can Have All the Answers

Now, with an internet connection and the click of a mouse, anyone has access to mounds of information. It is impossible to stay on top of all the information out there. It is impossible to have all the answers.

The new normal in the practice of law requires a new leadership style—one that is more suited to the personality and approach of women than men. The leader in this setting needs to ignite the creative thinking of her followers and achieve innovative results. Doing things the way they have always been done is not effective in the rapidly changing world we live in.

This opens up tremendous opportunities for women leaders that were not readily available thirty years ago. Why women? Because the type of communication that will be effective is more typically the type of communication that women use: listening, building consensus, engaging.

Anyone Can Use These Five Tips for Communicating as a Leader

  1. Prepare ahead of the conversation. Be clear about the goals before you engage/call the meeting. Formulate a list of questions around the topic or goal that will get people thinking. Plan a non-threatening way to open the discussion that will put people at ease.
  2. State the goal at the outset of the conversation. Be clear about what the meeting or conversation is about. If it involves a group, make clear there will be just one conversation and that everyone will be heard. Tell them that you seek different opinions and it is okay to differ with each other or with you–as long as everyone is respectful of each other.
  3. Listen with an open mind. So often, particularly as lawyers who are used to developing arguments and rebuttals, when the other is speaking we often are not listening at all, rather we are thinking about what we are going to say next. A leader needs to be fully present and let others know by body language, reframing and comments that she is engaged. And if that dissent you invited comes up, watch your reaction. If you stiffen or your body language indicates that you do not want to hear the difference of opinion after all, you have undermined your credibility as a leader.
  4. Facilitate, don’t dominate, the conversation. Keep the conversation moving by inserting clarifying questions, quick summaries, and eliciting other responses. If you do most of the talking, your colleagues may feel they are there just to rubber stamp a course of action you have already set and will not meaningfully participate. As I have written about before, ask follow up questions based on genuine curiosity. It is important to model and cultivate a constant state of curiosity and learning.
  5. Summarize, and give positive feedback about peoples’ contributions. As you end the conversation—on time always—and summarize next steps, very importantly, you should thank folks for their contributions. Even if you don’t agree, even if the ideas will not be implemented, you should be able to find something positive to say that will allow everyone to feel good about the interactions and their contributions. People want to be heard. If they feel heard, they will be more likely to generate more thought and ideas to bring to the table the next time. They will be invested in making the organization better because you, the leader, have shown them that they can make a difference.

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