This article is by Featured Blogger Richie Etwaru from his LinkedIn page. Republished with the author’s permission.
Whether with email, text, Slack or WeChat, the keyboard is now the prominent podium of leadership, and requires a completely new set of capabilities.
To lead, is to communicate effectively.
Estimates vary from 200B to 300B emails sent annually for work. I received approximately 56K emails in 2018 and responded approximately 24K times. When we include text, collaboration tools, social networks, chats, comments and other digital communication platforms, I would estimate that the average business leader receives, reads, and responds annually to approximately 100K, 30K, and 20K messages respectively.
Communication is the fuel of leadership. What it means to communicate in business, has changed so significantly that what it means to lead in business must change. Our ancestors lead fellowships fully equipped with tools such as their hands, handwriting, voices, podiums, facial expressions, vocabulary, and tone. We are left naked of these tools, only to rely on an archaic QWERTY keyboard and a set of emojis not dissimilar from the symbols engraved in the caves of ancient Greece.
Today’s leader leads handicapped from the keyboard stripped of facial expression, intonation, body language, and real time feedback.
We are stripped of the ability to read a person’s face in real time, they cannot hear our tone, and we do not have their captive attention. They are reading the emails while doing other important tasks at the same time. When I look at the sum of the parts, I am startled that somehow, I might have actually “led” in 2018.
Five suggested techniques to overcome the digital handicap.
To lead in the digital world from behind the keyboard requires a new set of awareness and capabilities. I don’t know that these below are the best suggestions, but they are the ones I will be testing in 2019. I have covered the first two in detail, and only lightly list the remaining three of the five.
FIRST - Declare your mood.
Humans have moods. One of the handicaps is that recipients of a message are not able to tell your mood. Are you rushing in between gates to catch a flight and just being short? Are you late out at dinner and tired? Or are you thoughtful, and reflective when sending a message to a digital audience? It can be helpful to the recipients to declare your mood, intent, and or urgency up front.
Scenario: Your direct reports are debating with you on CC over emails whether to agree to the language in a press release with a partner; you are out at dinner late with said partner and feeling good about the partnership and would like to say to the team “guys just get it done, this partner is going to be a good one.”
Really bad leading from the keyboard: “Guys, can we just get this done?”
Bad leading from the keyboard: “Out with Matt, all good, let’s just get it out, let me know how I can help.”
Just leading from the keyboard: “Hi guys, I am out with Matt, and we are having a good conversation about the partnerships. I think we should just get it done.”
Leading well from the keyboard:“Hi team, I am out to dinner with Matt. He seems motivate to make us a priority which makes me feel good about the partnership. Should we still push here for better language? Or do you guys think we can go ahead? Nancy, do you feel comfortable leading us to a decision here?”
SECOND. Set context for messaging.
Messages have context. An annual townhall is more telling and less of a conversation. An annual performance review has different context. Another of the handicaps is that recipients of a digital message cannot tell your context. In traditional leadership, we tend to set context up front. One might set context by saying “this is going to be a difficult conversation, but we will get through it” before starting an annual performance review. With digital communications, we rarely set the context up front.
Scenario: Your investor relations team is preparing to brief a few dozen of your current and potential investors on a secondary public offering or new private round to take the business to the next stage of execution. You want to tell the marketing and communications team, to prioritize the investor’s perspective for the next 30 days in all messages, instead of prioritizing the customer. You want to say to the marketing and communications team “guys, I don’t have the time to explain, just do this. Switch all messages to cater to investor interests for 30 days, just trust me.”
Really bad leading from the keyboard: “Hi team, need us to switch all messages to speak to investors instead of customers for 30 days starting on Monday, Steven I will call you on way to airport to discuss.”
Bad leading from the keyboard: “Hi team, we have to cater to the investors for 30 days with all marketing and communications. Need to start on Monday. Steven, I know this might be difficult, and not normal, lets discuss. Rest of team, assume this will be a go with some of your input, but let’s start the engines!”
Just leading from the keyboard: "Hi team, we have a bit of an urgent need. Our colleagues in investor relations are ready to engage with our investors to secure the capital to take us to the next stage of execution. To do this, they need our help. We believe that if our marketing and communications can cater to the investors during the capital raising period, it increases our likelihood of securing the capital on time. We need your help to have this started on Monday. Steve, I am running to the airport, do you and the team have some time to chat about this today?”
Leading well from the keyboard:“Greetings marketing and communications, we have a bit of an urgent opportunity here. I am running to the airport now and would like your guidance on how we can get this done, Steven let’s see if we can grab a call in 30 minutes. The opportunity is to engage our investors with marketing and communications while our colleagues in investor relations secure the capital to get us to the next stage of execution. Traditionally marketing and communications have prioritized the consumer as a primary recipient of messages, but we think there is a unique opportunity here to do something that is not frequently done. To use marketing and communications to support investor relations and capital raising. Would love to hear some of your thoughts over emails before we catchup in 30 minutes to discuss.”
I will take a pause here after the first two, and we will discuss the three other three capabilities below in less detail.
You might notice, that in both scenarios as the leadership capability got better, the messages got longer. No surprise there. One of the challenges in digital leadership is that we are often tempted to be short and abrupt. This might work in dictatorships, but not work so well with leadership. One good litmus test is to do the following. Assume that you are actually addressing the recipients of the email all in-person in a conference room, for example on the matter of language of the press release with the partner in scenario one, and then imagine yourself saying only what is in your email to the team in person.
In scenario one above, you would gather folks in a room and say, “Guys, can we just get this done?” and adjourn the meeting. Awkward.
In scenario two above, you would gather the folks in a room and say, “Hi team, need us to switch all messages to speak to investors instead of customers for 30 days starting on Monday, Steven I will call you on way to airport to discuss.” And walk out of the meeting. Man, super awkward.
THIRD. Take the opportunity to motivate.
Another handicap is that we lose the ability to motivate and engage folks with communication when leading from the keyboard. I have found that asking questions or encouraging others to respond with contribution is a great way to motivate and energize the recipients even if you are behind the keyboard. It is easy to fall trap in digital communication to tell only, or direct only. We must resist this urge, and instead ask questions, ask for contribution in replies, and engage the recipients. After all, you want the team motivated to act, not just told to act.
FOURTH. Don’t forget your manners.
Use greetings, pleasantries. Mention the complete names of team members, spell out words, and use complete sentences. Be specific about messages directed to whom and be gracious and thankful.
FIFTH. Use more rich media.
Visuals, and rich media. I often break out of the handicap by sending recorded videos to my teams instead of emails.