I’m truly honored to have our guest today, Mike Nowland. Mike is a leader in the learning and development industry in San Diego California. He owns his own business there and he partners with Crestcom International, a true global leader in the fields of leadership development and sales. What I love about Mike and why I’m so honored that he’s here today is he often says that his purpose in life is to help people be better, do better and live better. He’s using that intention and that purpose as he teaches other people how to be persuasive and effective leaders, communicators, managers. He has nearly 25 years of experience with companies like ResMed, Marriott International and Kisco Senior Living. He’s bringing the real deal to us today.
The Art of Effective Leadership Communication with Mike Nowland
Mike, I’m really honored to have you here.
Thank you very much, Hollie. It’s sincerely my pleasure to be with you today.
I’m so excited about our topic today. We’re talking about the art of effective communication for a leader, which can be a bit passé. People can say “I know what effective communication is, I get it.” All of those things. Really, we’re not very good at it, I don’t believe, in our world because we have 70% of employees who were disengaged at work. What would you start with in helping us to think about what does it take to have effective leadership communication in your leadership style?
Let me begin by saying I do agree with you that most leaders believe they are more effective communicators than they really are. I like to flip the notion of what it means to be a persuasive communicator, whether that’s at home or in social settings and certainly at work. That is we must listen first if we’re going to effectively communicate with another. By that I mean we have to turn off the movie that’s running in our head when someone comes to us and starts engaging in conversations with us, whether they’re describing they’re challenges or something that they’re really excited about or just catching up socially. When we don’t turn off that movie that’s in our head, we’re truly not listening to them. That movie in our head is us evaluating, judging, agreeing, disagreeing, and forming our response. When you do any of those things, which by the way are very natural brain-based processes to engage in, you’re not truly listening to the other person. If you don’t truly listen when you’re engaged in a conversation with someone, the chances for making mistakes or assumptions or arriving at incorrect decisions is just too great.
I understand what that means because I obviously teach similar things with my business as well. What’s interesting is as we say those words, how do we help people really understand that we actually aren’t listening? I think people think they’re good listeners. They often think we’re good leaders, but when we get the true feedback it doesn’t come across this way. How do I know if I’m in my head or not in my head, if I’m judging or if I’m not judging? How would you guide me on that?
I think the skill, and that’s exactly what it is, it’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, is really around this notion of mindfulness for reading a lot about in both business and personal development these days. That’s to be in the moment with that person who’s talking with you. Not every conversation is one where I have to give you my full undivided attention. As a matter of fact, in many cases, particularly in a workplace where we’ve become real familiar with the people that we work with, there’s almost a shorthand that we can use to expedite the sharing of information. But when someone is coming to you and you can see and you can feel that what they’re describing for you is very personal, it’s very important to them, they have a good deal of passion around it, whether that’s positive or negative, whether they’re excited, whether they’re scared, all of those emotions that can be named. We need to be in leadership communication with that person. We need to be mindful of what it is they’re saying and how they feel about it. That skill, as we all know, is empathy. Empathy can be learned like any other skill. Some people it comes more naturally to than others. If you know you’re not a naturally empathetic person and you tend to want to short-circuit the conversation to speed things up and get to what the problem is so you can solve it for them, that’s not being empathetic. That’s not being in the moment with them. Those are two techniques: practice empathy, see what they’re feeling as well as hearing the words that they’re saying, and be in the moment with them.
You’re mentioning a couple of things that I think are important, how to really understand how to feel and sense the emotion. You actually were mentioning how to be observant of the other person, but what about myself? If I’m actually being present for them, possibly I need to suspend my emotion not in terms of turn it off or suppress it but at least just be aware of it and not allow my anger or my fear to introduce into the conversation. Would you agree? Would you expand upon that?
I would agree that our own emotions are part of our being. You can’t turn them off. What we do practice, and I’m not a mindfulness expert but I was just actually reading about this this morning, is to recognize that emotion because it’s not wrong to feel it, it’s absolutely valid to feel it. Then to set it aside and not let that emotion interfere with the more important gift of giving your undivided attention to a person who’s describing a situation to you that they feel strongly about, they have a high level of emotional attachment to this issue, whether that’s happy or sad or anxious or excited, and to be in that moment with them so that it’s recognizing and validating them as a person. Not turning it around to be about me and how I feel about what you’re describing. You’ll get to that point eventually. That’s the other half of the equation. The first half is truly to understand that other person first and accurately be able to describe for them how they feel about a particular situation they are engaging you in.
As a leader, if we’re wanting to acknowledge how the person feels as a human and not judge them for that but actually just to be there, it’s almost like holding a space for that person just to be and allowing them to feel safe with their emotion at the moment and to feel heard.
That’s very, very well restated. That was lovely.
I’m just hearing what you’re sharing and it’s beautiful. That’s the real art of this, is being present in the moment. I feel that in my experience and when you and I have talked in other conversations, that I have heard people just not necessarily being present because we’re caught up in our last meeting, maybe where we missed a milestone or we’ve got a budget overrun or a customer just decided to either cancel a contract or something. It’s how to leave all of that behind and just be there with that person to be listening.
Every conversation isn’t this important. I want to emphasize that this is a really important skill to practice when you sense or this person says to you, “I am upset about this. I am excited about this. This is a problem that’s really eating away at me. We’ve got to work hard to solve this.” That’s when you need, as you just stated very eloquently, to set aside whatever experience is you’re just coming from and invest in that person that’s standing right in front of you. Listen carefully, restate what you hear them saying, try to describe the emotion as you perceive they’re feeling it. They’ll tell you, “Yes, that’s right. Or no, not quite, Hollie. It’s a little bit more of anxiety versus excitement,” or whatever the appropriate emotion is. When you are clear that they know you know how they feel, then it’s your turn as the listener to help them understand how you feel about it or what you think would be the best plan of action or what you might recommend.
Another technique I really found to be very, very beneficial in developing the people that you work with or that work for you is to ask a lot of questions. Asking questions, if you’re unclear at all, or in the absence of giving someone advice right off the top of the bat, is to ask questions to understand how they think, what their thinking process is like, what have they tried, what would you think would happen if you did this, what would you suppose would be the outcome if you tried this. That in itself is a fantastic developmental opportunity you’re giving to someone who’s either your direct report or a peer, or perhaps even your boss. Your boss might come to you and say, “Geez Hollie, I’ve tried A, B, C and I don’t know what to do. It’s not working.” Then now you’re in the space of providing feedback to your boss. How cool is that?
When somebody trusts their leader, their boss, their manager, their superior, they feel more comfortable coming with those ideas and suggestions and, if you will, learning opportunities. I’m going to borrow a term from WD-40. They talk about mistakes as learning opportunities. That’s a bit of a subtlety in terms of the way people might choose their words in asking a question to allow people to answer fully.
You’ve mentioned trust, and trust is the foundation of any truly engaged workforce. There will not be highly engaged employees in a work environment or a family environment for that matter where there is no trust. How do we build trust? We build trust by being trustworthy. If we’re trustworthy, that’s because people have confided in us, people have opened up to us, people have shared their personal experiences or their personal family life or the names of their children, all those kinds of things, and we have respected and valued and honored that with them. We have maintained confidences that people have offered to us. We have respected the struggles that they’re having and we’ve helped them solve for themselves those struggles that they can, and guided them in struggles that we might have a particular expertise that they don’t. Building trust starts with relationships. Relationships start with patience and respect and giving of yourself to someone else.
You’re speaking to something that I would call almost a servant leadership mindset or a conscious leadership mindset that is really something more than just words on a page or values on a wall. It’s actually a way of being that takes a little work.
It takes a lot of work honestly. We do a course on emotional intelligence. In the emotional intelligence course, we literally say having a high degree of emotional intelligence is not just about being nice. While we want to be nice and we should be nice, sometimes challenging conversations must be had. If I avoid those challenging conversations because I want to be nice, that’s not helping develop the workplace. Servant leadership is much like that too. I want to be of service to the people that work for me or work with me or to my superiors, but I want to do it in a way that helps them grow as people.
I can give guidance to my direct reports from a servant leadership perspective that helps them be more effective in their work. I’ve also helped them be happier individuals and I’ve also helped them be more effective as managers. The servant leadership high emotional intelligence model is what drives trust. As we said, trust is what builds engagement, and engagement is clearly a differentiator in the workplace today. We know companies with high levels of engaged employees have lower turnover, are more profitable, sometimes by large amounts, and are seen as those best places to work that win the awards that we all see in professional publications.
It’s really interesting to me that companies see the results. Oftentimes companies speak to how businesses and people are our most important asset. In reality, sometimes their actions don’t align with that or they don’t make the investment in the training and the learning and development and these types of topics. Can you help people understand how they should justify making that investment?
I agree with you 100% in that slogan. I’ve even blogged about this on LinkedIn, that we say people are our most important asset. In fact, in the sense of how much money we spend in a business on payroll and benefits, clearly it is the number one cost in business, your people. If that’s the case, if your number one important asset is your people and you say it, then wouldn’t you want to invest in them? You invest in them in a lot of different ways; professional learning and development processes are great. Make sure that there’s an accountability piece that’s built in so that what is learned is actually put into practice. It’s not only, as much as I would love to say, “Yes, please join my Crestcom business here in San Diego because I will be able to help you create more effective leaders. I’ll also be able to demonstrate an ROI for the investment you make in tuition.” That’s just one component of it.
The second component of it is building a trusting workplace. The third component is having a compelling why. Why do we do what we do? Why are we in business? Make sure every single employee in the building knows what that why is. What is our strategic plan? How have we communicated our strategic plan to move the business forward, to move you forward as an individual working in this business? What have we done to create a workplace that is safe and secure and where emotionally I feel validated coming to work every day? It’s a big package of things to do. If you don’t know where to begin, we can certainly help you. Do the work of investing in your people. Don’t just pay at lip service.
Interestingly enough, we’re talking about investing in your team and allocating the resources and the vehicles for the team to grow. I think the one important part to underscore here is I also must invest in myself. I don’t know about your experience but a lot of the executives that I have run into, they don’t have the investment and a personal developed planned for themselves, even an objective coach that helps guide them through these activities with the commentary that, “I just don’t have the time,” or really what amounts to a choice that we allow to happen to us instead of owning our leadership style.
Hollie, I agree 100% with what you just said. I hear that a lot in the industry, “Gosh, I’m too busy to invest in myself. I just don’t have the time to learn new leadership skills. My managers are too busy to attend the leadership development program.” I would challenge you to look at that on its face value and say, “Perhaps that’s because there are inefficiencies in your process that are causing you to waste time.” Are there mistakes the managers are making? Are there challenges that they’re not addressing that undermine the trust that we’ve discussed previously? Are there issues that you don’t know how to solve? In some cases, what you don’t know hurts you. It is a logical extension of wanting to be a better manager and a better leader that I’m going to invest in myself and I’m going to invest in my team.
It’s a very loving activity actually. It shows how much you care and why you really care about our business. I think that is an intentional strategic decision that can serve just so many people to, as you say, be better, do better and live better, which is a beautiful intention.
Thank you very much. That is my purpose statement in life. I’ve discovered over 25 years in leadership development and human resources that if you ask a leader, a lot of times the leader will say, “My people are great. My people are fine. I’ve got them right where I want them.” If you ask the individuals, “Would you like some developmental opportunities?” They’re going to say, “Heck, yes. Yes, I do want to be developed.”
I’ve got three takeaways that I’ve heard today. The first one that I’ve heard around the art of effective leadership communication for a leader is truly listening and being present, so that you can actually be appreciative of the feeling and emotions and what’s happening with your teammate or your colleague. The second is to ask good questions and ones that are not judgmental in tone but possibly that allow the person to express what’s truly going on in a trusted safe space. The third takeaway I had from our conversation is to truly, strategically, intentionally invest in both team and self to really create that differentiating edge that puts you ahead of the competition. Those were the three takeaways. Would you add anything to that or amend those?
I don’t think there’s anything to be amended. I agree with all three of those statements. I think that the one element of asking great questions, in addition to uncovering how someone feels or believes about a certain thing, it’s also to understand how they think and gives you, as the leader, the opportunity to know where their development areas are. Then to help them think through what it is that they could do to solve a particular problem they’re having with your guidance. That’s a big element of building trust and engagement as well.
I’d like to end with three or four questions that I usually standardly ask each of my guests. Let’s start with what does true authentic leadership influence look like to you? What would you tell people?
I tell people that inspirational leadership is a leader who is first and foremost trustworthy. Since they’re trustworthy as we’ve said previously, they inspire trust in others. Trust in the workplace is paramount to engagement. What is inspirational leadership look like? I always have a picture in my mind of a general manager I work for when I was in the hospitality industry. He always made the person the he was engaged in conversation with feel better about themselves. Regardless if it was a problem, he was working with them to correct or he was recommending or congratulating someone for a job well done. You always felt better about yourself after talking with that gentleman.
You mentioned in there the word inspiration which leads to my next question. Is it important that leaders inspire their employees today? Why or why not?
You have to inspire your employees today. We’re working so much faster with so much more technology, with so many more expectations, with so in many cases fewer resources that we have to be inspired that what we do matters, that what our work does is making a difference. That is fulfillment when we’re inspired and fulfilled we will give discretionary effort. Discretionary effort is what makes the difference in a business being moderately successful or hugely successful.
If you were to recommend one tip to every leader, what book, what thought leader, what should they focus on today?
I personally, certainly, would recommend our program because I know that it works and it develops effective leaders and a fantastic ROI. One book or process that I would recommend still is timeless, it’s a classic. It’s never going to go out of fashion. It’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. You move through a process of personal and interpersonally effectiveness first before you can become publicly successful or effective. I still believe in the principles that Dr. Stephen Covey put in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People all those years ago.
Thank you, Mike. I so appreciate your time and sharing your expertise with us. For those of you that have been inspired or interested to know a little bit more about Mike, you can definitely find him at CrestcomSoCal.com. He’s also on LinkedIn and Twitter. Feel free to reach out to him. Mike, I’m so glad that you’re here. Thank you for sharing.
It was wonderful. Thank you very much, Hollie, for the opportunity.
About Mike Nowland
Mike Nowland’s purpose in life is to help people be better, do better and live better! With nearly 25 years of leadership experience in the Leadership Development and Human Resources realm, he is an expert in working with managers and senior leaders to improve their effectiveness personally, professionally and within their teams. He has worked with companies such as ResMed, Marriott International and Kisco Senior Living. In partnership with Crestcom International’s leading edge global leadership curriculum, his services include coaching at the individual level and training at the organizational level. Learn more at: www.crestcomsocal.com