7 Tips to Get Your Team to Actually Listen to You

Chairman of HighTower Advisors and of CorpU

Right from the outset, entrepreneurs must pay attention to every communication and opportunity for sharing their passion and vision.  They must communicate effectively, so they can inspire others to come aboard.  They must speak honestly and in ways that reveal their personal character and genuine connection. Yet, this sort of communication style can be difficult and time consuming – especially when demands are huge and time is scarce.

There is far more to being an effective and authentic communicator than most entrepreneurs believe — at least when they are starting out. Even if you think you’re good at speaking to your team and motivating them, there’s always more to learn.

Leadership communication is a discipline and a practice: The more time, effort and heart you put in, the more effective you become.  There really are no shortcuts.

That said, here are seven ideas that can help you focus your attention and improve your leadership communication.

Related: Founders: Don’t Let Your Ego Get in the Way of Success

1. Be authentic.

When you speak with your employees you must come across to them as real. This means sharing your beliefs and your struggles. Talking about moments of doubt but also explaining how you overcame them with more conviction and confidence than ever. Or perhaps share a story or two about a failure and disappointment in life.

My most convincing talks at Schwab were when I shared stories about my personal weaknesses and what I was doing to overcome them or my disappointments and failures and how I turned them around.

2. Know yourself.

Dig deep.  Know your values and what motivates you.  If you don’t know yourself you cannot share or connect with others. People want to know what makes you tick as a human being not just as a leader. Share this and make yourself real.

3. Rely on a good coach or a trusted advisor.

Developing good communication skills takes time — and in the rush of business, that’s scarce.  Having someone who can push you to examine and reveal your interests and passions is enormously helpful and the value is immeasurable.

Related: 3 Leadership Traits That Transcend Skills and Experience

4. Read up on leadership communication.

If you can’t hire a coach, read all that you can.  I consider Terry Pearce’s best-selling book Leading Out Loud to be the bible on this subject, and assign it to all my students.

5. Make values visible.

Effective, empathetic communication and a commitment to culture can provide a solid foundation for your ideas and contribute to making it a reality. Many of today’s most successful companies have gone through dramatic crises.  Their improvements often hinged upon genuine communication from the leaders.

For instance, think of Starbucks and Howard Schultz’s clear and genuine communications about the importance of managers and baristas being personally accountable for future success. Your employees want to know what you and the company stands for. What is the litmus test for everything you do? These are your values. Talk about them but you must always be sure to “walk the talk” and live by them.

6. Engage with stories.

As a numbers guy, it took me some time to learn that if you want to make a point and convince people, you can’t rely on facts and figures alone. It’s stories that people remember. The personal experiences and stories you share with others create emotional engagement, decrease resistance and give meaning. It is meaning that gets employees’ hearts and fuels discretionary effort, thinking and desire to actively support the business.

Once I was implementing a massive pricing cut at Schwab. I could have presented reams of data about this change and why we needed to make it. Instead I invited in four clients of the firm who had written me letters about why after more than 10 years they had decided to leave due to our pricing being noncompetitive. Everyone was engaged and quite horrified to hear this feedback. Getting the team’s support for the change was much easier after that.

7. Be fully present. 

There is no autopilot for leadership communication. You must be fully present to move people to listen and pay attention, rather than simply be in attendance. Any time you are communicating, you need to be prepared — and to speak from your heart.  Leadership communication is, after all, about how you make others feel. What do you want people to feel, believe and do as a result of your communication?  This absolutely can’t happen if you read a speech. No matter how beautifully it is written, it doesn’t come across as authentic or from your heart if you are reading it. Embrace what you want to say and use notes if you must, but never read a speech if you want to be believable and move people to action. (And yes this requires a ton of preparation).

Your speeches are visible and important components of your role as a leader. Successful entrepreneurs are conscious of that role in every communication, interaction and venue within the organization and beyond. They also know that while today’s world provides a wide range of ways to communicate to your organization — mass email, text, Twitter, instant message and more —connecting is not that simple. Electronic communication is a tool for communicating information — not for inspiring passion.

Art of Managing—Moving Beyond A Failure to Execute

OCTOBER 29, 2014


Ram Charan writing in his article, Conquering a Culture of Indecision (found in the HBR 10 Must Reads on Making Smart Decisions collection), offers,“The single greatest cause of corporate under-performance is the failure to execute.”

While there’s a Thanks, Captain Obvious, feeling inherent in Charan’s statement, it’s his explanation that should give most corporate managers a cause to pause and even squirm just a bit.

I paraphrase: Such failures (to execute) usually result from misfires in personal interactions…and it’s these poor personal interactions that perpetuate a culture of indecisiveness.

Charan goes on in this very useful article to focus on the issue of building a culture to promote the right type of honest, robust dialog that leads to decisions.

There’s little doubt in my mind that decisions are the fuel that creates locomotive power in organizations and that high quality dialog leads to better decision-processes. The absence of timely and unified decisions on direction and priorities, not only sustains the status quo, it creates a corporate trap where people act like there feet are encased in cement blocks. Movement slows and when it occurs, it’s disjointed and short-lived.

The lack of healthy dialog manifests itself in a variety of symptoms in an organization, however, there are three key contributors to a failure to execute that jump out at me over and over again in my travels:

1. A wholesale failure of senior leadership…from providing clarity on direction and strategy to actively working on building and reinforcing an environment that promotes accountability for execution, learning and continuous improvement.

2. The absence of an empowered and unified middle-layer of management. While senior leadership is again at fault here, the layer of mangers in the middle controls the work that gets done in a firm and often has more power than it understands or uses in pursuit of execution.

3. The lack of creative or productive tension or dissatisfaction on the part of the entire workforce that good isn’t good enough, AND the belief that they are charged with the task of doing something about it.


While it’s easy and appropriate to indict senior management for all three of these contributors to poor performance, the issues tend to be more sins of omission than commission.

Most senior leaders care about their firms, their teams and their results and spend their time working hard in the business. And most middle managers work extraordinarily hard to keep things moving, often while coping with being under-staffed and operating in a state of uncertainty over the bigger picture of the firm and its strategies.

Resolving the failure to execute problem is much more like a long-term fitness program than a quick weight-loss diet. It involves changing the thinking about what’s most important for organizational health and success and doing the hard work of developing new habits that support continuous improvement.

It’s the hardest work senior leaders and managers will ever do.

7 New Habits to Help You Move Beyond a Failure to Execute:

1. Start and sustain a company-wide dialog over direction. Everyone who walks through the door in the morning must know where the firm is headed and why. The lack of context for direction and specifically for how team and functional priorities connect to corporate priorities is a guarantee of poor execution. Fixing this starts with the right, regular conversations.

2. Work hard to link functional and individual goals to the corporate goals. While this sounds like some advice from our friend, Captain Obvious, it’s more the norm that I find firms where corporate goals are vague and there’s little cohesion between individual and functional goals and corporate direction. The failure to align here guarantees failure.

3. Move faster and smarter. Redefine the operating cadence to reinforce communication on performance and to encourage learning and improvement. Consider applying Agile approaches to your operations meetings, where reinforcement and focus on priorities occurs constantly and the emphasis is on identifying and solving problems. Frequency, speed and focused built upon a foundation of accountability…priceless. End the debating society culture that pervades most operating meetings and focus on talking about what it takes for the firm to win…one decision at a time.

4. If you are the CEO, rethink your role. Seriously. If you signed on for the job…all of this is on you. You control the corporate agenda, you are a major contributor to forming and framing the working environment and you own bringing clarity and direction to confusion. If you’re not the CEO help him/her succeed with these important tasks.

5. Give the customer a chair in every meeting. Literally. A nameplate at the table, a stuffed animal or a cardboard cutout…I don’t care how you remind yourself that the customer is present, just do it. If the focus is on new markets and future strategies, these new…even blank-faced customers must be present as a reminder that no strategy works and no execution plan is worthwhile unless it aims to do something for someone who can pay you for it.

6. Invigorate mid-level management. Help them recognize their critical role in execution success and ensure that senior leaders, give them support to improve instead of giving them hell when things don’t go right. If this layer of talent is weak, top-grade the talent to build strong management here. These are your future senior leaders.

7. Get the whole company involved in the wins and the lessons learned. Build the excitement and creative tension to improve by celebrating and sharing the small and big victories. The workforce at large has to buy into the idea that execution and continuous improvement are their responsibility. Management must bring this to life by ensuring that the heroic efforts, great victories and even challenging lessons are made visible as part of the daily culture of the firm.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

There are no silver bullets or simple solutions for business execution challenges. It’s a journey that starts with senior leadership and all of management focusing on what counts…giving clarity to direction and goals and working non-stop to support the people working hard every day who help you move closer to your goals. It’s good, old-fashioned, grind-it-out hard work. But once it starts to take root in your culture, the habits of winning take over and the work doesn’t seem so hard. Just exhilarating.