So much about leadership is driven by the quality of communications at all levels of a business, especially between the leader and the management team. Ironically, people are seldom taught how to manage the quality of their communications. In certain professions, it’s even looked down upon as being too “soft” of a skill.

One of the biggest constraints businesses must face are the cultural norms about how people develop communication skills.  Communication skills are often considered soft skills, versus “hard” skills which produce a direct outcome, such expertise about how to fix an IT problem, or how to analyze financial reports.  Hard skills are frequently given extensive attention.

To illustrate the point, I was recently asked by my alma mater, Miami University, to come back and speak to students who have English majors about how they can use their major to become successful in business.  The paradox of this is that the “hard” skill for English majors is communication.  If you can’t successfully communicate – orally and in written form — you’re not thought of as someone who should be graduating with a degree in English!

In complex situations, which define most business interactions,  communications must be considered a “hard” skill!

Many English majors are successful people in a variety of careers because they ultimately find that effective communications skills are the keys to the (enterprise) kingdom  — yet speaking and writing well are just table stakes for successful executives, who must also possess nuanced emotional and interpersonal skills.  Ironically, while  interpersonal skill is clearly a requirement for executive advancement, I believe most companies fail to concentrate on these skills in their management development programs.

Let’s look at our dogsledding metaphor for a moment:  in dog sledding, the Musher must make sure that each command given to the team has a sound that is different from other commands.  In addition, command words must be different from other words that the dogs know, such as the dog’s name, the names of its kennel mates or names of people in the family. “Whoa” and “No” really sound too much alike but they are in such common usage that instead of changing the commands, the Musher changes the way they are said.  “Whoa” is low and drawn out, while “No” is said high and sharp.  Mushers are deliberate in the ways that they communicate, and further, they work to create a unique catalog of commands so that they are well understood and confusion is minimized.

Equally, Mushers are careful to manage the emotional dimension of their communications as well.  The Musher intentionally uses a high and happy tone of voice for “going” commands and to praise the team.  They use a low tone and draw out their voice for “slowing” commands.  I think it’s interesting how much that same techniques can and do work with people.  Ask yourself, do subordinates tend to focus on the content of your message when your voice is raised, and sharp, or when it is calm and your pace is deliberate.  Further, which style tends to lend more gravitas to your presence as an executive?

To further the point:  Mushers are careful not to use tones of anger or admonishment with their dogs (unless a fight is occurring).  Leaders will frequently have to express dissatisfaction with their subordinates, but this represents an important learning opportunity for the subordinate, and a loyalty-building opportunity for the leader.  Admonishment for failure or poor performance should always occur in private.  This shows the subordinate that, while you are unhappy with his/her performance, you nonetheless respect them as a person.  Equally, keeping a level head and avoiding anger and profanity is a demonstration of the leader’s wisdom, self-control, and executive composure.  The leader is modeling a behavior that the subordinate finds magnanimous.

Where have you seen  interpersonal communications skills (or lack thereof) impact your business, with either a positive or negative result?  Were you in a position to provide a coaching lesson to those who failed to treat communications as a hard skill?

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Happy Thanksgiving from the Musher

Hello readers, I will be taking a week off from publishing because of Thanksgiving here in the US. I will be posting again next Wednesday. Best regards to all of you who are reading my blogs. Safe travel to all of you who may be traveling, either for work or pleasure.

Thank you for your feedback and support!


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Synchronizing the Sled to the Team

In dog sledding, the size of the sled makes a big difference. Sleds that are too light become unruly. They’re skittish and difficult to keep on the trail. If the dogs are too powerful, they swing the sled out too fast.  If the Musher doesn’t provide enough counterweight, they spend all their time trying to brake and slow the sled down. The musher spends too much time trying to adjust for the energy and momentum that the dogs provide because they’re too strong for the sled.

You need a team that’s properly sized to the sled because the corollary to this is that if the sled is too heavy, it’s not really going anywhere either. You don’t want to mismatch the weight of the sled with the dogs. Further, along the lines of momentum, a sled that’s too heavy is very difficult to stop. If the Musher can’t brake the sled, the dogs get run over. Maybe you haven’t anticipated that there’s a snow dune or something that looks like a piece of good hard earth and it’s really just a snow shelf. You don’t want to go off on that thing because you’re just going to get buried! Continue reading

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Harnessing the Business with Process

There are a couple of physical devices on the sled that don’t exist in a firm’s management structure. Harnesses, yokes, and guide wires actually hook the dogs up to the sled, create distinct distances between the dogs, and help to define their roles. These things also help define their position relative to the sled and to the Musher. Continue reading

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Dog Fighting

One thing that is talked about a lot in dogsledding is all the ways to break up fights.   You have to be careful where you take hold of fighting dogs because they may bite you!  Continue reading

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Positioning the Team

Leaders must first concentrate on team design by focusing on team member roles and responsibilities. Many organizations fail because of poor interaction between management team members whose roles are not defined or are in conflict with each other.  Poor interaction produces poor results.

One of the most important responsibilities of the Musher is making sure that the dogs are positioned in the right places within the team.  The characteristics of the dog determine where they should be positioned. Certain dogs are even bred and groomed to be in certain places within the team.   There are three areas the dogs can be positioned relative to the sled. Continue reading

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Organizational Design

I really think that 50% of my secret sauce for successful leadership is in organizational design.

In my experience, many CEO’s simply aren’t aware of the negative impact their organization’s design is creating. In many organizations, it’s not clear that there even is a design.  Or as bad – it’s such a peculiar design that either the CEO is just kind of checked out, or s/he doesn’t know what they’re doing. Or both. Continue reading

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In business, if we are self-aware, we constantly evaluate our interactions with team members in light of what is good for us, for them, and for the team as a whole.  Team members look to the Leader to provide both intellectual and emotional guidance.  Each team member expects to be treated fairly – there is a sense of equanimity in business relationships that is critical to team success.

In the world of dogsledding, one of the core aspects of building a successful team is the communication and interaction between the Musher and the dogs. One of the things that the Musher has to do is avoid losing his or her temper. They have to equally work hard not having their voice reflect their feelings when they’re giving commands to the dogs, or even speaking to them casually. Continue reading

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Finishing “Safely”

Mushers have to be really good planners.  They don’t have to know exactly how things are going to work, but they have to have a pretty good idea of how they want to run the race.

In dogsledding, there are Mushers who just want to finish the race. That’s okay. They want to finish and do it safely. And then there are Mushers that want to win; yet, I don’ think anyone who’s effective as a Musher want to win “unsafely”. Continue reading

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Self-Interested Caretaking

I believe effective leadership is much like a Musher’s running of his or her dog sled team.   While the bigger picture objective is to win races, the Musher’s primary responsibility is the care and feeding of the dogs. S/he must make sure that the dogs have all the resources that they need to do the best job they can do — which typically means rest, fuel, love, and care.  Praise when praise is required. Discipline when discipline is required. Of course, we don’t mean anything pejorative by likening human beings to dogs. Dogs are pretty noble animals in their own right: they want to serve, they want to please, they want to do all this as human beings do. Continue reading

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