How the Best Leaders Talk
Growing up, Charles Eide’s business role model was his grandfather, a successful land developer who employed hundreds of people. “He was that iron fist type leader, who’d lead with strength and fear,” said Eide. “People were always very careful what they said to him.”
In 2003, Eide launched EideCom, a Minneapolis-based event production company. He leads with anything but an iron fist. “I’ve learned that that’s not how you develop an effective team of people who trust each other,” Eide said. He listens to ideas and feedback from team members before making decisions. “People have to feel heard,” he said.
He encourages “clarity breaks” so team members can “get out in the sunshine and let their minds breathe a little bit,” Eide said. He refers to the company’s 14 full-time employees, its hundreds of contract workers and even its customers as team members. “Employees is a technical term,” Eide said. “We all have a role to play on a team.”
Eide is like many tech leaders who have launched or who head successful firms: They design their leadership language to connect with employees, underscore a company’s mission, communicate honestly and effectively, among other qualities.
How to Be a Better Leader Through Language
- Be honest when speaking to employees.
- Use inclusive language in all forms of communication.
- If your team is global, speak with that broad audience in mind.
- Use productive, not destructive, words and phrases.
- Use positive, not negative, words and phrases.
- Adopt a kind and gentle vocabulary.
- Listen to employees — language is a two-way street.
Evoke a Mission
At EideCom, team members don’t “work.” Rather, they’re “in service.” That phrase evokes EideCom’s purpose as well as the team’s. “I tell people to treat your coworkers like they’re your customer,” Eide said. “It creates a new level of respect and care for each other.”
He and his business partner, Mike Daniels, also consider themselves in service to the team, an idea Eide picked up from “The Customer Rules: The 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service,” by former Disney executive Lee Cockerell. “Focusing on serving our team and our customers instills a will of service that our team also implements,” Eide said.
Bring Teams Together
Kathryn Radovan uses “we,” not “you,” when she addresses her team. The use of “we” includes the leader in the team, and linguistically builds a bridge between leadership and line-level employees. “We win together and we lose together,” said Radovan, vice president of business development and strategy at Terra Vera, an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based agricultural-tech company that develops sustainable practices for cannabis cultivation.
Terra Vera, with five employees, is a startup, and Radovan said that keeping morale high can be challenging. It helps when everyone feels they’re in the same boat rowing toward the same goal. “Something as simple as ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ can be really helpful,” she said.
Sound Productive and Positive
Radovan comes from a corporate finance background. “It wasn’t crazy to hear profanity in the workplace,” Radovan said, though she wasn’t one to drop f-bombs. “I always thought, ‘be a leader you’d want your children to work for someday,” she said.
When delivering unpleasant news, she doesn’t gloss over it, but neither does she use nasty or unproductive phrases. For example, “that’s unfortunate,” rather than “that sucks,” conveys disappointment but not dire pessimism. “That’s the kind of language you need to be sensitive about,” Radovan said. “If a leader shows they’re dejected, then absolutely, team morale will fall.”
Use Kind Words
Along similar lines, Radovan avoids violent metaphors, for instance “let’s slay this” or “let’s kill this,” preferring sports talk (“move the goalposts,” “score more wins”) for her team, which is stacked with football fans. She’s also switched up “kill two birds with one stone,” the cliche that points to productivity and efficiency, with “feed two birds with one scone.” The twist, which she heard from her brother-in-law, “replaces something that is really violent with something that’s just very gentle,” she said. “You can imagine the difference between throwing a rock versus offering a scone to two bluebirds.”
Evolve Your Language With the Company
Earlier in her career, Radovan was the fourth employee at a startup. The founder and CEO spoke to and treated the small team like the close-knit group that it was. As the company grew quickly and employees became stakeholders with stock options, that changed. His language, once folksy and intimate, became more formal and corporate, with all-hands talks scripted by the company’s PR team. “He was very careful about what he said, because anything could be misconstrued,” Radovan said.
The evolution, she noted, was sad, but understandable. It also had the unintended, but possibly positive effect, of leveling the field between early-days employees who enjoyed that small-company intimacy and those who joined later and never experienced that culture. “I know it was less fun for him to be more candid, but it had to be done,” Radovan said. “The dynamics changed so dramatically overnight.”
Chicago-based Sphera, a provider of ESG performance and risk management software, data and consulting services, has grown to 1,000 employees in 12-plus countries. CEO Paul Marushka meets with leadership team members, who dot the globe, several times a week, and confers with people from various geographies almost daily.
He has evolved his language to more effectively and empathetically reach this far-flung group. “When I communicate, it’s not just the people I see in front of me, because that's easy,” Marushka said. “It's the people I don't see who are in a faraway office who may have an entirely different situation.”
To calibrate communications, he researches the situation in each country to be aware of political, economic and meteorological situations and encourages other Sphera leaders to do the same. One manager, for instance, told German colleagues to have a great weekend this past summer, unaware of the devastating floods in that country. Mindfully addressing a global group can also be as simple as starting a meeting with “good day,” which acknowledges that a morning meeting for him might be in the afternoon for another team member, he said.
Employees notice this attention to detail. “Paul takes a really conscious approach to internal communications, ensuring that all team members feel included, comfortable, seen and challenged to create a more sustainable change in the world,” said Nasser Amer, vice president of engineering at Sphera. “His way of speaking with us makes it clear that all of us – regardless of department, title or responsibility — are rowing in the same direction.”
Earlier in his career, Marushka sugar coated tough topics so as not to put off or scare anyone. No more. Honest and sometimes even blunt communication is clearer and fosters trust in leadership. “People want honesty and transparency and they can handle it,” he said. Honesty also fosters trust and respect among colleagues and senior leadership. “It’s like, ‘he says what he means and he means what he says,’ and that’s very important,’” Marushka said.
Hand in hand with transparency is the admission that sometimes even the CEO doesn’t have all the answers. That’s become clear as Sphera’s back-to-work plans have shifted along with the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant. “We have to say ‘look, we don’t have all the answers yet, but here are the people looking at it, and here are the processes, and here’s the frequency with which we’re going to communicate with you as soon as we get information and then make decisions around that,’” Marushka said.
Ask the Right Questions
Shahar Levi has led and managed tech professionals for eight years. Early on, he’d ask his team “what” questions, for instance “what is the goal we need to achieve?” These days, Levi is more apt to ask “how” questions.
“This new approach focuses on finding the right motivation and developing a well-thought-out plan and an organized structure,” said Levi, cofounder and CEO of Chicago-based Locusview, a digital end-to-end construct management platform for the energy, telecom and water sectors. “It’s less about the objective and more about the process along the way,” he said.
He’s shifted away from strictly focusing on goals in areas other than leadership. When Locusview was a younger company, he’d solve problems and keep management apprised of developments. Now he collaborates with management on projects, and collaborates with clients, too, rather than simply selling them a Locusview product as a solution to a problem. “I focus less on functionality and features and more on creating value through a two-way conversation with clients,” he said.
When times are good or bad, happy or sad, Jenn Azar lets her team know. She recognizes team wins with praise, confirmation and “giving them confidence and inspiration that they’re on the right path,” said Azar, executive vice president at NECI, a Mansfield, Massachusetts-based solutions and services provider for automation and digital transformation of manufacturing. Azar also expresses gratitude for her team’s work, and said that “I believe in you” is one of her favorite leadership phrases.
On the flip side, less-than-stellar moments also get ample communication, a change from Azar’s earlier leadership days. “Previously, when they were failing, I’d be frustrated that I wasn’t reaching them,” she said. “Then I decided that instead of ‘me’ telling ‘you,’ joining them to become ‘us’ could work much better,” she said. The team and Azar thoroughly debrief failures and misses, with the focus on lessons learned and moving forward rather than commiserations. “That’s been a journey for me,” Azar said.