Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford, is one of the hottest CEOs on the planet. He turned around the floundering Ford Motor Company and led his company out of the recession faster, better, and more successfully than either GM or Chrysler did. Under his leadership, Ford was able to avoid government bailout capital, refocus on the core Ford brands, and reengineer production to manufacture its Eco-Boost high-performance engines.
Mulally is also a skillful communicator, and he used his open communication style to marshal the actions of his employees. In just five years, Ford turned from near insolvency to a profit of $6.6 billion in 2010.
Mulally is an engineer, and his communication style by nature is technical. So what? Well, for one thing, he has mastered speaking to his audience’s minds and hearts using the art of storytelling. In fact, Mulally is a student of persuasive communication since childhood, when he sat up front in church because he admired his minister and sought to understand what made him such an effective speaker.
At the Detroit Athletic Club, where he accepted the Automotive Executive of the Year award, he told the story of his first day at Ford. He was walking through the executive parking lot and noticed there were only Jaguars, Land Rovers, and Aston Martins in the parking spots. All foreign brands owned by Ford, but no Fords were anywhere to be seen. “The case seemed clear,” he said to the audience. “If Ford brass won’t drive Fords, who will?” This endeared him to the audience, which was located in the heart and soul of America’s auto manufacturing industry. Mulally gets the power of communication and uses his competence to drive business results.
To connect what is inside us to what is inside others, we are limited to one means—the art of communication.
Become the Master
Let’s dissect this and study it more deeply. Fundamentally, a business, communication is the means by which two or more parties connect. Think of the art of communication in this setting as you would with learning any other skill.
Just like with skiing, or painting, or perfecting your tennis serve, take it one step at a time. My wife is a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do. When she was just beginning to learn the art, she was taught the most basic elements that are essential to master first: how to make a fist, how to punch and kick properly, and how to protect herself from injury. Mastering these fundamentals was the goal of the first belt level. Of course, before even beginning to learn these fundamentals, there was a level of commitment as well as a set of basic physical and mental requirements that she must demonstrate as the price of entry.
Similarly, communication skills at the leadership level involve specific capabilities at each level of expertise. At the lowest level are skills and behaviors that are the price of entry for leaders. For instance, leaders must have excellent written and oral skills. I am always taken aback by the way some leaders choose to express themselves, just a few carelessly written or ill-spoken words can devalue your leadership brand to anyone on the receiving end. Poor written and oral communication skills will definitely keep you out of the top echelon of the best leaders. So if that is where you strive to reside, then start here. Isn’t it interesting how often we see the imperative “excellent written and verbal skills” in recruiting ads for executive-level candidates?
Assuming you have these entry-level skills, then the next step would be learning presentation skills: the basics of understanding the members of your audience, connecting with what’s on their mind, and identifying your Big Idea. Creating a presentation that engages the audience, hitting the key points accurately and succinctly, and delivering it consistent with your personal leadership brand is a “first-level” skill for leaders intent on mastering communication. From there you can continue to work, honing new skills like projecting authenticity and passion, winning trust from your audience, telling a great story, and inspiring people to action.
Bottom line—and I do mean quite literally the bottom line—it’s your ability to communicate that has the greatest impact on engagement. In the organizational symphony, your voice is a powerful instrument that can inspire energy and emotion in your listeners. So what? So, communicate meaning, not just information, and see what power your words truly have to create the economic results you seek.
David Casullo is president at Bates Communications, a national consulting firm specializing in leadership communication skills and strategy. His passion is developing leaders who have the courage and capability to change the world. His most recent book, “Leading the High-Energy Culture,” has just been published by McGraw-Hill. Dave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.