Effective communication is an absolute requirement for successfully starting a business, but it doesn’t come naturally to many entrepreneurs. Communication is considered a social skill, and inventors and engineers, for example, are not known to be social butterflies.
Founders have to communicate their ideas and products to investors, business partners, and the rest of the team. Then, hopefully, come customers, distribution channels, and going public or merging with an attractive buy-out candidate. Communication is not just talking, but also writing, body language, and “actions speak louder than words.”
John Spence, in his classic book “Awesomely Simple” says that the single biggest problem he has to deal with in client companies worldwide is the lack of open, honest, robust, and courageous communication. He narrows down the problem to the following six aspects of communication, and I agree:
Honesty. This element is without question the most important in building strong communication in a startup. The implementation is simple – just tell the truth all the time, every time. It’s a lot easier than trying to remember what you said the last time, and people notice quickly. Build a culture of truth, and others will follow your lead.
Empathy. It is one thing to be honest; it is another thing to be brutally honest. Tell the truth in a frank and direct, yet respectful and empathetic, way. Shoot straight with people, but don’t shoot them between the eyes. Body language and sincerity are important here.
Courage. You need the courage to put even the most difficult and challenging subjects on the table and lead the discussion. Don’t wait until tomorrow, hoping the problem will go away. Courageous means that team members have the nerve and confidence to question authority, rather than dutifully fall in line behind a bad direction.
Safety. If you want people to tell the truth, you have to make it safe for them. Here is where your actions speak louder than your words, and louder than any written policies. If you obliterate someone for telling you the truth, you will never hear the truth again. If you are caught in a lie once, you will never be believed again.
Intellectual rigor. Although people should be safe, ideas should not be. In an intellectually rigorous culture, theories are tested, and people welcome, even encourage, critical examination of ideas and information, regardless of the source. The goal is for only the strongest ideas to survive.
Transparency. The hallmark of great leaders and organizations is that they share as much information with all of their stakeholders as often as they possibly can, in multiple contexts. Yet many leaders will tell me that they are continually amazed to hear the common complaint “why didn’t anybody tell me this was happening”.
Spence says that the best way to improve your organizational communication levels is to improve your own interpersonal communication skills. Luckily, these are skills that can be taught and learned. It takes practice and hard work, but with time, it is possible to greatly improve.
The key skills for superior interpersonal communications are effective use of body language, focused listening, expert questioning, using multiple sensory modes, providing both logical and emotional arguments, and listening for ambiguous or emotionally loaded words. But these are subjects for another day.
If you are one of those entrepreneurs who struggles with every email you write, take heed of the importance of the basic principles above, and take inspiration from the fact that you can and will improve your skills, if you are willing to work at it. But make no mistake about it, being an entrepreneur who does not communicate is not an option. Start today, and do it every day.