By Yukthi K. Gunasekera
An engaged workforce has a major bottom line impact, according to Gallup’s 2013 ‘State of the American Workplace’ survey, businesses with an engaged workforce made 150 percent higher earnings per share (EPS) than their competition in 2011/12.
How do you make your employees more engaged in your business? Victor Lipman of Forbes magazine says more and clearer top management communication to all organisational levels is the way.
“The art of communication is the language of leadership,” wrote James Humes. US President Barack Obama is living proof: his speaking might is the single skill that catapulted him from an unknown US Senator in 2004 to the US presidency a mere four years later. In his address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama eloquently articulated the bedrock of American values and related them to his own life. That speech led him straight to the White House.
I would submit that gaining and retaining of power (politics) and achieving sustained profitability (business) involves the same recipe: superior communication skills. Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address (SOTU) is sprinkled with communication lessons that CEOs can use to engender more employee engagement, resulting in greater profitability for their organisations. In fact, Obama’s approval ratings rose (39 to 45) and disapproval ratings declined (56 to 50) immediately after his SOTU address, underscoring the power of the spoken word.
1. Responding to stakeholders
Active listening to one’s stakeholders is the mother of all communication skills – it shows empathy and caring. A CEO that listens to her people is at a distinct advantage: at the very least she will know the actual state of her business and thus will be able to take necessary action to put her organisation on an upward trajectory.
Obama’s SOTU reflects a thoughtful response to the heartbeat of America – a response to the issues that keep Americans awake at night: impatience with the tardy economic recovery, lack of jobs, falling wages, war-weariness, anger at Washington’s dysfunction and concern about medical insurance, among others.
2. Appealing to emotions
Communication is emotion in motion. And, audiences are made up of people who are driven by emotions. Therefore, when CEOs make emotional connections with their employees and other stakeholders, they unleash the hidden creative potential of their people.
Obama knows this. Thus, he used many emotion-laden anecdotes to unite his bi-polarised audience: recognizing First Lady Michelle Obama for her landmark work in curbing childhood obesity (Michelle is more popular than the President!), applauding a factory worker’s daughter who had just got into the driving seat of America’s largest automaker (Mary Barra, CEO, GM), and saluting US Army Sergeant Cory Remsburg, who fought hard to recover from a coma after a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan nearly killed him.
In fact, Obama ends with Cory’s story, inspiring all Americans to work hard – like Cory - to secure freedom and usher in greater prosperity.
3. Adding value to stakeholders
Audiences expect leaders to add value to their lives. This is done through sharing of knowledge, insights and experience. In the SOTU, Obama calls on citizens to sign up for government-sponsored medical care to ensure their physical wellbeing, apply for college and obtain relevant skills needed to win in a rapidly changing economy.
4. Instilling confidence in the leader
A leader’s objective must be to inspire confidence in his leadership and ability to realize the corporate vision. Obama starts his SOTU by painting word pictures of a more prosperous America.
Note: he has been in charge for four years; thus he cannot pin blame on his predecessor! On the contrary, he has to state his success stories, for example: “A farmer prepared for the spring after the strongest five-year stretch of farm exports in our history.”
And, in a cantankerous and polarized Congress, he made it known that he was a super power within a super power: “America does not stand still and neither will I. So, wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
5. Dealing out optimism
A leader is a dealer in optimism: optimism about her organisation, optimism about her people and optimism about the future. Optimism powers Obama’s SOTU, which not only starts on an optimistic note, he reiterates his administration’s victories, and, at the very end, expresses optimism about America’s future.
Needless to mention that optimism engenders engagement, motivation, commitment, hard work and loyalty: key ingredients of a great work place. Likewise corporate CEOs need to focus on delivering optimistic messages to all stakeholders at all times, realizing fully well that stakeholders are aware about natural business cycles.
6. Articulating core values
CEOs are chief expressive officers of company values. GE CEO Jeff Immelt stated that the one thing that keeps him awake at night is the fear that an employee somewhere in GE’s worldwide business empire might compromise a GE value.
Clearly and constantly articulating company values is a CEO’s job. In SOTU, Obama reminds his audiences of the core values of the American Republic: opportunity (“Opportunity is who we are.”), industry, grit and patriotism.
7. Staying on message
Staying on message is a critical skill in CEO communication. Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch recalls having to deliver the same message to different audiences many times - on the same day!
Barack Obama has less than three years in the White House to create his legacy. He knows this. That is why his SOTU address focuses squarely on ‘action’: presidential action, alone if need be, to build a happier, more prosperous and peaceful nation. And, in doing so he sends a clear message to all stakeholders that he will not be a lame duck president.
The communication techniques used by Obama in his SOTU address can serve a CEO of a business organisation to create an organisation where there is greater employee engagement, thus ensuring not only sustained profitability but also an enduring legacy of good corporate stewardship.
(Yukthi K. Gunasekera is a communications professional with over 25 years of experience in public speaking. He is a linguist with fluency in English, German and Sinhala, with a basic competency in French. Yukthi is a US-educated lawyer who also holds a postgraduate diploma in marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, UK. Encompassing over 10 years of experience in corporate communication at IBM Sri Lanka and John Keells Holdings, his mission is to enable people to live rewarding lives through his proprietary training method ‘Communicate By Objective’ (CBO). Yukthi welcomes reader comments to this article - [email protected])