We’ve just had the annual media fight over exam results and qualifications: is the educational system delivering the right mix of skills for industry; what is the status of new diplomas in engineering and construction; are qualifications getting easier?
There are also more consistent, long-term questions about the ‘personal/soft’ skills of new entrants to the job market: do they have enough social understanding?; can they work in teams?; do they understand work behaviours? Organisations like the Association of Graduate Recruiters and the CBI have flagged these issues as crucial.
Communication is, perhaps, the most serious and long-term worry. It’s not an add-on or additional talent; it’s a requirement to be able to work anywhere. It’s also, according to just about any leadership theorist a key component of effective leadership and gets more important the more senior a role is.
This emphasis is no doubt right but I’d claim it misses two important points.
• While a lot of the basic rules of good communication are the same, the ways they are used vary if you’re writing a report; addressing a meeting; taking part in a Q and A session; talking on the phone or writing an e-mail. It’s a complex set of skills which everyone thinks they can do – because they’re taught to read and write at school.
Yet, many people “don’t know what they don’t know”. A lot of my work comes from crafting communications for people and I think The Holst Group’s training and techniques are about the best on the market; not least because they don’t treat communication as a solitary act but as – what should be obvious – a way of interacting with people. I’d like to start talking about communications in the plural.
• A lot of communication problems are NOT with work entrants but with seasoned, experienced workers. In fact the worst examples of written reports, internal communications and major presentations I’ve seen have been by very senior managers. No doubt many of these learnt the ropes: many of them came from sales backgrounds and I’d seen then give superb presentations. But, the more senior they got, the less they felt they needed to refresh their skills.
Often they communicated too much and an over-used skill gets blunt. Some felt they simply didn’t need to follow basic rules. Of course, one of the keys to good communication is to take rules and then personalise them. This can result in charismatic, unusual and exciting ways of expression. But the decision to break these rules must be a conscious, thought-out one. If that’s not the case, communication can look amateur and I’ve seen CEOs give presentations or written reports which, frankly, shocked me. I suspect they also shocked shareholders.
So, in my view, EVERYONE, no matter what their position or seniority should look to refresh their communication skills regularly, just as the greatest sportspeople continue to train even if they’ve got a gold medal. And consciously skilled senior communicators will help provide models of good practice to new recruits, helping to solve the entry skills problem.