Leading Through Language and Listening
Who would the CEO of your organization most likely invite to a round of golf: the CFO or you? The answer to such a question would be revealing—and it shows a great deal about security professionals and how they are viewed by their contemporaries.
It has become a truism that in order to maximize effectiveness, one must have a seat at the table in the C-suite. And communication skills will likely play a paramount role in whether or not the organization’s ranking security professional ultimately earns that seat.
Business executives realize that, like it or not, their usefulness to others is regularly assessed and measured. That continual evaluation is reality. Security professionals who aspire to earn a place in the C-suite should realize that this situation is their reality, too.
Given this, security professionals who regularly speak and write in the language and style of the military and law enforcement run the risk of being valued differently from those who have MBAs and can communicate in the language of a modern business executive. Regardless of the ultimate value of their contributions, if security professionals communicate more like law enforcement officers than business executives, they will eventually be treated as such, and be compensated accordingly.
Much has been written on the broad topic of management and leadership development. But there is less guidance on the more specific area of executive communication, and the importance of these skills to the leader’s success. This is unfortunate, because in the workplace the language and presentation of an idea can be nearly as telling as the idea itself. Sometimes, a staffer will take his or her cues from this language when trying to evaluate the significance of the idea itself. A sound idea, poorly expressed, can be unfairly dismissed.
Getting on the Same Page
First and foremost, security professionals must recognize that one’s professional success is not just the product of doing a job well. It also depends on the ability to effectively communicate and adapt.
A manager cannot succeed by resting on the laurels of past accomplishments. However justifiably proud a security professional is about past accomplishments and successes, he or she should realize that current customers—whether internal or external—were not necessarily the direct beneficiaries of those past triumphs. In order to provide value, professionals must be able to continually and effectively communicate with colleagues and customers whose needs and expectations are in the present.
Consider that the three most used business language phrases in 2018 were “we’re on the same page,” “action plan,” and “game changer,” according to linguists. These terms are still heard frequently in workplaces, including security departments. Why might this be?
These phrases imply the need for action. When used in conversation, they communicate recognition of the increased productivity that will likely result when people get on the same page and agree to pursue a well-considered action plan. When executed properly, the resultant output is often a game changer. The phrases themselves may be getting a bit shopworn, but they still reflect the importance of teamwork and effort.
In addition, “getting on the same page” also has relevance when considering effective executive communication. To be on the same page as a C-suite executive often requires the ability to adopt a higher-level perspective.
For example, a manager is briefing the CEO about a security-related operational development. Before the conversation starts, the security professional should consider how the situation might look from the CEO’s perspective: How might this security development impact the company as a whole? Is there any long-term significance for the company? Can this development somehow help enable overall business growth?
Considering similar questions in advance—including how security can contribute to these business goals—helps a security professional show that he or she is on the same page as the executive. This preparedness and consideration helps establish the manager’s bona fides as a voice worth listening to.
Communicating big picture impact may also assist a manager with another key communication component: getting to the point. Most C-suite executives have multiple demands on their time, so a security briefing that seems to go on and on may not be well received. Big picture summaries serve as an effective way to end the communication: “The bottom line here is that this situation could be pervasive enough to impact…” Proposing solutions can effectively underline the conversation, but here the manager must be careful. In some cases, a solution may not be apparent, and it is dicey to suggest one that has a high possibility of failure.
Nonetheless, it is advisable for the manager to prepare for possible questions. For example, the manager can think about what might be unclear, especially to a non-security specialist, and have a thumbnail explanation at the ready. This can help professionals avoid getting bogged down with unnecessary detail as they struggle to explain concepts. If a manager is not exactly sure what the root of the confusion is, clarifying questions (e.g. “So what you want to know is how the funding aspect works?”) can help, so the manager does not waste executives’ time providing the wrong information.
In conjunction with preparing for questions, it may also be helpful for professionals to keep any arguments or proposals they are making as tight as possible. Avoid exaggeration or alarmism when discussing a problem. Double-checking statistics and spending time on the logical flow of arguments are good ways to do this. This can take additional preparation or a rehearsal, but it is usually worthwhile.
Know Your Audience
For many security professionals, the majority of communications involves staff and coworkers, as opposed to C-suite executives. In most workplaces, employees vary in age, but recently a relevant trend has emerged. Millennials—people born between 1981 and 1996, currently aged 24 to 39, according to the Pew Research Center—are now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.
By dint of this statistic alone, it is likely that a sizable portion of most companies’ employees will be in this age range. And a tried-and-true rule for communication is to know your audience. Social change and dynamics are shifting rapidly in many workplaces today, and clear and appropriate expression is more important than ever. If a company’s workforce is majority millennial, it behooves a manager to know some of this age group’s common qualities and attributes, so that communication style and content can be shaped for maximum effectiveness.
Those who study generational differences and behavioral patterns say that many millennials bring vitality and passion into the workplace, plus a strong desire to be heard. Many millennials also tend to openly seek recognition, fairness, and justice, regardless of their place on the organizational chart. For them, the rigidity and dogma of the past are obstacles to progress.
Security professionals should consider what these characteristics mean in terms of communication effectiveness. Millennials’ strong interest in being heard suggests that professionals should ensure their communications solicit input and feedback. Younger employees’ interest in seeking recognition suggests that professionals should regularly recognize them in their communications. And their interest in fairness and justice suggests that managers should pay attention to those factors when explaining company policies and actions.
Speak To, Not At
While some communication methods suit certain demographics over others, some tips are universal. For example, always speak to someone, not at someone.
When verbally communicating, a manager should not attempt to either impress or suppress the other party—he or she should not try to approach the conversation as a competitive contest in which the winner wrests control from an opponent. Unfortunately, some professionals do strive for conversational control, either by piling on self-acknowledgments or actively minimizing the partner’s participation.
Instead, a manager should strive to acknowledge the conversation partner’s point of view. Doing so validates the other party and demonstrates the manager’s interest in their input. Such an acknowledgment reflects active listening, and it communicates positive recognition. In addition, such acknowledgment may lead to further discussion of their idea. This can give a manager more insight into the idea, and ultimately he or she can respond more intelligently.
As remote workforces expand and digital communication becomes the default, a manager should err on the side of professionalism.
When communicating electronically, avoid shouting. DO NOT USE ALL CAPS or end your message with “..……,” “??????,” or “!!!!!!!”. The overuse of casual text abbreviations (lol, omg) should also be avoided.
Some experts recommend that, when replying to emails, a manager should always take an “executive pause” before firing back an angry reply. If the email that the manager has received is a provocative or accusatory one, the manager may want to set it aside and come back to it later, in order to send a more measured response.
Remember also that electronic communications, including text messages, are discoverable in the event of litigation. Childish or disrespectful communications can be embarrassing or worse for a security manager if he or she must later testify before a judge or magistrate.
In addition, curtail multitasking. Emailing while chatting with a coworker is not only rude, but it hinders the manager’s ability to learn. Verbal communication in the workplace is a great way to exchange information. While multitasking is sometimes praised by professionals as a way to enhance productivity, it can produce misunderstandings when mixed with verbal communications.
In addition to verbal and electronic communication, be aware of body language.
Many human resources professionals and some security professionals have received training on the use and interpretation of body language. This can often be useful.
For example, experienced fact finders know that when they are being told something less than truthful during an investigatory interview, putting down their pen and notepad silently communicates disbelief of what was just said.
Looking away during a conversation demonstrates a lack of interest in what is being discussed. Managers must be mindful of these messages.
Body language offers a manager an effective way to convey openness with a clear listening stance. Giving executives and coworkers alike full and comfortable attention while speaking, without distracted gestures like fidgeting and checking the time, is a boon for effective communication. It conveys interest and respect, and it engenders confidence that the communication will be productive. It also shows that a manager leads by listening, which in the end is one of the most quietly effective leadership styles of all.
Eugene F. Ferraro, CPP, PCI, SPHR (Senior Professional in HR), is a graduate of the Naval Justice School and has been the program advisor for the PCI Review Course for 12 years. He is founder and former CEO of the global compliance and whistleblower hotline provider Convercent, Inc.