Leadership communication is not about that perfectly phrased order, in the heat of crisis that will perfectly convey your intent and meaning. Leadership communication is about building a relationship with your subordinates, peers, and your own leaders, over time, so that when the crisis comes, they already know your intent, phrasing, and meaning and can correctly interpret the note you dashed off to them in the heat of the moment. Communication, just like physical fitness, is something that you must exercise regularly to be prepared when you need it most.
Every day, your subordinates, peers, and leaders are hungry to know what your priorities are, what you are thinking about, where your inspiration is coming from. How many times have you sat in your cubicle, and read an e-mail from the bosses with no idea why they are tasking you to do something? You spend hours working on a product that you think is close to the desired solution only to find out that your bosses wanted something completely different. A communications relationship destroys that black hole and gives everyone a shared understanding of the organization’s vision, mission, values, resources, and constraints. Micro blogging is a great way to build this skill.
Micro-blogging is where you share a message in a character-limited format. Many of you are familiar with the 140 characters or less restriction. The advantages of this are that you have an avenue of communication where concise communication is a goal of the medium. It requires less time on your part to type up your message, and less time for your readers to digest your message. This means that you can communicate regularly and still not take up an inordinate amount of everyone’s time doing so.
Let’s take a quick look at several advantages of micro-blogging for a leader, then develop some practical ways of using the medium.
You only have a few characters to communicate your message. This hones your skills at finding the right words to say just what you want to say, and no more. It also means that you need to have a clear idea of exactly what you want to communicate. You should not spend less time thinking about what you want to communicate, just less time typing it out.
So few characters are easy to read on our mobile devices. Ever read a full scholarly article on your phone? It’s not fun. But a message that only fills one page of your phone’s screen and is clearly worded? You can read and understand that anywhere. You can also type that anywhere.
Just a few words a day to reach your audience. You can craft a message in only a few minutes, while still regularly exercising your communication skills and providing those around you with a clear vision of your intent, priorities, style, and message. In an age where time is the leader’s scarcest resources, micro-blogging is an enormous asset.
Showing your network may be the most important part of micro-blogging. Your network provides important insights into where your messages are coming from, or how it is being influenced. It will inform your readers on how you are formulating your ideas, who you are reading, and who provides important information that you use. It also helps all parties to connect with each other, adding depth to their own networks. You may be the center of a social network now, but your central position will shift through time. Allowing everyone to see your network now will help them adapt and continue communicating as the social network inevitably changes over time.
Recognize the other writers around you. Finally, you can use micro-blogging to recognize and share the important messages of both your own leaders and of your subordinates. As a part of a network, you should not base your entire communications strategy around yourself. This defeats the purpose and advantages of a network (resiliency, communication, shared knowledge, shared values, etc.) Sharing the messages of your own leadership will help your peers and subordinates know what is important to the organization. Sharing the insights and work of your peers and subordinates recognizes their work and lets your own leadership know what people in your corner of the organization are doing. How many of you have had your own writing or thoughts shared by your organization’s leadership? It is an incredibly validating experience that makes you feel like your leadership actually cares about what you have to say. Now pay it forward and help your people be heard.
How can you turn all of those advantages into a working day-to-day system? Micro-blogging should only be one part of your overall communication strategy. Which means, you need a communication strategy. Remember, strategy is matching desired ends with ways and means. Clearly define what your desired ends are, then apply micro-blogging as one of the means for accomplishing those ends. Study and experiment. And realize that platforms and messaging rapidly change and you are expected to change with them. Here are a few pointers to help you get started or refine how you are already using the capability.
Create a monthly, weekly, and daily communications plan. Each message should be part of a larger narrative. By laying out an outline of what you want to communicate and when, you bring continuity that helps your audience understand the greater arc of your message. For example, if there is an important meeting at the end of the month. You begin the month with messages highlighting the problems that will be addressed at the meeting. Then you message out solutions that worked in the past or articles on research addressing the problems. Then you message the constraints your organization faces in addressing those problems. Then you address feedback from the organization on potential solutions. Throughout the week, you will tailor your message to the day of the week, a Monday message and a Friday message and a Saturday message are going to be very different. And through the day you will tailor your messages to the time and ops tempo. On the day of the meeting, your audience will have a better idea of what the problems are, have spent time studying and thinking about the problems, will have communicated with you and themselves about the problems, and be more invested in a solution that they helped craft, or at least understand more about why you chose the solutions that you did.
Use multiple platforms and tailor your message to each platform. For example, my Twitter network is skewed to academic military thinkers. My communications on Twitter reflect this. Those same messages would be completely inappropriate on Yik-Yak. These platforms have different audiences and different platform capabilities. Because you have a communications strategy and plan, you will keep continuity in your messages, while leveraging the advantages of each platform and its audience.
Tell people where to find you on each platform. They can’t follow you and read your messages if they don’t know where to find you. Include your handles on e-mails, your business card, in presentations, drop it in conversations, anywhere, anytime you are speaking with your intended audience. Your subordinates, peers, and leadership want to know how to hear your messages, let them know!
Keep it personal, keep it professional. The internet is full of bots, make sure you don’t sound like one too. Let people know who you are, that’s part of what you are trying to accomplish in the first place. At the same time you don’t need to look at your feed the next morning and hang your head in shame. Got together with old classmates and had a great “skull session” last night? Awesome! Share it! Got together with classmates and had an alcohol fueled “skull session” where great ideas included streaking through the quad? Hydrate! Don’t share it! You are communicating to be an inspirational leader, be inspirational.
Keep your accounts locked down. There are enemies who want to use your account for their own messaging, and there are people in your organization who will misuse your accounts. Don’t let them. Follow basic online safety protocols, have strong passwords, and keep control of your message.
Know your organizations policies on using social media. If you are in the military, there’s a regulation or a pamphlet for that. When using an “official” organizational account or handle, you may need to coordinate your activities through your local public affairs office or a similar organization. Think of them as an asset, not a liability. Leverage their knowledge. Be ready to teach them if they don’t know how to use a platform. This step seems to bring most leader’s use of social media up short, but every time I’ve worked with public affairs they’ve been willing and excited to help keep me in line with regulations while sharing our message.
Don’t just send messages, have a conversation. Communication requires a sender to send a message, a recipient to receive and interpret that message, then the recipient to acknowledge that they understood your message. You are not going to write the perfect message every time. Listen when the receiver sends back their understanding and be ready to clarify your intent and meaning. And be ready to change your message when you realize that your recipient’s replies add clarity or a better message than your own.
As a leader you need to be building a communication relationship with your own leaders, your peers, and your subordinates. When time is your most precious resource, micro-blogging offers an effective way to build and maintain that relationship. Take advantage of the connectivity technology offers to inspire the people around you, even if it is a fiber optic cable that is keeping you close.
Kurt Degerlund is an Active Duty Officer in the US Air Force who writes on leadership, airpower, and international relations. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense or the US Government.
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Header image: Seabees, Marines, Soldiers and members of the Afghan National Army take a tour of an area surrounding a newly completed Mabey-Johnson Bridge project.