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  • Writer's picturePeter McKenzie

Leadership is a Science AND an ART – never underestimate the importance of communication skills!

One of the best bosses I have had in my career was called Brent Tanner. He had great charisma, a sense of humor, and always spoke his mind.

He was our EMEA Operations and Technology Head at Citigroup when I worked for him and what struck me was that for an O&T expert, he had excellent soft skills as a leader. He showed empathy, listened well, and...

He was a brilliant communicator!

Strangely enough though, in his mind, being able to apply a scientific approach to management was what he most valued. He took for granted what I felt were his greatest abilities.

I discovered this fact one day when we were both invited to give a talk to a group of American students who were visiting London.

They came from the Marriot School of Business and were on a tour of Europe, visiting several large multinational companies over the course of a couple of weeks.

Brent and I faced a packed room of young people in their mid-twenties. It was a great audience to speak to because they were keen to hear from us.

Many of them wanted to pursue a career in banking and they seemed pretty impressed by our smart offices in Canary Wharf (as well as the excellent catering we put on for them – they were still hungry students after all!)

After we had both run through a lively double act presentation explaining what we did as a business and how a career in Banking could be an interesting option for them, we closed the session with fifteen minutes of Q&A.

A young lady stood up and asked a really sharp question:

“If you had to name just one skill that helped you make it to the top of your profession, what would it be?”

Brent´s response surprised me somewhat:

“The most important thing is to learn to analyze a situation thoroughly. You have to use the same skills you learned when describing a Physics or Chemistry experiment or when tackling a Mathematical problem.

State the situation, explain the diagnostic and possible options and then propose an answer with your reasoning. This should all be done in a precise manner. An analytical and scientific approach to tackling problems will ensure your success as a leader. Most people are not able to do that.”

Most of the people in the room nodded, agreeing with what Brent had explained. The majority had a science background. The answer resonated with them.

It was then my turn to answer.

Of course, I agree with what Brent has just said. He is my boss!”

(the students laughed at that and my annual bonus was secured!)

“Seriously though, I think analytical skills are important. I have spent most of my career as CFO managing finances. There isn´t a much more analytical role than that.

However, what I have found has been a key to success for me, at least, has been learning to communicate effectively, to stand up in public, and convey a message to a group of decision-makers.

I don´t mean reading data off a PowerPoint slide, such as the financial performance of the company. I mean being able to transmit energy and conviction into what you are saying, to get a message across that inspires action...that provokes a change.

To do this requires being able to tell a story, to write a great script, to hold the interest of the listener, and to connect with their emotions as well as their logical mind.

Effective leaders can do this. Most people cannot. I wish someone had told me that when I started my career. For me, it has become a skill I have learned that enables me to stand out from other CFOs.”

After we had finished the session and were polishing off the remains of the catering, one young lady came up to me and said I had really inspired her.

She told me that she had studied Theatre and she had always felt a bit of a black sheep amongst her other colleagues from the business school. However, after hearing my comments, she now saw that she had an important skill, even a superpower.

She was a confident and competent public speaker as she has performed on stage for years.

As an artist, she now saw that she not only had her place in the business world, she even had a competitive advantage over the rest of the group.

(Writing this now has made me think of how important communication skills are for professional women in what is often, unfortunately, a male-dominated environment. This was captured recently in a great article posted by my friend and fellow coach, Kyoko Takeyama. Read it here)

Of course, Leadership is a Science AND an Art.

Brent was right.

Great analytical skills are a prerequisite to becoming a business leader. However, this is where nearly all people concentrate their efforts. There are plenty of people who become competent analysts.

Fewer people concentrate on improving their communication skills, which I believe are MORE important to become an effective leader.

For this reason, I ALWAYS recommend emerging leaders to work hard on improving their communication skills, especially if they want to have both a competitive advantage and a fast track to the very top.

If you need help with your communication skills, please reach out for coaching

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