News & Insights about Closing the Leadership Gender Gap

Leadership Lessons: Delivering Your Core Message


strategicChristine walked into her coaching session and before she even sat down she said, “I’m very nervous about a conversation I have to have with Jack who is constantly making disparaging comments about his co-workers.”

“What’s your desired outcome for the conversation?” I asked her.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

I tried again, “Why are you having this conversation with Jack?”

“To tell him how I feel about the disparaging comments he makes. They upset me. Yesterday I heard him tell Fred he’s an idiot and overheard him say that Tina is a ‘dolt”.” she replied looking at me as if I, myself, were an absolute idiot.

I had a very important reason for asking Christine what outcome she sought for the conversation. Many managers don’t engage in strategic communication. They don’t know what core message they must deliver – and they especially lose sight of their core message when having difficult conversations. They let their discomfort with the conversation get in the way of their effectiveness. And Christine’s answer indicated to me that she was no different than many of her colleagues. She was focused on her anxiety about the activity she faced – the conversation with Jack. She didn’t understand that she had in front of her a great opportunity for strategic communication. And she was confused about the concepts of activities, results and outcomes as they related to the situation at hand.

As I coached her through a discussion about the situation she came to realize that her expression of disapproval for Jack’s disparaging comments was anactivity intended to produce a result (that the employee would commit to stopping and to actually stop making disparaging comments). But the real reason she wanted to have a conversation with Jack was to create and sustain the important organizational outcome of service excellence (customer delight).

To achieve the organizational outcome, she realized that the discussion had to accomplish 4 things. Jack would have to:

  • recognize the value to himself of stopping his disparaging comments,

  • commit to changing his behavior,

  • work on better teamwork in service of the team’s goals for service excellence and  customer satisfaction, and

  • expect that she would be monitoring his behavior in order to recognize his respectful interactions and counsel him in the case of a disparaging comment.

“There’s another goal that you need to have for this discussion. There’s a superordinate goal for ALL conversations leaders have with employees. What do you think that is?” I probed further.

“Well”, Christine paused, “I always want the employee to feel good about any conversation I have with him or her.”

“How realistic is it that the employee will always feel good? If that’s an goal you have,  you run the risk of sugar-coating important messages. I’ve seen many managers get tripped up on this and say things like ‘it’s not so bad’ or ‘don’t feel bad about this’. That minimizes the important change you are asking the employee to make.  You don’t want to do that, so what’s a more realistic overarching goal?”

I sat quietly while Christine thought for a while. “I want the employee to feel whole and respected after the conversation.” she answered.

“Great answer. You now have 5 goals you want from your conversation with Jack. They’re what will transform the conversation from a personal complaint about your discomfort with his behavior to a strategic communication – the kind of communication that great leaders have.  Let’s role play the interaction you’re going to have with Jack.” 

As we talked and role played the discussion, Christine successfully transformed the essence of her message from

 “I feel upset when I hear you make disparaging comments about your co-workers”


The purpose of our unit is to deliver service to our customers, the whole team must work together to make that happen and your success here depends on your respectful treatment of your coworkers. When you make disparaging comments, like telling Lou that Tina is a ‘dolt” or calling Fred an idiot, you threaten your own success, the team’s effectiveness and ultimately the service we provide our customers. You’re an important part of the team and I want you to be successful. Tell me what you’re going to do differently in the future?”

A few weeks later, Christine called to tell me that her conversation with Jack had gone very well and she was noticing an improvement in his behavior.

“What are you doing about it?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” she countered.

Obviously, Christine was doing the right thing by monitoring Jack’s behavior and noticing an improvement, but I wanted to know if she were reinforcing his efforts to change his behavior? If she were not, she was risking being seen as one of “those managers” who only comment on employee performance when they’re doing something wrong. To be a great leader, she would also have to catch employees doing something right. So I asked, “Christine, have you told Jack that you notice a change in his behavior and what a positive difference it’s making?” 

“Well, no, I haven’t thought to do that.”

“Remember our conversation, what were the outcomes you wanted from the discussion?”

“I wanted Jack to

  • recognize the value to himself of stopping his disparaging comments,

  • commit to changing his behavior,

  • work on better teamwork in service of the team’s purpose of customer satisfaction,

  • feel whole and respected, and

  • expect that I would be monitoring his behavior in order to recognize his respectful interactions and counsel in the case of a disparaging comment.

I was quiet for a minute.

“I see”, Christine said, “I really need to give Jack the positive feedback about the change I’m observing…and about the positive impact on the team and our service levels.”

Christine had successfully found the core of her message, not only at the moment of her conversation with Jack, but now as she reflected on his changed pattern of behavior.  “You’re absolutely right” I said, “follow-up is a key element in strategic communication. It’s not just confronting behaviors that impede outcomes. Great leaders affirm employee behaviors that are in service of organizational outcomes.” 

Strategic communication is a key differentiator of great leaders. They keep in front of their staffs the key outcomes that the organization must deliver for its health, vitality and growth. They do this in difficult conversations and when giving positive recognition. They strategically communicate every day – not just once a year when they talk about the upcoming year’s plans and goals. Like Christine, strategic communicators find and hold closely their core message.

Topics: Leadership, Career

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