Scenario A: You’ve become a manager or an executive for the first time. Now what? How are you going to “sound” like a boss in your written and verbal communication? Is there such a thing?
Scenario B: You’ve promoted a wonderful employee into their first managerial or leadership position. You know their skills and intellect are rock solid but you also know their new role includes new responsibilities to support and motivate their team, and to represent the company externally. How can you help them develop the confidence and skills to write with sophistication and confidence?
When I stepped into my first non-classroom managerial role – a college associate dean position that that required me to supervise about 100 people – I knew I had to ignore the little taps of Imposter’s Syndrome on my brain’s door and embrace the opportunity to apply my abilities in this new and exciting way. Part of that entailed developing the confidence to communicate effectively with my team through emails, meetings, and one-on-one conversations; and to communicate with other leaders across campus and across the country. I soon realized this was an area full of opportunity: if I did it right, I could now use my voice and develop my writing style to help others do their best.
Leaders use their voice and develop their writing style to help others do their best.
New leaders constantly encounter this opportunity in the workplace when they:
Email team members as a group and individually
Inform others about new protocols and policies
Share their new ideas and decisions with their teams or their own bosses
Post on internal sites or on social media
Conduct successful and inclusive meetings
Communicate effectively and with empathy in one-on-one situations
Participate in high-level discussions (via email or in person) that include both lively debate and collaboration
Email with outside audiences like vendors and partners
Write and deliver annual performance reviews
Represent the company in both written and verbal communication.
Helping New Leaders Write and Communicate Effectively
So how can we help new leaders gain the confidence to succeed at all of the above? In short, how can we help ourselves or someone else write like a boss? With practice and reflection, new leaders can easily internalize the following four strategies and apply them in any workplace writing or communication scenario.
Be direct and clear.
Leaders need to be clear and transparent with their teams, and direct and straightforward with their partners and peers. To write in a way that shows you’re transparent and straightforward, emphasize tangible nouns and verbs, cut the fluff out of your writing. Here’s how:
Start with a noun that’s a real thing. Use “the team” or “Tuesday’s agenda” or “New loan procedures” instead of “It” or “There are,” and make that noun the first word of your sentence.
Add an action that’s a real thing. Use a verb like “collaborated” or “includes” or “require” instead of “is” or “are” or “has been.”
Once you’ve got your noun and verb, you might be done with your sentence, or you might need to add the object. Examples with the above nouns and verbs include:
The team collaborated on a new gift drive for local charities.
Tuesday’s agenda includes time to discuss the upcoming board meeting.
New loan procedures require fewer steps.
Be empathetic, supportive, and motivating.
Your new role includes ensuring others feel understood, supported, and motivated to do their best, and your written communication to your team should reflect this. To help your team feel recognized and engaged, articulate what they’ve done well, own anything you’ve done badly, and avoid making assumptions about what drives their performance or their mistakes.
Your writing can reflect this by:
1. Be careful about your use of “you.” This word risks taking an objective situation and making it sound objective. For example, “The slides for tomorrow’s meeting are out of order” sounds a lot different than “You put the slides for tomorrow’s meeting out of order.” Stick with the facts and avoid the accusations.
2. Articulate in writing the successes of your team, and be specific. We all remember getting a quiz or paper handed back in class with a simple “Good” penned on the top: pretty unsatisfying. Instead, opt for “Good work preparing the materials for last night’s board meeting.” Keep this brief but don’t let it go missing.
3. Don’t provide “answers” for other people. Don’t suggest that you know why they feel a certain way or did a certain thing.
4. If you’ve made a mistake, be sure to own it briefly, and then move on.
Think about your reader more than about yourself.
We’re all important, but in a writing situation, the reader is top dog. Whatever correspondence we’re working on wouldn’t even need to exist without the reader. This means that before beginning any piece or writing, or entering into an important meeting or networking situation, we should analyze our audience a bit. At minimum, be sure to think about the following:
Values: What’s important to this reader in the given situation or topic? Do they most value brevity, punctuality, collaboration, innovation, inclusion, the bottom line? Make sure you address the way your topic matches their values. For example, if you’re writing to an executive who deeply values inclusion, be sure you take time to point out the way a decision was arrived at collaboratively.
Context: What does the reader already know about the situation, and what do they still need to know in order to get what you’re saying? Leave out the details they already know, and add in the facts they haven’t been privy to.
Think about your goals in each correspondence, and stick with those goals.
You have a purpose for writing, so make sure that purpose stays in charge. Are you trying to inform somebody about something, or persuade them? The reason you’re writing helps you decide which words to use. Informative writing should be heavier on data and facts and should stay objective (no opinionated words!). Persuasive writing can go beyond the facts to include reasons why something is a good idea (or not).
Internal leadership development programs today are smart to incorporate training in writing and communication for new leaders. That top electrician, teller, or salesperson will become a top leader too when supported with the right development opportunities. Helping our new leaders write and communicate effectively means we ultimately help their teams succeed too.