The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?” is by Clark Valberg, CEO of InVision.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard or said this before: “Things would be great if it weren’t for our customers.” Before founding InVision, I worked as a consultant. All too often I’d hear and participate in conversations that included statements like that. Consulting can be a sharply cynical field, and anyone interacting with clients in a creative role knows it.
But that kind of thinking led me to a profound shift in my approach to business, customers and the way I communicate. Over time I realized that instead of blaming the uninformed customer or difficult client, a more productive approach is to recognize that customers don’t always know what they need even when they tell you exactly what they want—and it’s up to me to be a better communicator.
A lot of this can be blamed on structure. When you’re communicating with liaisons instead of actual decision makers, fumbles happen. Things get lost in translation. You start down a road that ultimately leads to failure without knowing that you were doomed from the start. Through this, I’ve learned not to take instruction, but to act as a thoughtful interpreter. Here are some ways to make that process easier:
Don’t be intimidated to go directly to stakeholders
This can be especially hard when you’re dealing with a more “old school” model of business, with layers of authority and bureaucracy. If that’s the case, ask the powers that be for explicit permission to go directly to the source. They’ll probably gladly agree. Then, don’t be afraid to go for it. You’ll establish yourself as an individual who values clarity and direct communication.
Be judicious with email
I have a rule of thumb for email: If there is a highly likely chance that a piece of information would be misconstrued or take on an unintended emotional bent, the conversation must be had in real time, either in person or on the phone. Email has a way of creating confusion and miscommunication, especially around delicate issues. Get on the phone or sit down across from one another and have a one-on-one conversation.
Embrace your role as a communicator
By following the two steps above, you’ll establish yourself as a conduit for useful communication. Some might fear this responsibility, but if you’re leader material, you’ll embrace it. This transitional role will give you a strong grasp on how communication is flowing, and enables you to understand the big picture before making changes.
Even for the most ambitious leader, being a hub of communication can be intense and time consuming. Look for ways to institute efficiencies, like incorporating Slack into your process, to make communication with your team and clients more organized.
My “aha moment” came when I realized that above all else, a good leader is a master communicator. That’s often misconstrued as being a master of persuasion, or worse, manipulation, but that’s not what I mean. Being a good communicator starts with being an empathetic listener who’s able to get the information needed and distill it down for actionable use.