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Play to their strengths

Photo by Kritsada Seekham via Pexels

A major challenge for communicators is the arrival of a new leader. Past success counts for little if the new leader (as is almost always the case) has been appointed to introduce change. The overriding skill requirement at such times is not anything technical but the evergreen trait of adaptability. Being able to put aside the past and focus fully will help you draw on your experience rather than be captured by it.

Leaders vary enormously. I agree with Peter Drucker that they are “all over the map in terms of their personalities, attitudes, values, strengths, and weaknesses.” Among the CEOs I’ve supported directly, one was as dominant as he was shy - brilliant and funny on stage, awkward and self-conscious off it. Another was an introvert and family man but who enjoyed the limelight so long as it was part of the role. A third was serious, courteous and diligent, who blossomed into being outgoing and funny. A fourth was energetic, charismatic and sharp, who became warmer and more empathic over time. None was alike the other.

As a result, making presumptions about an incoming leader is a high-risk game. You can (and should) seek advice from them directly and from their past comms support. However, I’ve found it healthy to reserve judgement, and make time to carefully study their traits, based on observation, data and audience feedback. Your comms planning can then be geared towards playing to their strengths and away from any weaknesses. It’s important to make this a priority. You are often one of very few people positioned to give candid and constructive advice. If they don’t hear it from you, they may not hear it at all.

A related challenge can be steering leaders towards strengths they may not realise they have. One of my CEOs was most comfortable making scripted speeches but had his best moments improvising around them. Another liked teleprompters and comfort monitors, not appreciating how much they stilted his otherwise conversational style. The third enjoyed the control of a prepared, recorded text, but excelled in unscripted ‘chatshow’ settings. The fourth was in his element when making senior keynote addresses, but was most impactful playing a part in storified videos. Using these ‘hidden strengths’ can feel uncomfortable. Leaders, as human as the rest of us, can need encouragement to do so.

If getting a new leader is a challenge, it’s at least as big an opportunity. It’s a chance to draw on the confidence you’ve developed in the past while stretching yourself into new areas and providing vital and much-appreciated support to your colleagues and the organisation more widely. You, like your leader, are likely to develop skills you didn’t know you had. Playing to their strengths is therefore key not just about helping them perform at their best. It’s also the surest route to ensure that you can play to yours.

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