How to bring quiet leaders out of their shells

Comms pros can help even the most introverted leaders flourish.

When your organization has big news to break to its employees or major changes on the way, the message is often best when it comes from a leader. But what if the otherwise perfect person for the job is on the shy side, or isn’t comfortable taking on the role of a company spokesperson? That’s when you have a chance to put on your advisor cap.

By helping leaders understand their influence by implementing strategies to get them comfortable, you can crack quieter leaders out of their shells and make them excel as communicators in their own right.

Grasping the impact of a leadership role

The first step in transforming a quieter leader into an impactful communicator starts with letting them know that employees want to hear from them. Cheryl Fenelle Dixon, communication strategist and principal at Perfectly Clear Communications, explains how it begins when comms pros help leaders take a step back to gain a clearer view of employees’ roles and how they figure into that equation.

She described “the curse of knowledge”, in which people are so intimately involved in the creation and function of something (an organization, in this instance) that they lose sight of the fact that not everyone has the same journey of understanding.

“They don’t always understand how the impact of their roles relates to others or why it’s important to actually communicate,” Fenelle Dixon said.

“I’ve heard so many times from leaders that no one wants to hear this or that — it’s our job to convince them that yes, they do want to hear from you.”

It’s incumbent upon comms pros to instill that understanding in leaders — especially those who might be more reluctant to speak. Show leaders examples of effective executive communications that resonate well, both with employees and external stakeholders, such as Daniel Ek from Spotify’s personal, empathetic note about the company’s layoffs, despite his reputation as a leader who mostly works behind the scenes. When a shy leader makes an effort like this, it shows they care.

Media training and proper framing

Even when a leader is on the quieter side, it doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable wisdom to share with the organization. Beyond tapping the right leaders for the right message, it’s important to empower them so they feel like they can excel in getting certain messages across.

According to Danielle Veira, founder and CEO of Minerva’s Legacy Coaching and Consulting, comms can ease the stress and apprehension a more reserved leader might have about communicating with media training that helps leaders understand the value of their voice.

“If you make leaders feel like they’re being tapped not because you’re out of voices, but because they have something valuable to share, it can make the process a little easier for them,” Veira said.

In a session about how to media train executives, Johnna Miller, director of media and advocacy training at the American Farm Bureau Federation gave top-line tips for communicators working with leaders on their comms skills, including:

  • Building trust to enable honest feedback.
  • Preparing spokespeople for multiple types of communication.
  • Helping spokespeople gain confidence in their ability to communicate.

Veira added that communicators should take care when walking quieter leaders through a media training process to increase their comfortability, emphasizing that there’s a reason they’re the one the comms department chose for a given message.

“It’s on us as communicators to build trust,” she said. “Comms needs to not just train leaders, but be with them in the moment so that they feel comfortable and supported.”

Authenticity, personality and vulnerability matter

When breaking that quiet leader out of their shell, it’s important to consistently remind them that what they’re saying must always be authentic to who they are as a person. That authenticity looks different for different people, and that’s why it’s necessary to be judicious when determining which platforms are best for which leaders. Catch the inauthentic words or phrases in edits, call them out constructively and have a discussion around them.

That could also mean in-person engagements for one person who isn’t as comfortable with hearing their own voice on a mic, or recorded media for a leader who doesn’t excel in front of crowds.

In January, we covered some things that leaders can do to instill authenticity and connect to their audiences, including:

  • Make emotional connections to build trust.
  • Avoid jargon and humanize big ideas.
  • Be specific and use personal examples.
  • Tell stories that provide solutions.
  • Be authentically personal.

“It’s a fine line to walk because you’re marrying likeability, relatability and authenticity,” Fenelle Dixon said.

Fenelle Dixon remembered a time at a past organization when the CEO would send all employees a ten-minute voice memo on Mondays to talk about the business, but also go on for about ten minutes on personal notes and things he saw that he felt were relatable. On one such memo, the CEO shared that one of the letters on the office sign in a highly trafficked area of New York was out, the chief executive shared a funny quip.

“He said ‘That really makes us look like dorks,’ and we embraced that,” she said. “It was so authentic and real that we were laughing with him.”

Just because a leader is on the quieter side doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable wisdom to share. You can be the conduit to helping that wisdom flow out to the rest of the organization and the world.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports, a good pint and ’90s trivia night.

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