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Communication & Leadership Success: An Interview with Bob Herbold

Posted by Dr. Thomas Clark & Richard Zaunbrecher on Sep 26, 2017 10:00:00 AM

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As COO of Microsoft (1994-2003) and SVP at Procter & Gamble (1986-1994), Bob Herbold understands the relationship between effective leadership and the practice of outstanding written, oral, interpersonal, and nonverbal communication  In addition to his notable executive experience, Bob is author of three books:  What’s Holding You Back?:  Ten Bold Steps that Define Gutsy Leaders;  Inside Microsoft:  Balancing Discipline and Creativity; and The Fiefdom Syndrome:  The Turf Battles that Undermine Careers and Companies—and How to Overcome Them.

Now head of The Herbold Group, Bob agreed to speak to us about his insight into what communication skills are important at the individual and organizational levels—and also, based on his experience at P&G and Microsoft, how managers communicate differently in a mature consumer products organization and in a rapidly growing software company.

What communication skills did you look for in people you were considering for leadership positions?
To me the following two skills are critical:

  1. Listening – An individual needs to genuinely appreciate what others are saying and listen very carefully for the points the individual is making. Without this skill/tendency, individuals are cutting themselves off from good ideas and useful suggestions.
  1. Logical Thinking – An individual needs to formulate in their mind on a particular issue what their conclusion is, details of the rationale that would support that conclusion, and the proposed action that should be taken because of this. This is vintage P&G thinking. When you step back, it is simply common sense, and what you would expect from a good leader.

How did people’s ability to communicate affect your assessment of their performance?
Clearly communications skills are pivotal to the success of a leader.  These skills must be multi-faceted.  The individual needs good 1:1 skills in interacting with people, the ability to think on their feet and orally communicate with a group, and the ability to write a persuasive document that captures succinctly how they are thinking about a problem and what should be done.  Absence of these skills hugely disadvantages an individual in carrying out leadership efforts. 

What “must haves” did you see?
Besides the two skills listed above of listening and logical thinking, a good leader needs to have respect for others and patience.  That last attribute is the hardest to master because the more confidence a leader gains, there is a tendency to quickly believe that you have a problem figured out and that you want to move on with a solution you think will be best.  Often the demise of seasoned leaders is related to this tendency to quickly assume they know the answer and move to action.

What “fatal flaws” have you seen in others’ writing or speaking? 
The key fatal flaws relate to the absence of the previously mentioned listening and logical thinking skills—as well as two others that cause listeners to quickly shut down when a leader is trying to communicate:

Sideshows – Too often you see speakers who wander off to unrelated areas because they think they are interesting or fun to communicate, and they turn out to be irrelevant in making the point the individual is trying to communicate.  This often takes the form of the speaker rambling on and on, bouncing from “one sideshow to another” causing people to quickly check out.

Always Selling Something – We’ve all seen speakers who quickly get in a sales mode as to why their position is correct and bend over backwards to convince you they are right.  What they fail to do is to logically bring the audience along, taking them through the detailed rationale of why a particular position makes the most sense. 

How did you use your communication skills to overcome “legacy” roadblocks in your corporate roles?
“Legacy” roadblocks are typically made up of individuals who want to stick with the current practices and are threatened by any change, or individuals that have a clear bias to a particular point-of-view and simply won’t listen.  From a leadership standpoint, all you can do is continue to make the facts obvious and the rationale for why they lead to a particular proposed direction. You need to be persistent and patient in doing that.  But, there are times when a leader needs to step back and say “ok, I think we have thoroughly thrashed this out; here’s where I think we need to go, and it’s time to act.”  People don’t want to be a member of a debating society; they want a chance to provide input, but they want to be in an organization that makes things happen.  . 

Give an example of a leader who has unwittingly practiced schizophrenic communications.
A perfect example in today’s business world is the CEO of Tesla.  While the organization is building a great car, the CEO tends to drive people nuts, particularly the financial analysts on Wall Street.  He constantly over-estimates what will be achieved and creates all kinds of side shows, such as his idea of building a tunnel between New York and Washington, DC, sending you from one city to another in a capsule at remarkable speeds.  The next day he’s talking about organizing a new community on some distant planet and how great it will be.  The company clearly needs some mature leadership while putting this individual in charge of R&D. 

How did you encourage leaders to learn to communicate clearly in difficult situations
The key to encouraging and developing good communication skills starts with delegation of authority while remaining close enough to the situation so that you can provide constant feedback that is focused on improving individual’s skills and the performance of the organization.  People learn best by doing and developing strong people is all about enabling them to get a lot of experience.

Did you promote a current best approach to communicating at Microsoft   such as P&G’s 3-part template for communication:  Orientation:  Objectives; Body: Results vs Objectives; Steps: to better meet objectives? 
The area that required immediate attention at Microsoft when I arrived was in the marketing end of the business.  Back in late 1994, when you asked people to “name a software company,” 95% said IBM and 10% said Microsoft.  The PC business was exploding and the machines were either IBM PC’s or other brands like Dell, HP, etc. which were called “IBM-compatible” PC’s. 

Few people recognized the fact that it was Microsoft software that was really unleashing the capabilities of all of these PC’s.  That’s when Microsoft began television advertising focused on telling people and showing them that it is Microsoft software that unleashes a PC’s potential.   Eighteen months later, when you asked consumers to “name a software company,” 85% would say Microsoft and about 30% would still say IBM.  It didn’t take long after that for those figures to move to almost 100% for Microsoft.  This big change was driven by the simple P&G discipline regarding the communication of what Microsoft’s role was in the world of personal computers. 

What communication practices did you learn at P&G that you found most useful in your roles there and at Microsoft? 
What I learned well at P&G were the listening skills and the logical approach to communications described above.  What I quickly found at Microsoft was that they excelled in these areas.  This surprised me because I thought P&G was quite unique in this area.  What I soon realized was that Bill Gates was exceptionally talented in these areas and was clearly demanding them in how business was carried out at the company. 

What differences did you see in communication practices at an established consumer products leader, such as P&G, and at a rapidly growing software leader, such as Microsoft?  For example, was one more focused on written messages than on oral and electronic messages?  What was the impact of the use of these different communication preferences? 
The big difference between Microsoft and P&G when I served at those organizations was the speed of the basic industries in which they participate.  This is  due to the underlying technologies and the speed with which they were developing. 

I often tell people that technically, it’s harder to learn how to remove a Merlot wine stain out of a white shirt than it is to double the capacity of a microprocessor.  For P&G, this caused long development schedules of real product improvements, while in the technology business, we were being inundated with new capabilities and the task was to quickly capture them in the products and make them available in very usable ways to consumers. 

This meant you couldn’t take the time to write long documents at Microsoft. You were quickly communicating by email and verbally in order to move things along rapidly.  While documents about long term direction were written, the norm was speed via email and brief meetings to decide on direction and implementation. 

As we read about new employees using newer modes of communication, including email and texts to traditional legacy messaging, such as memos, long reports, and phone calls, Bob Herbold reminds us that several communication skills are critical to leadership success, including respectful listening, the facility to communicate a clear and compelling argument, an ability to be laser-focused on relevant priorities, and the confidence to provide accurate and honest feedback on employee performance—skills that transcend differing generational communication preferences.

Topics: Experts, Professional Writing