Building Trust: How Communication Skills Set You Apart

The "Career Moment of Truth"

It’s a nice feeling to be asked, “What do you think,” isn’t it?

It’s all the nicer when you’re climbing the professional ranks and the person asking for your thoughts is someone important. Those instances show you that you’re valued. By the same token, learning that a decision was made without your input can be humbling, even infuriating. For instance, I remember being surprised and a bit angry earlier in my career when the company I worked for hired my boss without any input from me. It can sting when big decisions are made without you. You might have a similar memory you not-so-fondly recall.

Taken together, all of these moments in which people solicit your input (or don’t) “set the market” for your opinions within your company. Once someone asks for your input on a matter of a certain importance, you kind of expect that to be the norm going forward, don’t you? These moments also make for good measuring sticks, because whereas promotions are awarded infrequently, the business makes decisions all the time. If you want to know where you stand, look at who’s asking you for your opinions and about which things they ask; the more senior and more strategic, the better.

Google popularized the idea of the Zero Moment of Truth, or ZMOT, to describe the moment at which a person has a need or a question they want answered. They’ve built their business around being the go-to resource for people everywhere whenever they have a ZMOT. Similarly, a manager creates a “career moment of truth” (let’s call them CMOTs) for their teams whenever they assemble a group to solve a problem. A CMOT might be something highly visible like assigning people to a project or awarding promotions, but they’re often simply deciding whom to include on an e-mail or invite to a meeting. The quintessential CMOT to me is any time an authority figure decides with whom they want to share important information (and by extension, with whom they don’t).

To state the obvious, it’s in your interest to come up in peoples’ minds they have important matters to discuss. Being included by increasingly important people for increasingly important matters is the essence of career development.

Good Work Doesn't Speak for Itself

The critical question when you’re starting out is how to become a magnet for opportunities. Working hard is obviously a big part of that, but you can’t set yourself apart on effort alone in good organizations. Creating a network of people who will advocate for you is another important, but insufficient aspect. And while you can create opportunities to shine in any role, it’s especially hard early in your career to stand out when your responsibilities are so similar to those of your peers. That’s why for my money, tailoring your every communication to the response you want the audience to have is the key ingredient.

Just like you can’t expect even great products to sell themselves, you can’t rely on your work to speak for itself. Good work doesn’t speak for itself- you have to speak for your work. Communicating your ideas in a way that resonates with your audience (which implies you’ve thought about what will resonate with them in the first place) shows them that you understand what they care about. To put it another way, it shows that you “get it.” Managers are more willing to take a chance on someone whom they think “gets it.”

As import as it is, "communication skills" can easily turn into a check-the-box item on a performance review; I know it felt that way to me when I first started managing a team. I had high expectations for my direct reports’ communicative skills but didn’t know how to set clear guidelines. It was frustrating for all of us, so with help from my mentors I finally structured what had until then been too abstract for me to capture. Eventually, I felt I had something clearly said to my team, “here is what this really likes like when it’s done right.”

Modified only slightly since the original version five years ago, this is the progression I used to coach to my direct reports on improving their communicative effectiveness:

The Four Levels of Effective Communication

  1. Thoughtful – I expect a new hire or junior employee to learn how to find the “question behind the question.” At the start of your career you tend to spend much of your time executing tasks for others, so understanding why your manager (or whomever) needs what they are asking for is important. Only when you understand why someone has asked for something can you anticipate what else they need in order to answer their question completely. That’s the difference between an email I have to respond to with more questions, versus one that totally answers my question and really makes me want to say “thank you.”
  2. Thought-provoking – The next level is about showing people new ways of thinking about a problem or looking at some aspect of the business. For me, that meant not only did you answer my question in a holistic manner, but you also helped me think through the implications of your work and showed me what it meant for me/others/the business. It shows me that you’ve internalized my motivations and concerns and are focused on the right things without me having to lay it all out for you. Whether it’s an email response, a presentation, or a proposal, your work shows critical thinking all the way through, and I don’t have to worry about your thoroughness.
  3. Model-Framing – By “model framing” I mean helping someone else build their mental model of an idea with which they aren’t familiar. Implicit by this point is that you’re now originating more of the questions and problems of significance to the business. To me, doing this successfully requires not only convincing me and others of the importance of your idea, but also giving me the framework I need to make sense of it. They say that you don’t really understand something until you can teach it to a novice. When someone can make me feel well-informed on something totally new to me, they’ve reached this level and earned substantial trust and confidence from me. (By this point, written communication skills must be complemented by equally stellar visual and oral presentation skills).
  4. Trusted Advisory – The first three stages together ultimately let you strengthen professional relationships through personal relationships. That’s the final active ingredient for building trust (for a really long list of ingredients you can check out Robert Chen’s post on this) You don’t have to be drinking buddies with every client, but having a connection on at least something besides work, however small, is important for building trust. Remember that it takes humility and sometimes vulnerability to ask another person for their help on something important. Personal connections are key to bringing down the barriers to someone asking for your help on a problem.

In fairness, I didn’t evaluate my team on the fourth level (too subjective), but you should challenge yourself to evaluate your own professional relationships that way. Ask yourself how many people who matter would consider you at that level? If you don’t like the answer, ask whether you’re maxing out on the first three levels of communication. There’s no skipping steps, unfortunately.

Understand Why People Share Information

At work, people mostly share information with others out of self-interest. Colleagues include me in discussions if they believe I can help them, and I do the same with them; I share status updates with my executive team to manage their expectations and prevent future blowback; companies share information with investors and the markets to maintain their interest in giving the company money; and on and on it goes. We include people in discussions when they can help us get things done, or done better. The more opportunities you’re included in, the more chances you have to learn and show what you’ve got. You’re in control of that more than you think – starting with the next sentence you write.