Leaders Know How to Communicate Vertically

Boat harbor, Kennebunkport, Maine

It seems like every week I write about two primary leadership topics: communication and decision-making. If you were looking for something different this week, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you understand and appreciate the value and significance of these two topics, perhaps you’ll stick around and read my short article. I hope you do.

Good communication helps us coach, set clear direction, encourage, receive feedback, influence outcomes, console, inspire, take appropriate action, and so on. Communication is a broad topic and is a field unto itself. There’s written, verbal, and non-verbal forms of communication, each important. There’s the audience. Who is receiving the message, a group, an individual, a friend or a family member? What are the social and educational dynamics at play? What culture in which the communication is taking place? How is the receiver wired to interact with their environment? For example, using the Myers-Briggs construct, are they an introvert or extravert, a thinker or feeler, and so on.

During the last several days, I’ve been on the road. A lot! I’ve driven from Connecticut to Maine and back. And I’m currently in Toledo, Ohio. My little white Prius has been collecting mile after mile. I don’t mind driving. In fact I like it. Ok, aside from city traffic and associated gridlock. But I enjoy roadtrips. Seeing the country and taking back roads. I like stopping at little hole-in-the-wall places (like Tony Packo’s in Toledo). And I like seeing the various landscape, topography, and climates afforded by a long road trip. Yes, I like flying as well (depending on the destination, time available, etc.), but I would never want to give up my roadtrips.

This last weekend I drove in my 49th state (Alaska here I come!), Maine. My wife and I had a great little adventure to Kennebunkport (ME). We did a bit of sight-seeing and a lot of lobster-eating. Delicious! During our short visit I spoke with waiters and waitresses, servers, hotel desk clerks, and a grocery store cashier. I also spoke with some hotel guests who came outside to join us at the fire pit one evening and a couple who sat beside us at breakfast.

In the last few days, I’ve also spoken with a hotel desk clerk, a server and a state trooper in Ohio (not sure whether I should be disappointed or proud that my Prius was clocked going 85 mph in a 70 mph zone; or whether I should be bitter that my CT-tagged car was pulled out from amongst a LOT of OH-tagged cars going the same speed; I was even in the middle!; no, not bitter–haha).

During the last 6 days, I’ve also spoken with an executive vice-president, a retired COO, several mid-level career executives, 2 pastors, family members, friends, a retired general, and a CEO. These folks have been scattered throughout the US and in 3 continents.

What’s worth pointing out is that each of these folks have different personalities, educational and socio-economic backgrounds, jobs, roles, aspirations, faith, etc. But it doesn’t prevent me from communicating with them. You see, I believe it’s important to communicate vertically. I believe it’s important to develop the skills needed to talk with the homeless guy, the CEO, the janitor, the Harvard MBA student, the waitress, the Air Force general, the high school kid who lives next door, the medical specialist, and so on.

A few keys to remember:

  1. Just do it. You don’t have to be perfect. Just talk. And LISTEN. It won’t always go smoothly. Life is messy.
  2. Be transparent and be yourself.
  3. Use plain language. Don’t use obtuse language when speaking with someone who’s homeless.
  4. Speak/ask about what’s important to them. If you don’t know, learn. Understand the audience. One quick example: Nearly every hourly associate in the world can tell you when their shift ends and how much longer they have until the end of their shift. I often ask how much longer they have to work before their shift ends because it leads to great conversations. In Maine, one of my servers said she had 3 hours until she got off and then she was going to race home, grab her two dogs and go for a walk along the river while the weather was so nice. In the process, I learned the location of a great, local river trail unknown to most outsiders.
  5. Read and travel. The more you read and travel, the more you’ll expand your horizons and your ability to connect with a wide-range of people.

Bonus: Remember to have fun. It’s kinda like a game.

Have a great week and remember to practice your vertical communication skills. Great leaders communicate vertically. Be a great leader.

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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Photo by Author

2 thoughts on “Leaders Know How to Communicate Vertically

  1. Thank you for this post. Although framed a little differently, my dad had taught me to treat everyone with respect regardless of their status in life and that one can learn from others regardless of their education. Because of that, I can speak to and have spoken to the president of worldwide organizations, CxO’s and the homeless and everyone in between with respect have have learned and treasure the experiences.

    • Alex – thanks for sharing your story. Glad to see you following in the footsteps of your wise dad and building upon his legacy!

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