August 26th, 2014

Writing Skills And The Effective Leader

4th In A Series: Lessons On Executive Leadership Styles And Behaviors.

guidoPaul Danos is the longest-serving dean at a top U.S. business school — the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He began his tenure in 1995 when Amazon only sold books domestically and 150 million people relied on television to watch the O.J. Simpson verdict. Since that time, he has observed the significant impact of globalization on business education.

In an interview with Forbes earlier this year, Danos noted another megatrend of the last 20 years that he believes profoundly impacts business schools — communications technology, which is changing the way courses are delivered, and will eventually change how programs are structured on university campuses everywhere.

But in a world of instant communication, manifested in social media like Facebook and Twitter, he sees an important lesson for business leadership, specifically in the area of written communications. “One downside of new media is that people don’t take the time to really structure their thoughts into paragraphs and sentences, and communicate.”

‘Good writing is clear thinking made visible.’ –Bill Wheeler

Danos, like many executive development professionals, believes that you have a tremendous advantage in business, or any career path for that matter, if you write well. Good writers really stand out, Danos tells Forbes. “In business schools we should really think about this — are we giving every individual the feedback they need to become good communicators? Because business leadership is a lot about communications.”

The ability to lead effectively is based on a number of key skills, including an aptitude for writing. Yet, many aspiring to leadership positions struggle with producing consistently good written work product.

‘Nothing inspires a writer like reading someone else’s words.’ —Jeff Goins

“With today’s emphasis on fast communication through technology, it seems more people ask why they need to take writing courses or learn writing skills when they can just text (or e-mail) their views to employers, clients and colleagues,” says Joyce Russell, the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

On the contrary, good writing skills are even more important today than in the past, according to Russell. “Professionals spend more time each day writing and are inundated with written communications (reports, memos, studies) so it is imperative that employees be able to write succinctly and write well.”

coffeeOf course, reading and writing go hand in hand, and good writers are generally voracious readers. “Writers need to read. A lot. Magazines. Books, Periodicals. And so on. They need to grasp the art of language, to appreciate the finer points of words…nothing inspires a writer like reading someone else’s words,” says freelance writer Jeff Goins.

Beyond the practical need to write well as a means to communicate effectively are the obvious benefits of polished writing skills for the established leader wishing to extend his or her personal brand.

“Whether you’re scribbling a quick note to your team or crafting a feature-length article, you reveal a part of yourself in what you write. The nuances of your writing — word choice, sentence structure, references, and tone — are like interlocking puzzle pieces; they come together in your reader’s mind to create an image of you, the writer,” says John Hall, CEO of Influence & Co.

‘Whether you’re scribbling a quick note to your team or crafting a feature-length article, you reveal a part of yourself in what you write.’ –John Hall 

Hall asks aspiring leaders to seriously consider the importance of image in the business world. “Leaders devote a tremendous amount of energy to managing their image — and for good reason. Image shapes perception, and perception is currency. When your writing is strong, it garners respect; people listen to what you have to say. Bad writing, on the other hand, saps you of credibility and damages your personal and company brands.”

Obviously, it takes time, energy, and humility to improve your skills as a writer. However, the payoff, according to Hall, is immense.  Here’s what he says happens when you are at the top of your writing game:

1. You embed your vision and culture across a wide audience.

Though it’s not a substitute for individual interaction with your team members, effective writing can achieve much the same impact. Committing your vision to words enables it to reach a wider audience, both internally and externally.

2. You open yourself up to valuable feedback.

Leaders who believe themselves to be “above feedback” won’t lead for long. Direct feedback is a gift; it pushes us to explore, improve and innovate.

And because writing is an intensely personal process, every word invites potential criticism. Everything you write has the power to spark a discussion. Whether that discussion happens inside your company or amongst your industry peers, it will be a source of feedback — and might trigger your next big idea.

When you write well, you don’t have to shy away from the prospect of criticism. Good writing empowers you to embrace feedback with confidence.

3. You lead the conversation in your industry.

By publishing insightful written content, you can achieve several points of contact with multiple stakeholders at the same time. Positioning yourself as a thought leader in your industry will allow you to scale your influence.

In the race to become a thought leader, however, competition is fierce…but there’s still a quality deficiency. With great writing skills, you’ll stand out from the crowd and lead the conversation yourself.

4. You engage influencers.

Though the social media world may be obsessed with numbers (of followers, likes, etc.) what really matters is engagement. Recently, our company was retweeted by two different people; one had 1,000 followers, and the other had 150,000. Though the first user has only a fraction of the other’s audience, his followers actually listen to him — and it was his retweet that sent a flood of visitors to our website.

Few influencers will be willing to lend you their name if your writing isn’t up to par. But if you write well, influential people will align themselves with your brand — not just as a favor to you, but because they’ll see you as an asset for their own brands.

Excerpt from “Why Every Leader Should Know How to Write,” John Hall – LinkedIn.

Not surprisingly, Hall points out one major impediment to good writing for some leaders: fear.

“In his memoir, On Writing, Stephen King argues that fear is at the root of bad writing. And, despite all our hubris, there is plenty of fear in the world of business leadership. We’re afraid of running our companies into the ground. We’re afraid of being beaten out by the competition. And we’re afraid that others won’t perceive us the way we want to be perceived,” says Hall.

“For some, the perceived risk is just too daunting an obstacle…I know how hard it is to put your ego on the line. I still get nervous when I publish something. But it’s absurd to assume that you should be good at something if you never try. No matter how confident you become in your writing skills, there will always be room for improvement.”

‘In his memoir, “On Writing,” Stephen King argues that fear is at the root of bad writing.’ –John Hall

Hall has advice for both the junior associate aspiring to a leadership position in his or her organization as well as the seasoned executive leadership team (ELT) member looking to improve their writing skills and leverage their personal brand as a thought leader: seek out the best writers on your team. “Swallow your pride and ask them to critique your work. Are you communicating as effectively as possible? You’ll find that your team has a vested interest in helping you unlock your full potential as a writer.”

Given today’s technology, the number of platforms executives have to demonstrate their leadership abilities and showcase their personal brands through writing is growing. As Hall says, if you are not taking advantage of these tools, “you are letting fear stand in the way of opportunity.”

From Organization Systems International*

Polaris Competency Model

Writing Skills


Effective performers write clearly and concisely, composing informative and convincing memos, e-mails, letters, reports, and other documents. Regardless of the format, they are able to use the written language to convey both substance and intent with accuracy.

Effective performers…

  • write clearly and concisely.
  • Organize content effectively.
  • provide appropriate supporting facts.
  • convey ideas accurately in memos, e-mails, correspondence, reports, etc.

Tips for the current/aspiring ELT Member

  • Organize your thoughts before writing.
  • A good report is like a good speech: it contains an attractive opening, an overview, well-developed points using facts, examples and stories, and a succinct summation.
  • Reading is a good way to improve your writing.
  • Write it, then set it aside, then read it again before sending it out.

When evaluating performance, to what extent does this ELT member…

  • communicate effectively in writing?

*Organization Systems International (OSI) is a San Diego based, global consultancy providing “talent solutions” in Leadership and Management to an international clientele. The company’s services include competency modeling, executive coaching, and competency based interviewing, just to name a few.

OSI’s Polaris Competency Model has been incorporated into this series on executive leadership styles and behaviors to illustrate core competencies ideally found among the members of highly functional leadership teams. The model, based on the disciplines of organizational psychology and organizational development, provides a mix of science and art for evaluating executive level talent. It is often used in the hiring and promotion process, as well as in executive succession planningTo learn more about OSI, click here.

Look for the next installment in this series on executive leadership styles and behaviors: Presentation Skills And The Effective Leader, coming September 7.

Sources for this post:

Symonds, Matt, Want To Be A Business Leader? Brush Up On Your Writing Skills First, Forbes, January 23, 2014.

booklook2Hall, John, Why Every Leader Should Know How To Write, LinkedIn, December 9, 2013.

Russell, Joyce E.A., Career Coach: Are Writing Skills Necessary Anymore?, The Washington Post, May 22, 2011.

Goins, Jeff, Why Writers Need To Read If They Want To Be Good,

Previous posts in this series: 

Positivity And The Effective Leader

Relationship Building And The Effective Leader

Leadership Team Key To Optimizing Organizational Performance

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