Want to Last as a Leader? A State of the Union Address Helps You Stay On Top

Far too often, when Professionals are promoted to their “dream jobs,” they experience something closer to a nightmare. In fact, research indicates that up to forty percent of executives fail within the first eighteen months of taking on a new role.

While there can be any number of reasons why a particular leader falls prey to this trend—misjudging the company’s political climate and executing change too quickly, not meeting the expectations of board members and shareholders, or simply having a personality and management style that is at odds with the company’s culture and values— one of the biggest derailers for any new leader is a lack of effective communication when first coming on board.

In the twenty plus years I have been coaching executives, I have found that leaders have far greater success when, within a month or two of taking on a new role, they give what I call a State of the Union (SOTU). Like the U.S. president’s annual address to Congress, the SOTU provides leaders an opportunity to introduce themselves, lay out their vision for the company or team, impart their values, and ultimately get their “employee nation” on the same page.

As I tell my clients, the most effective SOTU speeches include three things: who you are, where you’re going, and what you expect. It involves speaking with both your heart and your head, and should convey authenticity, passion, and energy. So, if you want to ensure that your State of the Union encompasses all this, follow these simple rules:

1. Get personal

Share your backstory, both personal and professional. Let people know what has shaped you, what you stand for, what’s important to you. Your employees want to know about the person who is leading them and will really appreciate hearing it directly from the source.

Let me give you an example: one client expressed his good fortune in being raised by smart, nurturing (and really tough) women in a big Irish-Catholic family. He shared how they had encouraged him to apply to Harvard and Oxford, schools he never thought he could get into, but did. He went on to explain how even now he relies on his family for advice and support. Afterwards, in feedback about the speech, his employees commented positively about his openness to input and counsel and how, as a result of learning that about him, they felt more comfortable speaking up.

2. Don’t leave anybody guessing

Everyone wants to know what kind of culture you hope to create. Tell them what you see working well and why, and then what things you want to improve and how you plan on doing it. For example, if the company is suffering from redundancies due to being siloed, share your ideas for working across departments.

Clearly and concisely lay out your overall vision, business goals, priorities and strategy, and how you plan to measure progress. While providing your ideas for future changes, also offer examples of how you’ve achieved past goals, or instances of success from your predecessor or someone outside the business.

3. Clue people in to your leadership and communication style

Letting people know how you operate (including sharing some of your faults with good humor) builds both rapport, and open and direct communication with your employees. For example, a newly minted CEO candidly confessed, “I can be a little overzealous when I get excited about something and I have a terrible tendency to interrupt, so please, don’t be afraid to stop and say, ‘I wasn’t finished.’ If you don’t, I won’t improve, you’ll get frustrated and eventually hate me.”

One leader admitted to micromanaging but explained that keeping him regularly updated would make him more comfortable and less inclined to over-reach. He also shared that his natural shyness shouldn’t be mistaken for arrogance or snobbishness – as unfortunately his wife has pointed out—but that he is a true introvert and is working to learn some extroverted behavior. This simple revelation caused hundreds of people in his audience to smile and relax back in their seats.

In another SOTU, one seasoned senior manager explained that too many long emails (she called them novellas) made her head spin. Through that admission, employees learned it’s important to get right to the point with her and always label the subject line with a pithy bullet point alerting her as to what is in the text. This saved everyone a lot of upset and confusion by letting them know specifically how she best receives information, verbal or written (something all executives should communicate to their team).

In many cases, SOTUs take a backseat to other new leadership responsibilities, which frequently come with a steep learning curve and big desires to quickly make a mark. But taking the time to prepare a great State of the Union shortly after you “take office” is one of the smartest investments you’ll make. Then, continue to do it at least once a year, and preferably twice. The upside is that the themes you lay out in the first and subsequent SOTU addresses can then be reinforced in team meetings, client pitches, weekly wrap-ups, and performance reviews. You’ll find that getting everyone on the same page will make for far smoother sailing, especially when storms move in as they often do during that critical first year on the job.

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