An Interview with Simon Lancaster

“You cannot be a great leader without being a great communicator” An Interview with Simon Lancaster

In September, Simon Lancaster taught ‘The Language of Leadership’ Module to our DC Advanced Leadership Program for Women, class of 2018. Simon Lancaster is an expert speechwriter with over 20 years’ experience writing for CEOs of Unilever, HSBC and Rio Tinto, and visiting lecturer at University of Cambridge. We spoke with him after the module to hear more about the importance of storytelling in corporate communications, the way female leaders have changed their communication style in recent years, and why it is essential for any aspiring leader to harness ‘The Language of Leadership’.

 

At the end of the module, you ask the female talents to write and deliver a speech. Why is it so important for future leaders to master speechwriting specifically?

I don’t think you can be a great leader without being a great communicator. Leadership is fundamentally about inspiring people, engaging with people, influencing people – all of which place a premium on communication. Whether you are looking at politics, business or civil society, so often the difference between the great and the not-so-great is one of communication.

Why is the language of leadership more broadly so important for this advanced leadership program, and ambitious female talents in particular?

It’s something that is really overlooked within MBA and leadership programs. A lot of business schools teach wholly the wrong language for speaking about business. They will use management consultant-speak to promote a mindset where the company is like a vehicle: “How do you drive change within a company?” “How do you accelerate reform?” What do you do to create maximum high-performance?” And language, thought and behaviour all work together. So, if you speak about a company as if it is a car, you perceive it as a car and then you act in that way. This kind of language makes your employees nuts and bolts. Only 16% of people emotionally engage with their employer around the world – it’s appalling and it’s an indictment of modern leaders. This kind of program is resisting that mindset, especially for women reaching up to the top level.

How have you seen the participants in your module improve over the two days?

The improvement is phenomenal. I love seeing what happens on these courses and, since the very first one, absolute breakthroughs have taken place. So many people are terrified of public speaking, it’s so rewarding to help people overcome it.

There are such simple techniques that you can use. It’s back to basics, and that is what good communication is. Most business school stuff uses overcomplicated, contorted constructs that people never have a hope of remembering. This is a refreshing and reassuring way of thinking about communication.

A more abstract question, given the focus of our program, do you have an opinion about why we have a problem getting more female top leaders?

My first speechwriting gig was back in the UK, writing for Patricia Hewitt, she was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and later Minister for Women. I was writing speeches about equality for her back in the late nineties. In the 20 years since, and with my female clients now, I’ve witnessed such a change in the way that women can present themselves and be perceived as leaders. During the late 90s, the main model for a woman leader was Margaret Thatcher. She was embodying male behaviours and most women leaders who followed her would try to emulate her. Now, there are many great women leaders who are quite comfortable to present themselves as women. They are not adopting a different voice or pretending to be men.

We’ve made incredible progress, but in answer to the question, the bottom line is still parenting. The conclusion for so many couples, still, when they have children is that the woman will stay at home, and the man will go out and work.

When my wife and I had our first baby, both of us went part time at the same time. But while I was being celebrated for taking time out as a father, she was being condemned, with critical meetings unnecessarily scheduled when she was out the office. Both of us would rather have maintained a balanced approach to parenting, but as a result, I spend less time with our girls, and she spends less time intellectually challenging herself. It’s a pain for both of us. Hopefully by the time my daughters grow up it will have changed.

We often hear about the different between men and women in terms of communication or leadership style, do you have a take on this?

There are generalizations about the way that men and women speak that are borne out by statistics. James Pennebaker is one of the greatest linguists in the world and the author of ‘The Secret Life of Pronouns’. He’s developed software that predicts, to a very high percentage, if the author of some text is male or female. Some of the indicators are for instance – unsurprisingly – the use of conditionals, where women will more often say ‘I think’ or ‘I suspect’, and the use of pronouns – counterintuitively – where men are more likely than women to use first person plural, ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

Of course, there is crossover. The speeches of Barack Obama or David Cameron were analysed, and they, linguistically, sound like women. In my experience, a lot of my male clients are now much happier going into traditionally female linguistic territory: being much more empathetic and using storytelling. In contrast, women can now be a bit more resistant to going into that space because they don’t want to reinforce the perception that as a woman they are “too emotional”.

What do you find most interesting when teaching this program, and the female talents?

The big breakthrough for me is always when people start telling their stories. It’s so easy on any program, or in any work situation, to keep it analytical and cerebral. On this course, there was a breakthrough moment when one of the participants told a story about something that had hurt her but shaped her. As soon as she did, the whole mood in the room changed and we had this incredible atmosphere of openness, where people were prepared to share and take risks. That’s why stories matter.

It’s almost like overcoming a taboo, because so many of us are taught not to bring the personal into work. If you have the CEO of the company with 300,000 employees working for them, if they start telling their stories they can transform that company.

In light of your final comment of the second day about disengagement with leaders, and the need for connection and human relations, how can female talents harness the language of leadership to fulfil their potential?

There are heaps of studies that show that when we have an emotional connection with something we will work harder. This is my personal experience. If I’m working for someone who I have an emotional connection with, I will go the extra mile, I’ll work many more hours because I want them to do well. For the participants in my program I want to show the importance of the emotional connection, and that all comes back to treating people like human beings.

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