In-tune leaders need to know their audience

Aram Arslanian
Special to The Globe and Mail

The dead silence that followed the polite applause from the crowd made the five of us want to pack up our instruments, tuck our tails, and make a break for it. This was the first show of a 10-date tour of Japan and, during our opening song, the audience seemed excited to see us. Now, however, as the packed room stared at us silently, I remember thinking, “I have no idea what to do next.” That show, and the days that followed taught me a crucial lesion: To lead, to inspire, and to make a difference, you have to know your audience.

Let me back up a bit to give you context: Before I entered into the world of executive coaching, I grew up in the punk scene, playing in bands. The style of music is known as hardcore, and just imagine rock ’n’ roll played at four times the speed with socially conscious lyrics. Prior to my corporate work, I was also a professional counsellor for a decade, and my training and background are in the field of psychology. As strange as it seems, in my work today with leaders, I pull as much from my time touring in bands as I do from my education and professional experience.

So what’s the connection? As a musician, I learned that I wanted to do more than just produce something to be consumed. I wanted to engage with the audience and connect with them. I wanted to change their world and have them change mine. Leaders have that same opportunity; they can do more than set the direction and expect people to follow. Instead, they can seek to understand the fabric of the company, and the people who make it up, and allow this to inform their approach to leading. It is in this space that inspirational leadership exists and it requires a desire to engage authentically and a great deal of courage.

To start down this path, leaders should ask themselves these four questions:

What don’t I know about my audience?

You don’t know what you don’t know. More importantly, you can’t act on what you don’t know. Understanding your company and connecting to your audience requires a significant focus on uncovering what you don’t know. Broad strokes are easy: demographics, education, and effectiveness of teams are the stuff of statistics and pie charts. Instead, uncover those elements which are difficult to capture: beliefs, values, the things about the organization that give people hope and the things that take that hope away.

What am I doing, and what is happening around me, that may be limiting my connection to my audience?

Often, leaders can credit the rise to their position to a combination of internal and external factors: hard work, skill, timing, and luck. The same logic holds true to their ability to connect to their audience. Great leaders are the ones who recognize that they must continually evaluate what is working for or against their ability to lead inspirationally. In this regard, internal factors are their own behaviours. Leaders should identify and strengthen behaviours that increase their audience connection, while also identifying and extinguishing behaviours that limit it.

Great leaders are the ones who recognize that they must continually evaluate what is working for or against their ability to lead inspirationally.

It is also important to recognize external factors acting as a barrier. Anything from discord amongst leaders, challenging company culture, and the economy can reduce the ability of leaders to effectively connect with their audience. Knowing these factors and understanding their impact on the audience allows leaders to be thoughtful in their approach to connecting.

How can I grow my ability to meet the needs of a diverse audience?

There is no better time than now for leaders to embrace diversity and learn how to champion it. The workforce has become increasingly diverse and this momentum is growing. Leaders who wish to understand their audience must dedicate themselves to understanding the changing workforce. This goes beyond know what terms to use and is instead the pursuit of recognizing, honouring, and acting to meet the needs of diverse groups.

Who can help me?

While it can be lonely at the top, top professionals are rarely alone. In fact, leaders are often surrounded by brilliant minds who have great wisdom to share – and all one has to do is have the right questions and the courage to ask them. So, as a starting point, leaders should connect with those around them and start asking the above questions and then, if needed, connect with subject matter experts to deepen the exploration.

So, let’s get back to the show in Japan and the five young guys unsure what to do next. We stumbled through the rest of the set, and made it through. After the show, we asked ourselves a version the questions I’ve listed above and set about finding answers. We applied what we learned to our set each night and, as the tour continued, we started to wrap our heads around what this audience needed from us. It was a journey – some things worked, others didn’t, and each night we experimented with something new. By our final show in Tokyo, we had hit our stride and played ones of the best sets ever.

It is the same for leaders – ask the above questions and apply what you learn. Try new things and adjust as you go. Just remember: professionals want to connect with their leaders in a meaningful way – and the starting place is a willingness to take the first step.

Aram Arslanian, an executive coach, is a member of the Humphrey Group.