I am delighted that Garland West, a senior specialist in organizational communications, who provides counsel and services to business and organizational leaders at the executive level, has agreed to to discuss communication skills in the context of a career change.

Garland – Can you explain what you do?

Garland: The heart and soul of all my work is finding the right message to deliver – and how to deliver it in a fast, efficient and effective way. Busy people often need to cut through the modern clutter of e-mails and tweets and mass mailings to reach others with important information, and my job is to help them find the best way to do that.  It may involve the written word, or just as often direct contact. It could be a speech, a social media program, an op-ed – or any of literally dozens of the communication tools available to us today to reach the many, many men and women important to us in doing our jobs well.

Most major organizations have access to in-house communications teams. Where do you get involved?

Garland: Over the years, I’ve grown to recognize the difference between communication strategy and communication tactics.  A strategy is finding not just the right channels to use to reach people, but more importantly the right messages. What do you want people to know? What are the barriers to getting the message across? How do they prefer to receive information? What defines trust and credibility to them?  I help think through all those issues, and more, based on my career experience in all types of communication situations. By working collaboratively with the in-house team, this approach makes the organization more effective in actually making connections. It saves time, it saves money and it increases the effectiveness of the communication function.

You’ve worked with a number of Executive Search firms over the years – Vetted Solutions, Kincannon & Reed, Acertitude, Boardroom Consultants and Slayton Search to name a few – and I know you spoke at the Dillistone / GatedTalent World Executive Search Congress a few years ago. How do Search firms generally use your services?

Garland: Most of my search clients look for help in defining their brand more distinctly in the marketplace. The big issue for many is differentiation – how do I stand out from the competition, who tend to look alike and sound alike in most of their communications.  We work hard to define exactly what makes the firm special, what is its unique value offering, above and beyond the delivery of top candidates. Then we find ways to express that value and to deliver it with communications that bring those words to life in everything the firm says and does. If you can’t answer one simple question – “Why should anyone even care I exist?” – without resorting to tired old industry clichés, your brand needs attention. My clients tend to understand that and work hard to keep their brands distinctively well-defined in the marketplace.

What advice do you have for an executive who is embarking on a career change?

Garland: Perhaps it reflects my professional bias, but I advise any man or woman looking to advance to senior leadership posts to focus on their own personal communication skills. The more senior the position, the greater the demand for exceptional communication capabilities. As your career advances, you increasingly will be called upon to do more than deliver information. You must be able to express vision and ambitions and other things more abstract than performance targets or specific business plans. Your ability to persuade, build buy-in and enthusiasm, to win trust and confidence among wider circles of people inside and outside the organization will play an increasing role in whether you succeed or fail. It demands more than good writing skills or staff. It means having personal communication skills – presence, confidence, articulateness and a great many other attributes. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it that matters. 

You are hosting a session for GatedTalent members this month entitled “Keeping Pace: The Busy Executive as Communicator in Chief” – what will this session cover? What will our members learn?

Garland: Our session will dig into the way communication skills must evolve as you move ahead in your career, to keep pace with the changing communication responsibilities that come with senior positions. We will look at some ways to assess your skill levels, and how to improve them. The webinar is intended to help candidates see that building their communication capabilities can help them stand out from other candidates. Search professionals look for these skills. They look for people who understand that senior leadership demands a lot more than the ability to produce a polished resume or a coherent cover letter. We will look at some practical ways to demonstrate exactly the full range of communication skills they – and prospective employers – are looking for.