Commentary: Successful leadership takes investment

William D. Neitzke
Director of Safety
88th Air Base Wing
William D. Neitzke Director of Safety 88th Air Base Wing

Honing communication skills impacts all areas of your career

I’ve been in the Air Force in one capacity or another since 1986, and in that time, I’ve worked for or with a wide variety of senior leaders and managers. All were different, some better than others, but each taught me things.

Now, as I mentor up-and-coming leaders and managers from all professions, both in the Air Force and community, they often ask me about what skills contribute to success in those roles. Anyone you ask probably has a list of traits, but here are the ones I’ve consistently noticed among all successful leaders and managers.

Traits of a successful leader

Universally, they should:

· Read efficiently

· Write clearly

· Speak effectively

Whenever someone asks me for leadership advice, I suggest they master all three of those skills. Unfortunately, no one is naturally good at all three and honestly, most of us aren’t naturally good at any of the three.

The following skills take an investment on the individual’s part to hone them into the useful tools needed for success.

Reading efficiently

Let’s discuss reading first. I recommend folks practice reading every day, and in a variety of formats.

Reading a book is different than reading an Air Force Instruction or email. Reading a technical manual or journal is different than reading a task from your chain of command or staffing document. In addition, reading in electronic format is different than reading a hard-copy document or book. Finally, reading for professional growth is different than reading for personal enrichment.

All of these types of reading are important, and each of us has preferences as to format and content. Ultimately, all forms are regularly used by senior leaders and managers and they read efficiently.

When asked, I encourage folks to read every day, for both professional growth and personal enrichment, in a variety of formats. In many ways, reading is the easiest to practice. You can do it by yourself; just find something and read for understanding.

Writing clearly

A harder one to practice is writing clearly. It’s harder to practice because you need someone to read it so you can tell if they understood your point. You need an audience. A basic rule of writing is to always know your audience.

I also encourage folks to practice different forms of writing. Writing a bullet for an annual award or enlisted performance report is different than writing a citation for a decoration. Writing an article for a professional journal is different than writing a news article or blog. Writing an Air Force Instruction is different than writing an official memorandum. Writing an email to a senior leader is different than writing one to an old friend from your hometown.

One of the biggest challenges I see with developing the writing skills of young leaders is we spend quite a bit of time teaching them to write bullets for awards and appraisals. This is an important skill since it directly affects careers.

However, we don’t do as good a job teaching Airmen to switch back to a normal style of writing when appropriate and often end up with acronyms, jargon or strange abbreviations in documents. Usually, these documents would be more effective if they were clearly written using proper sentence structure and grammar.

I encourage leaders and managers to practice writing every day, in a variety of formats. I personally find writing to be challenging and my weakest of the three skills. It is also the hardest for me to motivate myself to practice, even though it’s arguably the most prevalent form of workplace communication.

Speaking effectively

Many will find this skill the most challenging to practice as it requires an audience to actually be listening to you. Again, know your audience as you prepare.

Many also find public speaking the most intimidating of the three skills. All the more reason to practice, so when you’re in front of a general officer or large audience, you remain composed and calm.

A good way to practice public speaking is to volunteer to teach a continuing education class through the Education and Training Office or perhaps, and this is even scarier to folks like me, you could volunteer to read stories to children at the library’s “story hour.” Another great opportunity is to volunteer through the Public Affairs Office to speak at a community event such as Veterans Day or Memorial Day.

Regular practice at public speaking helps you communicate well during business presentations, job interviews and a host of other forums.

Ultimately, practicing these skills of reading efficiently, writing clearly and speaking effectively makes you more productive.

When you receive a promotion and are given increased responsibility, the package doesn’t include more hours in the duty day to get things done. Often, folks end up robbing hours from their family time, off-duty activities or sleep schedule to compensate. Those other activities are all important to your well-being, and taking from them is a short-term solution at best.

A better solution is to become more effective and efficient at your job. Most leaders and managers spend a good portion of the day either reading, writing or speaking.

If you take the time to hone your professional skills in these areas, your effectiveness and efficiency will increase, paying dividends in both your professional and personal life.