12 May 2022 18:24:24 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .
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Get the tone of your leadership right

One of the activities I enjoy running with the young people as well as education leader groups we work with is where I put up a giant word “oh” on a slide and ask participants to come up with as many ways of saying it — but each conveying a different meaning.

Groups come up with different tones of “oh” that convey shock, surprise, agreement, recognition, annoyance, sarcasm, questioning, displeasure, and relief. All from one small two-letter word. We use the exercise to reflect on how tone matters sometimes even more than the words we use to communicate.

The leadership exercised through our own communication, also has its tone. We very often may think we’ve got the content of our leadership right and are surprised when we are not getting the results or when the team seem at odds with our vision. Perhaps our tone is to blame. What creates this leadership tone? 

Intent

More than anything else our intent creates our leadership tone. Do we really want what is best for the team? Do we really believe in excellence at work? Do we really believe that we should add value to our customers? Our intent on each of these and on every leadership decision or communication is resoundingly audible through our tone.

At a recent hospital visit, many staff wished us “good morning” but we could hear only one cheerful nurse meaning it. For everyone else what we heard was: “You are a disturbance in my day, I’m just throwing you this ‘good morning’ because it’s in my process manual.”

But from this one nurse what we heard was “I’m glad to be here to be able to serve you.” I watched customers behave more cooperatively and be more understanding with this nurse than they were with others. They heard her tone and responded to it.  

There’s a question I’d always wanted to ask relating to two incidents in the Bible. In the first, the angel Gabriel appears to Zachariah and tells him that he and his aged wife would conceive the child they had desired for so long and that he would grow into John the Baptist who would prepare the way for the Saviour Jesus. Zachariah asks the angel how this could be since his wife was well past childbearing age.

The angel tells him that because he doubted, he would be struck dumb. The angel disappears and Zachariah finds he has lost his voice. Soon enough, in keeping with the angel’s prophecy Zachariah and his wife have the promised son.

At his naming ceremony, Zachariah recovers his voice. The same angel, a little after his appearance to Zachariah appears to the Virgin Mary and announces to her that she will bear the Saviour of the world, Jesus.

She too asks the angel how this could be since she is not married. The angel responds with comforting words of reassurance that the power of the Holy Spirit will make impossible things possible. Even though I’m very devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I couldn’t help as a child being struck by the different treatment. Both asked exactly the same question — yet one was struck dumb, and the other was comforted.

I posed this question to a wise priest friend of mine when I was at Loyola college. His reply immediately made sense. In Tamil he spoke out the same question — “How could this be?” — first in a tone of arrogance and disbelief, but the second time in a tone of humility and awe.

The tone is what made the difference between one response and the other. The intent in Zachariah’s case was arrogance, the intent in Mary’s case was humility and the angel heard the tone. 

What exists in our hearts is what is heard in our tone. Maybe we’re making a speech at work on promised benefits for the employees but really have no intent of following it through.

We are surprised at the lack of enthusiasm from employees, but they have heard our intent in our tone. So, start with intent and then we will find the tone is also impactful and inspiring. 

Walking the talk

Our leadership tone is also created by how much we walk the talk. 

I recall a senior Managing Director at our firm. When we all travelled together and would land at our destination country, he would want us all in the coffee shop within five minutes of checking in.

It didn’t matter that we had all gotten off a long flight, and were dog tired from working on the plane. But we didn’t ever resent his demand because he would be at the coffee shop first. He set the tone by walking the talk and we, his team, responded to that authenticity. 

Another leader I recall would give us long talks on cutting costs and being prudent about how we spent. The team would listen and laugh at his requests because he had a habit of flying first class when the business class would do and would splurge on dinner and drinks at a high-end restaurant even if it was just an internal meeting with no clients in attendance. He did not walk the talk and therefore had no leadership traction in his leadership tone. 

We create our tone by our willingness to back up what we say with what we do. Nothing creates a loss of confidence in leadership, like a gap between these two things. 

Empathy

I recall when one of my leadership team gave me feedback. He would often call in the middle of my workday. He later told me that he got the impression I was annoyed and impatient every time he called. 

Even though I had said nothing to convey annoyance or impatience, he heard it in my tone. It was important feedback because my style was to be able to deep dive into a work byte and go at it uninterrupted.

His style was that whenever he thought of something or had an issue, he would immediately pick up the phone and call me irrespective of the priority of the issue. Once we understood this misalignment, I was able to explain my need to work on something uninterrupted.

At the same time I was happy to create windows in my day and week to discuss, without impatience or annoyance, any issues or themes he wanted to bring up. He was able to understand that he had to value my time and prioritise what he could handle himself and what needed my attention.

But more than anything else it was a lesson for me that I had not been empathetic. My tone conveyed what my language had tried to disguise. I now try harder to work on that empathy and find that it then automatically translates into an empathetic tone. 

We must be able to see and hear where the other person is coming from. We must be able to appreciate their context, their challenges, and their perceptions. Then we are able to pause and guide our response to carry the right empathy and instantly the right tone. 

Tone matters not just in our leadership at work but in our interactions at home with family, and with our friends. Very often, it is not the content of our communication but our tone that sabotages our relationships and our impact. We can’t fake a positive tone — it has to emerge naturally from intent, our willingness to walk the talk and our empathy.