Years before Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg issued the call for female leaders to assert themselves in her best seller Lean In, Sarah Vasquez was already at the table. Sarah has made her mark as one of the few prominent women in leadership with two major corporations: first, as Senior Vice President of Westfield Corporation in Los Angeles, where she oversaw the development of the group’s most iconic commercial properties. Now, as Executive Vice President of Management and Operations at The Howard Hughes Corporation, she is responsible for the results of the operating assets within the company’s portfolio. Sarah truly knows business, but it is where she puts her daily focus that sets her apart from most leaders – male or female. Her passion is communicating – connecting with and engaging employees! As a result, Sarah has earned an industry reputation for creating loyal teams focused on achieving business goals. Over the years she has accumulated strong soft skills – leadership communication skills, employee engagement skills, rapport skills and a full bucket of emotional intelligence.
Later: Sarah shares 3 steps for leaders who want to build trust.
A Powerhouse of Trust
Sarah is a strong proponent for setting people up for success. It is because of this that her people trust her. Building trust and connecting with employees is as easy as breathing for Sarah. “It’s just who I am,” she says. “It is in my DNA to be a servant leader. I don’t know how you don’t connect with people. It’s about heart and not just business. When you lead with your heart, the people and the business reap the benefits,” Sarah adds. This concept is so simple that you would think most leaders would follow it, but according to a Gallup study, only 10% of people have the right soft skills to be effective leaders and connect with employees. The study shows that top performers are often chosen for leadership positions, but they fail. A key reason is they lack the self-awareness and effective communication skills required to build a solid network of meaningful employee connections and relationships.
Employee Communication Pays
Our team at Benchmark Communications started working with Sarah when she was based in Los Angeles with Westfield. “I’ve been at the table long enough to witness a wide range of leadership styles. I’ve seen brilliant leaders with no empathy for people, but they can be great at driving results,” she says. “Things can get chaotic in those settings and there are casualties when you are not focused on people. In today’s market where good talent is so hard to come by, even those brilliant leaders are realizing the value of communicating with and engaging employees,” says Sarah. “If you lose good people, it puts more burdens on others. In turn, that increases pressure and stress in the workplace, which ends up hurting your business. It makes too much sense to connect with your people and help them fulfill their purpose,” she adds.
Harvard Results: Leadership Communication
Studies clearly show that employees give their best when leaders communicate and engage with them in a meaningful way. A Harvard Business Review survey reveals that 70% of people are most engaged when senior leadership communicates with them about company strategy. Another study shows that 82% of employees say they are best at their jobs when they work for leaders they trust. “It is proven that people don’t leave companies, they leave bad bosses,” says Sarah. “I have always known that I cannot succeed without others, so it has been natural for me to communicate and stay very connected to people to ensure they have what they need to succeed,” she adds.
Sarah’s 3-Step Communication Strategy
Disengaged employees are bad for business. It impacts absenteeism, performance, customer ratings, quality and profits. But, Sarah says leaders can get on track and turn things around with three, simple steps to improve leadership communication and outreach.
“First, you need feedback from your employees. A 360-degree assessment can help you understand how you are truly perceived, and once you understand your shortcomings and gaps, you can set up a game plan to improve. I highly recommend asking for a leadership coach or a communication skills coach. A good coach can help you set clear goals and identify behavioral changes you can make to succeed,” says Sarah.
Sarah says the second step is to make sure you have the support of key people to hold you accountable. “Accountability helps you stay focused on top priorities, so you can check them every day. It’s important that your boss supports your quest to make behavioral changes. You can also find a mentor who naturally excels at connecting with employees to help you grow and change,” she adds.
The third step is about creating new habits to replace the old ones. “We are creatures of habit, so it’s important that you take actions daily to create change and to make new behaviors stick,” says Sarah. Start by simply sitting with employees and having one-on-one conversations to learn more about them and what they need to succeed.”
Sarah’s Communication List
Because so many people lack solid leadership communication skills and employee engagement strategies, we asked Sarah to share some communication strategies she employs on a regular basis to connect with her people. “I use dozens of strategies to engage employees, but there is nothing more important than one-on-one, face-to-face meetings! This becomes more challenging as you move up in leadership, so you have to make it a priority,” she says.
Sarah also created a monthly team newsletter to keep everyone connected about company news, as well as team strategies, successes and challenges. “I make sure the newsletter keeps them updated on important matters, but we also build in some fun things. Fun is important,” she shares. In addition, Sarah schedules weekly team conference calls to bring everyone together, and she visits with people at their field locations once every quarter. “I also plan company conferences during the year to bring people together, including teams who don’t report to me. People need to come together every so often to connect with leaders and each other,” Sarah says.
With more millennials entering the workforce and so many digital technologies now available, Sarah is also exploring new modes of communications. “We are creating a communication task force to explore more ways to engage people and make sure they are having some fun while we stay connected. With so many new communication technologies, we want to take full advantage of new options to stay connected as we grow,” says Sarah.
Everything You Do Communicates!
As we reached out to Sarah to share her employee engagement secrets, I reviewed her LinkedIn biography and had to laugh. I was not surprised to see that the first paragraph of Sarah’s LinkedIn biography is all about people. It reads, “My biggest accomplishment and personal reward has been growing talent and creating organizational structure to support the business. Successfully hiring the best talent, mentoring that talent and holding them accountable to set and deliver on the business is my passion.” At Benchmark Communications, one of our favorite sayings is, “Everything you do communicates – you cannot NOT communicate!” Sarah clearly communicates that she values people, and that is why she is so valued by people.
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Our team provides award-winning soft skills strategies to help leaders & Fortune 500 groups achieve their business goals. We provide consulting, coaching and training services in: leadership development, communication / soft skills, reputation management, stakeholder engagement and storytelling / presentations. Benchmark has consulted with and trained leaders and associates from all 50 USA states and more than 25 countries.