Don’t underutilize written documentation. Supplementing verbal communication with supporting documents such as important updates, project goals, guidelines and instructions can allow team members to refer back to the information whenever they need to and ensures consistency. I’ll never forget the first time we used shared documents on a project — it completely streamlined our processes for the better and was incredibly useful in keeping everybody on the same page.

We are all competing in an attention economy. From pings and dings to blinks and rings, companies and content constantly compete for our limited time and attention. How do great leaders turn down the noise and tune in to the messages that matter most? What does it take to be heard above the noise? And how do we create communication that cultivates community and connectedness in a distributed, distracted world? To address these questions, we started an interview series called “Can You Hear Me Now?: Top Five Strategies Leaders Use to Diminish Distractions & Win in the Attention Economy.” As a part of this interview series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Hanif Lalani.

Hanif Lalani is an executive with over three decades of experience in the telecommunication sector. Working during a time of substantial change within the industry, Lalani’s leadership has seen him receive numerous accolades at an international level. He is currently working to build high-speed internet infrastructure in developing countries.

Thank you for making time to visit with us. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is one of your most memorable moments, and what made it memorable?

Certainly a memory that has stuck with me and shaped my worldview was my family’s flight from Uganda. From the time I was born until I was ten years old that was where I lived, and while it was a happy childhood I can remember noticing a growing feeling of tension in the air and my parents having worried conversations in the evenings. Idi Amin was swiftly growing in power and the attitude toward those not native to Uganda like my parents was becoming more hostile with each day.

At one point or another, my parents decided to leave. I don’t know exactly when the decision was made because they did not make me aware of it beforehand, I just have a vivid memory of being woken up in the middle of the night by my mother and told to quickly and quietly get dressed. Without much fanfare, I said goodbye to the only home I had ever known, and my parents said goodbye to the career and lives they had built for themselves and we traveled thousands of kilometers north to the United Kingdom.

We settled in England, and the transition certainly wasn’t easy. For one, my parents had been fairly successful entrepreneurs in Uganda and we lived on a lovely property with plenty of space for all of us. We left all of that behind, traveling with only a single suitcase of belongings and moving into a small council house in Yorkshire. The challenges of assimilation were a massive part of shaping who I am today.

What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?

When I had been with BT Group for around a decade, I was presented with the chance to lead at a high level for the first time. Starting out as a graduate recruit for the company, I had worked my way up for a number of years and this was the opportunity I had been waiting for, but it meant relocating to Northern Ireland, as it was the finance director position for that branch of the organization. Although one could argue that Northern Ireland is closer in culture to England than Uganda was, the idea of starting over again in a new country was daunting to say the least.

In hindsight, accepting the position was one of the best decisions for my work and my life I have made. Not only did the move open up massive opportunities for me and push me to a new level within my career, but I fell in love with the country itself and ended up having a relationship with it long after I returned to England.

According to a recent Harvard Business School study, the most essential communication skill for leaders is the ability to adapt their communication style. How do you adapt your communication style?

So much of leading other people is about knowing and understanding yourself. I think that’s a big mistake people make when it comes to talking about leadership. I have known many leaders who bragged about their ability to “read people,” but when it came to their own management style and how their actions were being perceived they were oblivious.

In recent years there has been more emphasis placed on leaders developing emotional intelligence, and I believe that is critical to forming a sustainable work culture. For me, I have come to recognize that while my leadership style naturally gravitates towards the authoritative, I don’t necessarily need to apply that style in every situation in which I communicate. Clarity and precision of language are a baseline, but as I get to know each person I lead on an individual level I find it is easier to adapt my communication style to the way that suits them best.

I would recommend leaders seeking to up their ability to adapt begin by looking inward and analyzing how they communicate and why. You may be surprised at what you discover once you practice awareness. For example, I recognized that when I felt particularly stressed about a given situation I had a tendency to be short in my communication, and then feel frustrated when my team needed more information in order to proceed. Identifying these sorts of patterns is the first step to adapting your communication style when needed.

Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?

One of the biggest challenges of the post-Covid era in the workforce has been adapting communication to the many new ways in which you interact with your team. Long gone are the days that saw face-to-face interactions dominate the way we communicate in business. Conference calls, emails, and now video conferencing are often the primary ways we talk to each other. It is also difficult, because we are currently in flux in terms of understanding generally how the great “work from home” experiment will shake out. Will we ever fully return to the office? Probably not. It’s increasingly looking like some sort of hybrid scenario will be the new normal.

It’s a Catch-22, because while this opens up the talent pool for organizations and creates more flexibility for employees, it also makes communicating with clarity much more difficult. Studies show time and time again that the most effective way to communicate is in person, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to have successful interactions through other modes.

As I have led through these many changes, I have found that selecting the right mode of communication for the right situation is a vital skill to develop. For example, I believe there was a study that found a face-to-face request is something like 30 times more likely to be successful than one over email. On the other hand, if you need an answer to something with urgency, a phone call would likely take precedence over waiting to talk to them in person, or even email. Clarity in communication is all about disseminating information in a way that is in line with the form you have chosen.

We often discover what works by experiencing what doesn’t. Tell us about a time when your communication didn’t lead to the desired results and what you learned from the experience.

At one point in my career I was brought on as CEO for BT Global Services, which had recently been forced to write off over £2 billion due to overly-optimistic assumptions made on large international contracts. I was tasked with turning the business around for the company, and as you can imagine that required the juggling of a number of complex projects. For one early project, I thought I had done a good job communicating its goals and expectations to my team, but as we approached the deadline it became apparent that some people had misunderstood certain aspects of the project.

We ended up having to push back the launch of the program due to delays and inefficiencies, and while thankfully it didn’t affect the outcome of the company’s fiscal performance overall, it was still a lesson for me in working with my new team. Upon reflection, I realized I was lacking in knowledge when it came to jargon for the industry, and it was my poor communication as a result that had caused the issue. At this point I was well into my career, and this was a good reminder for me that there is always more to learn.

What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?

I think when leaders find they are struggling to communicate verbally, one of my best pieces of advice would be to check your own actions and make sure you are leading by example. The saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and numerous studies have found that verbal communication is only a small part of doing so effectively. Leaders should ensure their own actions align with the messages they are trying to convey and be a role model for the behavior and actions they expect from others. Consistency between what you say and what you do will increase credibility and inspire trust.

Leading a distributed team requires a different communication cadence and style from leading a team in person. What are five strategies any leader can deploy to improve communication and clarity when leading a distributed workforce? Please share a story or example for each of you can.

1 . Come up with a communication strategy that ensures everybody is on the same page in terms of when to use what form of communication. With so many forms of communication available, it can be easy for things to get lost in translation. For example, at one point recently I was becoming increasingly frustrated because I was expecting one of my team members to email over a document but had not received it. I finally called them and tried to disguise the frustration in my voice, only to be told that they had sent it to me via Slack hours ago. Standardizing which channels should be used for different types of communication can help avoid confusions such as these.

2 . In a similar vein, creating scheduled check-ins and team meetings is a good way to maintain a finger on the pulse of your team even when you are not in physical proximity at all times. Ideally, these sessions should be conducted through video conferences to enhance engagement. During Covid, I found that these did wonders at fostering communication and helping team members to maintain a sense of connection.

3 . Don’t underutilize written documentation. Supplementing verbal communication with supporting documents such as important updates, project goals, guidelines and instructions can allow team members to refer back to the information whenever they need to and ensures consistency. I’ll never forget the first time we used shared documents on a project — it completely streamlined our processes for the better and was incredibly useful in keeping everybody on the same page.

4 . Emphasize the importance of transparency and collaboration within your team. Whether they are distributed or all together in an office, leaders should encourage open communication, idea sharing, and feedback. In particular, in a distributed workforce where often people have never even met in person, creating a safe environment where team members feel comfortable asking questions, sharing challenges, and providing input can do wonders for morale and ensure communication is happening effectively and often. In my own teams, I noticed a huge improvement in communication when I began actively encouraging transparency and collaboration.

5 . Foster a sense of community and team spirit. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my 30 years as a leader, it is that people do NOT want to go to work simply to earn a paycheck. They want to get more out of it, and by creating an environment in which they can feel connected to the people they work with, you can create a stronger and more effective team as a result. During the pandemic, I worked to encourage informal interactions amongst team members through virtual social events and team-building activities even while social distancing. This helped to build relationships, strengthen collaboration, and create a supportive team culture in which each person had the chance to thrive even in a distributed setting.

What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?

First, setting clear priorities and goals can help team members to focus on what truly matters and filter out non-essential distractions. A motivated and energized team that is aware and focused on the mission of the company is one that has a compass for how to move forward and is less likely to get distracted as a result.

Second, they should create a dedicated work environment that minimizes both physical and digital interruptions in order to foster concentration and productivity. You don’t want to do anything drastic like blocking certain websites or applying monitoring software to work computers — in my opinion that just fosters distrust. As I said before, walk the walk and show your team how you avoid distractions, and know that by leading by example they will pick up on your expectations.

Third, I think leaders should provide opportunities for team members to learn effective time management techniques such as time blocking, prioritized to-do lists, and single-tasking. These strategies allow for more focused work and reduce the likelihood of them succumbing to distractions.

What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?

Self-awareness. Sorry to sound like a broken record here, but it’s truly the most important aspect of communicating with others. You need to understand how you communicate, why you say the things you do, and how you are perceived if you want to be able to communicate effectively. You can build on self-awareness to develop other necessary communication skills such as active listening, but it has to start with a strong foundation of understanding.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Well, I will say that I am currently working on bringing high-speed internet connectivity to the CIS region, and I have come to learn just how vital it is that we close the digital divide on a global level. Broadband has the ability to economically uplift millions of people, but if we fail to ensure everybody has equal access to it the consequences will be a great disparity between those who do have it and those who don’t. I wholeheartedly believe that bringing attention to this need and working to end digital poverty and illiteracy is how I can bring the most amount of good to the most people.

How can our readers stay connected with you?

They can follow my work via the press section of my personal website, or reach out via my Facebook page or LinkedIn.

Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.