… Clear, concise, and consistent communication — For starters, my team has been trained on how to deliver project updates and inquiries to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks and deadlines can always be met. I use very specific communication platforms that everyone can access. All video calls are recorded, and detailed notes are exchanged post-call. It can be a considerable amount of upfront work, but it ensures that everyone is kept in the loop.
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 Wylie McGraw.
Wylie McGraw is the founder of Radical Performance Acceleration. For well over a decade, he has been behind the scenes, helping powerful CEOs, entrepreneurs, leaders, and public figures express their untapped potential, both personally and professionally. He embraces a no-nonsense approach to peak performance that can be considered the proverbial “Navy SEAL training” equivalent to leadership development. His ability to push even the elite beyond their limits and deliver sustainable results has led to him being called a “secret weapon” by some of the most influential leaders across Wall Street, Hollywood, professional sports, Fortune 500 companies, personal development, and industries in between.
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?
Thank you for having me. One of my life’s most momentous events was stepping into the world of bull riding as a young man. My very first ride lasted less than three seconds, but even that was enough to discover that the ride itself was only half the draw of what my newfound passion would be. The other half was this inexplicable connection I had with the bull at that moment, a connection I find enormously difficult to put into words. It was a cold, rainy day not particularly favorable for a first-time bull ride, and I fell off the bull’s side. He slipped in the mud, pinning my leg, and for a brief moment, we locked eyes. This link, a collision between chaos and order, ignited something within me. Looking back, I see it as a pivotal milestone in my life. I found something that would allow me to push beyond my limits as a star baseball player, and I was hooked. I knew this would stimulate the evolution I had been seeking as a man. My professional rodeo mentors told me that I’d surely rise through the ranks if I decided to continue, but it wasn’t about competition for me; bull riding made me feel more alive and open to life than anything I had previously experienced. It’s where I discovered how fear and discomfort fuel growth, and I could feel myself growing stronger each day.
What is the most unexpected twist in your career story, and what did you discover from your detour?
Somewhat reluctantly, I left the US Army after three combat deployments, looking to create something more for my life. I wanted to do something that would allow me to continue serving others. So, after finishing my education in Fire Technology, I prepared for the Fire Academy. I felt ready and equipped to succeed at fighting fires and saving lives, but at an auspiciously timed moment, I met a remarkable individual who shared powerful insights into the greater skills I apparently possessed. She influenced my path, altering it from one of fighting actual fires to helping people battle the “fires” that rage within them. Through this experience, I discovered how crucial it is to surrender rigid, logical thinking to transform oneself. Without an open mind, it is unlikely that you will have a similar auspicious experience that changes your own path. People you meet can expose what lies within you, both good and bad, but we need to pay attention to these things, even if they are inconvenient or uncomfortable to embrace. I did, and not only did it change my life, but also the lives of so many others as a result.
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?
I think good leadership has less to do with adapting communication styles and more to do with eliminating deflection when communicating. I have found this helpful both personally and when supporting my clients. You may observe that people in positions of authority and influence are quite adept at deflection, i.e., answering questions in a manner that redirects the conversation. The business world is fast-paced and demanding, so these people are frequently questioned and called upon to provide answers, often in times of crisis. As a result, deflection has become an easy, reflexive crutch when faced with harsh truths, critical feedback, and new expectations. It has become an instinctual reaction to avoid discomfort, even if that discomfort is necessary to evolve.
Here are some typical deflection patterns:
1. Listening to respond, not to understand.
2. Lack of pauses between responses or constantly interrupting.
3. Becoming defensive.
4. Feeling agitated, frustrated, and confused.
5. Unable to see the benefits of an engagement.
This reactive state limits our ability to foster new awareness or insights required to find solutions and progress. But when a leader can accept what is unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and/or highly challenging, their performance accelerates because their creativity, vision, and innovation are finally unrestricted. However, acceptance goes far beyond simply understanding oneself or others, especially when communicating.
For a leader to know that they’ve transitioned from deflection to acceptance, newer, more evolved behaviors must take the driver’s seat. Here’s what they look like:
1. Discernment: deciphering useful information without judgment or resistance.
2. Receptiveness: welcoming and relishing new challenges.
3. Open-mindedness: leaning into the wisdom of others.
4. Collaboration: enhancing creativity and innovation through team efforts.
To be clear, acceptance does NOT mean blindly condoning, capitulating, or agreeing; it refers to welcoming value by being open and receptive no matter the situation, especially when challenged. Doing so can radically shift one’s reputation to that of an insightful, honest, and influential communicator.
Clarity is critical as well. What lessons have you learned about how to communicate with clarity in our distributed world of work?
This question is often answered along the lines of staying on message, respecting the audience, repeating the points, etc., which are sound fundamentals; however, I have found that one component of clear communication is often overlooked. That component is making a concerted effort to address any obstacles in the relationship between communicators.
I’ve taught people in industries spanning sports to the military. Regardless of the environment, I always emphasize that we need to trust that we will be communicating on a foundation of good faith before sharing specifics, details, or components of a goal, task, or project. This results from constantly asking myself, “Is the audience ready to take on and integrate what I have to say? Is there something unseen hanging in the balance, something unaddressed that would prevent them from hearing me and muddy up the chance for progress?”
Additionally, if your audience is consumed by stress, your efforts will prove futile regardless of how organized your communication is. Just as I did with my team in the military, you need to meet your audience where they are first, address any known obstacles, and find the unknown barriers that lurk deeper within the mind.
Clearing the air around how you communicate will pave the way for an exchange in good faith, serving all involved much more efficiently and effectively.
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.
Military-style communication doesn’t always translate well to the civilian world. All soldiers cut out filler when executing orders for training, mission tasks, and garrison work. Even something as simple as telling the time is often difficult for those not privy to this format.
When I left the military and built my business, I used a 24-hour military clock. It often led to missed meetings, extra emails, and frustration. It was quite surprising to realize that something so ingrained in me could inconvenience those I worked with. So to remedy the situation, I reverted to the standard AM/PM time reference. This was how I learned the importance of being aware of how your audience communicates, especially in a leadership position.
Another example was when a longtime friend was preparing for “Career Day” at his daughter’s school. Holding a doctorate in mechanical engineering, he struggled to simplify his explanations. He called me, and we were able to adjust his advanced vocabulary to accommodate a more simplistic view of his job. This resulted not only in a deeper bonding experience with his daughter but also a successful career day event with a class full of happy fourth graders.
Ultimately, consider that what you perceive to be trivial regarding your communication style is often precisely how your audience needs the information delivered to them. To help them learn, understand, and apply said information, communicate with them, not at them.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are struggling to have their messages heard and actioned?
Regardless of your expertise or status, effective communication requires considering your audience both intellectually and emotionally.
In my experience, communication that does not or cannot reach an audience on an emotional level will be short-lived and lacks any real effectiveness. It falls flat and fails to achieve the results desired by leaders looking to truly motivate and inspire their audience.
Think about history’s most notable speeches that have been memorialized in our culture: Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, Abraham Lincoln, and the like; they ALL clearly conveyed poignant points of purpose while connecting with us emotionally. Their timeless speeches continue to impact society today.
I want leaders to consider not only the information in their messages but also the feelings they want to invoke. Communicating on this basis will help leaders ensure that their audiences hear them AND act on what they learn.
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?
Most of my work in the military was in person, as is the intimate work I do with clients today. However, the pandemic fundamentally changed how leadership operates and forced those who never thought they’d be working with distributed teams to adapt — I’m no exception. My company’s entire marketing department became a distributed team of different organizations around the world working in tandem to reach a set of common goals. I found the following imperative in not only accomplishing our objectives but also celebrating wins to maintain high morale, excitement, and engagement:
1 . Clear, concise, and consistent communication — For starters, my team has been trained on how to deliver project updates and inquiries to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks and deadlines can always be met. I use very specific communication platforms that everyone can access. All video calls are recorded, and detailed notes are exchanged post-call. It can be a considerable amount of upfront work, but it ensures that everyone is kept in the loop.
2 . Personal Connection — My business partner maintains a positive and reliable personal connection with everyone involved in our projects. We‘re mindful of providing clear direction and expectations along with personal feedback on their value and effectiveness. Our team handles a heavy load of marketing, PR, podcast development, website management, and beyond. Letting them know they are appreciated keeps the morale up and creative juices flowing.
3 . Modern Technology — We use four major platforms for communication: Zoom, Slack, Google Meet, and Cellular. The entire team is aware of who uses which platform and when. To reduce misunderstandings, everyone is privy to the information exchanged within them. The fact that all calls are recorded and available for later review goes a long way here, too.
4 . Incentives — My team consists of several different companies working in tandem to address my business needs. I truly wouldn’t be able to do what I do without their hard work. Therefore, I like to provide them with occasional, additional financial gratitude for their efforts and dedication to our goals. In addition, small tokens of appreciation like bonuses or gifts (a bottle of wine or whisky, gift cards, etc.) keep everyone feeling motivated and valued.
5 . New Challenges — I like to expand the capacity of those I work with and those who work for me. So, bringing new projects to the table that will positively challenge my team members and their creativity is highly prioritized. Such projects are inherently rewarding as they instill in them the confidence to think outside the box and show them their true capabilities. This makes hitting our goals both easier and faster, and consequently, my business and team both benefit from more opportunity and revenue.
What are the three most effective strategies to diminish distractions when there is so much competing for attention?
When it comes to personal performance and effectiveness, it is essential to understand not just the “noise” of the outside world affects us–our past, perceived future, emotional stresses, mental limits, personality, relationships, health, and fears affect us just as much. Manifesting our true potential requires recognizing and managing all these forces that push and pull for our attention simultaneously.
That said, I have found a few strategies to help reduce some of these personal distractions. Three of the most effective are as follows:
- You must have personal, non-negotiable standards — what do you give your time and attention to, and does it align with your intentions, goals, and/or purpose?
- You must make a habit of grounding yourself daily — becoming aware of your mind-body connection is imperative to staying true to yourself. Without this, it’s easy to let distractions take your focus, effort, and energy away from what matters most.
- You must be absolutely clear about your true purpose, intentions, and most desired goals/experiences — consistent self-reflection and awareness will keep your mind clear.
What is one skill you would advise every leader to invest in to become a better communicator?
Many leaders do not understand that becoming a better communicator does not come from simply adding new skills and strategies, year in and year out.
As Bruce Lee famously said, “Empty your cup so that it may be filled…”. In other words, performing better at anything is less about accommodating and compensating for deficiencies and more about removing the hindrances affecting performance in the first place. It’s more effective to invest in skills that remove communication barriers, like rigid thinking, mental stress, or burnout than incessantly consuming concepts or hacks in the hopes of overcoming them — something typically overlooked in the leadership landscape today.
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.
The most amount of good happens when people of power and influence live and act as their best selves. I have already begun a consortium for reaching out to leaders across industries to establish and employ new, progressive, and healthier standards in leadership and performance development. I have faith that these higher standards will meet the needs of our ever-evolving world.
How can our readers stay connected with you?
Check out www.wyliemcgraw.com, and please subscribe to my new podcast, Wise Words & Whisky with Wylie McGraw, wherever you listen to podcasts.
Thank you for these great insights! We wish you continued success.