Before joining HubSpot over five years ago, I was an entrepreneur for 13-plus years and leader of multiple small companies with no more than 40 employees. While I fancied myself a leader at the time, I can now look back and see how limited my leadership skills were and how much HubSpot has pushed me to grow. Many of the lessons I learned were about how to communicate effectively as a leader. If you’re a new manager, especially if you’re also joining a new company that may have a different culture than you're used to, this post will be especially helpful for you.
To keep it simple, I turned the word ‘tact’ into an acronym to help remember the core lessons when it comes to communicating well (pretty clever if you ask me!).
Tact: a keen sense of what to do or say in order to maintain good relations with others or avoid offense.
Thought – Be thoughtful when communicating
Audience – Consider whom you’re communicating with
Context – Understand what you’re communicating
Tone –Recognize how you’re communicating
TL;DR When leaders communicate with TACT, they give THOUGHT to AUDIENCE, CONTEXT, and TONE.
Thought: Be thoughtful when communicating
Being mindful of your communications can be challenging, especially as you become a leader. If you’re an extrovert, communicating feels like second nature and is likely done without much thought. For introverts, communicating can feel difficult because of a tendency to over-analyze, anxiety around saying the wrong thing, or just a natural preference for listening and absorbing rather than talking in a group setting.
For me, the most common pattern was, “Think of something, communicate something.” But as I’ve taken on more leadership responsibilities here at HubSpot, I’ve come to recognize that my words matter and everything I say has an impact. If you can learn to recognize your “leader voice” early on, you can be thoughtful in what you communicate and intentional in the impact you’re trying to make.
Hard lesson: If you aren’t intentional about your leadership voice, you’ll frequently experience unintended consequences.
JD Sherman, HubSpot’s former COO, was fond of saying that our job as leaders is to “absorb confusion and pass down clarity.” For me, this has meant seeking alignment with my own leaders as well as my peers so I can share the alignment with my teams in a way that brings confidence and a clear mission. Leadership voice stems from leadership thinking.
Hard lesson: When there are strategic debates and thrash at the leadership level, it's very easy to unintentionally pass along that confusion or thrash if you aren’t mindful of your communications.
Ultimately, there are three essential communication skills: listening, inquiring, and advocating. I’ve talked to many peers, and achieving the right ratio of these is tough, especially as you take on more responsibilities. Specifically, I’ve noticed that I have to do more inquiring to get the full understanding of what’s going on within my teams. I’m also consistently advocating for projects and strategies that I think will help HubSpot win. For my own leadership voice, it has been challenging to find the right balance.
Hard lesson: I’ve learned that inquiring too much without advocating for a solution can feel like interrogation, and advocating too much without inquiring from others can feel like bulldozing. I’ve also learned that becoming a leader doesn’t mean you should stop listening — as my grandfather would say, “when your mouth is open, your ears are closed.”
Audience: Consider whom you’re communicating with
To communicate effectively, you must consider your audience. Whom are you addressing, and what relationship do you have with them? Are you communicating something helpful to them, or will it delay things? Your goal as a leader should be communicating helpful information to the right audience.
This is why you should first consider the stakeholders in your audience. Know whom the information is relevant to and who needs to make the decisions. This will help you determine what info to share and how to explain it.
Hard lesson: Leaders often meet with individuals to work on difficult /complex / thrashy topics to find alignment. By the time the wider meeting occurs, the group discussion is far more productive because the audience has the context.
The format of the communication will also affect how you speak with your audience. Presenting information will sound different than leading a discussion, and you should prepare for it differently, too. Sometimes you will need to do the majority of the speaking, but other times it’s best to sit back and listen.
Hard lesson: It's easy to inadvertently suck up all the oxygen in a room by talking too much, effectively reducing the ability of people on your team to feel included and engaged.
You should also consider the size of the forum before you speak. Criticism may be better given in private, while praise may be more effective in a public setting. Set boundaries and preferences with your team ahead of time. Ask, for example, “How do you best like to receive praise? How/ when are you most receptive to feedback?”
No matter who your audience is, remember that you are always cultivating relationships. Bring strength to your teams by emphasizing knowledge over hierarchy.
Context: Look at the big picture before communicating
No conversation happens in a vacuum. Before jumping into an act of communication, take a step back. What else is going on that may influence what you want to convey? Is there something you know that others don’t?
If there’s some asymmetry between the people you’re communicating with and yourself, they may not be able to get on the same page. You may understand how all the dots connect, but others may not have enough information. Adjust your strategy based on the lowest common denominator. Over-explaining is better than under-explaining, and those who know more may still appreciate the refresher.
Hard lesson: There is a big difference between a team that’s aligned and bought in, and a team that’s trying to do what the leader wants. If you, as a leader, notice people are not on the same page, it's better to think about how you can provide more context and clarity instead of focusing on the negative and seeing them as detractors... look in the mirror.
This is especially true for complex topics. Data, examples, and support materials can help convince those who prefer logic and detail over vague big ideas. Don’t just rely on your leadership voice. Make others feel like you are all reaching a conclusion together.
Hard lesson: When you have context on a topic that someone else does not, it can make it hard to get on the same page. Instead of arguing or going around and around on the same subject, roll up your sleeves and make a deck or write a memo with the hope of finding alignment… not just being right!
On the other hand, sharing too much information could create anxiety. Be purposeful. Is the information you’re sharing going to benefit your team, or are you just sharing to share?
Hard lesson: I am super transparent and super collaborative. Instinctually, I lean toward sharing everything with everyone as a way to build trust and share the journey. When taken to the extreme, however, this can actually harm a team by injecting fear or confusion without a clear way to solve it. If decisions are being made at a higher level than they can influence, sharing that thrash with them doesn’t serve anyone.
Additionally, make sure to check your bias at the door. In business, this can mean more than just looking silly or making a social faux pas. Assuming what people know or sharing too little information can weaken alignment and lessen the likelihood of a buy-in.
Hard lesson: A tell-tale sign of this is when a leader is really excited about something that their peers or teams are not. While it’s possible you’re just wrong, it's equally likely that others simply don’t know what you know. If you don’t get the buy in and still pressure/ direct the team to do certain things, they’ll never truly own the mission.
Instead of making those assumptions, frame your communications through the lens of shared goals. Explain as much as you can, and use your empathy to seek a win-win situation. When you seek solutions to accomplish shared goals instead of simply asserting executive power, it’s easier for people to understand and be excited to contribute.
Hard lesson: Don’t be a seagull leader. New leaders may assume that critiquing ideas will flex their executive muscles, but excessive negative comments can come across like you’re being a seagull (swooping in and sh*tt*ng all over everyone’s ideas).
And even if you do wield executive power in your organization, it’s essential to know your role in peer discussions. If you don’t own something, let it go. Add value, but don’t derail or disrupt. Fostering positive collaboration shows more leadership than forcing the conversation.
Hard lesson: If you’ve made it to a leadership level, you’re likely very talented and smart, with a track record of being right more times than not. This can work against you in times of conflict, especially if you’re disagreeing with something you don’t directly own. It’s ok to share feedback and even disagree, but it's not ok to push it so far you divide instead of uniting. Ask yourself, am I 100% sure I’m right? Do I know this will hurt the company? If you aren’t sure, move on. If you feel sure, find the right way to escalate.
In the end, it’s crucial that you provide a clear path for your team. They should walk away not only understanding what needs to be done, but also how it aligns with the overall strategy.
Hard lesson: There are two aspects of HubSpot’s culture that I’ve seen be helpful in times of disagreement, both of which underscore the same concept. I remember one of my first leadership meetings where people were in disagreement and someone said, “I’ve said my piece, but will disagree and commit.” This was really impactful because it showed a healthy path forward instead of gridlock or resentfulness. More recently, a new phrase I’ve heard in meetings, is ‘Alignment eats strategy for breakfast.’ This gets to the same point. It’s nice to feel like you’re personally being recognized for being right, but it’s more important to the team that everyone’s aligned.
Tone: Determine how you want your words to be perceived
Knowing your audience and considering the context of any given communication will help you determine your tone. When all is said and done, the outcome of your communication will depend on how your audience perceived your words.
First, contemplate what communication style best suits the information you’re conveying. Would it be better to strike a transparent tone, or be a little more declarative? Is this an instance for collaboration, or are you just exchanging ideas?
Hard lesson: I’ve developed a reputation for having a ‘challenger’ personality. Most of the time, I wear this with pride and believe that orgs need all types of people to be successful. However, our strengths can become our weakness and there are times when the challenger style comes with a heavy tax. It can demotivate, inject misalignment, and sometimes just plain piss people off. The opportunity for growth is to reflect on your own style and recognize what’s good and what’s problematic. I think personality tests like this free one from Crystal can be helpful when learning more about how you’re most comfortable working.
Your relationship with those you’re communicating with will also affect how you convey the information. Keep in mind the trust and rapport you have with a person, and don’t ignore the proven concept of power distance. Those at different levels of the company won’t always see the same information in the same way.
Hard lesson: It’s not always your time to lead. Striking an authoritative tone while communicating with someone who knows more than you or has a higher position than you won’t move ideas forward, and can strain relationships. It's easy to suck up all the oxygen in the room with your ‘leader voice’ if you’re not careful. Don’t let the HiPPO in the communication! (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion)
Next, consider the medium. Your tone will come off differently in an email than in a video, and asynchronous communication will be read differently than a real-time message. The medium will also determine the time you take to craft your message. An important announcement may call for revisions from multiple sets of eyes, while a quick Slack message may be appropriate for a casual communication.
Hard lesson: Slack is fantastic for communicating, but awful for dealing with misalignment/ disagreements/ conflict. It's too shallow and too fast flowing, yet still too async (even when chatting synchronously). Seventy percent of communication is non-verbal and Slack takes all of that away — which leads to misconstrued tone and misunderstood messaging. I’ve had entire Slack threads go way off topic and the only way to fix it was to abandon Slack altogether and get on video or phone. Also, I’ll just say for the record that conflict resolution is brutal in a remote/ pandemic environment. If you find yourself in an awkward conflict, don’t try to solve via Slack or email. Video might work, but in today’s world I’d openly ask your manager or HR rep to facilitate a session with a shared goal of finding harmony.
It will also help your communication style to constantly check in with yourself. How do you feel? Are you happy with the conversation, or are you getting irritated or angry? Remind yourself that, although having these negative feelings is natural, you shouldn't let them affect your tone. Take a deep breath and remember to be inclusive and authentic. No one wants to listen to a condescending leader.
Hard lesson: Before jumping in with criticism (thin line between that and feedback), ask yourself: Does it really matter if I don’t agree here? If it’s just a matter of opinion, it’s okay to let it slide and see where the conversation goes. If you indeed feel strongly, remind yourself to think carefully about what you want to accomplish, the appropriate audience to share your sentiment, the context most helpful to support your thoughts, and most importantly — the tone in which you should deliver these thoughts.
The bottom line when it comes to tone is the same as the bottom line when it comes to your audience: You are cultivating relationships. You want those relationships to be based on trust and accomplishing shared goals. Use your tone to meet people where they are.
Mistakes will happen. Start with HEART.
Communication is hard! Humans are just messy creatures. There will likely be a point where you either experience poor communication, or you communicate poorly yourself. No matter where you are in the org when this happens — start with HEART, as we say at HubSpot. Stay humble, empathetic, and adaptable and keep that with you as you grow. That serves as an amazing foundation as an employee no matter what your communication style.
The lessons of communicating with TACT — thought, audience, context, tone — are lessons I’ve learned the hard way. They are by no means comprehensive, nor will they be applicable to everyone. I just wrote the post I wish someone would have shared with me a few years ago. It was helpful for me to write and I hope it's helpful for any and all leaders reading it.
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