Effective communication is always a key criterion in our searches for leadership roles. And yet, in our advisory work, leadership communication is one of the top issues that prevent organisations from unlocking their potential. We constantly speak to clubs with excellent strategies and great analysis who are let down by poor communication. Through our work with clubs, there are three important themes that stand out on what successful communication looks like and how it is done effectively.

1. What you say matters, but what people hear matters more

That may seem self-evident, but we are surprised at how frequently we see this ignored or under-practised. How a leader delivers their message is crucial to keeping their team aligned around strategy and ways of working. It is possible to have the right message but deliver it in an uninspiring or even unmemorable way.

One of our favourite examples of this was when one of our partners was having a conversation with a Head Coach, actively looking to unpick how they talked about their career. The individual talked for an hour about their story and what they had done, and while it had some real highlights and impressive moments, the individual was relatively humble in style, and the overall story wasn’t sticky or hugely memorable compared with other potential candidates.

As they were wrapping up, though, they paused to reflect and made a final comment on their own journey: “You see, Anna, I guess I’m like one of those stealth planes, even though I often fly under the radar, I still get results”. That one sentence stuck and helped Anna understand this person’s potential.

Ensuring people hear your message is vital to your success as a leader. When we train leadership groups, we discuss communication using a simple structure:

1. Your message:

This is the main idea that you want to convey. For example with the Head Coach above, their main idea was that they get results despite their humble nature.

2. Personal credibility:

This is the image you project and how others perceive you. This comes from how you look, your reputation, the way you talk.

3. The emotion or feeling you evoke:

This last principle is very significant in sport. Your ability to evoke and regulate emotion creates the environment your team will work in. The effective use of emotion fosters a connection that permeates the entire organisation and can play a vital part in encouraging everyone to drive on-field success. An example of this is Gareth Southgate’s outstanding work with the English Football Team. He has managed to create an inclusive culture and identity that drives performance.1

2. Consider your internal rhythm and routine to enhance how you communicate 

We frequently see leadership teams establish an internal communication rhythm that demotivates and drains the life out of internal dialogues. We’ve all been to the Monday morning meeting where different people list what they will do, with no sense of connectedness to the rest of the team. It’s discouraging.

We encourage all leaders we work with to remember why they communicate. In general, the primary purpose of internal communication is alignment, which requires several channels to deliver the same or comparable messages. When we inquire about a leadership team’s internal communication cadence, we ask about their touchpoints with their teams – meetings, e-mails, intranet, and informal encounters. Each of these interactions is a channel for structuring communication to achieve alignment, and the greatest leaders we work with leverage each of these channels to get their message out by asking themselves the following question around each interaction:

  1. What am I communicating (is it for information, action, vision, or direction)?
  2. Who am I speaking with?
  3. What do I want them to feel after we’ve interacted?

3.  If you want other people to take ownership, silence is golden

We recently worked with a club working to improve their coaches half-time talks. Rather than providing analysis, the manager and coaches ask the players what they think is going on, what they noticed, and what they think should change for the second half. The club found that this approach usually resulted in significantly more ownership of the plan and higher motivation levels among the team members.

The same approach works well within clubs. Everyone is more driven when they generate their own ideas. Leadership by question is an extremely effective means of inspiring and aligning your staff. Using questions to lead does not imply that you are not directive; rather, it demands you as a leader to assess where individuals in your team are on their development path.

We use the graphic below to assist leaders in thinking about where different team members might be in their development journeys and what types of engagements could be most beneficial to them. In general, someone new to a role will not know what they don’t know and will need to be told what to do, but someone who has done their role for a long time will seek support to improve and develop new abilities.

A Framework for Leadership Communication: Directive, Supportive, Coaching, Teaching.

Adapted by EPP from the Four Stages of Competence model 2 

We liken this to learning to drive a car. Before we start we are unconsciously unable, we don’t know what we don’t know but as we begin to have lessons we become consciously unable as we become aware of all there is to learn. Then gradually, as we improve, we move to consciously able and finally unconsciously able as driving becomes second nature. At each stage of our journey we require a different level of communication from our instructor to get the most out of us.  

Motivation, ownership, and improved performance often follow when leaders communicate with their team members at the right level.

When leaders fail to communicate effectively, their teams become discouraged and frustrated. When we visit top-performing clubs, what always stands out is how much time they invest in thinking about communication and the application of these three principles to their internal message. We hope these three insights help you find new ways to lead effectively in sports and beyond, whether in your current or new role. And that they assist you in realising the full potential of your team and club.


See articles for further reading: Why England Needed Gareth Southgate,  (Gerard Brand, Sky Sports, Aug 2022) and How Gareth Southgate Has Changed the Game for England, (Dom Smith, Englandfootball.org, Dec 2022)

2 Four Stages of Competence model, most associated with Kolb (1984).