The Interconnection Of Leadership And Communication, With Ulrike Seminati
Leadership is all about transformation, bringing that change that would make your people feel more fulfilled and happier at work. What sits in between that is communication. It is only when a leader can communicate change that they can lead their people toward the goals. Diving deeper into the interconnection of leadership and communication is Ulrike Seminati. She is a leadership and communication coach and consultant who is passionate about changing the leadership paradigm. Ulrike sits down with J.R. Lowry to tell us how she is bringing leaders to the best they can be by helping them communicate better. She breaks down the barriers that keep them from doing that, the myths about communication, and what the best leaders do well when it comes to communication. Plus, Ulrike shares her thoughts on the tools leaders use to communicate with their organizations and what leadership is really all about. Tune in to this conversation and discover how you can connect with your people and watch them and your organization flourish.
Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/ulrike-seminati/
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The Interconnection Of Leadership And Communication, With Ulrike Seminati
Coach, Consultant, And Former C-Level Executive
This is brought to you by PathWise.io. PathWise is dedicated to helping you live the career you deserve with a mix of coaching, content, courses, and community. Basic membership is free. Visit and join now. My guest is Ulrike Seminati. Ulrika is a leadership and communication coach and consultant who brings a wealth of experience as a former C-level executive to her expertise in authentic leadership and impactful communication.
By blending the latest self-development methodologies and her extensive practical knowledge of corporate communications, she enables leaders to establish trust and credibility through effective communication. Her clients benefit from her pragmatic and user-friendly tools that enable them to make lasting improvements. Prior to going out on her own, Ulrika had leadership roles at Acino, Syngenta, Arte, Daimler, and Magna International. She lives in Zurich. Ulrike, welcome. Thanks for joining me.
Thank you for having me. It’s a great pleasure.
I appreciate you doing this with me. Let’s talk about your work. Tell our audience about your coaching business.
I’m doing coaching and training for leaders. It’s not only for female leaders but for leaders as such because I also have a specific program for women. It’s all about being more authentic. It is more authentic leadership and more impactful communication. For me, this goes hand in hand. I’m doing that in terms of one-on-one coaching.
More often, I do training for leadership teams for people from all over the globe, which is great. That is because then, you have a nice diverse team. You are also culturally diverse in how to communicate. It’s very interesting. It’s all about bringing them to a level where they become the best leader they have within themselves. I’m always working from the inside out at the same time. It’s not the skills training because that doesn’t do the job. It’s about understanding who you are and coming from that perspective.
You were in communications for twenty-odd years before you decided to go out on your own. What led to that decision?
I always had in mind that I wanted to do something on my own and have my own business, but it was a bit vague. It was evolving with my career. The beginning was event management, and that evolved into something else. At the end of my corporate career, after twenty years, I joined the C-level and executive committee of an international pharma group. That was a moment where with this helicopter view that you have in the organization, I changed the perspective on how much we need to change so that people feel more fulfilled and happier at work. That whole interface between human beings changes because we are still managing tasks and numbers also from the top instead of managing human beings. That was, for me, a very enlightening experience.
Also, there is what you can achieve when you are at this very high level. You have influence, for sure, but as long as you’re internal in a company, you are always put into a specific box, which is your role. Everything that is beyond that, people are not listening to you whereas when you come from the outside as an expert, then people are listening to you. I thought I can make a bigger difference when I’m coming from the outside than when I’m inside one organization only. This is why I thought, “This is what I want to do.” I want to help leaders to communicate better with this core principle of leader communication and to change that paradigm.
It sounds like you also though come at this from a perspective that the world of work doesn’t work for a lot of people, if that makes sense. It’s your point earlier about a lot of people aren’t feeling happy, fulfilled, and all of that. How do you try and help your clients in a way that gets at how they are interacting and connecting with people more on that individual human level?
First of all, we need to understand ourselves. I help them to understand who they are with very simple tools sometimes. If there’s more time, then I’m happy to get into the more complicated things. First of all, it is understanding your own perspective. Most of us are not aware or we think that our perspective is the reality.
This is why we’re surprised why others are not buying into our ideas, why they don’t come along with us on the right for a change, or something like that. It is because we don’t make that effort. The others don’t feel heard and seen. Their opinion doesn’t count. A lot of frustration is built up because of that because we all stay in our own reality.
For me, it’s important that people understand, first of all, that whatever is their own reality, it’s their reality. It’s not one of the people in front of you. It’s not one of all of your team members. If you have ten team members, you have ten different views on the same situation. Understanding that and embracing the fact, “Maybe for me, that’s right, but it’s not right for the other person. I might have to make a compromise and go for something different,” is very important.
That’s why, for me, that’s the starting point. It is understanding, first of all, where you are. If you imagine your goal being an impactful leader, a strongly communicating leader, or whatever’s your goal, then first of all understand where’s your point of departure, not where’s the goal. That’s because if you have no point of departure, how can you plan how to get there? Many people plan how to get there without ever having looked at their point of departure. What do they feel? What are their values? What are the typical suspects? What are the beliefs that they have about themselves, especially about themselves being a leader or an inspiring communicator? They have so many limiting beliefs in there.
It’s interesting that even leaders who are perceived as being strong, which are very senior, where you would not think that they think that about themselves when you dig deeper, many of them, if not all, have doubts about if they are good enough for that role. As soon as the role expands, the doubts get bigger. You have to deal with that. Most people don’t take that time. That’s how they stumbled then into becoming someone they are not. For me, it’s about getting to the core of who you are and who you also want to be because there’s always an evolution that is possible.
Almost everybody has some level of imposter syndrome, right?
Talk a little bit more about your early days as an entrepreneur. What did you get right and what did you not get?
Let’s start with what I got right. What I got right is that I was making a plan and I was sticking more or less to that plan. There were always deviations, but I was extremely committed. It was not procrastinating on things. I got things done right from the start. Since I had this inner feeling is the right thing to do, that’s the thing why I’m on this planet. It is this feeling of purpose. That brought me to get into action mode.
On the other hand, what I did not do right at all is I was not prepared at all. On day one, I started from scratch, from zero. I had a vague idea. I was like, “I want to change that leadership paradigm, but what does it mean exactly? What tools will I use? What capacities do I need to expand to be able to do that?” It is not even talking about all the rest, which is dumped on you. It feels like that when you are a solopreneur. You are like, “The whole marketing, how do I do that? I have to change completely. I have to produce materials myself.” I was very quickly hitting my own inner barriers. That was certainly the most difficult thing to handle and still is. I still have to be aware of what I think about myself and where I want to go and not lose my point of departure, which is holding me back when I’m not taking care of that.
How much had you thought this through before you quit and were out of your last corporate job?
Nearly not at all. I had no time. It was a crazy overload of work. It was this crazy hamster wheel thing. It was a C-level role as well. It was higher. I can do the same thing in a bigger organization, for sure. I can earn safe money, but that was not the point. For me, it was like, “From this role, that is the ideal role to get into something where I create my own business as a consultant or as a coach, or as both.” It was clear, but I wasn’t prepared. The area was clear. It has to do something with communication and leadership, but very fluffy.
That’s what I did wrong. I would do that differently. I would think about my strategy and my vision. I’d be like, “What do I really want to achieve? What is this core topic I want to focus on?” for example, even if it evolves over time. For sure, it will because you get feedback from customers all the time. You need to see, “I have a starting point that is clearer.” That would’ve made my first team far smoother than it was.
Every new entrepreneur makes a lot of mistakes and has a lot of realizations that they probably didn’t even think about before they started. Certainly, in this, for me, I had no idea how complicated the world of search engine optimization and marketing was. I’ve had to learn it way more than I would’ve ever suspected going into this whole process. You’ve been at this for a few years. What do you like best about being an entrepreneur, and what part is hardest for you?
The best thing is the freedom to be the master of my own agenda. That is still fantastic. Also, it is to have days which are not regular. I like this irregularity. Some people hate that maybe, but I love it. There are sometimes two days in a row where I do training, which is similar, but usually, day one is different than the second one and the third one in the week, and so on. I like that variety and that things that can be very intense and less intense. I like that most.The best thing about being an entrepreneur is the freedom to be the master of your own agenda. Click To Tweet
The most difficult thing is that I’m permanently faced with myself. I’m my own boss. That’s the worst boss I ever had. In the beginning, I was so harsh with myself. I was telling myself off for every single mini-mistake. I was pushing myself over the limit all the time. I had to learn to be a bit of a gentle boss to myself. It’s not a fight, but it’s a daily challenge to be in this balance of wanting to create something that is of good quality at the same time I am bashing myself. I’m a perfectionist. That makes it more complicated. When 5% are maybe not perfect in my eyes, then I am looking at this 5% instead of celebrating the 95%, which goes well.
I’ve always had this adage of you live and you learn, but sometimes, at the moment, you’re like, “I probably should have not had to learn that one the hard way.” There is a lot of that that goes on. There are a lot of opportunities to beat yourself up. You’ve talked a little bit about this already, but what types of situations are your clients typically coming to you with? What are they asking for help with?
It depends if it’s a one-on-one situation or a group. If it’s a one-on-one situation, then it’s very often about having more impact somehow, like being an impactful leader or a more impactful communicator. What is beyond that most of the time is that they have a lack of self-confidence and assertiveness or feel like, “I’m not sure how I can handle my people.” They are shying also away from their own emotional connection to the people to become a more empathetic leader, for example.
The underlying thing in one-on-one coaching is very often about self-confidence in a certain way. It’s interesting. Even with people who are really senior executives, it’s still there. Probably, they are where they are because they were always doubting if it’s good enough and always went the extra mile because of that as well. It’s also a mechanism.
In groups, it’s different. In groups, it’s coming from the corporation, the HR team, or whoever wants these leaders to come together in a group for communication training. It’s different. It depends very much on the organization. Some have a strong focus on change. They know we can’t get through this whole huge change project, which we have, without having trained our leaders on how they lead change and how they communicate on change. It is a bit specific, but in the end, not that different from normal communication because we speak to human people and human beings in any way.
For others, it is more general things, like how can they be more inspiring and more interesting when they present something to a group or how can they lead their teams and inspire them in a different way so that they’re on board and not do a 9:00 to 5:00 job without embracing the company goals, for example. It’s coming from these different perspectives. Few organizations are about, “We want our leaders to be authentic and to stand in their full power.” It’s a shame that so few organizations have this clear focus. It’s the secondary focus most often. It’s not the first one. It should be the first one.
I feel like it’s a journey we’re on. I was talking about this with somebody. We’re past this point where we expect our leaders to be perfect, to have all the answers, and to always demonstrate the right behavior. We accept they’re all going to have some level of flaws. We want them to show some of their human side and be authentic, but we’re not completely there yet.
Either the leaders aren’t completely there in terms of their comfort with bringing their authentic selves to work. The organization still falls back on, “I know you’re having a bad day, but I need you to lead me right now.” I don’t know. It’s hard because you’re depending on those leaders as a person in those organizations. To some extent, they get fewer breaks than maybe somebody who’s an individual contributor gets. I don’t know how far we will get down this path, but we’re certainly on it.
I believe so, too that we are on it, but there’s still quite a way to do. We have all ingrained so much of this corporate persona that we imagine or this leader stereotype that we imagine. It is a specific personality style. All those who are different have a hard time becoming a leader or not getting comments like, “You are not on top of what you should be as a leader,” and these kinds of comments.
We need to much more shift towards true diversity and accept it because you have that diversity as well. If you’re the CEO of a company, it’s great to speak about diversity, but then, you have diverse people but don’t allow them to be diverse. We come up with, “These are the valued leadership behaviors in our company.” It’s good to have direction and guidelines, but it’s only working when leaders can connect to this on an individual level.
Maybe it can embrace only some of the leadership behaviors that are desired behaviors and others less. That is because for the others, they have to play a role, and that doesn’t work. They lose their credibility. They lose their impact on their team. You will never shape high-performing teams like that because the leader inside is not even high performing. They have to be different than they truly are, which makes them believe something’s wrong with them. As long as we have not broken that mechanism, we are still in this stereotyped version of what a leader should be. People stumble very quickly into this because people want to fit in. We do these all kinds of things.
Do you always intertwine communications and leadership in the way that you work with your clients or are there some that are firmly in one or the other of those two topics?
No. It’s always intertwined, but there’s more of a heavy weight on communications or leadership. However, for me, there is no leadership without communication. There’s communication without leadership but not the opposite way around. For me, leadership training without the communication part doesn’t help. Even if people know all that they have to do but they can’t bring it across, then it is useless knowledge inside. It’s not applied knowledge. It’s just knowledge. That is super important that communication goes hand in hand with leadership. You can do communication without leadership training. There are some concrete skills that are not attributed to being a leader, but when you have them, people will see you much more as someone they want to follow, potentially.
You’ve been in this space for a while. When you think about the leaders that you’ve worked with over the years, when it comes to communication, what do the best ones do well and what do most of the rest need to do a better job of?
The best ones know who they are, coming back to what I said before. They know it because they have worked on that. None of those who know who they are and what they stand for, what are also then non-negotiables, for example, they’re clear on that, are people who worked on that. It’s not like they’re born with this wisdom or something like that. They have done something to understand themselves much better. Those are the best ones.
Oftentimes, this goes with having some attributes, like being authentic and being empathetic as well. They are open to listening to others. Usually, they have much more space to listen to others to connect because they’re not so occupied with themselves anymore. That means that they can have the famous vulnerability that we also want to see in leaders. You need the courage to do that. You need to understand who you are because if not, vulnerability feels very scary if you don’t know who you are and if you feel insecure inside of yourself. The best leaders know themselves. Those who do that automatically become better leaders than the others.
Listening to you talk about it, you’re almost intertwining communications, identity, and personal values. They are very connected in the way that you’re describing them.
For me, with communication, you can learn how to use your hands and how to stand or speak louder or slower. There are tons of different things with communication. If it’s not coming from the inside and you stand there in a power pose but feel weak because you have so many self-doubts and you feel like a fake, it doesn’t help.
As we have in communication, you have these non-verbal cues which are so strong. They are coming from the inside. They’re generated on the inside. You can learn as much as you want how to use your hands, but the micro mimics in your face will still betray you. You need to feel how you want to be. It’s starting from a being point of view and not just from a doing point of view.
It’s another approach to leadership. It’s not about the skills, techniques, methods, and whatever. It’s about how you feel when you do that. Does this fit you personally as well? Maybe some techniques do and others don’t. Why force yourself into a technique that is not fitting your own personality? We need to have a much more unique approach or individual approach for different leaders, even if it’s group training. That is because they can then pick and choose much more what fits them, where they are strong, and where they can deploy their full potential instead of pushing them into applying it all. In the end, they apply nothing well. We need to have that courage also in leadership teams coming from the top as well.
One thing I’ve noticed more is people are using their social media platforms, particularly LinkedIn for most of us in the corporate world, as an extension of how they communicate even though it’s a public forum and an extension of how they communicate with their organizations. How does that fit into some of the work that you’re doing?
I’m not using it very much, but what I see and what I usually give advice on if people ask me about that is it goes down to the same principle. Think about what are the topic areas that you want to speak about. You don’t have to speak about anything your company’s interested in or anything your organization’s interested in. Many people do that. They position it. They share another post with a comment that they feel is politically correct where they can put themselves in the best light. You can feel that across. That’s a waste of the social media tool.
It’s better if you think, “What are topic areas I have passion for within this leadership area or my organization? There are certain topics I have more passion for than for others.” I’ll pick 2 or 3, and on these 2 or 3, I comment or I share something. I try to write this from the heart and not from the head. It is not from a strategic point of view of, “How do I phrase that best to be politically correct, but how do I phrase that best so that my personality comes across or my true opinion? How can I be bolder and maybe more assertive?”
You don’t have to put yourself in huge danger with that. It is having in mind to be more real in social media, even if it’s on LinkedIn where it’s not as fake as some other social media tools. Still, even there, you can feel how people try to position themselves in a way that is not themselves in the end. That’s counterproductive.
Ultimately, the people I’ve certainly seen whom it works best are the ones where you get a very clear sense of them as people. It is reinforcing to the brand, if you want to call it that, that they’re trying to convey about themselves as a person or as a leader. When it is reinforcing, it works. When it’s not reinforcing, it feels a bit arbitrary, fake, or whatever you want to call it. I would imagine that there are some misconceptions that you often find yourself having to dispel people of or myths about communicating. What are some of those?
The biggest one is that communication is about sending a message in some way. It doesn’t matter if you speak, you say it out loud, you send it by email, or you do a presentation. People think good communication is about sending a powerful message. It’s not like that because, in the end, communication is always a two-way thing. It’s a dialogue. It’s not a monologue.
Starting with getting something first before you even send something out is far stronger because then, you can adapt to whatever this person or the group in front of you needs. You need to stay flexible. Many people think good communication needs to be prepared in the last detail and that everything is super perfect. This is why most people spend hours finalizing a PowerPoint slide. They tweak words and stuff, which is completely useless, instead of preparing themselves as a human being, not as a presenter with words. It is about how they want to feel. What is this energy they want to bring across? What is the energy or the emotion that they want to create with the audience?
These non-much less tangible things, people don’t go into these because it is less tangible. It’s not so easy to understand. It’s not easy to grasp. It feels uncomfortable because you feel like, “I can never measure that. How do I know if it’s right?” and so on. They fall back on what’s tangible, like words on a PowerPoint slide, for example. Often, that’s the biggest myth. People hold onto this myth because it gives them a wrong feeling, in my opinion, of control.
PowerPoint is a shield for a lot of people, right?
Yes. You have this huge slide. The spaces are so small or disappear completely. It’s horrible.
Let’s talk a little bit about leadership. How would you define leadership, and how was your definition of it formed?
For me, leadership is about helping others to grow and fulfill their potential. It’s not about being the superstar, the frontman, or something like that. For me, leadership is enabling others to grow. That’s good leadership, in my opinion. Coming with that perspective in mind is a different way of leading others than if you go, “I have goals, so my team goals are broken down into these goals. We have to achieve this together.” That’s because then, you come from your own standpoint and own ambition as an individual rather like, “If my ultimate intent of leading this team is that I help these people grow and go beyond what they’re doing, maybe in a year, they can do 20% more.” It is not more in terms of quantity, but maybe more quality or something more fulfilling or valuable. It is something they can enjoy more as well. That is good leadership.
Where’s this coming from? That’s a good question. I don’t know. I always had this feeling that we need to be much more caring about other people in general in life and also at work. I have seen so often that you have some strong egos who step over others who fulfill their own career. It makes so many people unhappy or super stressed. Families behind that become stressed. There is a whole cascade that is negative for such people.
For me, this is probably where good leadership came from that. Some leaders that I also had in my career when I was younger, in all these years, there were always some of them which were good. It was where I thought they do it differently because they have a genuine interest in their people. It’s not of interest because they’re interested ultimately in what they can achieve. It’s a genuine interest in their people. This is great. Can you learn that? Probably not. That’s, in my opinion, good leadership.
Where does that leave you in the debate about whether people are born leaders or not?
There are born leaders. We all know even people from our childhood who think they were leading the game because they were always inspiring others, had no problems doing to create enthusiasm in others, and all of that. I always say there are born leaders, but everybody can learn to become one. People who think they will never be good leaders because they’re not born leaders, there is this shift to make that different types of personality styles. You can be an analytical introvert and can still become a good leader. You can learn to use this way of being as an advantage because it’s great. It has a lot of advantages.
It is understanding it’s not a prototype who is on scene and stage having a great speech and all of that. You might never be exactly that one, but as long as you are true to yourself and you might want to even admit that in front of people, they would love that because so many people are like that. Many people are like you. We don’t see that very often. This is true strength. This is truly inspiring that different profiles can recognize themselves in different leaders. Everybody can become one, for sure.
Have you ever seen that video of Steve Ballmer when he was running Microsoft coming out on the stage and running around screaming for 2 or 3 minutes solid before he got into talking to the audience? The audience was going nuts. I’d say to people, “Have you seen that video? That’s not me. Don’t expect me to run out on a stage and be a screaming lunatic trying to rev the crowd up. That’s not the kind of person that I am.” It helps set people’s expectations if nothing else. I know you have a belief that leadership requires action. How do you counsel people on moving from procrastination to action?
I shaped a keynote around this a couple of months ago, which is my newest keynote. I call it Bridging the KNOW-DO Gap. Most of the time, we know exactly what we should do to achieve a specific result. It’s not often the case that we don’t know what we have to do. We know, but we don’t do it. There are many reasons for that. For me, to move across this procrastination into real action, it’s about getting the right emotion about that and understanding if there are any other emotions or thoughts. The thoughts are creating these emotions that are holding you back.
For example, when we want to tackle a bigger project, we know exactly what we need to do in the first, second, and the third step. We need to get in contact with people we might shy away from. Why are you shying away from them? Why are you procrastinating getting in contact with these? Do you feel like you are inferior? Do you feel like they will not pay attention to you because you’re not important enough? There are so many things where we diminish ourselves and then we procrastinate because we fear failure or rejection.
It’s about getting to know yourself. You will then know why you’re procrastinating and what you can do that is motivating you. It is thinking beyond the actual goal that you need to achieve. The immediate one or even the midterm goal, what is beyond that? Maybe in terms of personal development, what’s in it for you beyond what you can see right away? There, you might find an emotion or a motivation that helps you to take action.
I was thinking as you were giving your answer. For me, I’ve made peace with the fact that to be a leader, you have to make hard decisions. Along with that, I’ve made a habit of saying, “I’m willing to do something hard every day and something uncomfortable every day.” What happens with a lot of people is they say, “I don’t feel like doing this today. This is not going to be comfortable. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to make somebody feel terrible,” whatever the situation may be. It’s not like I relish those kinds of things. You have to make a practice of it because being a leader is going to require that pretty regularly. If you can’t get in the habit of being willing to do something hard to take that action, you’re going to undermine your own effectiveness in the end.
It goes back to your know-do. We know we need to do it, but we don’t do it. It’s also leadership about influence and persuasion. A lot of people don’t feel like they’re naturally influential or naturally persuasive. What can somebody do to improve their powers of persuasion?
It’s about stepping into the shoes of the other person. It sounds so simple, but that, for me, is the key. Any argument we bring up, we shape it for the only person that will never hear that message, and that is ourselves. We do that automatically. That’s our perspective. It does not fit for the person in front of you. If you are someone who loves change because you like to discover new things because you feel there is a creative space and you speak to a person who hates change and needs stability and security, and you come up with your enthusiasm about, “There is so much in it for us in this change project. We can grow together. It’s a great business opportunity,” but you have in front of you a person who hates change and fears change from the bottom of their heart, they will never be receptive for your arguments ever.
You cannot persuade them, and you will not understand why. For you, it’s obvious that there are so many opportunities in this change whereas for them, it’s pure threat or the other way around. It is the same thing. We need to better understand the basic personality styles that people have. There are many models around that. I use also a model with four different types.
It’s about using something that is very simple that helps us to get along the big lines. It’s not about a full Myers-Briggs profile for everybody. You have no chance to apply that and to have it in mind all the time, but at least big directions that people go for. What are their bigger motivations? What do they like least? What do they like probably most? People feel that. We know that from others if we really take the time to think about it.
That is the thing. If you want to persuade, it’s not about thinking to yourself, “What are the greatest arguments that I can see in here?” It’s, “What are the greatest arguments that a person I want to persuade sees in there?” If it’s a group, you have to tackle all the different perspectives and you have to make a mix out of that. Everybody finds something in there. Only then you can start being persuasive because you communicate from their perspective, not from yours.
Let’s talk about teams. I know you do a lot of work with teams. What can leaders do to help their teams be better performers?
It’s about giving them the motivation that they need as individuals, not as a team. Team building is great, but in team building events, the typical ones, often, we do not take care of the individual needs of a person at all. Everybody needs to fit into this activity somehow. For some people, it’s a real stretch and they don’t feel more integrated afterward than before. It is about finding out, “What are they good at? What do they like to do? Can I provide some of this to this person? Can I reflect on who gets which task differently for each new project?”
It’s comfortable to always attribute the same type of things to the same type of person because it worked before, but maybe it’s not the right thing. It is stepping back and thinking, “Who are the people on my team? Do I have people who love to get visibility? What can I do for them? I might not be able to give them the project lead role, for example, but if I cannot do that for whatever reason, maybe they can present to a senior leadership team for ten minutes as a part of our project. They will feel motivated by that. Do I have people who love to create new things and they have a job where they have minimal space for that? How can I create more space for that? How can I give them the opportunity to be a bit more creative because they love that?”
There are people who are socializers. We know all of these. They organize the birthday parties, the uprise in the office, and all of that stuff. Beyond that, how can they care about the emotional state or the state of mind of the people on the team? Can they maybe be someone who helps me as a leader if I’m not that kind of profile to better feel what people are up to as well? They feel that.
You have people who are very close to staying to the status quo. They want to maintain that. For them, it’s very hard if there’s a change project, for example. How can I help them? Ideally, you can give them, for example, a task. If you have three profiles like that, you give them the task like, “How can we create more stability within the change?” There’s maybe something in the process or in the roles and how they’re attributed. It is something that helps them to feel safer about that.
You make a team a high-performing team when a leader is able to address the different personality styles and when they understand how people are motivated and how different they are as well. They help also the people to understand others in the team so that they know, “I am this super creative person, but this other person is a super reliable person. I’m not carrying things through. I know that because I’m a bit fluffy and creative. The other person is maybe not creative at all, but for sure, I can rely on them to carry things through until the end.” If everybody knows we can draw on the strengths of each other as a team, then you shape a high-performing team. It’s about knowledge of not only about ourselves but also about the others we work with.
Empathy is underpinning a lot of what you’ve talked about. Coming from a position of empathy, it is understanding the other person, understanding what’s important to them, understanding what’s going to motivate them, understanding what their strengths are in addition to understanding yourself. It gives you the ability to figure out how to relate better to them. Empathy is something that a lot of people struggle with.
It’s one of these areas where you feel like, “If I get too much into that, it’s already difficult enough for myself. I don’t want to have to handle other people’s emotions or my own emotions,” and so on. It’s very important that before you even start trying to be an empathetic leader, you need to be empathetic with yourself. You need to understand your own flaws and accept them as well. You need to see your strengths and your values. You need to understand yourself. You can relate to others from a much safer place because at least you know where you’re coming from. That’s the most important starting point. It is to create this connection.
People search for connections. That is super motivating. We all know if we are connected not to something, but to someone, if we go the extra mile, with pleasure. If we are connected to people in our team, we love to work. If they’re lucky enough, they can have a team where they love to join friends at work in a certain way. They feel like, “I’m waking up every morning. I’m happy to go there.”If we are connected to people in our team, we love to work. Click To Tweet
Let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about your career journey. What drew you into marketing and communications in the first place?
It was a pure coincidence because I studied what is called international business at that time. It was a little diploma of three years of study only in Germany. First of all, I started as an assistant. I had the luck that I worked for an automotive company, Smart. It was a very strange car in the ‘90s when I started my career. It was like, “What is this?” We had huge attention from the media.
I worked for one of the sub-suppliers for that car. I had the luck that I was the only person who was speaking three languages. My CEO didn’t do that, so it was great. I got the exposure to the media. That’s how I came to the communications area, first of all, PR, media relations, and external communications. I was really lucky.
I then added on a Master’s in marketing communications because I thought, “That’s the area I want to stay in. I don’t want to go into any other areas into HR,” or something like that, which was proposed quite often to me. I always rejected it. I was like, “HR is not for me. I want to go into communication.” This is where that came from. It opened also a relatively creative space for me. This is why I went into that first. Everything that is designed, for example, is related to that. I was quite attracted by that when I was younger.
It gave me a lot of different possibilities on how to navigate this whole big area of corporate communications, which is internal and external. This is about events. It’s online. It’s everything. It’s so many different shades of that. I went through all of them in my career because I wanted to learn all the different areas that are possible. It’s how I made my career, finally.
I would imagine, given you worked in a couple of different industries over the course of your career, that you’ve seen fairly different cultures. As a communications person, you both have to shape the culture and work within the culture. How did you think about doing that when you were in those jobs?
When I was there, I was aware of the different cultures, but I wasn’t aware of how to bring this culture best across. I was so much into, “We have to do a campaign out of that. We have to do training out of that. We have to hold the whole channel thing,” which you can do all the different channels, “We have to cover them,” and so on and so forth.
What I realized is that in some companies, you have where you have a strong culture or a recognizable culture. It is this feeling that you go to Brazil, Japan, Sweden, or wherever you go, you always feel that’s the same company. It’s like a miracle. It feels like it’s not tangible, but it feels the same. All these companies that have strong corporate cultures have worked on that and are permanently working on that. It’s not something where they introduce with a poster campaign. It’s something they truly live. They have introduced ways of holding a workshop and meetings and ways of how you invite to a meeting.
These are little things that people face every single day in their mailboxes. They are similar. There’s something common to that. There is a common way of doing things. By cultivating that, a culture then becomes a culture and not just a fake idea where you can do it by introducing new values and hanging up a few posters, and hoping that people buy in. Why should they?
It’s super important because companies have a strong culture. They have a very strong buy-in from their workforce. People love the company. Coming back to your social media question, they will share content deliberately and authentically because they’re convinced about what they’re doing because the culture is strong. Culture is still, and we know that already for a while, a strong condition for success, at least in the long-term, for sure, for the organization.
Do you think cultures can transform or do they have to evolve because they can’t change that quickly?
It has to evolve because people don’t transform quickly except if you exchange the people completely. In a very small company like 10, 20, or 30 people maybe, if you exchange the CEO of such a small organization, you might radically shift the culture quickly with the effect that, for sure, those who don’t fit into this culture will leave. That’s not the normal effect.
In any bigger organization, people don’t shift easily. If you come up with a new culture, people first have to understand what’s meant by them. You need a lot of time to build credibility because, in corporate culture campaigns, people have seen tons of them in their careers. The longer you are in the business world, the more corporate culture programs and mission, vision, and values programs you have seen. You believe less. It’s like, “Another one.” People don’t care.
A culture shift needs a lot of work. It needs proof points in reality, in practice, or daily work. It is not in terms of great videos of someone telling you, “I live this value because I did this and that.” That’s nice, but, does this mean something to me as an employee on the other end of the world? Probably not. It’s about picking people up from where they are. This is what is not done in organizations.
When we run a value campaign, we train people on the values. It’s pretty crazy when you think about that because how can you do that? They explain what it is and then their case studies in role modeling, role-playing, and what have you. A good values program should spend more time on helping people find their own values than teaching them what the values of the company are.
If they know their own, then they can make a decision and say, “That’s the overlap. Now, I see an overlap with me. This is where I can be authentic. This is where I can help to role model this type of value. Maybe not all four. Maybe I’m good in two because I feel them and I can understand how this relates to mine.” That’s fine. This is a different approach. This is how you can change culture, but it will take a lot of time.
First of all, I’ve seen very often that you have to overcome this threshold of skepticism. It’s another culture program. Coming beyond that, that’s very important. It depends on the messages that are coming from the top in the beginning also. If they’re convincing or if they also are doing it because they think they have to do that or because it is good practice, then it’s not credible and not inspiring at all. It’s tricky. It’s not a simple thing.
You have to do a certain amount of communicating and helping people to understand what it means through stories or whatever. There comes a point where if you’re not living it every day, if you’re not making it real in all of those millions of different intangible ways that you make something real, people will see through it or it will lose steam. That’s the part that is hard.
You said it earlier. Companies that are clear on their brand and values and they can make it feel consistent whether somebody’s in Brazil, Japan, or wherever, that’s hard and rare. To some degree, that’s what the companies when they roll out these programs are trying to get to. It’s also something you can’t do every year or even every 2 years, or maybe even every 3 years. It’s one of those things you have to let soak into the organization because people have to internalize it. That doesn’t happen very quickly. Coming back to you, as you think back on the different roles you’ve had over the years, what are the strengths that you’ve been able to draw on again and again?
That is one of these questions where I also wonder, “What is probably the biggest one in that sense?” My biggest strength that moved in my career is the fact that I always wanted to learn. I always had an ambition to learn. The intent behind why I was trying to change roles regularly towards the end of every two years was always this eagerness to learn. That was my intent. That brought me to become a high-performer, overperformer as well. I always took whatever and all the information I could get and applied it right away. I wanted to learn and grow. That is still my biggest strength also because the world is fast-evolving. It’s good to be always interested in more knowledge. I understood why I do that and the mechanisms behind that. It’s certainly a driver for me.Because the world is fast evolving, it's good to be always interested in more knowledge. Click To Tweet
Another strength that I have and that is great is I’m, at the same time, analytical and creative. That is not very often the case for people. That is helpful because I’m doing both. I’m creative, but at the same time, I’m organized as well. That is helping me, especially being a solopreneur, but also even in the past. I need my creativity much more, which comes back to what you were asking about what I like also in having my own business. I can explore or use this creativity as well. It’s this combination. It’s not one strength. It’s this combination of two things that seem to be contradictory sometimes.
Sometimes, those contradictory things in combination are powerful in and of themselves.
What have you had to work hardest on developing, and how did you go about it?
The hardest is always my own limiting thoughts about myself or the other way around. In the past, I always knew that I am a perfectionist because I can never celebrate success at 100%. I always see the little flaws. They can be as smallest as they can be. It’s always there. I know that. It’s about how to handle that. It’s something I permanently work on.
This relates then to the fact that I have very quick doubts if I’m good enough or not. It is overcoming that again and being very clear about my own fears that I have. The fear of rejection that I have, for example, is a strong fear in myself like in many people. For me, it was a real hinder to success in the beginning. I procrastinated a lot because of that. I am overcoming this again and again.
When it comes back because something becomes so exciting or so big that it comes back a bit like a boomerang, I at least am aware that I can overcome it again because I did it multiple times. That’s very helpful. That’s something I still have to work on probably for my whole life because it’s a pattern that I have. I have to work on that all the time.
How are you thinking about the next few years of your career at this point?
I hope that I will make a good impact over the years and that over time, I can say, “I have changed a few organizations with the way how people are acting.” It was not something where there was training and for one year, they did think differently, but then it became forgotten again. I want to make this lasting impact. Only years more will show how lasting this impact might be. Maybe one day, I have this feeling of a breakthrough, which is potentially then good enough to fit my own expectations. Maybe I have to lower them a little. That is the point that.
It’s about leaving a legacy as well. It is about having made a lasting change somehow in different worlds where people are working. It is about having helped people to feel better in their careers, especially if they have 30 years or more ahead of them where they can live differently. They don’t look back at the end and say, “If I had known 30 years ago.”
You’ve anticipated my last question, which is, what do you wish you had known back at the beginning of your career that you would go back and tell your younger self?
What I would tell my younger self and I did not do that because I was so excited about applying my skills is, “Don’t look at your competencies and skills only.” You think about the diplomas, different trainings you can do, or whatever. Think about also that it goes hand in hand with who you are and that you, early on, understand what is limiting you. We all have that.
When you know in your early twenties what that is and you can work with that, you can evolve differently from that moment onwards. For twenty years, I was more or less stumbling through my career where I was quite firm and quite clear in my competencies. The more I climbed up the career ladder, the more I felt like an imposter. It was not particularly joyful. Most of the time, I was super stressed for nothing. It’s ridiculous if I look back. We were always performing greatly and we were super stressed like, “Maybe it wasn’t good enough what I was doing.” It was stupid.
The thing I would tell to my younger self is, “Believe in your competencies. Understand who you truly are. Take with you all these negative or limiting beliefs that you have, but don’t let yourself be controlled by them or be limited by them in any way. There is so much more everyone could do if we’d feel comfortable with ourselves.” That is what I would tell my younger self.Believe in your competencies. Understand who you truly are. Take with you all these negative or limiting beliefs that you have, but don't let them control you. Click To Tweet
That is well said. This has been fun. I appreciate your time. There are lots of great insights in there for people at all levels, whether they’re leaders at the top of an organization or working their way up to it in terms of how to think about communicating and how to think about being an empathetic leader and being authentic. There are lots of great advice. Thank you for covering all of that.
Thank you. It was a pleasure to have this open discussion.
Have a good rest of your day.
Thank you very much. You too.
I want to thank Ulrike for joining me to discuss her coaching work, her thoughts on communication and leadership, her own career journey, and what she’s learned along the way. If you’re ready to take control of your career, you can visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, become a PathWise member. Basic membership is free. You can also sign up on the website for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube. Thanks. Have a great day.
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About Ulrike Seminati
Ulrike Seminati is a leadership and communication coach and consultant who brings a wealth of experience as a former C-level executive to her expertise in authentic leadership and impactful communication. By blending the latest self-development methodologies with her extensive practical knowledge of corporate communications, she enables leaders to establish trust and credibility through effective communication. Her clients benefit from her pragmatic and user-friendly tools that enable them to make lasting improvements. Prior to going out on her own, Ulrike had leadership roles at Acino, Syngenta, Arte, Daimer, and Magna International. She lives in Zurich.