Anyone in a position of leadership automatically has a critical responsibility to recognize the power, and the danger, of a hallway conversation. It doesn't matter if you've just hired your first employee, you're a CEO of a public company, or if you're President of the United States; When you are a leader, people pay attention to your every word and action at all times.
What you say and do has a deeper and more powerful impact than it ever did before. Your every word and sentence, the tone of your voice, and even your body language automatically sends a message to everyone who sees and hears you: Anything you do or say automatically becomes direction to those you lead. And the implications of this are far more reaching than you realize.
I remember the first time I learned this principle. I was perplexed by a behavior I had noticed with some of my employees prioritizing certain customers and not others. I raised my concern to my business mentor at the time, and he simply asked me a question: "Aren't those the customers you said you want to focus more directly on next year?"
"Well, yes, I do," I replied, "But not like this, not at the expense of current customers."
Then there was an unusually long pause. The painful kind. In hindsight I realized he was giving me time to think about it. That's the luxury of having a mentor early on: I was about to learn from my own mistakes while the damage was still minor, while I had a few employees and not hundreds. It's one thing to fall of a bicycle. It's entirely another thing to fall off a motorcycle at freeway speeds.
"I wonder, how did they receive the direction from you regarding next year's plan?" he asked me.
"I didn't present the plan yet."
"Interesting," he replied, looking at me as if I knew the answer already.
That's when it hit me. I had ordered in lunch for everyone one day a week earlier, and we had a great time talking about everything everyone was doing. I was really familiar with my team, we had known each other and worked together for years. And I had lost sight of the responsibility that comes with a formal position of leadership. I had slipped and talked, without setting the kind of context that usually requires a few slides in a keynote presentation. No one knew the plan. They just heard pieces of it, and without any context to help them understand how we were going to act on it without alienating existing customers.
I had already set wheels in motion and I hadn't even realized it. And the wheels were quietly beginning to steer the bus toward a cliff.
Whether you've just hired your first employee, you're a CEO of a public company, or you're the President of the United States, what you do, what you say, and how you frame what you say matters. To the degree a leader is careful to think before speaking, and always set the appropriate context, regardless of how boringly redundant that sounds, most people will get the message that's intended. And it doesn't matter what medium a leader uses. Twitter, Facebook, Typepad. A leader is always on, 100% of the time. And they are party to and responsible for the effects and aftermath of any direction they provide via their communications, intended or otherwise.
There is no "I didn't mean that" excuse in leadership.