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Episode 16:

Creating Connection through Communication

Alexandra Bond Burnett

Description

Alexandra Bond Burnett, host of the Ambition to Impact podcast, joins Jeremy Clopton on episode 16 of The Upstream Leader. A speaking and impact coach, Alexandra breaks down the elements of communication, offers advice on how to make your communication impactful through a focus on three pillars—influence, connect, and affect—and demystifies the entire concept of communication in an accessible, attainable way.
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About the Guest

Coach, Trainer and a top ten podcast host, Alexandra is is a certified executive performance coach with a background in corporate finance and training in psychology. Her focus is working with talented people, to challenge them to take ownership of their unique and remarkable ability to impact others.

Working with clients from Xero, ICAEW, EY, AAT, The Royal Society, to Swiss Re, experience in both practice and industry, Alexandra uses a five step formula to unlock inner confidence, in order to be a positive influence.

Alexandra often is found contributing in featured publications for AccountingWeb, Independent Financial Accountant, AAT and featured in ICAEW Economia Magazine. You may also like to check out her previous podcast, Presenting Finance which was voted 8th best Presentation Podcast on the Internet 2021.

Highlights

Welcome to The Upstream Leader. Today’s topic is creating connections through communication. Of course, we all communicate every day—or at least we think we do. But often this perception creates the illusion of communication and very little connection.

Alexandra Bond Burnett is here with us today to discuss how we can improve our ability to connect with others. Alexandra is a certified executive performance coach and founder of speaking ambition. She provides executive coaching and mentoring for high achieving analytical people to get them feeling confident, articulate, and valuable in both work and home. Alexandra has experience as a professional voice and acting coach in London’s West End, and a background in corporate finance. In addition, she is the founder of an award winning digital accountancy firm, along with training in psychology.

Using these contrasting yet complementary perspectives, Alexandra brings the perfect blend to open up technical perfectionists so they can truly create an impact in their careers. To do this, she uses a combination of performance, psychology and storytelling to challenge leaders with refreshing candor, humor and vibrancy. Alex, it’s great to have you on The Upstream Leader.

Thank you so much for having me, Jeremy.

I am excited about our topic today. Communication is something I enjoy learning about, and I know that it’s so relevant in our profession today. But before we jump in and start talking about communication and creating connections, I want to start off the way that I do with every guest, and that, is talk to us a little bit about how you became the leader you are today?

That’s a really great question. And as you just read out, I have a quite a varied background. So it’s not your standard story. I suppose my leadership story is that I started in corporate finance, which was a really strange thing for someone in my family to do, because I came from a very— oh, how would you describe my family?—they have been described as fairly Bohemian before. So they are songwriters and actors and journalists, and for main papers, and big album writers, and things like that. So no one had the kind of nine-to-five job that you would really think of as potentially, should I say “normal?” I don’t know. But in my family, it was very, very creative.

So I started in finance, and it’s only a few years later, I think I reached that point in my mid 20s, where I was like, “This is this is good. But there’s something more that I’d like out of life.” And that’s when I felt like I wasn’t going to rebel anymore in finance and embrace my creative heritage. And I went to—I applied to some of London’s drama schools, and I got into drama school. So I actually started acting for a few years, and then realized, rather than being on the stage, which I do love, it’s actually working with how we as humans interact, and share information, and what happens between us.

So when you have two people standing opposite each other, and they’re sharing information, what is actually happening in that space, and how do we affect people? How do we affect decisions? So that, I found fascinating, and then I worked in education and training and coaching, and that was that really.

Very interesting. So you definitely—I was gonna ask how you made the jump from theater and creativity to the accounting field. But it sounds like the stage was set, so to speak—no pun intended—but starting in corporate finance, and then getting that creative experience, and then you almost had that “aha” moment, “Oh, wait a second, people could use this,” and back in the corporate finance world, what you had learned on the stage to really improve what they’re doing. Is that a fair description?

Yes. It’s exactly that. And it’s almost what happened—I was very shy as a child. It’s always really lovely, because quite a few people say “I don’t really believe that.” And I was! I was a classic. I was like, at the back of the room. I was very nerdy. I was the librarian. I was good at science and maths and also drama, music. Yeah, and I was very quiet, and you know, I didn’t get into trouble. I think I had one detention throughout school.

But it was when I started learning more about music and I joined the choir, and then I got given some solo singing. So singing was my thing, and musical theater was a big—and is still something I work with. And that’s when I really found my voice. And it was the fact that you’re standing up there affecting an entire crowd of people. And it’s not, it kind of gives you the platform to really let the work shine, and not necessarily just you, but you are the tool, I suppose, to let someone else’s music and work shine. And that actually happens in our corporate life as well.

So you have these tools, which is what we call executive presence. It’s how we make other people feel. And it’s how we lead is that we’re not only the tools, when we’re leading, we help other people shine and be effective and create incredible things and actions throughout other people. And that’s kind of the way. So yes, I made that jump—made that jump from finance to theater. And then back again.

Yeah, and back again! And I love what you said there, that even as a soloist, it wasn’t necessarily about you, it was really, you were the tool being used to really let the work shine, right? Somebody else’s song, or the musical score, or whatever it was that was really taking center stage—you were the delivery mechanism in a way. And it sounds like as you started to talk about the importance of this in our world—in the accounting profession—that mindset can be really important, because we’re sharing information. It’s not necessarily about me talking, or you talking, it’s about the information we’re sharing. 

So as we transition a little bit—I’m going to use that to transition here to communication. I mean, communication—we hear about it all the time, right? “Here’s a book to read, there’s a book to read, here’s a podcast to listen to, here’s a webinar to go to, here’s some training on communication.” Communication training is definitely ample in the profession. We’ve all heard something, read something. But I think that often, we focus too narrowly that communication is for providing feedback, it’s for talking to a client, it’s just for giving a presentation at a conference.

What I’m hearing you say is the ability to communicate is really the ability to give light and give life to someone else’s ideas, to someone else, and to benefit them. So give us your perspective. I don’t know if I’m interpreting that correctly. Give us your perspective: what is the value of good communication for a leader, young or old, in their career?

Oh, this is a great question, and thank you for asking it. So this is—it’s very powerful, to be able to—the whole point of why we get this, “Oh, be a great communicator,” and as you said, we’ve read books. We know this. It’s a bit like eating our vegetables, eating broccoli—we know that it’s a good thing, and we know that we should probably learn about it and things.

But until you’re heavily affected—now, let me put it like this: Because soft skills on the whole are very hard to put a tangible ROI on, for instance, this is why they have gone almost underlooked for years, even though—and universities in the United States, we’re actually looking at how the university courses, degrees, weren’t actually satisfactorily preparing accountants for leadership roles. And this was noted in 1996 In a study, and I can provide you with the details, but I can’t remember off the top of my head. So we’ve been talking about communication skills since then. 

Now, let me put it this way. First of all, you’ve got on the one hand, IQ is really powerful and absolutely essential when you are working with regulations, with numbers, with compliance. But now let’s think about “Okay, that gets you kind of to the door. What gets you to the table—what gets actually things moving—is what we call your EQ.” So your emotional quotient. So your intelligence quotient being IQ and your emotional quotient being your EQ. So this is something that now is becoming a huge, huge deal, because we’re not looking for people that can just machine, kind of churn out the work, because now we do actually have machines that do that, and we have automated processes that do this.

But what about being analytical? What about being critical? What about asking those questions? What about in audit, when we’re looking at, how do we, with sensitivity, create amazing processes that make us even better than we ever have been? And I suppose the best way to look at it is that to be our best selves, bring everything we have to the table of what we can really truly achieve, is to embrace both of those sides. So the IQ and the EQ. Because that’s how we connect as human beings, and it’s human beings that you’re working with, as opposed to numbers, if that makes sense.

Very much so. That’s a really nicely articulated way to say that—that the IQ, it really helps in the compliance space, the IQ does. The EQ helps in the people space, and to be the best accountant that you can be, you’ve got to have ‘em both. You can only get so far with one or the other. You’ve got to embrace both, and figure out how to become that really holistic accountant in a way.

It is, because you’re picking up on—well, let’s put it this way. Let’s look at the cost of poor communication. Because poor communication costs—and every single person has experienced this—so this is not something like “Oh, no, I’ve gone throughout my entire career without there being a problem.” There has always been someone somewhere where either—and I’ll be really honest here—there’s oversensitivities, so things can flare up pretty quickly if they’re set incorrectly. Egos get into play, as well. So we’re dealing with egos, which are sensitive—and I’m not saying in terms of that very bolshy, bravado type of way—but we do need to almost think about how what we’re bringing of ourselves, and if that’s actually necessarily important.

You have people who, yeah, they don’t do great things, or they do do amazing things, and they’re not actually stepping up and talking about it. Delays are often caused because you’re sending emails back and forth that aren’t really understood, or someone hasn’t really been clear, or they’ve even—one of actually, the most common problems with communication is when people are so eager to please, that they put that ahead, as in they’re so worried about being seen in a negative light, that they actually don’t have the, I suppose the bravery or the courage to actually stand up and go, “I don’t think this is right, and I want to ask the stupid question. I want to ask the stupid question. Does anyone else see this? Or is this just me? Could someone explain it to me?”

Or when we’re leading, I suppose you could say the difference is when you’re from a leadership perspective, is actually being vulnerable enough to say, “Do you really understand this? Can I help you in any way?” Rather than telling people what to do, we should show people what to do. Because when we show people, we learn better—we take things on board, we actually become accountable, we take ownership of decisions in that way.

So it can be much more powerful to have that more effective communication: We’re actually having great conversations, everyone’s feeling a bit more stress free, everyone’s really clear on what the objective is and what to achieve. And yeah, so the cost can be drastic. In fact, here in the UK, financial services alone, by last year, 2020, I think it was, the number was in the billions of what poor soft skills cost the UK economy. 

Wow.

And that’s just the UK.

Yeah, that’s pretty substantial. And worldwide, I’m sure it’s even more significant.

And what you described there is, it’s that fear of embarrassment as a leader that “I’m going to be in the room and I’m going to ask a question, that is silly, and somebody is going to say, ‘How can you be a leader and not know the answer to that?’” But it’s also the vulnerability that then demonstrates to those that you’re leading that it’s okay to ask questions and gain clarification.

Because that’s so important, especially for young leaders, to model the behavior that you want (from) those that you’re leading. And what really strikes me on that Alex, is for young partners in our profession, they finally made it to the partner ranks. They’re a shareholder, they’re an owner of the firm now, and now is the time to ask questions. You’re brand new—you don’t know all the details about the firm. That is the time to start asking those questions, because otherwise, what happens is, you know, you assume you know the answer, or you’re so eager to please as you put it, that you don’t want to ask questions and now you get five, six, seven years on as a partner and you still don’t understand whatever it was that you didn’t understand day one, but now you’re seven years in, and asking the question is really hard! Because if I asked the question now, it’s, “What have you been doing for the last seven years? Did you just make it up as you went?” 

So if we can get over that fear of embarrassment, I think that’s something we’ve got to do culturally in firms, and leaders need to encourage and build a culture that welcomes questions—insightful questions, good questions. On occasion, they may seem like stupid questions, because we think, “Oh, surely everybody knows,” but so often, those are the questions everybody wishes they could ask, but they just don’t have the courage to ask. So creating that culture can be beneficial.

When I think about impactful communication—and I know you do a lot of work around this—and you’ve got three pillars of impactful communication: influence, connect, and affect. I’d love for you to talk to us about the three of those, what they mean, and how they work together to create powerful, meaningful, impactful communication.

Thank you for asking. So yes, I have these three pillars, which is what I work around. And, now think about it this way: So the first thing to really impact in what you do, and with what you do—so either as a specialist or as a leader—when either of those roles: First of all, you have to be able to connect. Now connect—and I always want to think of the kind of very traditional debit and credit system in terms of there’s always two ways. So a conversation. So for instance, any form of communication is two-way. And I think sometimes, especially when it comes to things like presentations and public speaking, we do forget this, because it feels very one-sided. For instance, even if you’re doing a recording or something like that, and you’re having a conversation, you forget, “Actually there is a transaction happening.”

So the connect is the first stage, but the first connection you need to do is with yourself. A lot of the problems that we bring into the workplace, in terms of lack of productivity, or lack of effectiveness, or delays, are actually just from not really understanding how we do two things: How we interact with other people and different personality types, and how we react to different situations, and again, different personalities.

So asking those questions, and doing some work on yourself, first of all, is the first step. So self-awareness is what we’re looking for there. And when you’re self aware, suddenly you realize, and you develop, emotional intelligence. So you know, “Okay, what are my trigger points? What gets me really cross? Where do I lose it? Where do I get really frustrated and stressed and tired, and I snap at people. If I’ve had a really bad journey into work, and someone asked me something as soon as I got in the door, and I’ve been stuck in traffic, and I left my phone at home, or I spilled my coffee,” just all of these things, how does that actually affect you?

Now that sounds really obvious. But we don’t realize that our brains are actually, are so powerful when it comes to our emotions. First of all, you have emotions for a real purpose. Now, if you think of—if you think of driving, you are always moving forward, and you will always (be) driving forward. Now you only have control over your own car, and where you can direct you. You don’t have control over other drivers. But you do need to check in on them to see what they’re doing, and you can adjust yourself appropriately. So if you think about your emotions as being like the dashboard—it’s flagging something up to you. So if you are reacting, if you’re shouting even, or if you’re getting really passionate—so it goes both ways—really passionate, or really excited, either way, that is an emotion that’s flagging up in your brain to tell you something’s going on. It doesn’t mean though—and this is something where we’re only just learning this—it doesn’t mean that we have to be absorbed by that reaction.

So getting stressed about being late coming in from traffic—and this is a great example. For instance, if you are stuck in traffic, and you’re 15 minutes late, and you’re getting really stressed and tense, and you’re getting really cross at the driver in front who’s causing the delay, and suddenly you can feel it, you can feel just like this real “Grr, why aren’t they moving? They’re making me late. How dare they?” It’s getting really heightened.

But then if you think about that driver in front has actually got a child in the back of their car who is choking on some food, and that’s why—that’s what’s going on, right then and there, well suddenly, that all falls away, doesn’t it? All that anger and frustration and thinking, “Gosh, I hope they’re okay.”

The thing is, though, what’s happened there is that you have control over how you’re reacting. The frustration is a frustration—it’s not to be ignored. But it’s about understanding why you’re feeling it, and then processing what you can do about it. And I think we’ve—not “I think,” I know—we do forget that we actually have control over our emotions as much as we do our physical movement. So that’s one thing. It’s about connecting to ourselves and raising our emotional intelligence.

But emotional intelligence is also about connecting to other people, and different personalities. So just knowing there is no set perfect way of doing things. We have to be adaptable, which is difficult when you’ve gone through accountancy, because you learn to be very binary—things have to be right, they have to be correct and perfect. But actually, when it comes to the social skills, you have to keep moving, you have to be adaptable.

Again, it’s like driving: you’ve just got to have the skills that whatever comes your way, you can react perfectly to it, and manage yourself safely, and be effective as you’re driving. So that’s connect—to be really connected.

The next stage is to influence. Now, this is super important when it comes to finances these days. Because first of all, we live in a very, very noisy world, and even when it comes to something as potentially dry as a finance function or accountancy, we have to be effective in that role. People have to be really effective. And to be effective, sometimes you have to—like I was saying earlier about the singing—you have to be the tool that gets things heard. You have to make the work shine. Because it’s not just about the compliance side, it’s about how you get those numbers to really talk to the rest of the business, and the organization, so that everyone can be making the right decisions. And not just the right decisions, the best decisions, and really, again, using that other side of their brain so that we are moving ahead with the times.

So being influential is important, but it’s about being, I suppose, being influential with integrity, as well. You know, it’s a bit like that Spiderman: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” So you do have a responsibility to make sure you’re speaking with integrity. But this is where just, it’s about having the skills. So a lot of the time I do storytelling, and that is an effect of just how to share information in a way that really connects with people that really engages people, and really makes sense as well.

Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And it’s so important, and I love that you added “with integrity” there, on the discussion of influence, because you’re right, so often influence can be tied to power—which can then also lead to more negative things in the workforce. So I love what you’ve said there about influence with integrity. And you know, doing that, once you’ve become self-aware—connected with yourself and connected with your audience—now you can figure out how to use that influence. So talk to us a little bit about affect. How does that factor in?

So affect is actually about the natural-born tools that every single human being has to communicate, that we forget that we have. And let’s put it this way: It’s a bit like being an athlete, or even you know, we’ve—when you’re trying to achieve something. So affect is about the fact that it’s how we communicate in really exercising our tools. So I’m talking about body language, eye contact, about facial expressions, about tone of voice—and really using these as intentionally as we do our language and our words.

So I suppose influence and storytelling is our words, and how we say affect is the way we say it, and being very purposeful with that. Because a lot of the time, we’re just reacting. We’re just moving, we’re reacting. That can be amazing, but sometimes we want to refine that and be really clear about what we are presenting to the world. I mean, this is why we have presentations. This is why we don’t just send out an email document or a bit of writing, and it’s why we listen to things like podcasts—we want to engage with people on that level. So affect is really learning how to use all those tools and how to use your tone of voice.

I mean literally, actors spend three years learning—the first year is all about breathing.

Wow, yeah!

We do that every day! And it’s incredible, because we forget—especially in this lifestyle, which is fairly sedentary. I was only just—I think it was yesterday reading a study where they found that human beings—so my husband who was born in the 80s, will have, I think—well, my son who was born four years ago, he will have 20% less body muscle, muscular mass than his father has, because of the lifestyle that our kids are leading today, in terms of being you know, we use a lot less. We are a lot more in our brains, because we’re not being as physical. That’s just saying about how much we’re moving around and using, and we’ve learned this because we’ve been on Zoom a lot more, and on video calls. So there’s so much that we’re not using.

So let me put it this way: I always say this one. If you are going to ask me, so my office is on a high street, like on this busy street. And if you’re about to go, “Alex, I want you to run to the very end of that street, and I want to see how fast you do it, and what state you’re going to be in afterwards.” Now I’m not gonna lie, I’m going to be pretty—it’s going to be a mess. I’m going to be sweating, and gasping, and probably hurt something, or pull some muscles. It’s not going to be pretty at all. And that’s kind of what we’re doing all the time. But if you said, “Okay, Alex, you have three weeks—three weeks, and you are going to go from the very, from end to end of the road, of the street. And we’re going to time you. I’m going to see what your levels are like and what state you’re in afterwards.” Now that gives me time. I would have stretched. I would have exercised, I would have built up probably leg muscles, and worked on those so that I had more strength there. I would have worked on my aerobic ability, so I have no breath. So the way that I ran was so much more effective, and I delivered, you know, more Olympian style—I’m never going to be an Olympian, but—than I would be if I just went right now, and it was off the cuff.

So again, it’s that preparation and skill level. And we forget: you use your body and your voice every single day. So why aren’t you being intentional with it? Why aren’t you exercising it?

I love that. So as I think back through those three: connect, influence and affect in our previous conversation, just before we jumped into those—it really seems to me that “connect” is about your EQ, “influence” is a little bit about your IQ, and then an “affect” is really about how do you use the tools that you have as a human being to combine the two and communicate the information in a way that drives change in others, or drives excitement or engagement, or really creates that impactful communication with others. Is that fair?

Absolutely. You’ve nailed it. Yeah.

Very good. So let me ask you one more question on this: How does this play out in the remote world? Which is not the easiest question in the world, obviously. You know, in person, the tools, you know: body language, facial expressions, tone, seem much more natural in, you know, in a face-to-face setting. So how is this playing out in the remote world? What changes have you seen?

Okay, so I want to change the way we think about our kind of body language, and how we communicate. Let’s think a bit more of what information you were sending to someone else’s brain, because that’s exactly what’s happening. So first of all, I always like to go back to basics; I suppose, again, that slightly analytical number. The reason why—and thinking about, we have everything for a reason.


So one of the reasons that we have communication techniques is purely about our own physical safety, like a lot of things. And so our bodies are very functional, very, you know, they’re there to do things. You know, our hands are very, we have tools, we can make tools. We’re very clever, clever creatures. Our brains are all about absorbing enough information about who a person is, quite simply, to make a distinction between whether they are friend or foe. That’s it. That’s why we create eye contact, that’s why eye contact is so powerful, why it can either range from terrifying to intimate.

So let’s think about it this way: Every single part of, as you said, connect, influence and affect—and we could say it’s internal (and) external mind and then the external body—of that, how we’re signaling information. And all of that is data that is being processed by someone. So when it comes to virtually, all that’s happened is that we’re reducing the data. So what we’ve seen, though, is that it’s—I did a survey earlier this year about what was happening in terms of accountants’ fees and communication. First of all, we’re really missing those corridor conversations—just things that happen or when we listen. The main issue is, in fact, in leadership, and mentorship with younger members or new starters, because there’s so much that they absorb at the beginning that potentially they’re missing out on.

Now that all can be navigated through how you’re dealing with their first day. A friend of mine is having their first day right now at a new company, and she’s going to be in her home on her computer. So as opposed to the first days I remember of, you know, you get shown around, and get taken out for lunch, and all of those things that we do.

So yeah, on a virtual setting we’re just dealing with, if you’ve got reduced data, you have to maximize what you are using. So if it is your voice, so for people listening, you know, it’s about making sure your voice is really the best it can be—the most effective version. Not a perfect version, there’s no such thing.

Sure.

Because you’ve got to do you. You’ve got to be the best of you. But yeah, so it’s just about being being heard, being clear, and being effective.

Alex, that’s so helpful, and I’m a data person as well, as you know, and I think most of our listeners probably know. I’m a data geek at heart, and really thinking about communication as a stream of data, and as you said, going virtual has essentially just reduced the amount of data available for interpretation—it doesn’t mean you can’t have impactful communication, what it means is that you’ve got to be really intentional with the data that you create, to get the same message across, because people don’t have near as much to use in their interpretation to figure out what you’re saying. So, Alex, I like that.

Thank you so much for sharing your ideas with us today. And some of the key takeaways that I have, as I think back over our conversation: First and foremost, I absolutely loved what you shared about using your voice, using your communications to give life and light to others’ ideas. It’s not necessarily about you talking, but it’s more about using your ability to communicate and share that information with others, and the information is really the focus. 

At the same time, combining IQ, EQ, and our tools to really create impactful communication through those three pillars, as you talked about: connect, influence, and affect, and that it’s not all about the words, and it’s not all about having people skills, but it’s really about taking that holistic approach, where you’re trying to create that impactful communication with others, and making a difference in what you’re sharing.

As we think about this from a virtual standpoint, I know so many leaders are thinking about it virtually. And in the virtual world, there is still the ability to communicate, there is still the ability to create impactful communication, but you’ve got to do it with less data. Because we don’t have as much data coming at us if we’re listening to someone and if we’re the one communicating we aren’t providing as much data as we have an in-person setting.

And then finally, for those that are looking to improve in this area, self-awareness is the place to start. Start learning about yourself, and you will become a better communicator down the road.

Alexandra Bond Burnett, thank you so much for joining us on The Upstream Leader. I really appreciated the conversation.

Thank you so much, Jeremy. I’ve loved joining you today.

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