The best leaders don’t shout... they communicate, communicate, communicate!
- 03 September, 2018 06:30
Spare a thought for those in your team who aren’t in leadership roles and don’t have access to your greater level of information
As a leader, you’ll be aware of the various everyday pressures that confront your company, your division or your team. The sources of these pressures vary depending on whether you are responsible for a corporation, a department or a small privately owned or family-based enterprise.
The global economy has suffered over the past few years and since the global financial crisis and its ensuing financial market meltdown. In the post-GFC world, increased uncertainty has placed added pressure on business to an extent greater than most of us has witnessed for some time.
In such circumstances, the need for improved communication within the business is at its most obvious. As leaders, we usually know the facts about the state of our businesses and the inherent risks or difficulties that the market climate might be generating. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to cope with the heat of the moment when you know the details around the extent of the damage or difficulty.
Spare a thought, then, for those in your team who aren’t in leadership roles and don’t, therefore, have access to your greater level of information. These people go to work each day and perform their roles, usually to the best of their ability, but unaware of the full details about what’s going on in the business. This lack of knowledge can, understandably, result in a high degree of uncertainty on the part of your people, particularly during times of economic upheaval, which, coincidentally, is when people feel most concerned about job security. So while it’s always important to communicate with your people, it’s an even more critical challenge for management to deal with when uncertainty exists.
Navigating the perfect storm: The Yellow Pages
In the period from 2008 to 2011 when I worked with the Yellow Pages company, it was one of many companies really feeling the combined heat of rapid technological change and global economic uncertainty. The company’s core business, revenue generated by printed classified advertising, was deteriorating rapidly. The global financial crisis accelerated an already challenging trading environment for many of Yellow’s clients.
To make matters even more difficult, the company was saddled with an unsustainable level of debt, created when it was subjected to a private equity funded acquisition at the peak of the market in 2007.
Borrowing the terminology from the well-documented hurricane that hit the North Atlantic coast in the early 1990s, we called this situation ‘The Perfect Storm’.
We had a combination of:
• A declining business due to structural issues created by the advance of the internet and the dominance of Google;
• The Global Financial Crisis, resulting in company failures and a mammoth (25 per cent worldwide in the first 12 months) decline in advertising spend;
• A debt burden equal to six times revenue and 11 times EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation).
This ‘perfect storm’ worsened when the media became deeply interested in Yellow’s predicament and began telling the story, often quite inaccurately. Consequently,our people were bombarded with newspaper, radio, television and online articles, which, among other things, stated that our business was in severe difficulty, was likely to be wound up, and that many people would lose their jobs.
‘I remember that many of our people had set up “Google alerts” for news and information about our company. As I wandered around the business they would regularly approach me, concerned about the content of yet another press story and seeking my assurance that everything would be okay. In many cases, people in our sales teams were being questioned daily as to our financial viability by customers worried about advance payments for advertising.’
It was a classic example of an act or event which puts pressure on your people, the troops, who front up every day and do a good job despite what is going on in the world around them. The risk is that without good internal communication, your people will see and read the media’s coverage and assume it to be true.
Obviously, we don’t all get into similarly difficult situations, but the Yellow Pages experience does highlight the need to constantly communicate with your people during difficult times. When people don’t have access to information that keeps them accurately informed, they have no option but to rely on others, in this case the media, for information which in turn shapes their view of things.
Constantly communicating with our people in Yellow’s very difficult situation was critical. We gave our people accurate details of what was actually happening to both satisfy their own curiosity and, just as importantly, that of the customers and clients whom our people were dealing with everyday.
Whether you’re circulating a new business plan or dealing with a public relations disaster, you must be able to deliver clear communication to your people and your other key stakeholders. For me there is just one golden rule that works when it comes to communicating with your people:
‘Always assume that the message doesn’t get through.’
Next: So how do you get the word out?
6 simple communication suggestions
These things have all worked really well for me in the past:
Move your desk to open plan
I’ve sat in open plan offices for 20 years. I can’t believe that executives are still hiding themselves away in their own inaccessible offices. Getting out of your office and sitting among the troops will, more than any other single action, have the greatest positive impact on your communication, and in the shortest time. Once your people get over the shock caused by your move, the benefits delivered are immediate. For a start, you get a better feeling for what’s going on around your team.
Big room meetings
Most organisation structures rely on one group of managers to communicate top-level messages down to the next level of managers who, in turn, deliver it to those at the coalface. Depending on the size of the organisation, this filter process can extend through a few layers.
That’s why I love big room meetings. The ones where everyone gets together in the big meeting room, the cafeteria or wherever the biggest space is, and you share what’s going on. Everyone gets the same message, with the same emphasis and the correct sense of priority. The approach might involve getting some people, those not based in the main office, to connect by phone or video conference to catch the action. In one of my businesses we had the entire 700-person workforce attending the weekly Monday morning meeting. The big room meeting is, in a rapidly changing business, a fantastic way to keep everyone on point and to ensure message consistency to your customers and stakeholders.
I was once appointed CEO of a loss-making business with an extremely toxic company culture. Claws came out as the office doors opened each morning and weren’t withdrawn until everyone went home at night.
One of the best things we did to change that culture was to introduce a weekly morning tea. Every week, usually on a Wednesday, I’d have morning tea with one of the teams, usually about eight people. It’s important to keep the numbers at a level that ensures that those people attending will feel comfortable about contributing. The rules are, you bring the muffins and they bring the agenda. In other words, we talk about the stuff that the people, not the boss, want to talk about. The boss can get his or her message out as part of how they respond.
People love to be part of something successful. Remember, in many businesses, the number one thing people worry about is their job security. Celebrating events regularly makes people feel that they are part of something that is successful and it provides a sense of stability. It doesn’t have to be a big success and it doesn’t have to be a big celebration. It can be a new customer, a big sales deal or even a birthday, a wedding anniversary, or one of your people coaching the local little league team to some success. And it doesn’t have to be expensive. A bottle of wine, a dinner for two, or a lunch for the team will often be well received.
Friday night drinks (only once a month)
A word to the wise: don’t use this practice to create a booze culture. Done properly, you can provide another opportunity to wander around the team in a relaxed environment and talk about the week or month just gone. In this environment you’ll hear about some of the customer issues that might not otherwise filter through to you, or issues around a product’s pricing, or maybe the fact that you’re having difficulty recruiting a junior role.
Walk the floor
I like to diarise time to ‘walk the floor’ two or three times a week. I do it to be seen, to listen and to learn. It provides a little health check on the business. But you must be disciplined to do it.
Your activity doesn’t always have to be planned in one-hour segments. Take a different route through the office as you walk to the kitchen or bathroom — you’ll bump into different people along the way. Allow an additional five minutes as you go to a meeting or head for the car park and stop by and check in on one of your people as you go.
Bruce Cotterill has been at the helm of organisations of all sizes, from three people to 3500, with revenues ranging from zero to $800 million. As CEO, he has led turnarounds at real estate group Colliers, Kerry Packer’s ACP Magazines, and iconic Kiwi sportswear company Canterbury International. He is a highly regarded business communicator assisting managers, leaders and their organisations to improve their performance and profitability. This is an excerpt from his book The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, where he shares the lessons learned as he and his teams have defended businesses against the threats of the poor performance he inherited, and then, turned those same businesses around into highly profitable organisations with engaged teams and ecstatic customers.
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