One-way internal corporate communication — from leader to troops in the various fields — has never been easier. From the company newsletter to mass emails, blogs, video blogs, intranet postings and social media, getting the word out is just a matter of technology.
But is that really communicating? Good leaders know how to make that communication a two-way street, an interactive exchange of thoughts and concerns and ideas, while poor ones have no idea. But they can learn, says Jennifer Schenberg, CEO and self-styled chief talker at PenVine, a communications firm that, in part, coaches leaders on learning to communicate better to internal and external audiences.
“You’re either a CEO who is engaged, or one who must be trained to be more engaging,” Schenberg says.
It’s critical that leaders make the effort to do so, more so now than ever with the rising power of the millennial generation. Those between the ages of 18 and 35 are now the largest age group in the American workplace, and they have a style of engagement all their own.
“Millennials are less interested in taking orders and more interested in solving problems as a team,” says Schenberg. “That increases the need for bosses to be collaborative. CEOs must be more adaptable, more engaging and more open.”
This direct and open style of communication works well in smaller workplaces, where the company president can simply call everyone into the office and initiate dialogue on changing strategy or policy. But what happens as a company grows? How does face-to-face contact take place when the leadership team is at corporate headquarters and satellite offices are spread across the country?
Communications technology has taken some of the bite out of that dilemma. Video and audio conferencing can provide virtual face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) encounters, the next-best thing to actually sitting down together in the same room.
Schenberg says companies need to disregard the challenges that company size and distance can bring.
“Lead like you’re running a fifty-year old startup,” she says. “You still have to be engaging and accessible and open to inspire and motivate.”
A matter of style
Not every leader is a great communicator, says Dr. Karissa Thacker, a management psychologist with a focus on helping executives and organizations reach their full potential who has worked with more than 200 of the Fortune 500 companies.
But all leaders must become better aware of what Thacker calls their communication sweet spot.
“What’s the person’s communication strength?” she says. “One on one? In smaller groups? In front of larger crowds? Whatever it is, they should really push that strength to communicate in the framework that best fits their style.”
Larger organizations can support that style by planning annual or quarterly events in informal settings that encourage two-way participation, says Thacker. She also encourages the use of multiple channels of communication because repetition helps get the message across.
Wendy Capland adds that effort, commitment and technology can overcome obstacles related to company size. As CEO and founder of Vision Quest Consulting, Capland is an internationally recognized leadership development expert.
“Years ago, the executive team at a huge company I worked for rented a stadium,” says Capland. “They took us all in buses and provided box lunches. Team leaders each got up and talked about where the company was headed and about how excited they were to get there. This was on my first week of work. I thought I was in Nirvana.”
It means a lot to employees when they can truly feel like insiders and it’s not that difficult to achieve that, even as the company grows, says Thacker.
“Have a community or departmental forum,” she says. “Sit down in smaller groups. Make it an informal setting, maybe a brown-bag lunch. Throw down the barriers — and leave the PowerPoint behind.”
Keep in mind that even the largest organization is broken into smaller departments or working teams. As long as the leader of each of those units is constantly updated from the top and imparts that information in a dialogue, all employees should feel connected on at least a basic level.
Making the numbers sing
Regardless of communication vehicles, the real power is in the message itself.
“It’s increasingly important to tell a cohesive, interesting story,” says Thacker.
The reason she suggests abandoning the PowerPoint presentation is because she sees it as a barrier that focuses attention on the cold, hard facts, not on the story that transports those facts and figures.
“’We’re going to increase ROI.’ Wow,” Thacker says. “The numbers are important, but they’re not going to energize your team. Instead, spend time in the space of imagination. Explain what it is that makes the numbers sing. Tap into your people’s intrinsic motivation.”
In other words, if the topic is a return on investment goal for a new product launch, build a story that lets your audience picture what their workplaces and home lives will look like if they can all pull together and meet the goal.
When to share – and when not to
Even the most well-meaning of managers can be accused of a lack of transparency by workers at some point — and the accusations might very well be valid. Bad news happens. Key accounts are lost, finances are stretched thin, policies must be changed in ways that can be seen in a negative light. While no one would argue that employers shouldn’t keep their people informed, there are times when it could be disastrous to say too much too soon.
Should you really put the word out about a cash crunch before you’ve met with bankers or fully figured out cost-saving solutions? Do you want your key people to start updating resumes and LinkedIn accounts as soon as they learn the company might lose a major client? Sometimes even the release of good news can be premature if enthusiastic workers are too eager to hit social media before you’ve had a chance to take full advantage of resulting opportunities.
There’s always tension when it comes to bad news, says Capland.
“There’s a balance between when people need to know it and knowing how to prepare them for it,” she says. “But you want to makes sure they know before the news hits the street.”
No one wants to hear bad news, but the problem is compounded when it’s learned from outside the organization. Resentment and distrust build, and morale sinks.
This has been a concern for some of Thacker’s clients.
“I move toward pushing them to be a little out of their comfort zone and disclose slightly too early,” she says. “I’ve seen a few who were very secretive lose talent because of the rumor mill.”
Good leaders often don’t feel such tension regarding disclosure, says Schenberg.
“If CEOs are open and collaborative, then the delivery of difficult information will come much more naturally and their employees will trust and appreciate it,” she says.
She urges leaders to give advance warning of bad news whenever possible, even if they can’t be forthcoming with all of the details.
“But don’t give early warnings when all it can do is cause panic,” she says.
Instead, be ready to explain possible solutions or at least provide assurance that the company is hard at work addressing the challenge. Leaders who have built cultures based on foundations of truth, candor and openness are better positioned to communicate adversity, and their people have a greater tolerance for negative news delivered by a trusted source.