Corporate America: You Need to Communicate Better!

Consider that work environment and culture are mostly influenced by immediate managers or leaders, and that leaders who fail to establish trustworthy communications are directly responsible for employee dissatisfaction and higher economic costs to the organization. No wonder CEOs are concerned with talent retention and leadership development!

Completing business objectives in the present stagnating economy presents considerable challenges to managers. The answer is a clear game plan that includes consistent, frequent and open dialogue.

Identifying barriers to communication
I’ve heard the following platitudes from managers who denigrate communications. Typically, these managers are also sidestepping other job responsibilities as well:

·         Excuse No. 1: It’s not my job.
·         Excuse No. 2: Employees just need to do what I tell them to do.
·         Excuse No. 3: Even though I’m moving at mach speed and I’ve chosen to ignore your emails and voicemails, it’s your fault you didn’t get my attention until the situation is almost unrecoverable.

Communications solutions
First, if manager is in your title, then communicating is your job. How often you communicate with your team and whether your key messages are consistent and logical to your direct reports have a dramatic impact on employee engagement. In a 2011 Buck Consultant survey, poor leadership and individual supervisors were top reasons cited for a decrease in employee engagement, 48 percent and 41 percent respectively. Corporate America needs managers who understand the concept of two-way communications and who practice and execute this consistently.

Second, a common management mantra today is that employees just need to do what the manager tells them to do. Adopting this strategy is certainly easier and less time-consuming. But if employees never see the “big picture,” then they’ll never understand how their work contributes to the greater mission or goal of the team | project | department | organization.

Corporate America needs managers who understand – and value – the concept of individual communication. What issues or projects do your direct reports want discussed openly? And what information do they need to be more effective in their jobs? I posit that many managers could actually build and head innovative teams if they regularly allowed direct reports to brain storm solutions.

Third, managers today say they’ve established an open-door policy for employees to address issues, but the key to an open-door policy is whether the manager actively listens. Active listening means that you hear the message vs. framing your response. Consider this: If an employee delivers negative news, what is the manager’s first response? Is the game plan to point fingers and blame the employee for [fill in the blank here]? Not hearing a direct report is a sure-fire way to lose top talent. And blaming that direct report for a manager’s listening deficit communicates clearly to an employee his or her value – or lack thereof.

Corporate America today needs managers who take the time to develop active listening skills and who understand that their response to a direct employee should not be blame. Not all projects go right all the time. How a manager communicates in those unfortunate moments can either build a team or disintegrate an employee.

Other communication barriers exist today for corporate managers. In your experience, what are these, and what solutions have managers successfully implemented  in your organization?


Five Laws of Trust for Communicators

As a communications or public relations professional, you’ll work with a plethora of other professionals: stakeholders, subject matter experts, journalists, bloggers, employees at every level of an organization and other communications colleagues.

Key to ensuring your work is solid is to form a good working relationship, one that establishes trust and credibility. This is, I realize, easier said than done. Still, by committing to these five basic essentials throughout your career, you’ll  find that others will begin to build confidence in you.

1. Say what you’ll do, and do what you say. This is particularly important in working with others who do not know you or your work. If you say you’ll deliver a story or a PR plan, or return a phone call, do it – and do it when you say you’ll do it. Understanding that in today’s world, communications doesn’t stop just because you got slammed with five other tasks will make you empathetic to others’ needs. Be credible!

2.  Tactfulness still goes a long way. When working on any particular project, remember that you’ll likely encounter multiple viewpoints. How you communicate details, particularly when referring to issues or delicate matters, can be a very important component. So, be sure you say these things as tactfully as possible. (Note: There is a time for laying it out there, but this wouldn’t be considered normal practice!)

3.  Know when to ditch your desk. I know, I know. Your life blood is tied to your laptop, which sits neatly on your desk. Remember, it’s a laptop, which means it – and you – can travel. Learn to discern when that’s necessary. Do you need five minutes of face time vs. a phone call or email? Or, do you need to catch a flight to that satellite office and spend a day with stakeholders in another city? I’ve tromped through airplane maintenance hangars and along railroad tracks to ensure I “get it” and that stakeholders I’m working with know that I am interested in and value their efforts. Rolling up your sleeves and seeing what others deal with on a daily basis will always give you insight. In the end, this results in clearer communications, which helps engender confidence in you and your work.

4.  Share your expertise. Being current on your company means you must be current on your company’s industry. Scanning the environment and recognizing industry trends not only helps you do your job better but also puts you in a position to provide story ideas to colleagues or meaty content to journos and bloggers. Being helpful to others, especially when that help is not requested, will carve a special place for you in the landscape. And add to your trust quotient. 

5. Be a careful listener. People love to share their stories. If you’re in communications, you probably thrive on hearing those stories and putting them to good use. Getting someone’s story or request wrong, though, is a sure-fire way to erode credibility. Be sure you listen well to others and respond appropriately.

These are among my top five must-dos but by no means all the things a communicator can do to build confidence. What habits have you formed to ensure your own trustworthiness?  What’s the most important thing you can do, or have done, to build trust?


Know thy objective

I recently judged communication campaigns and tactics, and was struck by the lack of planning involved in nearly every entry.  Particularly absent was the lack of specific communications objectives. If you’re in public relations, marketing or corporate communications, you need to know how to craft a solid strategic communication objective because that is the single most important focal point of any communications campaign. If you don’t know what you're aiming for, you’ll never know if you reached it.

Below are components of a communication objective, but ultimately, you’ll want to ensure this is part of a strategic communication plan that aligns with your organizational or departmental business objectives.

  • Expect your outcome. Are you trying to raise awareness of a new widget or new process? Or do you need to move the needle by changing employee or customer attitudes? Perhaps you need a target audience to adopt a specific behavior. Before you can craft an objective, know what you expect the outcome to look like.
  • Use verbs! Once you know the expected outcome of your objective, select an appropriate verb. Do you want customers to buy, ban or endorse? Are you looking for employees to adopt, support or change?
  • Be specific. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at communications plans that aren’t tied to specific objectives. If you can’t articulate the objective specifically, then you are already missing the goal.
    • Who is the audience?
    • What is the timeframe?
    • What is the attainment level?
  • Measure the objective.  Know how to accurately measure your objective, and know your baseline. This is your starting point. What is the current status quo? You need to know this before you initiate your strategy; otherwise, you won’t know whether you moved the needle or not.
Below is an example of a specific communication objective that anticipates an increase in audience awareness:

Within the next 60 days, 70 percent of our organization’s customers will see or hear about our new widget.

Starting with these basics, you’ll add a solid, measurable component to your strategic planning. What other components help you achieve your goals?


It's the project people!

As organizations increasingly become more global, merge, shift their technological platforms, or downsize, more communicators are accountable for organizational change-management communications. The mission of a change-management group is to implement something new to an organization or department. If you are a communicator tasked with change-management communications, you have, de facto, become part of the change-management group.

To effectively assist with communications, you should have a clear understanding of the group. Without this assessment, your effectiveness, and therefore the mission and the communications coming from the organization or department, will be minimized.

Here are a few things to take into account:
  • Group composition – Are members from the same department, or is it a cross-functional team? If cross-functional, are members siloed within their departments, or is there an evident esprit de corps? Understanding this will help determine your approach to strategic communication planning.
  • Membership – Do individuals consider themselves to be part of a “group” or a member of a “team”? If the people assigned to complete the change view their involvement, or mission, differently, the communicator should be aware of this. Why? Because those who don’t view the group’s common goals as their goals typically will become a fringe element. Intrateam communications will likely get bogged down or, worse, become nonexistent. Barriers like geography, silos and day-to-day work tasks will only make communication that much more challenging.
  • Leadership style – The tone and pace of communications from the change-management group to the rest of the organization depends heavily on the leader's style. Is she a visionary? If so, you’ll likely be in communication nirvana, crafting motivating messages. On the other hand, if the leader adopts a pacesetting style, you’ll probably need to redouble your efforts at intrateam communications, as people begin to feel underappreciated and assume their contributions aren’t helping achieve the mission.
By making these basic assessments, a communicator can begin to formulate an effective strategic approach. To help you get started, study the photograph above and assess your view and the views of other group members. Do you/they see it as:
  • It’s the project people!
  • It’s the project people!
How does your view of the image compare with others in the group? And what challenges do the different perspectives impose on your job as a communicator, both to the group and more broadly to the organization?