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Getting Personal: A New System for Leadership Communication

Do you often feel, as many leaders do, that you are the last to know about opportunities and issues emerging in your organization? Could the reason be that you don’t have an effective mechanism in place whereby people on the frontlines and in the trenches can communicate successes, failures, and fresh ideas to leadership? Are employees afraid to speak up? Are their voices perhaps just getting lost in translation between layer upon layer of management?

Just as important, do you have a system that lets you communicate important, actionable messages directly to associates? Can you really connect with and engage individual contributors? Or are your clear leadership directives being translated so many times that they end up as an unintelligible blur at the other end, as in the children’s Telephone game? If so, you’re not alone.

Recently, a few leading organizations have discovered an efficient two-way communication program that truly gets leadership messages across to individual contributors and, at the same time, enables employees to share questions, concerns, and fresh ideas with C-level executives.

Can We Talk?
Traditional leadership-to-employee communication vehicles (e.g., memos, e-mails, newsletters, meetings) are all too typically one-way and top-down. Leaders issue directives, and individual contributors implement them. Employees generally don’t feel empowered to ask questions or raise issues about decisions. Further, many top-down messages are impersonal, and they are distributed wholesale to the workforce audience. The result of this mass communication approach is that even employees who might not be afraid to speak up don’t believe anyone at the top really cares what they know or think.

So what can be done to ensure that leadership messages actually engage individual contributors and that everyone has the opportunity to keep leaders in the know? That was the challenge faced by a large water utility, many of whose 1,800 customer service and operational reps spend all their time in the field. How could the man or woman in the van best be kept up to date with fast-moving developments at the home office?

A monthly newsletter and team briefing lacked immediacy and flexibility, and a “multi media production” was too costly to implement. Instead, company leaders now record an audio briefing every two weeks on a third-party vendor’s telephone system. Employees receive text alerts when the broadcast goes live, and can dial in toll-free 24/7 when they’re ready to listen. Messages cover operational matters, project updates, fleet changes, health and safety requirements, and use of equipment. A unique dimension of this innovation is that employees can also leave feedback about the briefing, including asking questions or raising concerns. Most important, they have the choice of doing so either anonymously or by providing contact information and requesting a personal reply.

These messages are transcribed and forwarded by the third-party vendor to company leadership for a response or follow-up.

Since the introduction of this program several years ago, satisfaction rates for the utility’s internal communications have doubled, and leaders are confident that their messages are getting directly to employees, no matter how remote their location.

A financial services provider uses the same system to establish a direct connection between leadership and 300 independent financial advisors and in-house client managers. In the past, these associates were kept up to date via audio CD, a relatively expensive and one-way solution. The company was also seeking a “greener” solution, which would eliminate the waste of used CDs. While past recordings required scripts and rehearsals, today’s phone system recordings, although less glossy, are more authentic and personal. Team members can dial in toll-free, access the system with a PIN, and listen to the message any time. The audio file is also uploaded into the company’s intranet to provide a “listen-again” facility. Leadership receives reports on listening figures, which gives them an opportunity to fine-tune content, enhance the effectiveness of the broadcasts, and evaluate the impact of this new communication channel.

Similarly, the CEO of a large optical retailer records a weekly message to more than 5,000 associates in over 600 locations around the country. He shares success stories, examples of how an associate went the extra mile for a customer, global industry news, and his own perspectives on the business. Prior to the “broadcasts,” associates receive teaser e-blasts to arouse their curiosity. At the conclusion of each recording, the CEO encourages associates to respond with questions, concerns, and new ideas to make the company a better place to work or provide better customer service. Each week, the leadership team receives scores of messages back from the associates. The employee comments typically include reactions to new products, reports of success stories, observations about culture, and, yes, the occasional complaint about or praise for a manager.

The leadership team follows up on these messages without fail. The program has resulted in a culture of responsiveness and service by senior management. Being more sensitive to the wants, needs, desires, and ideas of the people closest to the customer has propelled the company into becoming the fastest growing chain in its industry.

Simple, Yet Powerful
The less formal the message, the more powerful it is because it’s genuine, not rehearsed. No speechwriting or lengthy preparation is required. Leaders can simply outline some talking points and then talk extemporaneously. That authenticity, along with the emotion carried by the spoken word, makes a recorded message much more effective than an email, blog, or newsletter.

Topics leaders might cover include:
  • New ideas
  • New processes/procedures being implemented
  • Explanations of why the processes/procedures in place are necessary
  •  Organizational changes
  • New team member introductions
  • How the company is working to improve safety, security, and environmental and corporate social responsibility
  • Kudos for high performers
  • Success stories
  • Requests for input on various matters, such as morale, culture, or service

There is no such thing as over-communicating to team members. Every contributor wants a sense of the big picture and what the company’s direction is. People, who are informed, care. They provide better service and make better decisions.

As with any system, it’s important to keep the messages regular, even if they only come monthly or quarterly. Employees need to be able to expect them so they can look forward to them and know when it’s time to dial in. In contrast, inconsistent, infrequent, or unpredictable leadership communications are taken less seriously.

When employees respond, they may cover topics such as the following:

  • Barriers to providing the best customer service
  • Ways to improve facilities with better layout, tools, signage, or equipment
  • Suggestions for better organizational communication
  • Perceptions regarding morale
  • Questions about HR, benefits, and safety
  • Concerns about employee relationships
  • Observations on how clients perceive services
  • Ideas on how to save the company money
  • Compliments to coworkers

This type of two-way communication system fosters a non-threatening dialogue. Employees know that their opinions are valued, and because anonymity is assured for those who want it, there’s significantly less reluctance to speak up. As an extra benefit, managers who know that employees can voice their concerns directly to senior leadership become more interested in listening to employees themselves and so they tend to become better and more employee-engaged managers.

Talk, Listen, Follow Up
In the daily race to run their organizations, most leaders don’t have time to reach out to individual contributors and ask the important questions that would really tell them what’s going on with the company and its customers. As a result, they miss out on their employees’ wealth of knowledge and ideas. They may issue directives in a vacuum or have their messages blurred as they make their way through the enterprise. That’s why it’s so critical to have direct communication lines from leaders to employees and back again. Since leaders can’t personally talk with every single employee, the next best thing to a one-on-one fireside chat is to record an authentic, honest message to give everyone the opportunity to exchange their views in return and to follow up on the insights and suggestions of individual contributors. The business results may amaze you.

About the Author(s)

Peter Lilienthal is president of InTouch, a company which uses innovative communication tools to give employees and leaders a voice. For further information, visit www.getintouch.com