Putting priority on communication
We’ve always known that communication is a core skill for a successful leader. It’s hardly surprising that this core skill is being severely tested in our more testing market environment. More surprisingly, it’s the skill where leaders still lack confidence and find it hard to work out both what to do and how to do it. As one senior HR director said to me recently: ‘Don’t assume that leaders know how to handle difficult news’.
In times of rapid change, people are searching daily for clues about the state of the business and will look for it by magnifying every bit of leadership behaviour, interpreting it, looking for hidden meaning and signals; they need to see you to see the whites of your eyes so they can be reassured about the authenticity of what you are saying. All too often, in a time of crisis the response from senior directors is to cut themselves off from the day to day business while they go into a huddle to work out the new crisis strategy or plan. At that moment invisible leaders are the most damaging action to the business. At times like this you need to be on the front foot with your own highly visible, personal and relentless communication campaign in order to manage the mood of the moment.
From my experience, we have to turn communication on its head; see it as listening and learning rather than informing and involving. As soon as leaders realise the value of the information they can acquire by being out there talking to people about their concerns, about their customers and about their business, they can see it as quite a sophisticated form of radar communications, and as a valuable data gathering activity, rather than a chore. It’s a win-win, as people feel reassured to see their leader face-to-face, and leaders feel reassured by picking up signals directly about the environment without any forms of interference. So what can you be doing?
- Give weekly updates – via an informal channel such as a personal blog or email – and in your own words
- Make weekly visits to all sites and offices, have informal lunches with small groups of employees, listen to what’s going on
- Share the key challenges – ask people what they think should be done e.g. ‘How can we maintain our margins in these highly competitive times?’ – you will be surprised at the ideas that will come in
- Communicate immediately when you take a decision – don’t leave people in the dark
- Celebrate an early success that shows the new strategy or plan is working, help people to believe it’s the right thing to do.
People know things are changing; they want to see that the company is keeping pace with those changes. So avoid telling them what you think they want to hear and focus on being with them, being honest and being alert to the signals that will tell you when it’s time to change tack.