In my almost 25-year career in manufacturing and distribution, I’ve yet to see a company with “perfect” communications. I’ve seen a few stars (unfortunately the 20% of the 80/20 equation, if that!), MANY poor communicators and several “so-so” communicators throughout the years. On the other hand, I’ve seen the significant bottom line impact communications can have on business performance. Why are communications so difficult?
My assessment is that communication begins and ends with leadership and often isn’t an area of focus. Let’s take a manager, director or even CEO of a mid-market manufacturing company. How many do you know who are exceptional communicators? What does that even mean? Think about this situation: If you need to ship an order to your #1 customer or answer an email for your boss or talk with your #1 employee, which do you focus on first? What do you tell the others? Is it any wonder leaders are considered poor communicators in almost every survey completed?
Do the executives institute the values and culture to support communications? Or is it happenstance? For example, I’ve seen “good” and even “great” people with “good” style and content fail if the values and culture of the organization didn’t support communications. And, the reverse is also true – “so-so” communicators can become quite successful in a communications-rich culture.
No matter how bleak the situation, don’t give up as you can always do something to improve it. The good news is that the vast majority of executives want improved communications. (If not, get out!) Thus, start by focusing on communications and consider a few key factors: 1) the person, 2) style, 3) content or lack thereof.
1. The person: When it comes to communications, the key is to have people listen, contribute and follow. Thus, a few personal traits are vital to success – trust and credibility. For example, I’ve seen leaders who say “all the right things at the right time with perfect style” fail miserably. In every case, it is due to the lack of trust. Do you believe the leader?
A few years ago, I performed a survey of successful executives to find out what they saw as the keys to success with supplier management. I was surprised that every one of them mentioned trust as #1. Of course, in retrospect, it makes sense; however, it isn’t what pops to mind in conversations with my clients about quality issues, customer service challenges, machinery roadblocks etc. Shouldn’t it be?
2. Style: Have you ever been to a presentation or meeting where the speaker droned on about a topic? I’d be surprised if you haven’t. Have you noticed that the same topic can seem fascinating in one setting and absolutely boring in another? It goes back to style.
Take note the next time you are in a meeting at work. Does the leader seem interested? Passionate? Excited about the progress? If not, how likely are the participants to care? For example, I worked with a plant manager who spoke in a slow, monotone voice. He could have really exciting topics to cover but the meeting participants would be yawning as it seemed mundane. On the other hand, I’ve also worked with leaders who seemed to make performing physical inventories seem exciting. Hard to believe!
Style isn’t just tone of voice. Think about your presence – your appearance, how you sit, whether you ask questions to demonstrate that you are listening, what you do with your hands, eyes etc. There are countless items to consider; however, do not become overwhelmed. Just pick one or two to improve and start there.
3. Content or lack thereof: What you say matters as well. Do you convey why the topic is valuable to the company, the department, the team, the person? Do you tell people “bad news” and corrective feedback upfront so that they know they will never be surprised? Do you provide examples so that folks can understand? Do you ask for feedback? Do you seem like you want feedback when you receive it?
For sensitive topics, do you tell people upfront that you will “tell them what you can tell them” and as soon as information is available and OK to communicate, they’ll be the first to know? This clearly communicates the truth – as every leader knows, there will be some topics which cannot be communicated upfront. I find that if you follow this approach and people see that you “do what you say you’ll do”, trust will build. They will understand that you’ll tell them as soon as it is feasible. Don’t ignore issues and leave folks to wonder. One of the worst blunders is leaving gaps in your communications. I guarantee you that employees will make up worse things to fill the gaps than reality. Remember the old game of telephone? It’s amazing what we make up or think we hear.
Communication is cornerstone to any successful organization. Without it, you might as well close up shop. Thus, isn’t it worth spending a few minutes to ensure success?
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