Why should managers and leaders care about communicating?

July 9, 2008

Whatever else you thought your job was about, chances are it involves a lot more writing than you ever imagined — through just email alone! But if you’re a supervisor or program manager, communication takes an even more prominent role in your work… or it should. Here’s why:

  • Someone wants to know what’s happening in your department. It might be your supervisor. It might be an auditor. It might be an HR person. Whatever the case, are you prepared to talk about how your team is performing?
  • Your project or program requires that you create messages to employees or customers, whether the messages are emails or brochures or fliers or web content or some other swanky medium. Do you know where to start?
  • Undoubtedly your department or project team has a list of goals to accomplish, all on different timelines. To accomplish these goals, your team has to be humming along at a pretty good clip, right? How can your team be the efficient “machine” it needs to be if the team members aren’t talking?
  • More than that, as a manager or team leader or project lead or whatever you want to call yourself, you have a unique opportunity to influence the lives of the people you’re working with. Their interaction with you can be positive or negative. To use a lovely boating metaphor: Think about the wake you’re leaving.
  • OK, now hold on while I get a little deep. Remember those department or project goals you had? What happens if you miss? What happens to the company goals or business strategy? This stuff matters. It matters if you’re a public company with obligations to shareholders. It matters if you work in a private company in an economy like this. It certainly matters if you’re in the nonprofit world. So, connecting the dots, if your team can achieve its goals by communicating better, couldn’t the organization achieve its goals if every department were communicating better?

It sounds a little cheesy, but I have this vision that we might actually be able to improve not only our happiness at work but also the way our organizations perform, if we — as leaders — get better at communicating. This doesn’t have to be hard or painful or embarassing. Just talking. Just thinking about things a little differently maybe, or being open to new ideas. Whaddaya think? Can we fix anything just by talking about it?


Know your audience.

July 8, 2008

OK, this seems a little like common sense, but recent events at work suggest otherwise… so here goes. Take a little time to figure out who your audience is, will ya? This is not difficult really, only costs a few minutes of your time and means EVERYTHING in terms of how you craft your message. (Because — um, hello! — how are you going to know what to say if you don’t understand to whom you’re saying it?) Think about:

  • Who cares about this subject? (Identify specific groups, committees, departments, project teams, etc.)
  • What are their demographics? (In other words, are they men or women? How old are they? Where do they live?)
  • What makes them tick? (What are their values? What’s important to them? Consider political leanings, environmental perspectives and their understanding of technology, among other things.)
  • Why do they care? (What are they getting out of it? It always comes back to the WIIFM — What’s In It For Me?)

So, here’s a hypothetical: Your employer establishes a new “quiet room” for employees. It can be used as an infirmary, but its main intent is for lactating mothers. You certainly could send out one blanket communication to all employees. But would you get more bang for your buck if you created a special message for the lactating mothers, highlighting the room’s features and guidelines? If you take a minute to think about this segment of your audience, you realize they are going to be concerned about safety, privacy and whether the room will be open when they need it. If you know those are the concerns, your message might pay special attention to the lock on the door, the “in use” sign and the scheduling policies. See what I’m getting at here?

All I’m suggesting is that when we consider our audience FIRST in everything we write and communicate, we can predict what will be important and where to concentrate our efforts. We can also anticipate when a message won’t go over so well. We see little indicators of sensitivity and overhear exchanges that help us anticipate problems. And — here’s the key — we apply them in advance so we effectively address those problems from the outset. Our messages can always benefit from the kind of thinking that yields insights about the audience in question.

Stick out.

July 2, 2008

I’m reading Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Bet you’d learn something from it if you haven’t already read it. An early passage already has me thinking about how we’re communicating [big corporate initiative, henceforth known as “the thing”] to employees. The Heath boys present six principles that make ideas “sticky” (or “memorable” if you prefer):

“Let’s take the CEO who announces to her staff that they must strive to ‘maximize shareholder value.’
“Is this idea simple? Yes, in the sense that it’s short, but it lacks the useful simplicity of a proverb. Is it unexpected? No. Concrete? Not at all. Credible? Only in the sense that it’s coming from the mouth of the CEO. Emotional? Um, no. A story? No.
“Contrast the “maximize shareholder value” idea with John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 call to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.” Simple? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Concrete? Amazingly so. Credible? The goal seemed like science fiction, but the source was credible. Emotional? Yes. Story? In miniature.
“Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.” Fortunately, JFK was more intuitive than a modern-day CEO; he knew that opaque, abstract missions don’t captivate and inspire people*… It was a brilliant and beautiful idea — a single idea that motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade.” (*emphasis added by soulmagnet75 for dramatic effect)

Here’s soulmagnet75 again to editorialize: It seems to me what we’re trying to do anywhere in corporate America is “captivate and inspire people.” That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about “employee engagement.” So far, what I’ve heard about “the thing” at my company isn’t sticking with me. If we were to apply more of these Heath principles of sticky ideas, could we be more successful? We’re getting into the story, we’re attempting to get at the emotional, I think, with a new idea that will spotlight individual employees. What I’m missing is that simple, concrete expression: From the earth to the moon and back. Where are we going? We’ll have to be careful about avoiding overused analogies about “getting on the bus” and “reaching for the stars,” but isn’t there something? Isn’t there some way to say this more effectively so employees actually care?

Be at the decision points.

June 30, 2008

On Saturday my husband and I slathered ourselves with sunscreen and ventured off into the Columbia River Gorge. On our way back from Latourell Falls, we intended to complete what we thought was a trail loop that would return us to the parking lot. But the forks in the trail weren’t marked, and we had to guess which way to go.

Are you as “directionally challenged” as I am? Unless I’m staring straight at a sunset or a known landmark, I don’t know my north from my south, east or west. We kept choosing the widest path, the path that looked most officially maintained. (I am such a northwesterner. Only the coarsest among us would sully the natural landscape by veering off the maintained path!) But that path took us to the historic Columbia River Highway, some ways up the road from where our car was parked.

A sign sure would have been nice. Something to tell us what was ahead, no matter which path we chose. “This way to the parking lot” or “This way to the next waterfall” would have been perfect. So it got me thinking, as a professional communicator, that’s where I need to be for my reader. I need to be at the crossroads. I need to be at the critical junctions where the audience has choices to make. It’s not my job to make the choice or influence the choice necessarily. It’s just my job to inform them what’s down the path. What could I learn if I took just a few minutes to think about what my audience will experience? What would it mean to them if I were there, present and talking with them at points that might otherwise be confusing?