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September 14, 2011

Leadership Communication Q & A

eric jacobsonRecently I connected with Eric Jacobson, whose must-read blog on management and leadership provides smart guidance for leaders at all levels. A former senior vice president at Penton Media in the Kansas City, Mo., area, Eric has seen many leaders struggle with certain aspects of communication, which ultimately has had a negative impact on their businesses. 

Eric and I talked recently about some of the most pressing challenges leaders face.

Eric: How can a leader best reach members of a diverse employee audience with a single presentation?

David: First, a leader should address common ground with the audience.  As you prepare, analyze each audience and their mindset.  Where is each coming from?  Then, develop your core messages first, which address all audiences.  For example, “For all employees, this new health care insurance incentive program begins a year from now.  If you don’t meet specific criteria or have a plan in place, your health insurance rates will go up.”

Once you have your core messages, determine how the message needs to be tailored, and be explicit in addressing specific audiences.  For example, “If you meet the new criteria right now, you don’t need to do anything.  If you haven’t been to your doctor recently, and don’t know whether you meet the criteria, you should find out.  If you know you don’t meet the criteria, you need to begin a treatment plan.”

Some other suggestions to consider:

  • Develop customized handouts to deliver after the presentation with more detailed information relevant to each group
  • Convene smaller breakout groups with each moderated by a leader who has a deep understanding of both the big picture and the individual group mindset
  • Share stories – especially around key successes; even those individuals not associated with the message are interested in hearing how others in the organization are driving results

Whatever the diversity of the audience, energize them with participation, including asking for a show of hands, inviting people to share examples of key concepts being presented, and asking open-ended questions to check for understanding.

Eric:  It’s important for leaders to communicate, but how often is best?  

David: Depends on your audience and what it’s going to take to meet their communication needs with information that’s relevant for them.  The question I would ask to determine relevance is, “Will this information help them do their jobs better and/or advocate positively on behalf of your organization?”

That said, all leaders should have a regular cadence of communication on key topics (strategy, performance, etc.) and be purposeful in how they interact with teams, small groups and the larger employee audience.  Feedback channels are essential to help leaders know how their communication is being received so they can adjust accordingly. 

Leaders may occasionally increase the frequency based on circumstances.  In times of change it’s critical to be proactive, which typically means communicating more and more often.  That helps you to get your message out and not get caught in the cycle of just responding to what you’re hearing.

Eric: What’s the best way to deliver bad news? 

David: In a direct, empathetic way.  When we share bad news, the goal is not for people to like it but to understand it. The best and most respectful thing we can do is to explain what is happening, why a decision is being made, and why it’s in the best interest of the organization. It’s best to get in front of the rumor mill by sharing information as soon as you can.

Like any tough conversation, you have to start with the goal in mind, understand your audience, consider their perspective and be prepared for questions you might be asked. Your key message should be honest and transparent and provide reassurance where possible, acknowledging those areas where you don’t have all the information or answers. Empathy is a critical learned skill for leaders to help them deliver bad news effectively.

Eric: How can leaders be sure employees receive a consistent message when they rely on middle managers to deliver it?   

David: The best way to deliver a consistent message is to convey it in multiple ways, including a leadership message that presents the vision and context behind the message.  While some organizations still communicate through a “cascade” that relies on middle managers to deliver leadership messages, we’ve also seen a “skip-level” approach where senior executives communicate directly with plant-level employees. Doing this gives them a sense of how communication is working in the organization and gives employees questions to ask their managers. This approach sends a powerful message to the employees and also prompts middle managers to do a better job of communication.

The best internal communication plans deliver key points and answer employee questions through multiple channels, from email announcements to handouts to frequently asked questions posted on the Intranet. Measurement tools like employee surveys and focus group check that employees are getting the message.  

Lastly, the best way to ensure effective two-way communication through managers is to help them build their skills through relevant training, and to arm them with simple tools to connect with employees. Managers are pulled in many directions and wear many hats…the easier leaders make it for them to engage employees, the more they’ll appreciate the help and participate accordingly.

Eric: What is the impact of more electronic communication and fewer telephone calls?

David: The exponential use (and abuse) of email increases the opportunity for miscommunication.  With email leaders can easily miss additional clues and cues on how the communication is being received, and the message can be easily misinterpreted. Still, in many cases people seem unwilling or uncomfortable to pick up the phone, even though it can make communication so much more efficient and effective. I recommend using email for brief, transactional communications, such as summarizing next steps after a meeting or conversation, and the telephone when real connection and dialogue needs to happen. Above all, avoid “most-embarrassing” moments by crafting and proofing emails as carefully as you would any business communication.


-David Grossman

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