One of the most important lessons Irv Rothman learned from his 32 years of running customized leasing and financing for HP, Compaq Financial Services and AT&T Capital, was the importance of using communications to make the potentially unwieldy company seem smaller and more interconnected. With rise of product and service-specific branding as an organizing business principle, creating a durable, attractive message that can be distributed widely internally and externally is all important. The following prescriptive ideas come from Rothman’s recently published “Out-Executing the Competition.”
Start with a broad internal communications strategy. Different companies communicate in very different ways with their people. Some executives share their thinking primarily through voicemail or by e-mailing in the style of “note from the corner office.” Like many companies in financial services, we are just beginning to stick our collective toe into the social media pond. Moving away from communication with big groups toward linking broader audiences in real time is something we’re embracing. Our communications team is convinced that the value of using new and evolving digital media to advance our collective cause, is right on target. That being said, I still like our quarterly town hall meetings as they afford me the opportunity to spend quality time with the people who keep the engines humming.
Never sugarcoat the news. Certain rules always apply when conducting meetings with employees. Never sugarcoat the news. Always tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly. The “everything is great” stemwinder should be avoided.
Always commend and salute your people. It’s easy when the numbers look very good, but even in years when overall results weren’t all that great, it’s important that somebody somewhere, was doing a bang-up job that deserved to be highlighted and praised. It provides a measure of uplift even when the news tends to be sobering across the entire enterprise.
Try interactive. Try a new exercise to connect more effectively with employees. For example, a chat room conversation with the boss, ”Chat with Irv,” was something that was an eye-opener. People waited for quite a while to participate. These interactive efforts are not only enjoyable but extremely useful for a CEO. You find things you can take away from each session. Employee ideas are genuinely helpful . Of course it varies depending upon the audience. When I am in Malaysia the audience tends to be more reserved. The Australians, on the other hand, are just the opposite. It’s up to the CEO to handle the different cultures accordingly. The main thing is that the message must be handled consistently whether one is in Dublin or Kuala Lumpur.
Make certain members of the senior team are on the same page. High quality executive communications isn’t just the responsibility of the CEO. Your senior leadership team to a man and woman must fully subscribe to the corporate mission and be able to articulate it effectively. This isn’t about preaching or proselytizing, but having everyone sing from the same hymn book.
Keep it simple. Show me a powerpoint slide with 50 or 75 pages long, and I’ll show you a surefire way of putting people to sleep. If you explain that there are, say, four things you want them to do, you are more likely to get through. Leonardo da Vinci said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Who could argue?
Understand this well: not every plan you write down on the whiteboard is going to work. That’s a fact of business life, and no one—not Jack Welch, not Warren Buffett, not Bill Gates—is immune to the occasional misstep. A lot of people don’t understand that basic precept. They may believe that any sign of failure means the sun won’t be coming out tomorrow. But the basic lessons of communicating with those who work for you—deliverying an easy-to-digest message, repating it frequently as possible, sticking to the facts and the truth and not sugarcoating anything –provide an informational transparency that both illuminates the issues and consolidates support for strategic and tactical missions.