Why CEOs Need To Telegraph Their Punch

This isn’t about managing conflict; that’s for another day!  It is about tempering and even minimizing the impact of negative messages you are obligated to convey.

Nothing new here; it’s done to us all the time.  Municipalities publish property tax increases well before sending the bill, insurers send renewal notices and premium changes a month ahead, sports teams announce ticket price changes well before the pre-season begins and, our suppliers often do the same.

Typical reaction to any of the above…’damn,’ just what I didn’t need,’ ‘there goes the budget,’ ‘got to find other options’ and on and on.  And then, when the invoice hits, we’re briefly reminded that we knew it was coming and either planned for it or take the hit but in either case, no real surprise.

Perhaps assimilated as a learned behavior, I found myself applying this style of messaging early in my career.  Initially I think I did so because I was a bit conflict averse but since then, I do so to ease the distress of all who are impacted by the message.  From my personal experience as the messenger or part of the message:

• In making the offer to a Sales Manager candidate, I candidly told him I had no confidence he would submit call reports or travel itineraries on a timely basis and the first time he missed, I would come in his office and swipe anything on his desk onto the floor. We both laughed, he accepted the job and less than 90 days later I walked into his office and asked if he remembered our conversation; in less than a minute the desk was bare. What’s the point? We had a ‘deal!’ He had an obligation to provide the reports on schedule, it was not my job to remind him. The reports came on time after that flash point and his sales performance exceeded expectations.

•  Health insurance—We made it a policy to announce a year ahead of time if there would be a change in the ‘sharing’ formula with the employee taking on more. Grumbles for a day and then back to work and…no surprise at the beginning of the next year.

• A similar experience shifting to a 24/7 operation, no one’s favorite schedule! We educated employees on the concept and let them choose how the shifts would be structured. Then, over an extended period of time they were given the option to sign up for the shift of their choice. In the end, about 10% of the folks had not expressed a preference and they were ‘assigned.’ Even after the change, those who found their choice wasn’t the best for them were given the opportunity to change.

• Over the years I’ve had a few direct reports suggest to me that they weren’t ‘happy’ and maybe it was time (threaten) to leave. On each occasion I would do what I could to understand their concerns, to let them know if those concerns could be alleviated or they simply came with the territory. Most of the time the interactions were successful.  Likely in your experience as well, a very few made this ‘maybe I should resign’ event repetitive. My tolerance stopped at two and after the second, when the direct report was in a good place I would ask him/her to share a few moments with me and present an undated letter of resignation bearing his/her name. My commitment was to keep that letter in my top drawer in order to make our next ‘meeting’ more efficient!

When I share these experiences with others I use the expression, ‘Telegraph Your Punch.’  The point: most of us don’t like to be the bearer of bad news but that responsibility comes with the territory. If you can put the impact of such news in the future and not in the ‘now,’ there’s a real chance it will be more bearable, for the listener…and for you.  Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried: Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.