How to ensure good communication as your business grows
Change. Do your staff struggle with it? Humans are creatures of habit and we prefer to stick with what we know. This can cause problems when you’re scaling your business. The rapid intensity of change often causes resistance, and negativity can creep in like a disease at the heart of your business. The solution? Communicate. Communicate. And communicate some more!
The irony is that as a business goes through rapid growth, no-one seems to have the time for communication. So, when it’s needed most, it’s neglected. To get under the skin of a new client, I’ll turn up at their offices and chat to their staff. When I ask them, ‘How’s the business doing?’ they’ll often reply, ‘No idea. They never tell me.’ I probe further and they tell me, ‘There were some big announcements a while back but I haven’t heard anything since’. It’s common for staff to feel their company has loads of great ideas but doesn’t seem to finish any of them.
Sound familiar? The good news is, it’s simple to fix. As with anything worth doing, it takes deliberate practice and focus before it becomes ingrained. So how do you ensure your communication rhythm is in sync with your business growth?
We’ve all been there. Sitting in a crowded airport, surrounded by screaming children, two of whom are yours. Your frustration builds as time passes without any indication of why your flight’s delayed. A simple communication could make all the difference – even if it’s to tell you there will be another announcement in 20 minutes’ time. Constant communication keeps stress levels down. No communication creates uncertainty. People need to know what’s happening and their expectations need to be managed.
Disappointment is often the result of incorrect expectation. I encourage my clients to say what they’re not going to do as well as what they are. If you’ve recognised there’s a problem, but it’s less pressing than something bigger, at least tell people you’ve noticed and give them an indication of priority. This goes for customers as well as staff. If you’ve built a sense of forward momentum, you’ll find that people will start to trust that their issue will get fixed eventually.
Find your rhythm
Rhythm is everything with communication. Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly – you need regular opportunities for bottom up and top down comms. Daily huddles are a great way to encourage dialogue between staff and their managers, discussing team goals and everyday progress. I also suggest weekly one-on-ones with managers as well as monthly ‘All-Hands’ meetings, where the whole company gathers together. These grease the wheels of a business, encouraging the sharing of information and ensuring everyone knows what’s going on. It’s impossible to have too much communication!
There are many tools out there that help to embed a regular comms rhythm. My current favourite is DoFriday.com. I interviewed Nic Marks, creator and founder, for this week’s Melting Pot podcast . His app gets staff into a regular rhythm of giving feedback on a Friday and then meeting to discuss this on a Monday. This provides regular opportunities to share grievances and annoyances or celebrate someone’s hard work. Really valuable stuff!
And if you have unhelpful communication rhythms? Then ditch them. Particularly annual appraisals – my pet hate! I don’t think annual rhythms work. A quarterly cycle is much more effective, both in terms of performance development and goal setting. You can tell staff where they’re going and what point they’ve reached on the journey. An annual horizon is too far away. Who can remember what they’ve done over a whole year? What’s the point of telling someone that they’ve under-achieved for 12 months? This is a massive waste of precious time that could have been spent on fixing the issue. Daily feedback from managers is much more effective.
Encourage bottom-up communication
Many of my clients struggle to get feedback from staff. To them, communication feels like one-way traffic – too much top-down from the executive team and not enough from people on the front-line.
I was recently invited to observe an ‘All-Hands’ meeting and, afterwards, discussed how it had gone with the client. He was frustrated that no-one had asked any questions. ‘I asked for feedback’, he said, ‘But they didn’t come up with anything.’ My observation was he hadn’t waited long enough. There’d been an awkward silence that he was too quick to fill. Perhaps he needed to be more deliberate about seeking feedback? In future, all his staff should be told to prepare questions in advance. He needed to make it really clear that this was his intention and, like any muscle, the organisation needed to work at it before it became second nature.
Years ago, when I was MD at Rackspace, I visited CibaVision in Portsmouth to see some of the initiatives they’d introduced as part of the Management Today Service Excellence Awards process. They’d handed over control of their All-Hands meeting to employees because they’d had feedback from a previous judging round that their comms was all top-down. Management had a slot to deliver its piece, but the rest of the meeting was down to the staff. They prepared the agenda and decided what the organisation needed to know. And they had an auditorium where the whole company could gather, with enough chairs for everyone.
Later, when we built the offices for Peer 1, I remembered this. We ensured we had a big space for our monthly All-Hands. Our staff agreed the agenda. They decided what communication was needed. Every session had a Q&A. We even gave out swag for every person who asked a question – sometimes a mousemat, sometimes a hat. A small thing but our staff loved it (if you do this, make sure the stuff you give out is decent!)
Embed communication patterns from the very beginning
To foster a culture that values open and honest communication, you need to start with new recruits. Tell them they have a superpower. Because they’re new to the organisation, they see the world differently and this is something you want to tap into. Every company since Rackspace, I’d give all new joiners a little black book. They were asked to write down anything they noticed that was annoying or stupid about the way we worked. I’d then meet them for lunch regularly during their first six months to discuss their ideas for change or improvement.
This gave a really strong message right from the start. It told them that our company valued open communication, from the very top to the very bottom. Their voice was valuable and we wanted to hear it. Proactive communication was important to the business and was a behaviour we wanted to foster. This approach also got people away from the tendency to think that things were someone else’s responsibility. And it had the added benefit of making me come over as approachable and engageable – very good characteristics in an MD!
Focus on a theme
It’s not unusual for staff to feel that initiatives are launched with a big fanfare and then they never hear about them again. This leads to a feeling of negativity and a sense of ‘Yeah right. Heard it all before’.
The best way to counteract this is to focus on a single theme every quarter. One of my clients had ‘Efficiency’ for the first quarter of this year. Their goal was to add a couple of percentage points of profit to their bottom line. They zoomed in on their theme with laser precision. Everyone knew that they were looking for efficiency gains and this was communicated and tracked at every daily, weekly and monthly meeting. Their single-minded approach paid off. They achieved their goal a month early.
Bring in some kind of visual reminder that communicates progress with your theme. At Rackspace, we used a Blue Peter style totaliser that was an instant reminder of where we were at. It stimulated conversations about new ways to tackle our goal, other angles to take and initiatives to try. A great way to motivate your front-line staff. At IT Lab and Peer 1 we tracked all our objectives on TV screens visible from anywhere in the office.
Choose the right channel
If you have something important to communicate, make sure you choose the right channel. Case in point – one of my clients asked me to look at an email they’d sent out recently. It was long – nearly a side of A4 when you printed it out. The crux of it was that the business was behind where it needed to be and so changes were going to be made.
Firstly, they hadn’t been specific about where they were currently and where they wanted to get to. Whilst the management team knew where the gap was, they didn’t communicate the scale of that gap in the email. The staff had jumped to the wrong conclusion immediately and some had started worrying about redundancies. That hadn’t been management’s intention at all. People will always fill any gaps in knowledge with bad news and rumours can spread like wildfire in this situation.
Secondly, they didn’t say when the next update would be coming. This simple addition would have gone a long way towards settling people’s nerves.
And thirdly, they didn’t say how people could help. The email said, ‘We appreciate that you all work hard, but we’d like you to work harder.’ For how long? How much harder? Far better to say that this was the focus for the next three months and the target was to move the needle from here to here. Even better still, they could have said if the company hit that target, there would be a big celebration. As it was, there was no sense of fun, no achievement, no score, no timetable and no way to win. No wonder some of the staff were nervous.
Most importantly of all, they’d used email to communicate a really sensitive topic. You need to put yourself in the shoes of the recipient and second guess their reaction. If there’s any hint that it might be negative, then think carefully about how you’re going to communicate it. The situation I’ve just described could have been prevented if they’d chosen to make the announcement at an All Hands meeting. When people can see the whites of each other’s eyes, they pick up body language and tonality. Management would have had the opportunity to offer clarity and reassurance. And there would have been ample opportunity to discuss any worries in a public forum.
At Peer 1, we were very careful about how we communicated anything controversial. If we thought something could spin out of control, (very easy with 660 staff), we jumped on a conference call or video link. This built our organisational memory – everyone knew if things were serious, they needed to get on that call.
Keep saying it!
Evidence (or at least folklore) suggests you have to say something seven times before it finally hits home. Seven times! Too often, management will assume that their staff have got the message and get bored well before they reach that point.
You need to get creative about repeating things, over and over. Say you’ve defined your core values. It’s not enough to just print them out and stick them on the wall. You need to activate them. Bill Gallagher, a fellow Scaling Up coach, gets his clients to repeat their purpose, BHAG and core values every day in their daily huddle. Someone reads them with intent and then someone else listens with intent and says what they heard today. Only after six months of daily repetition does he feel that it’s finally embedded in the organisation. Keep reinforcing your key messages in a rhythmical way and think of new ways to get your message through.
I’ll finish with a story that illustrates beautifully the importance of clear, unambiguous communication. A valued member of staff handed in her resignation at Peer 1, just before we were due to move to new offices on Town Quay. I asked her why. She told me it was because there wasn’t any parking at the new office. She’d heard this on the grapevine and assumed it to be true without checking with the right people. I put her straight, telling her that there was way more parking than we had cars. Pretty embarrassing for her, but she agreed to stay on. It became a standing joke for years afterwards. She even put up signs around the office saying, ‘If in doubt, ASK’!
Written by business growth coach Dom Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here.