A Little More Conversation

A Little More Conversation

Executive communication matters, and it's a two-way street.

Here are words to the wise for chief executives who believe they are sufficiently communicating across the organization: Odds are, you're not. "You can never overcommunicate. When you think you've communicated well, go out three or four more times and communicate again," advises Michael Beer, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and chairman of research-based consulting firm TruePoint.

Indeed, Beer says executive communication is vital to creating an effective organization that performs well for any sustained period of time. He points to research his firm is currently conducting with 40 CEOs at organizations that have performed at above-average levels for more than a decade. "Those remarkable leaders spend an enormous amount of time in communicating downward," explains Beer, author of the 2009 book "High Commitment, High Performance: How to Build a Resilient Organization for Sustained Advantage." "They have a simple story, and that story gets out every place they go."

It also gets out by many mediums, including by telephone, by in-person town hall meetings and even by Internet blogs. It's particularly important if a company is at some inflection point with major changes on the way, "but it's always important."

Effective communication can be difficult because it requires time, energy and consistency, Beer acknowledges, and the larger the organization the more imperative it is to find leaders at multiple levels to reiterate the message. The difficulty factor may inhibit better communication by some CEOs, but others simply don't embrace it as part of their role. Nevertheless, "the leadership role is about connecting with people," Beer notes.

"You can never over-communicate. When you think you've communicated well, go out three or four more times and communicate again."
-- Michael Beer, professor emeritus, Harvard Business School

That said, by "communication" Beer does not simply mean top-down communications, but also the reverse. "Communication is a conversation, and often it is not thought of as a conversation," he says. "Communication is an honest, collective conversation that is public. You are telling the truth about the state of the company, you are getting honest conversation about what the barriers are, and the fact that there is a conversation is public, it is known to people beyond the people who are communicating, so it has a larger effect on the whole organization."

The TruePoint chairman says CEOs almost uniformly undercommunicate, although they are better at downward communications. Many CEOs "are not so eager for upward communication because it puts on the table a lot of issues including their own leadership and the effectiveness of the organization," Beer says.

Big mistake. "The inability to communicate upward prevents leaders from making adaptations in how they run things," Beer says. "If you don't have that, the organization can't adapt as you get new circumstances and new market realities come in, and it slowly declines in its overall efficacy." He suggests developing a formal mechanism to collect and encourage upward communication.

Ultimately, effective communication is a learning and governance process, Beer says. "You're not asking people to vote, but you are asking people to have a voice," he says. This makes it imperative that organizations develop action plans that are responsive to employee feedback, and to make it clear how the actions tie back to the feedback. "If people don't see any action from their upward communication that they can attribute to them, then they become cynical."

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