Thomas J. Lee is CEO of Arceil Leadership Ltd.
What's an honest, hard-working CEO to do?
Never before has the credibility of business been so suspect. Enron, Tyco, MCI and HealthSouth are only part of it. Equally to blame is intense cost-cutting pressure that compromises service and irritates customers, coupled with the frustration of investors still looking for happy-hour returns in a sobered-up economy.
It's a tough, tough situation. But brick by brick, business can rebuild the ramparts of its credibility. It will take rapt attention to any potential perceived sleight, but it can be done.
The critical first step is to recognize and remember that you are constantly being watched. Therefore, you are communicating constantly, even and often when you're least aware of it. There's no getting around it.
Like most people, you probably think of communication as the totality of what you and your company say and write. It certainly is that. But it is also so much more.
You see, each and every day, you and your company speak in three distinct modes or "voices": the formal, semi-formal, and informal voices. Building and keeping your credibility is largely a matter of avoiding conflicts or gaps among those three voices.
The formal voice is the traditional mainstay of leadership communication. It consists of information and messages expressed in a speech, an announcement, a banner on the wall, a glossy brochure, a Web site and the like. Externally, it includes advertising and public relations.
Its common uses include your vision statement, perhaps a slogan such as "We Love Our Customers," or a promise to customers. Other uses may include an ISO9002 certification, a quarterly earnings release, the "dog and pony show" around an IPO or explicit instructions for a task or responsibility. If it's expressed in words and numbers, it is usually formal communication.
The formal voice is a vital and basic component of leadership communication. However, too many firms rely on it excessively or even exclusively. If asked to do too much, formal communication can fail completely. When it comes crashing down, it can take a leader down with it.
The semi-formal voice is different. Perhaps you think of it as a steel case of management tools. Few leadership teams regard it as communication at all. That's half the trouble.
Semi-formal communication consists of all those programs, policies, processes and procedures that companies use to manage their affairs. These things truly function as communication because they do what conventional (or formal) communication does: convey information, direction and meaning to employees, establish priorities and concerns and encourage or discourage certain thinking and behavior in response.
Everyday examples of the semi-formal voice include meeting agendas, training mandates, job descriptions, standard operating procedures, Six Sigma processes, lines of authority, accountabilities, sales quotas, cubicle sizes, budgets, personnel choices, spending authorizations, organizational structure, performance evaluations and employee surveys.
Quite a lot, you'll agree. All of it must be managed as communication, because that is what it is.
The informal voice is different still. Not to be confused with body language or the grapevine, it consists of relationships between people in positions of leadership (not really leaders until they actually have followers) and people in positions of 'followership' (not really followers until their putative leaders step up to the plate).
Day-to-day examples of informal communication include presence and accessibility, responsiveness to questions, sharing strategic information, alignment of visible behaviors and ordinary courtesy and respect. Not surprisingly, all bear heavily on workplace relationships, especially those across the boss's desk.
These crucial relationships can be mutually respectful, or mutually spiteful, or anything in between. Their nature and character communicates with power and clarity -- often without your knowledge, until it's too late, as when a key employee abruptly resigns or a big customer defects.
The informal voice is driven and defined by routine conversation -- comments, questions, complaints, anecdotes -- and by all those countless decisions, behaviors, choices, and attitudes on the part of leadership that so often "speak louder than words."
Only when an organization's formal, semi-formal, and informal voices are all sending much the same message, only when they are facilitating a mutually respectful dialogue with employees, only when they are honoring the nobility of an organization's values, and only when they are encouraging the alignment of behavior with strategy, can the organization reach its fullest potential.
Otherwise, all bets are off. The semi-formal and informal communication will prevail over the formal communication and employees will perceive a lack of integrity and thus a lack of leadership.
The key point to remember is that your formal (or rhetorical and official) voice can never operate in a vacuum. It must either compete with or complement your semi-formal (institutional and programmatic) and informal (individual, relational and behavioral) voices. Your credibility hangs in the balance.
If left unmanaged, the three voices will generate their own messages. Each message may contradict the last, and employees may be left in a state of confusion that sets the stage for cynicism and complacency or even contempt.
That is a recipe for disaster. We all know of companies that unwisely chose it. Some of us worked for them, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.
The alternative holds more promise -- much more.
If managed well, the three voices can resonate throughout the organization to clarify and reinforce important strategic priorities, not to mention your credibility as a leader. That's a beautiful thing.
Over time, the people in your organization will hear, see, and feel a consistent and purposeful message and they will have the dignity of speaking up and being heard. You will have the benefit of followers who enthusiastically participate. That's a win-win all the way around.
Thomas J. Lee, president and CEO of Arceil Leadership Ltd. in Lake Forest, Ill., speaks and consults on leadership communication. He can be reached at [email protected] or (847) 670-1214.