Communicating the Right Message to Your Workforce

Aug. 23, 2007
Presentation challenges in the C-suite.

Executives leading today's manufacturing industry face a number of employee challenges from recruitment to education. In a recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), 81% of respondents stated they could not find qualified workers to fill open positions. In addition, manufacturing executives face structural costs associated with the global market place. Structural costs such as taxes and health care add 31.7% to U.S. manufacturing costs, making it difficult to produce from a U.S. base, according to NAM.

As a manufacturing leader, it's critical to communicate effectively by delivering messages that set direction for opportunity and position strategies against existing challenges in today's global marketplace.

More than ever, the impressions you create as a leader and a speaker will impact how your employees feel about their current role and their opportunities for career growth in the manufacturing industry. Many leaders find that, once they take the role as the key communicator of the company, it's time to get an honest assessment of their skills.

One of the most common times for coaching is when a seasoned manager or executive is promoted to the C-Suite. The reason is that while communication was an important skill for the manager, it quickly becomes a critical skill in the C-Suite. Even the most confident executives are a little unnerved as the audiences get bigger, the messages get broader and the expectations seem to soar. This is especially true in the manufacturing world today, as U.S. manufacturers are competing not just with each other, but with companies spanning the globe, including in the emerging economic powers of India and China.

The shift in expectation may seem unfair, but it is very real and has lasting implications. My initial conversations with C-Suite executives often focus on understanding that the role as a communicator has shifted from one who outlines next steps to one who sets overall direction. Content shifts from clear details to broader ideas and vision.

Personal style skills are placed under close observation. Audiences form quick impressions of all of us when we stand up to speak. For a C-Suite executive, initial impressions are lasting ones. When a middle manager speaks at a company-wide meeting, he may lack energy or focus as he delivers his thoughts. While it doesn't do much to motivate the audience, he still has the opportunity to sit down with his group and reinforce his ideas in a smaller setting. For the C-Suite executive, it's more of a one shot approach. When he lacks energy or focus, the audience holds onto that impression for six months to a year until they see him again in the same setting.

Here are some of the most common pitfalls made in C-Suite presentations and ideas for avoiding them:

Developing a Support Team: The challenge is learning to work with a support team in a manner that makes efficient use of everyone's time and ideas. Most executives work better with one speech resource, rather than several. So instead of enlisting someone from a different department with each new audience or topic, the executive should develop a good relationship with one person who can coordinate content from various departments.

Setting the Message and Direction: Many executives give up control of a presentation too quickly. I'm often called in to help when an executive is frustrated with a script. The writer has continued to edit and revise the script but can't seem to please the executive. The challenge is that the executive is looking for an overall message, and the writer is mired in details. The executive should stay involved in the concept long enough to frame a message and an overall direction for the presentation.

As an executive, you know best the message that needs to be conveyed to your employees to improve business performance and the message your investors need to hear regarding shareholder value. Make sure your message is preserved in the final script of your speech.

Personalizing Stories & Examples: Audiences remember stories and examples. Executives miss the mark by adding stories for personal touch when they haven't actually been personally touched by the story. Examples used should be individualized to the speaker, even if it takes a little extra effort to pull it off.

When I coach executives who share stories of sales victories or business challenges, I always ask: Have you spoken to the individuals involved? Do you really understand the context of this story? I'm surprised how often the answer is no. By seeking out stories and examples first hand, not only does it eliminate potential errors but it enables the executive to tell the story in his own words thus building rapport with those in the audience whol know the details first hand. For example don't praise John Smith, manager of your highest producing plant for his operational and management genius, if you have not met or spoken with John Smith personally to learn some of his best practices.

Minimizing Use of Visuals/Support Materials: C-Suite presentations are more about direction, than detail. So, while PowerPoint may still have a place in the board room, the use of visuals should be significantly reduced. C-Suite executives should be shifting from high content to high contact.

I also encourage executives to find one visual way of presenting a concept and use it over and over again. Executives become synonymous with their messages, and visuals should be the same. If an audience sees plans for future growth represented on a timeline one month and on a pie chart three months later, the audience assumes the concepts are totally different. Repetition helps an executive build consistency.

Seeking Feedback: It seems everyone stops talking to you when you reach the C-Suite. There are just too many risks associated with being honest with the boss. Executives need feedback, especially new executives to be sure they're connecting with audiences.

Some executives bring trusted advisors with them to the C-Suite. Others find coaches who can help provide insight and perspective on senior level communication. In this time of managing change in the manufacturing industry, it is important that you are open to new and constructive ideas on how to best communicate with your employees and key stakeholders.

Prioritizing Involvement: As a speech coach, I wouldn't tell an executive to stop speaking. But, I do advise some executives to limit the amount of speaking. And, the reason is that when they become overcommitted, speaking is an afterthought and the presentations are just not good. A positive impression can create great benefits for a company, but a negative impression can take months to overcome.

Balance is the answer. Every C-Suite manufacturing executive has a number of speaking commitments that are critical each year from shareholder meetings, investor presentations, all company meetings and client conferences and media interviews. Define a number of public presentations, such as trade events and community groups, that you feel you can handle. Develop one core presentation that can easily be tailored for different audiences.

While the timing of coaching often coincides with the move to the C-Suite, it's turns out to be a great time for support. It provides the opportunity for an executive to develop new habits and gain confidence in the ability to connect with larger audiences, define broader messages and exceed expectations in front of any group.

In today's global marketplace, it is important that you communicate to your employees, investors, and key stakeholders about the strength and challenges of your company by avoiding the common c-suite communication pitfalls.

Sally Williamson is CEO of Sally Williamson & Associates, an executive coaching firm that helps public relations agencies, sales teams, CEOs, etc. develop effective communication strategies and business presentations. She can be reached at [email protected].

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