No Way To Run A Company

Dec. 21, 2004

Calvin Coolidge was the least charismatic of all American Presidents. The media found him to be dull, difficult, and uncommunicative. On his best days he was curt, cautious, and careful. He was called "Silent Cal." He rarely said much of anything to anyone. When he did say something that sounded profound -- like "The business of America is business" -- he never explained what he meant. The media were constantly challenged to interpret his occasional utterances. So they wrote articles about what they thought he meant, and they held him in low regard. Oswald Harrison Villard of The New York Evening Post wrote: "And now the Presidency sinks low indeed. I doubt it has ever fallen into the hands of a man so cold, so narrow, so reactionary, so uninspiring, so unenlightened, or who has done less to earn it than Calvin Coolidge." Others found humor in his silence. George Creel described him as "distinguishable from the furniture only when he moved." When he died in 1933, Dorothy Parker asked, "How can they tell?" Bob Hope said he felt close to Silent Cal because he was named after some of his audiences and joked that Coolidge was the first President to deliver the State of the Union address in sign language. Channing Cox, Coolidges successor as governor of Massachusetts, once asked the President how he had been able to see so many visitors when he was governor and still leave the office at 5 p.m. Cox said he rarely left the office before 9 p.m. because of the number of people who wanted to talk to him. "Why the difference?" he asked. Coolidge replied, "You talk back." Those of us who are weary of the long-winded rhetoric of todays politicians might find Silent Cal a welcome change. And he did teach us at least one valuable lesson. "I have never been hurt by anything I didnt say," he boasted. Silence is sometimes golden. Sometimes necessary. And sometimes pleasant. Yet as attractive as silence might be, especially in a politician, its no way to run a country -- or a company. When theres silence at the top, theres doubt and indecision down below. Employees tend to do exactly what the media did with Calvin Coolidge. They read their own meanings into the rare utterances of their chief executive. The result: confusion and chaos. The word communicate means to pass along information, to share or make common. Implicit in its meaning: Successful communication is a dialogue, not a monologue. Not "from you to me" or "from me to you," but "between us." No business communication is complete unless it is received. And no business communication is successful unless it is understood. Speaking and writing are only part of effective communication. They must be accompanied by listening or reading. Employees must have the right and the opportunity to ask questions about what they dont understand. If they dont, you have not communicated at all. A good benchmark of your communication awareness is to think back to when you were a young climber instead of King of the Hill. What were the communications problems you griped about during your coffee breaks? Theres a school of top management that says, "Tell them only what they need to know and no more." But one persons need can be another persons "too little" or "too much." Id rather err by giving too much information than too little. "Too much" may have inherent problems, but not to the extent or cost of "too little," which raises anxieties, slows production, and compounds problems. Follow the simple rule taught to all neophyte news reporters: When communicating try to answer the fiveWs and the H. The five Ws are: Who? What? Where? When? Why? The H is How? And remember: 10 words of Why? can be worth 500 words of How? -- and at least 1,000 words of How come?

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