Communication enables every aspect of great company culture. Excellent leadership and management are built on it, belonging is evoked through it, and customer service depends upon it. It is also the source of creativity and innovation. Can you afford not to take a look at how effective you are?
Most companies are very good at this part of the process, ensuring that facts about the business, HR processes and benefits are available to those who need them. Impressive intranets allow everyone to access the details they need when they need them. Company magazines bring people up to date with changes, happenings and sometimes colleague stories.
AstraZeneca's Charnwood research and development site has a thorough and easily accessible intranet. Like everyone else, they had to grapple with the pull of the daily workload over staying up to date with happenings in the company. They have addressed this by creating an exciting and attractive front page that comes up when a colleague logs on in the morning. By constantly renewing this with information, news and questions, they encourage people to take a quick look at least once a day.
In most companies, information comes down at regular intervals from senior leaders, passed through the ranks by managers. Ideally, this is done on a regular basis to ensure that everyone is up to date with business changes, however small. Even when the news does not directly affect them, people appreciate the intention to include them. Wise companies put colleagues at the front of the queue when major change is about to hit - woe betide the leader who allows news to break in the press before they have told the staff!
The byword at Asda is ‘communicate, communicate, communicate'. They know that it takes more than one pass for information to be taken in, so they repeat and reinforce what is being said in any way they can. David Smith, HR director, believes it is best to overdose on communication, making sure that everyone feels involved and included.
A company intranet is important and excellent when it works well. However, it is remarkably easy for those in positions of influence to tick the box when time and money has been spent on the right kit, without checking on effectiveness. I have heard far too often of smart intranets, only to hear that colleagues cannot all access a computer or just do not have time to read it.
So take the time to check how often people access your intranet. Ask questions and find out what will make it easier for them to remain up to date.
Company magazines work well when aligned to their customers. There is a danger in giving the task of production entirely to the PR or communications department. It will do a great job of producing a high-quality product appropriate to the brand. However, for some organisations, hearing about who has had a baby and the fun run completed by the accounts department is more important than glossy news from head office. Timpson produce a 36-page newsletter every Wednesday - not at all smart, but a great way of celebrating the high performers each week and passing on gossip. Even better, most of the news items are written by the staff themselves.
Part of the art of communication is to check how well your message has been received. So take the time to find out whether your company magazine is what people actually want. Do they read it and send in contributions? If not, why not? Ask them what will make it more interesting.
The management cascade is an effective way for organisations to disseminate information. However, it can also be fraught with pitfalls, so it is worth taking a dispassionate look at the effectiveness of your system. Ideally, senior leaders give regular updates to their direct reports, who then pass on all the information briefly and give details where it relates to their area of the work. So the process goes on, until each and every person is up to date with the latest changes.
As long as managers can listen, understand and repeat the essence and flavour as well as the words, the cascade works well. But this is notoriously difficult to achieve, dependent on the willingness, skill and sensitivity of the conveyer, and can be a prime source of confusion. Some managers take the task seriously, understanding that a strong sense of belonging requires consistent inclusion. Why would people believe it is ‘their' company if information is withheld? Others seek to hold on to the power of knowledge, keeping others in the dark, unconsciously or deliberately.
You can find out how effective you are at conveying information by checking what messages people take away from a cascade meeting. Do this by chatting to people at random and listening carefully to what is said. If different people have a different understanding, talk with your peers to ensure common practice. This will make a really useful discussion point for your next management meeting - how often do you each pass on information, how well are the messages getting across, and what can you each do to improve the process?
When information is particularly important, involve the significant leader directly. This gives a clear message that colleagues are as important as the news itself. Do this when you want to engage people's hearts as well as just give them information, and always think it through from their perspective. Remember: what seems insignificant on the scale of things at senior levels can be extremely important to those directly affected or concerned. Having the manager or leader address these things personally will help with clarity as well as showing respect.
Mick Kent takes this one step further and sends a weekly e-mail bringing everyone up to date, not only on the business but on things happening in his own life. Hearing how the CEO's new cat is getting on can make him much more approachable in tough times - after all, he is ‘just Mick'.
Information that travels from colleagues upwards is at least as important as top-down communication. Yet it is the most frequently ignored. Get this process firmly in place and real communication begins. Great companies place enormous emphasis on two-way contact - those who actually do the work have ideas and answers that senior people will never access on their own. If I had ten pounds for every time a great manager has told me that they trust their people because they are the ones who are doing the job, I should be a very wealthy woman!
There are two main aspects to this: mechanisms for ideas and concerns to reach senior leaders, plus effective conversation and feedback between managers and direct reports. The latter must be the starting point, since it underlies so many other aspects of a great culture, and the ability for everyone to speak to ‘the boss' direct has an enormous impact. At Asda anyone can send a suggestion through to the CEO as part of the ‘Tell Tony' scheme, and at Flight Centre, Gary Hogan is always on the end of the phone.
People really appreciate the commitment this demonstrates and the respect it shows for them as part of the organisation. All these leaders see themselves as part of the team, and so have to find ways to encourage others to see them that way too. Being at the end of the line like other team members is one way of ensuring that this happens.
It is really hard to find the time this requires, and it depends entirely on making people a priority. Clearly Tony DeNunzio does not look at each suggestion that comes from a colleague - a team of people work full-time on that. But he does take an interest and is involved in responses to the good ideas. People accept this as necessary, especially when he is present in other ways, like turning up in a shop and working alongside everyone else at 3 pm ‘rumble time', when it is all hands on deck to tidy up before the late afternoon rush.
If the CEO of 137,000 people can be part of the team, it is clearly possible, as long as you make it important enough. Your door may very well be open - but do people actually walk through? When you take time with people, how effective are you at making a connection? If you have already looked ahead at the Timpson test in Chapter 6, check your scores. Just saying you are available and interested is not enough: you have to demonstrate it. And it is for you to do - do not expect others to take the responsibility when you are the boss.
Take every opportunity. Go for a drink after work, have a natter, talk about bits of your own life - let people know you, be interested and get to know them. It will pay off. The more involved you are, the more you will be included and the more likely you are to hear about ideas and concerns.
‘I can look at this for myself, but how do I persuade more senior people to change their ways?'
Step one: beginning with yourself and your colleagues Whether you have one direct report or a large division to care for, how you respond to people matters.
Make a note of how often people come to talk through ideas, concerns, and suggestions with you. If it is not happening:
Chat briefly with members of your team each day. In your conversation include something of your life outside work (you do not have to share more than you want to, but knowing the person behind the role is a great for relationship building).
Get to know people who are not in the immediate team - if you encourage a relationship, people will talk to you in return.
When you hear of issues, go direct to the people concerned - in Honda-speak: ‘Go to the place'. Understand what the real concern is and ask how you can help. People will see that you really are interested, and so will talk to you in the future.
When someone does come to talk, take time to listen. Everyone will watch your response - the word gets round like wildfire, so making it a positive experience will reinforce that you mean it.
Keep a note of how this behaviour impacts on the effectiveness of your team. As soon as you see signs of positive change, move to the next step.
Step two: influencing in senior places If you already work in a positive workplace, it is likely that managers and leaders will appreciate hearing that they are not available enough or that people hang back from talking to them. All it needs is for you to have the courage to tell them. If it is difficult, enlist the help of your manager or someone in your network who is more familiar, or write a note or e-mail.
If this is not in the culture of your company, you have to find a way to influence thinking at senior levels.
Begin where you feel comfortable - use your own experience and talk with your peers about the advantages of getting feedback and ideas from people they work with. Tell them how you made this happen; encourage them to do the same. Suggest a time at the beginning of your peer team meetings to share good ideas.
As a team or group of peers, keep track of the benefits. When you are ready, take your learning to those at the next level. Use as much tangible evidence as you can, highlighting how ideas and concerns have improved outputs or achievement of targets.
Talk about what great companies do - use evidence from this book and the Sunday Times list to demonstrate the positive impact of such behaviour.
Encourage your managers to talk to those above them about the benefits.
Do not expect instant change - incremental development will be much more effective. Keep speaking of your team's achievements: it will be great for them and will also spur people's interest so they want to know what you are doing.
Building critical mass is the main way forward. It takes time and courage, but will also be extremely rewarding. The relationships you build will stand you in good stead for years to come, and the commitment in your team will increase as they realise you really are interested.