Friday, April 9, 2010

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Drew Gilpin Faust is a noted American historian who specializes in the history of the South and, in particular, the changing roles of women during the period before and during the Civil War. She taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania and is the award-winning author of several books. In 2001 she became the head of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and, in 2007, she was named the first female president of Harvard University.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Gilpin Faust describes the leadership lessons she learned in transitioning from her role as a scholar to that of an administrator with responsibility for a team of people and a large, complex organization. She says, "They have to do with understanding the context in which you are leading. Universities have enormously distributed authority and many different sorts of constituencies, all of whom have a stake in that institution… I spend a huge amount of time reaching out to people, either literally or digitally, and with alumni networks all over the world, so that I can connect. Leadership by walking around- that's a digital space now, it's virtual space."

Good communication is the key to effective performance, innovation, and change in any organization. And the message must be hammered home repeatedly. Gilpin Faust says, "When I came to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, many people wanted to help. An alum who was an expert in turnarounds said, 'One lesson about change in any organization- communicate, communicate, communicate.'"

Susan Docherty, who heads up the United States sales, service, and marketing team at General Motors, echoes Gilpin Faust's point of view concerning uniformity and persistence in communication. Docherty says in a recent interview, "Whether you have a really small team or a really big team, communication needs to be at the forefront. It needs to be simple. It needs to be consistent. And even when you're tired of what the message is, you need to do it again and again and again, because everybody comes to the table with a different perspective and a different experience. The same words mean different things to different people."

The global consulting firm Watson Wyatt reports in a survey just released for 2009-10 that companies that communicate effectively provided a 47% higher return to their shareholders over the five-year period from 2004 to 2009. The report states, "In challenging times, companies are forced to make tough decisions and deliver difficult messages. But our study found that high-performing companies don't shy away from tough messages. They make communication a priority and use every tool available to reach out to a workforce in desperate need of information and direction."

Specifically, the Watson Wyatt study reveals that the companies that communicate best are very courageous in their employee communication. Watson Wyatt refers to this skill as "telling it like it is." Instead of shying away from difficult messages in an attempt to protect their people, these companies train and encourage their managers to focus on constant, effective communication, especially during times of uncertainty. "Highly effective communicators," says Watson Wyatt, "say more, not less." The study shows that when people are told what they need to know, even if the news is bad, their performance actually improves.

The best companies also promote innovation through their communication plans by encouraging employees to think creatively about work processes, job tasks, and productivity measures. Even the communication plans themselves reflect an innovative spirit. They use multiple channels such as intranet updates, wiki, blogs, and e-mail, as well as face-to-face dialogue where possible. The report asserts, "… taking the initiative to try new tools to reach a culturally diverse and geographically dispersed audience is the hallmark of effective communication." This is the essence of "leadership by walking around in a virtual space" that Drew Gilpin Faust describes.

The highest performing companies are disciplined in their approach to communication. They set direction and measure results to ensure that employees not only know what they are supposed to be doing, but why. They make sure that employees are given good direction, but also helpful context. The result is a more engaged team. Outcomes, both good and bad, are measured closely and shared with the team.

Finally, the Watson Wyatt report emphasizes that a critical component of any solid communication plan involves listening to employees. Good communication ensures alignment, but if companies are not confirming understanding and listening to feedback, then alignment can be compromised.

Clearly, those organizations- whether they are a major university or a small business- that develop simple, consistent messages and repeat them constantly through multiple channels perform best over time. Gilpin Faust sums up the point well when she talks about her most critical lesson in communication: "Someone would say, 'Well, you've never talked about X,' and I'd say, 'I've talked about it here, here, and here. I talk about that all the time. Then I realize that all the time isn't enough. You have to do 'all the time and more.'"

In other words, communicate, communicate, communicate.

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