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6 Strategies for Getting Your Message Across

From senior managers to clerks, everyone wants to know what you expect, what the future holds and what’s in your head. Communicating to your work force may not be easy, but it’s worth the effort:

  • Increased productivity. Clearly conveying information can lower operating costs and increase overall productivity by 30 to 60 minutes a day, according to a study by the Robert Francis Group.
  • Better decisions. Employees can expand on your ideas, enrich your perspective and ground your opinions.
  • Efficiency. If employees understand the task at hand and your overarching plan, they’ll perform strategically.

Communication differs from information. You may think you’ve made goals crystal clear, but a Harris Poll points to a gap between perception and reality: Less than one-third of employees say their leaders provide clear goals and direction. Six strategies to close that gap:

  1. Be specific. You may say, “We’re going to need more resources in the next few months.” But what “resources” are you referring to? More money? Equipment? People? And how many months are “a few”?When David Cacioppo, co-founder of $2.4 million CHRW Advertising LLC, needed to communicate a new focus for his Kansas City, Mo.-based advertising agency, he treated his staff like clients and adopted familiar language to tell a different story.”We’re shifting from a firm that puts out clients’ fires to one that manages companies’ long-term marketing initiatives,” Cacioppo explains. “Since we opened, we’ve called ourselves ‘firefighters,’ but now we refer to ourselves as ‘brand inspectors.’ ” Defining the change in terms of a job title was important in selling the idea and gaining employee understanding.
  2. Reinforce goals. “Ninety percent of the time, other folks are representing your company — not you,” says Jon Christensen, president and CEO of Somerville, Mass.-based Elytics Inc. a $4 million producer of software that tracks Web-site visitors.To ensure employees understand and retain his messages, Christensen holds weekly and monthly meetings where communication is a give-and-take scenario. “A huge part of communicating is listening,” says Christensen. “You have to have a two-way discussion, not an info dump.”Christensen couches new goals in the context of Elytics’ overall mission. “You want employees to understand the spirit of it even more than the literal interpretation of information,” he explains. “They may get fixated on one small point. What’s bigger is to imbue the company with a way of approaching problems and thinking about things. That will make any communication smoother.”
  3. Be creative. Emily Voth’s flair for drama includes casting an imaginary person as her operations manager.Voth, president of Indigo Wild, a $1.25 million soap manufacturer in Kansas City, Mo., has been searching for an operations manager. Yet her employees are not thrilled with the idea of a new position that adds a layer between them and Voth. The solution? “Phil Brown,” Indigo Wild’s interim — albeit fictional — operations manager.”If someone has a question that an operations manager would answer, I tell them to ask Phil Brown. Phil has a mail slot and is now ‘included’ in meetings,” Voth chuckles.

    Including him in Indigo Wild’s routines softens employees’ resistance to the position, Voth says.

  4. Be inclusive. If employees aren’t excited, they won’t do a good job, says Maria Fee, CEO of Kitba Consulting Services LP, a Houston-based company with 120 employees. Fee gathers her staff in focus groups to discuss ideas about company direction. The focus-group atmosphere encourages discussion and emphasizes team building.”I’ll tell them, ‘If you aren’t excited, change it,’ ” she says. “We challenge assumptions and don’t want a cover-your-ass environment; focus groups help get that across.”Fee’s strategy seems to be working: Kitba has doubled revenues every year since 1996; in 2001 annual revenues hit $10 million.
  5. Watch what goes unsaid. Suppose you constantly praise something. Fail to mention it one week, and you’ve sent a message — even if you didn’t intend to.In 2001 Elytics laid off two employees, but Christensen gave no formal explanation. His employees interpreted the layoffs on their own, which resulted in inaccuracies bubbling through the company.”If you don’t communicate, a message will still go out,” Christensen says. “You have an opportunity to craft it, but if you don’t take it, know that there will be a story there.”
  6. Lose the corporate attitude. Emotion, logic and integrity — in that order — sway people. If you don’t appeal to employees’ emotions, you won’t get your message across.Indigo Wild’s employees once gathered for meetings in a formal conference room. But people didn’t talk. Voth now holds meetings around a futon in her office. “We always have food, and some people sit on the floor with [one of Indigo’s four office dogs] or in the blow-up chair. It’s a lot less formal, but the dynamic is better. Things get accomplished,” she says.At McKinley Marketing Partners Inc., a $10 million marketing consultancy in Alexandria, Va., employees enjoy the company’s newsletter, which relishes informality while communicating information. The publication’s regular “columnist” is Mac, a golden retriever who serves as chief morale officer and belongs to Michelle Boggs, McKinley’s president and COO.

    In addition, Boggs begins Monday meetings by asking staff about their weekends. “I encourage people to get to know each other personally,” Boggs says. “It helps them to tell me when something’s wrong.”

Writer: Rosemarie Buchanan.