20 years of expertise in communication with executives
At Grossman Group, we started the year to celebrate a major milestone: our 20th anniversary. And in March things changed.
We changed our plans and focus quickly, like the rest of the world. In our case, we've started helping our customers with the pandemic, social unrest, diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging, and much more. We did this to help organizations connect with their employees in new and meaningful ways and to ease those tough conversations about difficult but critically important issues that people grapple with in their personal and professional lives had to and will be.
As the calendar year slowly draws to a close and some of the uncertainty sets in, I took a break to reflect on all the great work that communicators have done this year, despite facing the most unprecedented personal and professional challenges of our time Lifetime. I think what has helped the communicators and executives who have supported them so well over the past few months is that they have relied on proven and effective communication strategies to keep employees updated, engaged, and focus, listen, and prepare for success.
In honor of our 20th year as a company, I want to share with you 20 essential truths about extraordinary employee-executive communication that have been proven true over the past year. But first I want to go back to where we started.
Our guiding principles
When I think about the early days, I think about the guiding principle that we followed, what I have termed "thought partner" communication. I wanted the Grossman Group to differentiate itself as an internal communications agency focused on strategic communication between employees and executives.
For me, a thought partnership wasn't just about helping executives communicate through plans, presentations, letters, magazines, and other traditional contacts with employees. Instead, it was about using communication as a critical tool for leadership – the essential skill for leaders to achieve the strategic goals they have set for the company.
What is thought partnership?
In essence, I defined a thought partner back then:
- Someone who understands you, your business opportunity and what you want to achieve
- Someone who understands and asks your stakeholders' tough questions will ask them and work with you on the answers
- Someone who brings their life experience, best practices, and communication skills
- First a strategic management consultant, then a communications consultant
Two decades later, this is still our concern. I am proud of the team we have put together and our ability to foster great communication as a key factor in any company's success. I also know that we need to keep pushing for the best thought partnership every day. After all, two decades of experience with global customers from a wide variety of industries have produced a lot of valuable insights.
20 Essential Truths Of Exceptional Communication Between Employees And Managers
By working with executives and communicators at all levels over the years, we have gained some vital insights into how to become a successful communicator. Here are my top 20 observations on the key (and proven) truths of exceptional leadership communication:
1. You cannot communicate.
Everything executives do communicates whether they want it or not. All of the decisions managers make – how they spend their time, what to focus on, who they interact with, which employees they recognize – communicate something. Since not communicating is not an option, leaders should work as exceptional communicators in what I call "leadership communicators." That includes being authentic and motivating employees to get great results.
2. Better communication improves business results.
Research shows again and again that companies with highly effective communication perform better. Just one key example: A Change and Communication ROI study by Towers Watson found that companies with strong communication and change management programs were 3.5 times more likely to outperform their less effective colleagues.
3. Know your audience.
To really get people to take action, you need to understand what is important to them and familiarize yourself with the way they think. Whether or not employees ask them, they have several important questions on their mind, starting with the basics, such as: What is my job? How am i doing Is anyone interested in me? These basic needs must be addressed first before employees can start thinking beyond themselves to ask bigger questions, such as: What's wrong with the business? What is our strategy and vision? How can I help? As soon as employees feel heard, understood and cared for, they become more aware of changes or initiatives that are taking place outside their department or function and, of course, are more committed to the success of the entire company.
4. Connect the dots for employees.
I love the classic story of two masons. They ask you what he's working on and he says, "I'm building a wall." You ask the other and he says: "I'm building a castle." Managers at all levels play an important role in helping employees connect the dots, to see how their role contributes to the realization of the company's larger vision.
5. Take the time to create understanding.
We often think that others think the way we do and basically see the world the way we do, but it's more likely that there is plenty of reason to cover between the perspective of a leader and that of the employee. Employees come to their work with their own context. Whenever there is a change initiative that requires you to think or act differently, it is natural for you to essentially ask: What will it bring me? It is the leader's job to help employees understand the collective context, including a personal perspective on today's marketplace and how that led to corporate strategy. Managers who can help employees feel valued and indispensable undoubtedly have a much greater impact.
6. Be a two-way communicator.
Communication is far more than just speaking, emailing, or sending the occasional memo or whatever your version is to get the word out. In fact, good communication should be planned and consistent, taking into account the needs and concerns of employees. Too often leaders speak from their own perspective. Instead, they need to view every interaction with employees as a valuable opportunity to meet them where they are. It's important to take the time to figure out what makes the audience tick and how and when they're most receptive.
7. Share stories and work as a master storyteller.
This fact has proven itself time and again in organizations we work with: Employees follow leaders because they feel that way. Stories are, of course, the most powerful way executives can create an emotional connection with employees. With all the slides and facts and figures, charts and graphs, commitments, acronyms and videos, it's the stories that people remember and cherish. The most extraordinary leaders we've worked with care about sharing stories that engage and inspire their teams.
8. Invite others to participate in the decision-making process.
One of the CEOs I've worked with frequently visits factories and factories and always asks the question, "What is really stupid, what we are doing, what we could or should stop?" It's amazing how many insightful ideas and perspectives he has gained from this question simply because he takes the time to ask and sincerely wants to know what could be done better. As a leader, one of the best ways to get people to follow you is to show your team that they matter and that their prospects are valued.
9. Promote innovation by empowering your teams.
Increasingly, great leaders are realizing that transformative leadership is not about telling people what to do. Instead, it's about equipping teams and then empowering them to make smart decisions together while respecting the group's collective intelligence. The best leaders see their role in setting the stage and not always appearing on it.
10. Plan for success.
Often times, leaders assume this is enough to show the way forward, as long as they have ideas, a vision, and a sense of purpose. If it just could be that easy. In truth, good leaders know how important it is to plan and clearly formulate the way forward. You need to have a plan to communicate your vision, paint a picture of it, and help people understand how this will affect them.
11. Start with the business outcome you want.
Instead of thinking about the message or the vehicle, executives need to focus on the business impact they want to have. When we talk to customers and executives about “desired results”, we often hear customers formulating a communication goal. (For example, they want to give a presentation or send a memo). This is helpful to know, but communication should never be the result. This is a means of achieving business results. Business bottom line should relate to what you're trying to achieve with communication, whether it's a change in business performance, productivity gains, faster time to market, more engaged teams, etc.
12. Follow the materials to help your audience keep the message.
Many marketing and advertising guides know that the average prospect needs to hear a message seven times before taking action. Employees don't need the same amount of attention – their number is probably three to five times closer – but it will take a few more iterations before the message really gets through. Of course, repetition can be your friend.
13. Be open to and seek out new ideas.
Good leaders know that soliciting and listening to employee opinions can be a great way to gain honest insight and valuable new perspectives, but sometimes employees hold back without invitation. It is important to specifically ask the quietest people in the room for a view. Or you could just say, "I want to hear different perspectives on this issue."
14. Ask open-ended questions.
A surefire way to stimulate conversation is through open-ended questions. Unlike questions that give people limited answers, open-ended questions encourage others to express their opinions and ideas. If you listen to what they have to say, show interest and respect for their posts, it shows that you care. The effects can be significant.
Too often, leaders spend too much time talking and too little time really listening. I advise executives to approach each dialogue with the aim of learning something new. Additionally, one of the greatest skills any leader can master is becoming familiar with silence. Many people view silence as an empty space that needs to be filled, but when leaders learn to accept it – and work with it – they open the door for others to speak and be heard.
16. Share your expectations, needs, and hopes.
When expectations are shared more clearly, I have seen that employees use the occasion reliably. There's an important warning here: leaders often think they share expectations, but it's important to put them in writing and come back to them often. It is also important for managers to tell employees what they can expect from them and what they want to achieve personally. This approach shows the team that leaders are committed and view the work ahead as a partnership rather than a dictatorship.
17. Show that you are trustworthy.
As a manager, trust begins or ends with you. Trust is contagious. When you trust others and show that you are trustworthy, it is an opportunity for others to trust and be trustworthy. In short, building trust means being trustworthy, dependable and doing what you say you will do.
18. Have calmer, bolder conversations.
Many leaders have important thoughts that remain unspoken – conversations that would be valuable but might feel too awkward. It is very important to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. Often times, through tough conversations, we build relationships and cement bonds.
19. Work on your blind spot.
We all have blind spots. In our personal life, our spouses or best friends tell us what we need to hear, and in some ways they know us better than we do ourselves. Managers also have blind spots in their leadership. Managers should make sure they have a “fortune teller” or two at work who can help if they get in their own way and don't realize it.
Many people do not believe that they can communicate well or that they cannot develop the skill. But the truth is, it just takes practice. When leaders at all levels of their organization realize this, great things can happen for their companies. Based on many of the top executives I have worked with over the years, I firmly believe that all leaders have the power to become bold and inspiring leadership communicators.
The way to a thought partnership
When I think about the next phase of growth for this agency, it still comes down to a thought partnership. There's this great quote from Booker T. Washington that sums it up nicely: "If you want to get up, pick up someone else." We have tried to follow this philosophy here and to find solutions together with customers. That is the essence of strategic communication. All of this was a great joy, but what was especially satisfying is seeing how many companies really understand that communication is actually a key driver of meaningful change. Communicators now have a seat at the table and are increasingly being viewed as key strategic business advisors, not just the people who write the so-called "messages".
I look forward to the next 20 years and expand us and this original concept of thought partnership even further. I am sure that change will be constant in the years to come, but the need for exceptional, purposeful and inspiring communication will clearly persist.
Which essential truths of effective leadership and employee communication do you live every day?
– –David Grossman
To help you manage and communicate with employees during COVID-19, we have developed a resource page with tips and strategies that we update regularly. Click below to check it out.