Missed messages?

Train managers to ensure consistent communication

One of the continuing challenges in many organizations is ensuring employees at the front line are on the same page as the executives at the top.

Too often ideas, strategies and initiatives, while clear to senior executives and management, mean something entirely different to employees at the bottom of the organization. It need not be that way.

The secret is aligning and training front-line managers to become effective communicators. Managers must be given the tools, the confidence and the flexibility to become the communication ambassadors to their respective teams.

One problem with most internal communication is that it is often presented in the conventional way — internal memos, a bulletin board notice, an impersonal e-mail or an uninspiring internal meeting. This type of communication assumes too much.

It assumes employees not only read the memo or attend the meeting, but that they absorb the message and understand what it means for them.

This type of top-down, directional communication completely misses the creative element required to elevate the importance of the message conveyed.

Tools to communicate

A good example of creative communication is the case of a large Canadian grocery chain that recently launched a nation-wide market positioning. All store employees, in every region, had to understand why this initiative was being put in place and how it would affect them.

It was impossible to get all 20,000 staffers together at one time. So store managers became the key to consistent communication. They were given a set of tools to give their meetings uniformity as well as add interactivity and fun.

The tool kit contained:

•an opening video using two professional comedians, mimicking a popular TV show;

•a presentation outlining the benefits of this initiative for employees and customers;

•posters and hand-outs reiterating the message;

•a game with prizes to confirm the audience’s understanding of the communication; and

•a feedback mechanism for further ideas and suggestions to make the program even better.

A personalized certificate from head office was presented to employees upon graduation, confirming that they understand the new venture.

Based on managers’ surveys, the effort seemed successful. According to managers, three out of four employees got the message, all the more remarkable given the high turnover rate in the industry. Almost every employee exposed to these sessions felt they got the same information the same way.

There are challenges to this type of communication, however. For example, due to high turnover, it was important that the program be embraced across the board and that the messages be constantly reinforced, especially for new hires.

The internal communication program became a staple in the employee orientation program. Elements from the tool kit were displayed in employee areas to remind them of the new brand positioning.

In most workplaces, managers can be totally consumed with the day-to-day responsibilities of getting the job done, making it difficult to find the time to communicate new initiatives. It was important to present these new initiatives in fun, exciting and relevant way, and not as just another responsibility on their already endless to-do lists. In this case, the new brand positioning was also integrated into all of the company’s advertising and marketing initiatives. Managers could see for themselves what the consumers were seeing and how far-reaching this initiative was.

Fear of public-speaking

Few things evoke such powerful feelings of fear and anxiety as talking in front of a group of people. But, to ensure consistency of message, each manager must feel capable and confident to deliver information in front of a crowd.

Recognizing the importance of this, a major gasoline retailer with more than 13,000 gas station supervisors and attendants across Canada created a special training program for managers before launching a new customer service mindset program. Each and every individual employee had to learn, adopt and commit to the program.

Area managers were charged with the responsibility of visiting each site to make a presentation to employees. This policy precipitated the creation of a specialized train-the-manager program.

Area managers were flown in to one of two full-day meetings in Edmonton or Ottawa. It started with a presentation coaching workshop — led by a professional facilitator — where, through a series of interactive exercises, the participants learned to:

•conquer their fears of speaking to groups;

•adjust their talk to the right business communication style;

•employ improvisational techniques; and

•set milestones so that every employee fully understood the meeting’s content.

Next came a lecture on the importance of customer service — led by a Disney-trained expert — conveying the importance of how this new customer service mindset will benefit the organization. Explaining to managers the importance of this new mindset gave them more confidence when communicating the message to employees, even the skeptics.

Finally, the area managers had a chance to rehearse with each other to maximize their self-assurance and newly learned presentation skills.

Although people may not be able to overcome their fears completely, it is possible to make inroads to getting them feel comfortable presenting to their audience.

And while it is true that the presenter should be a person in a leadership position, there are other ways to alleviate some of the anxiety of public speaking such as presenting as a team with an assistant manager or business partner and adjusting the size of the audience.

When dealing with the fear of public speaking, it is important for upper-management to realize that by developing the presentation and speaking skills of managers, they increase the likelihood of positive dissemination of the corporate message.

For some, this may require intensive coaching and mentoring by professionals who specialize in presentation and public speaking. This is an element of professional development that is often overlooked, but which can prove to be one of the most important skills for front-line managers.

Consistency yes, cookie-cutter presentations no

It may seem paradoxical, but to deliver a consistent message, managers must be given the latitude to adjust presentations to match their personalities and their understanding of their employees.

Managers should have the option to modify and adjust meeting formats, tools, audience size, locations, times and even tone to accommodate both the individual presenter and the audience.

This is especially important when communicating change or other messages that employees are not necessarily going to readily embrace. If the format and execution of the presentation do not recognize and meet the needs of the audience, the message may be diluted, misconstrued, resented or completely ignored.

Last year, a global pharmaceutical company launched a new human resources information management model to provide employees with more access to HR information. This launch was to approximately 70,000 employees in 78 countries using HR department heads to champion its communication. This is an internal communication challenge on the grandest of scales and includes overcoming language barriers, cultural differences, timing and varying technological capabilities. A rigid meeting formula just wouldn’t do. Importantly, many of these department heads were senior VP or HR executives, who have a very good understanding of staff and how best to relay the importance and change component of this new model.

Therefore it was important for team leaders to bring their own style, experience and cultural reality to best communicate the program.

Some HR executives took teams of managers off-site after work to informalize their gatherings. Others did their sessions with very small groups to create a more of a give-and-take format, and a few revised the set plan by using games, comedy or news bulletins.

Because of the executives’ solid understanding of their staff, individual HR executives in each region were able to adjust the plans to suit the strengths, needs and capabilities of their managers.

Interestingly, this flexibility allowed for the message to be very consistent. The end result matters most — and good corporate communication means managers have the leeway to allow for the fact that, in the end, this process must have a natural, human quality.

Simply put, it all comes down to this: If a corporate initiative is launched internally to everyone, it must reach and be understood by everyone. Too many of the grandest plans go off the rails because the people implementing the plan don’t understand what they are supposed to be doing or why.

The only way to ensure every single employee is singing from the same song sheet is by ensuring communication channels are wide open so that messages flow smoothly and clearly from the top to the very bottom of the organization.

Mart Teplitsky is president of AUDIENCE - The Invertising Agency, a Toronto-based firm specializing in internal communication programs. He can be reached at (416) 703-3737, ext. 203 or [email protected].

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