In my career in industry, I have worked in both small and large companies – all the way from a 10-person organization to one that had over 100,000 employees. There is a common perception that large organizations are full of impenetrable silos and systemic communication barriers, while small ones, by virtue of their size and intimacy, somehow automatically foster better communication and alignment. I have found out the hard way that neither of these perceptions is necessarily true, in particular the latter. Even more pernicious is the myth that George Bernard Shaw so crisply exposed: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Why is any of this important? Because for organizations to fulfill their purpose, their constituents need to have a sense of commitment to that purpose, and a means for translating that into meaningful, tangible tasks that they can act upon towards the fulfillment of that purpose. And communication is one of the most important keys to creating that sense of shared purpose and the ability to execute against it.
Fortunately for all of us, there are many experienced leaders and management gurus who have learned and lived valuable lessons in effective organizational communication, and have been able to share them much more articulately than I can. So, I have an easy task – all I have to do is to provide you with a road map to the wisdom that already exists, rather than try to rehash it in my own words. And the ideal way to lay out the road map is to address the why, the what, and the how, in the words of those that know it best.
Connect the Dots
First, the why, and it’s important to always start with that. We live in an age of increasing data overload and shrinking bandwidth to handle it. It can be overwhelming to internalize and make something meaningful and actionable out of the barrage of mission, vision, values, strategies, goals and objectives that are intended to provide structure and purpose, but often create confusion instead. Employees need ways of connecting the dots in ways that resonate personally with them. Noted management guru, Ram Charan, sums it up as follows (1): “The aim of organizational communication is to ensure that everyone understands the external and internal issues facing the organization and what individuals must do to contribute to the organization’s success. Communication should be a core competency of the organization, not just a function.” The italics are mine, but the statement is inarguable. That’s the why, period, full stop. Ram Charan goes on to say that the main reason that many organizations fail to achieve their aims is not a lack of vision, a lack of ambition or even a lack of desire. Rather, the reason is a lack of execution. And his research found that of the top 10 reasons for failure, 4 are related to communication.
Clear, Frequent and Meaningful
Next, the what. And the short answer is: whatever is needed to address the why. That includes all of the elements that, taken together, might potentially muddle the heads of employees and render them ineffective: mission, vision, values, strategies, goals and objectives. The trick is how the message is communicated. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the what and move right onto the how. The message is undoubtedly important, but how it’s conveyed is what makes it trustworthy and credible, and ultimately what makes it stick. So to put it another way, the what can be understood by describing the attributes of an effective message. Here’s how Forbes magazine puts it, in a nutshell. The message should be authentic, personal, and specific. It should have a narrative that resonates and inspires. And it should be credible – the person communicating the message should know what she or he is talking about, backed by sound business rationale.
Early and Often
And finally, the how. I already touched on this a little, but this aspect of communication is probably where the well of existing knowledge is both broad and deep. Again, I see my task here as helping you navigate that thicket of wisdom. Let’s start with my friend and serial entrepreneur, Srikrishna. In his blog, Design of Business, he says: “When in doubt, communicate early and often.” Avoid surprises. Make sure your constituents and stakeholders don’t hear about important issues facing your company from someone on the outside. Michael Hyatt echoes this concern as well, and goes on to provide a set of guidelines on how to do it well, to ensure alignment. The essence of his advice is: make sure there’s frequent contact, provide a clear sense of what to expect, and connect with each individual in a way that resonates personally with them. Just as importantly, much of the advice that’s out there regarding the “how” emphasizes two-way communication. The feedback loop is just as important as the message. Listen as much as you speak. And as CK Prahalad, another noted management guru, emphasizes, “Never accept silence as agreement because you will regret it later.”
And that’s the large and small of effective organizational communication. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a 10-person company or a giant corporation with 100,000 employees. The vision may be large, but it needs to be translated into the little nuggets that make the message stick and resonate on a personal level. It’s that type of communication that ultimately can be pivotal in making organizations successful. And it is a fundamental leadership responsibility.
© Tharuvai Ramesh
(1) As quoted in Curt Howes’ book, Organizational Performance: The Key to Success in the 21st Century