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VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Our biggest management challenge: communication

March 26, 2007

When I was promoted to president and chief operating officer of our firm a couple of years ago, I was not totally aware that directing a staff in a service business has special requirements you can't appreciate until you are actually in the role.

I assumed that I would go on working

Fortunately, my company has a board of directors that includes Tim Baldwin, a management professor at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. His counsel has been invaluable in helping me understand some of the requirements of good management communication.

Learning to listen

A very important lesson is learning that real communication is a dialogue, not a monologue. It is at least 50-percent listening.

In his book, "Put the Moose on the Table: Lessons in Leadership from a CEO's Journey Through Business and Life," former Eli Lilly and Co. executive Randall Tobias says, "Effective communication is more than simply delivering a collection of well-considered statements. It's also where and how and, above all, when these words are delivered that truly causes messages to take hold and behaviors to change ... I tried to be sensitive to what would be heard, not just what was being said."

In short, if the sender and receiver don't end up with a common under- standing of the messages that have been exchanged, genuine communication has been compromised.

Related to that point is the importance of common language, especially in dealing with clients. Fellow staff members might understand your technical language, but clients-most of whom are laymen-very mostly with a talented group of architects, engineers, surveyors and support staff in the design and construction world, but a new dimension had been added I would come to grasp very quickly.

To use a familiar White House phrase, I "misunderestimated" the amount of time and energy needed in management communication-both to interact with and lead fellow workers toward well-understood goals and to confer constantly with clients about their aspirations and how to help fulfill them.

An education at the University of Kansas had prepared me well for my architectural duties, but very little was taught about communicating with various constituencies. I suspect leaders in other professions-doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc.-have discovered a similar vacuum in their own training.

often will not. If I throw around terms like "cantilevers" and "fast track," it would be a mistake to assume I'm being completely understood. I should explain those words and concepts.

The late Peter Drucker said it best: "It is the recipient who communicates. Until there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise. One can perceive only what one is capable of perceiving. One can communicate only in the recipients' language or in their terms."

Being open

Good communication also requires candor. Managers should encourage both staff members and clients to level with them and not pull any punches.

Openness in dialogue, especially with employees, frequently can foster good ideas for greater productivity. It can also help a company avoid tragic mistakes. Xerox CEO David Kearns learned that lesson too late many years ago after the disastrous launch of a new copier. "We could have told you it was a piece of junk," said one employee, "but you never asked our opinion."

Finally, to be effective, communication must be timely. It must occur often and in time to be useful. That implies frequent meetings, something many managers shy away from.

It's true that too many meetings can be a drain on productivity, but too few can be even worse if workers wander about in confusion about what's expected of them.

Frequent communication also is required-often with face-to-face meetings-to keep clients up to date on the progress of a project. It's important for buyers of your services to appreciate they are getting value for their investment every step along the way. That good news should not be saved only for the ribbon-cutting.

In his book "Tough Management: The 7 Winning Ways to Make Tough Decisions Easier, Deliver the Numbers, and Grow the Business in Good Times and Bad," Chuck Martin writes, "The result of bad communication is a disconnection between strategy and execution. One of the toughest challenges businesses face today is how to bridge the gap between the top executive's vision and the reality of the managers and workers who must make that vision happen."

Closing that communication gap every day in every way will always be one of the biggest challenges for those in company leadership positions.



Green is president and chief operating officer of Indianapolis-based Cripe Architects + Engineers. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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