Creative Ways CEOs Communicate

One of my favorite features in my hometown paper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is the “5 Questions for the Boss: Lessons Learned by Georgia’s Top Executives” that runs in the Sunday paper.

As readers of this blog know, I’m all about lessons learned. In fact, my book is called “How Now to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”

A few weeks ago the reporter, Henry Unger, interviewed Phil Horlock, the CEO of the Blue Bus school bus company. Based in Fort Valley, GA, the company has 1,500 employees with sales reaching nearly $800 million this year.

Previously an employee at Ford, Phil was asked what he learned from Ford chief Alan Mulally, who is credited for that company’s remarkable turnaround. Phil’s response? “He taught me and others that you can’t manage a secret.” Phil said he learned that a company needs an open environment where people feel they can communicate what the issues are.

Every Thursday morning from 8 a.m. to noon all the leaders at Ford from all over the world would gather in a room or join by video conference and take turns discussing all the issues they were facing.

Phil says he brought that strategy to Blue Bird, cancelling a lot of the other separate meetings to hold one meeting on Thursdays. He noticed that productivity started to improve and he felt confident he knew what issues they were facing each week.

George Alvorson, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, has been sending companywide emails to close to 200,000 employees for six years. He termed them “Celebrations” and intended to continue the Friday afternoon practice for just a year. But as an article in the Chicago Tribune reports, he got a strong response to the emails and felt that writing them made him a better manager.

The emails contain data and information about what they are doing well in an effort to make the employees feel good about the company, but are based on absolute honesty, Halvorson said.  (If you’re interested you can read several of them in the book “KP Inside: 101 Letters to the People of Kaiser Permanente.”)

There are 6,500 employees of Epic Systems Corp., a privately held medical records company in Verona, Wisconsin with $1.5 billion in revenue in 2012. Most days, many of the employees are traveling around the world for installation or training on its software system. But once a month, every employee is on the 800-acre campus for the monthly meeting run by Founder and CEO Judy Faulkner. They enjoy free soft drinks and popcorn as they meet in the huge auditorium to be updated on company news.

Good communication is not just about making employees feel good about the company and about themselves, although those are worthy goals. Good communication also equals higher productivity.

According to an article written in 2011 by David Grossman, “The Cost of Poor Communications,” the total estimated annual cost of employee misunderstanding in the U.S. and the U.K in companies with more than 100,000 employees is $37 billion. On the flip side, companies with leaders that are effective communicators had 47% higher total returns to shareholders over the last five years compared with firms that have leaders who do not communicate as effectively.

I see ineffective communication all the time in my position as the Turnaround Authority. In fact it’s one of the common denominators of the companies that I work with. In addition to experiencing financial difficulties, just about every company I am brought in to turn around also suffers from poor communication among its management and employees.

One of the first things I do when I take over as CEO is to gather all the employees together and tell them exactly what is going on. I hold my own town hall meeting to quickly squash the negative effects of the rumor mill.

Is your company suffering from ineffective communication? I suggest you work on improving it. Or, well, you may just have to hire a guy like me.

 

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