Are You Communicating the Same Old Message?

By Ben Hershey, CEO, The 4Ward Group of Companies

Here we are at the start of 2020 — Happy New Year!  As we begin the year, we’ll likely have times when we look at the past and then look forward, as we plan our strategy and set the tone for our teams and work with our colleagues.  

But… there are others who will trod out the same old message over and over, using different words and different tactics while trying to communicate some message they have taken from another play book.  This can make us wonder — if you keep talking about the same thing, only using different words, are you reaching your team or those you are trying to communicate with, or just talking about yourself or to yourself?

How we communicate and what we say are very important. As we start the new year, it bears remembering that, as leaders, we are far more visible than we realize, and we are sending signals to followers all the time.  And, while sending the right signals to our followers is important at any time, it is especially important during times of strategic change. These critical times include when followers are trying to make sense of a new “ask” from the organization, in the context of all of the existing asks they are grappling with or at the beginning of the year when we set new goals and initiatives for the year.  Why, then, is it so hard for leaders to send clear, effective signals to followers?

In my experience of working with leaders of organizations, and in my side-by-side work with those “on the ground employees” asking what they need during times of strategic change, there are three main ways in which leaders too often send confusing signals to their organizations.  If we can get them right, you can communicate clearly and effectively; fail to pay attention to how and what you are communicating in these three modes, and you will have confusion at best — and at worst, the opposite of the strategic changes you’re attempting to achieve.

 Signal No. 1: Telling your organization what you want

You’d think this would be the easy bit, but too often this is where leaders most shortchange their organizations. We have heard time and again from employees tasked with delivering strategic change that their leaders weren’t clear enough about what the change should achieve or what it would entail.  It seems the reasons for this are twofold: Leaders too often express what they want in terms not of outcomes, but of tasks, and they rarely, if ever, make clear the full extent of the change they are asking for.  Many leadership teams shortchange the questions of what they want the change to achieve, and why.

There are four questions that senior teams often skate through too quickly:

  1. Why do we need to change, and why now?  What are the imperatives driving this change?  Why is the previous strategy no longer good enough?  Where on the P&L are we feeling, or anticipating, pain?  Are you sure you want X to change, even if it means you can’t have Y anymore?
  2. What is the full extent of the change we need?  Don’t underestimate the extent of the change you need, either privately or publicly.  However tempting it is to tell people that this is just an incremental change — when it is nothing of the sort — or however politically expedient it seems to underplay the extent of the change required, a lack of clarity about the extent of the change required will make subsequent conversations about resources and priorities much harder.
  3. If we figure out 1 and 2, what should improve as a result? How will we measure the improvement we’ve been targeting? And perhaps most overlooked of all:
  4. How does this new strategy or change link to previous strategies?  Answering this question is critical if leaders are to reduce the confusion that a cumulative overload of strategic or change initiatives — another year, another “strategy” — and their potentially conflicting targets can cause.

Once you have sufficiently clear answers to these four questions, you have the first ingredient for successful communicating.

Signal No. 2: Personally living the change you desire

Living the change you want to see means much more than modeling any behaviors you’ve asked for; it also means making a myriad of decisions which support the change.  If you’re not giving time to the change you’ve asked for, followers will interpret this latest change as not really being important, and will act accordingly.  

Signal No. 3: Resourcing and measuring the change

How your organization spends its resources (capital, people, capabilities) and what it chooses to measure are the final critical ways to signal what is important.  As a leader, you disproportionately shape these decisions, and therefore the clarity of these signals.  This means finding the resources needed to deliver the change you’ve asked for.  It doesn’t just mean money — though that is important. It also means allocating the right people, with the right level of seniority, experience, and motivations, to work on the change.  These are all ways you can signal to the organization that the change is important.

It also means making changes to what you measure and making these changes early on in the change. All too often, a new change spends its first few quarters being undermeasured because the existing metrics the organization uses haven’t been overhauled to reflect the new priorities.  If what gets measured is what gets managed, give the change its best chance by signaling as early as possible that new metrics will be introduced to measure, and therefore embed, the change you desire.  Much of our time as an organization is really spent working with the management team to ensure they are using the right measurements for the changes they are making, not necessarily the ones we think should be force fed to them.  Metrics are critical and are as much a part of the communication process; if used correctly and understood by all, they become a valuable tool for change.

 Signals Matter to Followers, So Signaling (Communicating) Needs to Matter to You

Our employees are looking for signals to help them make sense of what they should do. As a leader both of the organization or of the team you might be leading, you have disproportionate power to shape these signals — or not.  And that’s especially important when you’re asking for change.  So, supply your team with what they need to make sense of it.  And make sure the story/message you are communicating is heard by all this year.

If you want to craft the right message for your organization, the team at 4Ward can help you in a number of ways, as we have for hundreds of other companies. 

Ben Hershey is CEO of the 4Ward Group of Companies including Consulting Solutions, Labor Solutions, Offsite Solutions, Design Solutions, and Accounting Solutions.  When the industry needs an actual expert, they turn to 4Ward team with more than 150 years of combined experience.  4Ward Consulting Group isthe leading provider of Management and Manufacturing Consulting to the Structural Component and Lumber Industry. A Past President of SBCA, Ben has owned and managed several manufacturing and distribution companies and is Six Sigma Black Belt Certified. Ben has provided consulting to hundreds of Component Manufacturers, Lumber Dealers, and Millwork Operations in the past seven years.  You can reach Ben at ben@4WardConsult.com or 623-512-6770.

© 2020 4Ward Consulting Group, LLC 

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