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Five years ago, the working environment at Continental Airlines was terrible. The company wasn’t meeting its financial goals and was about to enter its third bankruptcy; employees had lost trust and confidence in top management.
"It was a horrible place to work," admits Michelle Meissner, the company’s director of human resource development in Houston. "In the very beginning of the turnaround, people were very doubtful and mistrustful about management."
Since then, however, things have changed. In 1998, Continental achieved a record $770 million in pre-tax profit, compared with $640 million in 1997.
What’s more, its $7.9 billion in revenues that year earned it the 207 th spot in the Fortune 500. Perhaps best of all, last year the company was named one of Fortune’s 100 best places to work.
"I truly believe that people understand what we’re trying to do, and they feel a part of it," says Meissner.
The key to Continental’s dramatic turnaround, she says, has been the leadership of CEO Gordon Bethune and president/COO Greg Brenneman. Their visibility, involvement and commitment to the company’s vision make them credible leaders, Meissner says.
Perhaps equally important, they have been able to clearly communicate that vision to their employees.
Frequent communication now appears to be the norm at Continental. Says Meissner: "It’s the most common thing in the world to see Gordon out at a breakroom in an airport talking about what’s going on—and it’s common to see Greg out talking with employees. I’ve run into them both at the airport on a Friday night where they’re just stopping by to talk to employees."
Like Continental, the corporate leaders at Becton-Dickinson, an international manufacturer of medical supplies and diagnostic systems, are a critical factor in the company’s ability to communicate with employees and create a positive workplace culture. Becton-Dickinson leaders are "extremely visible and they’re always out there going to the various sites and communicating with employees at large" says Valerie Larson, manager of organization effectiveness.
And, also like the leaders at Continental, Becton-Dickinson’s executives communicate directly with employees. Larson remembers the first day she sat in the office cafe and saw the CEO walking by. "I said, ‘Come join me’—and he did! I thought, ‘Look at me, I’m having lunch with the CEO!’ But he was such a personable kind of guy that nobody else even noticed."
Of course, communicating corporate vision, direction and mission to an entire organization can’t be done one-on-one over lunch. Even with top management support, which is vital, effectively communicating with employees is a complex task. In today’s business environment, change is the norm. New competitors and technologies arise, requiring changes in strategy. Mergers, buy-outs, reorganizations and downsizings present additional communication challenges.
Fortunately, organizations that effectively communicate with em ployees demonstrate important lessons that every business can profit from.
It Starts at the Top
As Meissner and Larson would attest, effective employee communication "starts at the top." That observation draws no argument from Donald Sheppard, CEO of Sheppard Associates in Glendale, Calif., the world’s largest independent consulting agency specializing in internal communication strategy, implementation, training, measurement and management.
Employee communications, says Sheppard, starts with clarification of the organization’s mission—and that must come from top executives. "The people who own the messages own the vision," he says. "The senior leaders articulate that—not corporate communication or HR."
Peggy Walkush also sees senior leadership playing a critical role in the communication process. Walkush is the director of employee owner relations for SAIC, in San Diego. SAIC, which has 40,000 employees in 150 cities worldwide, is the nation’s largest high-tech, majority employee-owned firm. Walkush says that "employees don’t just want to hear from some communication person what the company vision is. Senior leaders need to participate—and they need to be authentic and sincere."
While top execs must be involved, HR—and, in some organizations, the corporate communications department—also plays a role by taking the message framed by upper management and ensuring that it is communicated frequently, consistently and effectively throughout the organization.
At Continental, Meissner partners with corporate communications to help channel messages from the top through the organization. A number of tools are used, including newsletters, daily news updates and a weekly voice mail report from the chairman. "We’ve made communication a shared responsibility," she says.
Formal responsibility for communicating with employees also is shared between HR and corporate communication at Becton-Dickinson, Larson says. But, informally, communication is everyone’s responsibility, she adds.
Preparing Employees To Hear the Messages
While top management is clearly the critical first step in any effective employee communication initiative, both human resources and corporate communication staffs play pivotal support roles. That’s because if employees aren’t prepared to hear the messages they receive from executives, those messages won’t take root.
Susan Koonin, SPHR, president of Business Resource Consulting LLC, in Potomac, Md., says Maslow’s hierarchy of needs applies to employee communications. Koonin, who works primarily with small- to medium-size businesses, says employees won’t be ready to move to higher levels of understanding until their basic needs—for safety, security and a sense of belonging—are met.
"Employees have a real need for affiliation, a need to feel that they are truly an important part of the overall organization—that they’re not just ‘employees,’" Koonin says.
At GE Capital Services in Stamford, Conn., Karen Horn has found this to be true as well. Horn is manager of global organizational communication and diversity for the company, which comprises 28 business units ranging from small start-ups with as few as 160 employees to large business units with 20,000 employees. Working with quality-based models and measurement, Horn has studied employee communication needs and has found that 70 percent of what employees want to know has to do with their own work unit. These are the day-to-day issues that have a direct impact on employees’ "life at work"—the basic-level needs identified in Maslow’s hierarchy.
The trick is satisfying employees’ need for this information so they can absorb higher-level corporate messages. HR professionals can help the process along by measuring and monitoring employee needs through focus groups and surveys and by offering training.
For example, Geneva Reid, an advisor in the Leadership Institute at FedEx in Memphis, Tenn., uses a six-step model developed by Roger D’Aprix, a noted authority on corporate communications.
The model serves as a training tool that helps managers learn how to help employees move from lower-level needs to a point where they’re ready to hear organizational messages. The training leads managers through the process of recognizing and responding to some fundamental employee questions. The first three questions are "me-based":
Until these three questions are addressed, Reid says, employees are not able to move on to the next levels of the D’Aprix model. The fourth and fifth levels are more "we-focused" and include questions such as the following:
The sixth step is where employees truly get involved and ask "How can I help?"
According to Sheppard, "The greatest difficulty most organizations face is taking the macro messages that are developed at a corporate level and translating them into how people do things differently—behaviorally, attitudinally and functionally—at the work level. You can have a vision of ‘we want to be this’—that’s nice, but the person out there in the plant in Michigan or in India needs to understand how that applies to him or her and what he or she needs to do differently. That can’t be done at any macro level."
And that’s where front-line managers come into play.
The Role of Front-Line Management
"There’s no question in my mind that communication breaks down at more or less that mid-management layer where messages either don’t make it down from the top or they get misconstrued," says Jim Simon, partner and executive director of communications for KPMG LLP in Montvale, N.J. "This is a critical group. You’ve got to get their buy-in, which means you have to keep them informed on a regular and timely basis."
Steve Nielsen, managing director of FedEx’s Leadership Institute, agrees. "Front-line managers are like the meat in the sandwich," he says. "We focus a lot of our development efforts, including communication, on front-line managers."
Such training can be invaluable because communication is not necessarily a skill all managers possess. And even if they do, they may not define "communication" in the same way employees do. For example, at GE Capital Services, Horn saw "a huge gap between how employees defined communication and how managers defined communication."
When managers were asked to define communication, they tended to think of specific, relatively infrequent tools or events, such as newsletters and meetings. Employees, on the other hand, viewed communication as an on-going, everyday process that provided information they needed to do their jobs; they were interested in the answers to questions such as: "What is my job?" "How am I do ing?" "How are we doing?" and "Where are we going?"
"If managers are the ones who lead communication and they think it’s something different than their customers (the employees), we have a conflict," Horn says. To bridge the gap and provide managers with the information they need to fulfill their role, GE Capital Services developed a toolkit that provides managers with information on how communication is defined from an employee standpoint, and gives practical information on how to communicate effectively from a process standpoint.
Modeling the Culture— ‘Walking the Talk’
While front-line managers may be able to reiterate the organizational messages issued by the company’s top leaders, if their actions—and those of upper-level executives—don’t support those words, they will succeed only in sending mixed messages to employees. For communication efforts to be effective, managers at all levels must demonstrate—through word, deed, policies, practices and procedures—that they are "walking the talk."
At Continental, they demonstrate their commitment to communication by putting money on the line for directors and officers. Every year employees receive a survey that asks such questions as: "Has your leader informed you about the Go Forward Plan?," (a plan that explains the company’s objectives) and "Has your leader set measurable, specific goals based on the Go Forward Plan?" Leaders who score well on these assessments are rewarded with bonuses. Those who don’t, Meissner says, "aren’t around much longer; it’s very critical to our job, and we all know that."
Another important aspect of "walking the talk" is making a commitment to a full-disclosure policy. That means sharing the bad with the good—no sugar coating.
"Our CEO and president have told us that they will tell us everything—short of what they could be thrown in jail for telling us," Meissner laughs. "If it affects our company, or our lives and the work we do, they’re going to tell us." This approach, she says, helps eliminate rumors and speculation. "One of Gordon and Greg’s goals is to be the first to tell our employees what’s going on. If we don’t hear it from them, we know it’s not true."
Walkush agrees that being forthright and direct is a must. "It’s a big mistake to withhold information. It never works. The rumor mill will beat you every time—and a lot of times the rumor mill is true. It gets out anyway."
One of the best ways to "beat the rumor mill" is through direct communication. Face-to-face communication builds trust and credibility while ensuring that employees are receiving consistent messages. Sheppard, who has designed programs for companies large and small, says, "if you can get to people face-to-face, that’s what you do. You don’t need anything else."
Walkush agrees. "People are smart. They know when they’re being fed a line of BS from management," she says. "One of the reasons people like to have you get up in front of them and give a presentation is they’re going to watch you and say, ‘Is this person sincere? Can I trust this person?’ That’s where they look in your eyes and where they make their judgments."
Clearly, it is not always practical or possible to interact face-to-face with employees. The challenge, then, is to establish relationships between upper management and line employees—a challenge that can seem daunting for an organization that employs several thousand people in many diverse locations.
The best solutions for employee communication, Sheppard says, "will always involve interactions, involvement of the various audiences and engaging people in discussion. And that’s where new media [such as satellite broadcasts, webcasting or online forums and chat rooms] comes in—you can’t always do it interpersonally."
Some companies already make use of such technology. At FedEx, an internal private business television network (FXTV) that includes more than 1,000 satellite connections in the United States, Canada and Europe allows the company to air live telecasts that include phone-in question-and-answer sessions between cor porate officers and employees on a variety of topics.
Still, not all employees may be able to hear these messages directly. To help ensure wider distribution, Simon has the discussions at live or broadcast events transcribed, organized by topic and sent to all employees through electronic and printed media. This ensures that all employees receive the same information.
Beating the Drum
In today’s fast-paced, multi-channel communications environment, it’s not enough to convey a message one time through one medium. "The broken-record syndrome has to be the name of the game," Larson says.
According to Simon, "the great irony of today’s age is that while we have the immediacy of real-time communication built into communication channels like e-mail, there’s so much clutter that we find, too often, that people will delete the message and not read it. The key is to reinforce the message through multiple channels. If you do that through a combination of face-to-face, print and electronic media, one way or another you will have touched employees at least once, maybe twice or three times."
At KPMG, Simon has introduced a program called "The Power of One." It’s an annual event during which the firm’s strategy and key messages for the year ahead are conveyed throughout the organization—first to partners and then, Simon says, "it’s cascaded down through all other layers of the firm." Although the event happens only once a year, Simon points out that the messages are incorporated into communication efforts year-round in a variety of ways to a variety of audiences.
Multiple tools, multiple channels, multiple ways—the more opportunities you can provide for employees to receive key messages, the more likely you are to connect with them. Continental’s Meissner says, "If you’re not informed at Continental, it’s because you’ve chosen to unplug—it’s not because there aren’t a lot of re sources."
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is also the director of corporate communications for Luther Midelfort-Mayo Health System, in Eau Claire, Wis., and author of The HR Book: Human Resources Management for Business (Self-Counsel Business Series, 1999).
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