Executives: are you missing opportunities? You might be if your command and communication channels are synonymous

Image by P Shanks via Flickr

Executives are busy, crazy busy. There is too much to do for any one person so delegation becomes key to survival.  I’ve been awed by some great leaders as they sit at the end of the long table carefully guiding the organization as if they were a conductor guiding an orchestra.  Direction flows down the chain of command and results and answers flow back up.

I’ve also been disappointed by some of those same “conductors” when I realize they don’t really understand what is going on in their organization.  Some leaders are so busy that they don’t take the time to establish separate communication channels.  Instead they piggyback on their command channels.  Unfortunately, command channels are set up to effectively run the organization not for communication. It’s one of the many symptoms of busy executives allowing the “tyranny of today” to take control.

When leaders make their command and communication channels synonymous they are likely missing opportunities to:

  • Discover critical information necessary to make the best decisions.  Everyone played the classic miscommunication game as a child and experienced how messages change as they are whispered from child to child.  Similar results occur in business as information flows up and down the hierarchy.  Even if the message isn’t changed dramatically as it passes each level, the context associated with the message is often lost. The more strategic the information and decision, the more important it is for the leader to communicate directly with all levels of the organization.
  • Align their organization toward common goals and objectives in support of an overarching strategy.  Mission statements, goals, and objectives plastered on walls are useful, but hearing the intent and context behind them directly from the boss is much better.  First, it communicates their importance, and second, it helps all levels understand the context of what is behind those statements.  Direct communication increases the opportunity for buy-in and understanding so that tactical decisions at all levels are aligned with the strategy.
  • Understand what is really holding their organization back from reaching the next level.  Whether your leading a Lean Startup and Crossing the Chasm in search of the mainstream market or you’re a mature company striving for the pinnacle, you’re more likely to find the answer to what’s holding you back if you expand your data gathering beyond your command chain.  You may see something your subordinates do not because they are too close to the fight.
  • Motivate the workforce.  This isn’t about charisma; it’s about the workforce knowing the boss is excited about the company, understanding where the company is going, and gaining confidence that the boss is willing to remove the obstacles necessary to be most effective.  It’s also motivating for the workforce to know that the boss is human and not just a name plate on the door of the corner office.

To overcome these missed opportunities executives should build a series of communication channels that complement their command channels.  Notice I said channels, as in plural. Multiple channels are necessary to ensure effective information flow up, down and across the organization.

Expanding communication channels beyond command channels:

  1. Lead by walking around.  Walking around and talking to people may seem like a time-waster, but it’s just the opposite.  It provides the executive with the chance to communicate directly with the workforce. If you’re lucky enough to run an organization that resides within one building then there is no excuse. Spend 15-30 min a day walking around and talking to people.
  2. Get rid of your coffee pot.  That’s right, move the coffee pot out of the C-suite and walk to a different coffee pot in your organization each time you need a refill.  You’ll be surprised at the number of conversations you’ll generate, the information you’ll learn, and the opportunities to guide decisions at all levels.
  3. Build a wiki or a discussion board on your internal network. Use this forum to post questions that anyone can answer.  If you make it attributable it will be self regulating and reduce time wasting comments.  You may get push-back from your middle management because you’re effectively jumping the chain of command, but explain that they have an opportunity to pile on in the discussion to add necessary context.  You’ll find that you get to the bottom-line quicker and the quality of the answers better.  You can find some thoughts on using your intranet as a communication channel here.
  4. Present awards at people’s workplace instead of in all-hands meetings.  By physically going to someone’s desk or work area you get a chance to engage them in their environment as well as praise them in front of the people they care most about—their immediate colleagues.  Sure, at all-hands meetings you’re able to sing their praises to more people, but it’s not as meaningful.  Plus, you get to connect with people by asking them questions about the pictures on their desk as well as the specific work they are doing.  Take a picture of you handing them their award and you’ll likely find that picture hanging on their wall the next time you stop by.
  5. Send out a weekly WIGO (what is going on).  Imagine first thing Monday morning the entire workforce opens up an e-mail directly from you telling them what is going on.  I’ve seen this work extremely well in very large organizations as well as small ones.  It must come from the leader and it must be personal.
  6. Engage the social network movement.  Some of you will just shutter at the prospect of using social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn as communications channels.  Undoubtedly, there is a danger here in that what you write and post will be out there forever, but it may be a communication channel that connects you with people you’re not currently connected.  Some thoughts on the pros and cons of using social media can be found here and here and here.

Do yourself a favor and take a hard look at your communication channels.  If you find that they are synonymous with your command channels then figure out a way to expand them beyond the command hierarchy.  It’s well worth your time and effort.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.

3 responses to “Executives: are you missing opportunities? You might be if your command and communication channels are synonymous”

    • Dom,

      I’ve seen your intranet ideas work and the communication to/from senior leadership is fantastic. People feel like their voice is heard and the leaders feel like they are getting straight unaltered feedback. It’s a win-win all the way around!


  1. Sean,
    excellent points…well done. You and I know first hand how poor communication can de-rail even the best solutions.
    best regards,

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