Communication: Keep Traffic Flowing and Make Sure It’s Going Both Ways

Walking into a new work environment can be a bewildering experience. You meet a number of new teammates, get thrown into several ongoing projects, and have to navigate unfamiliar systems. The amount of information you’re exposed to, and the pace at which you’re expected to learn your responsibilities, can feel overwhelming.

Imagine having to help 30,000 new employees get acclimated to their jobs! That was the challenge Virginia (Ginni) Rometty faced at IBM in 2002 when her company purchased Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s (PwC) IT consulting business. For the acquisition to be successful, Rometty had to convince top talent from PwC to stay on board instead of looking for employment elsewhere. Then, she needed to successfully integrate all 30,000 consultants into IBM’s culture.

Rometty oversaw a seamless transition in which IBM welcomed thousands of new workers, helped them feel at home, and empowered their productivity. Indeed, she did such an amazing job that she would eventually be promoted to IBM’s top spot, serving as its chairman, president, and CEO. How was she able to make the acquisition go so smoothly? Rometty communicated consistently and inclusively.

1) Consistency
What’s the plan? That’s what IBM’s talented and ambitious incoming employees wanted to know from their new leader. However, Rometty challenged them to ask a different question. “Why don’t you ask me what I believe? If you ask me what I believe…you’ll understand the places I go, the decisions I make, and the markets I enter.” Rometty was far less concerned with telling her new people what to do than she was getting them to understand why their work mattered. She wanted them to share her passionate belief in IBM’s vision.

As Rometty likes to say, “clarity equals execution.” If you’re sure about your beliefs, and are convinced of their importance, then you can inspire teammates to make things happen. In a world where everything changes so quickly, it’s nearly impossible to predict what the future will hold. Strategic plans can become obsolete overnight. However, if you’ve thought deeply about your values, and have a unambiguous sense of purpose, then you can find the way forward even in a constantly shifting landscape. 

2) Inclusiveness
Ginni Rometty realized that IBM had just received an influx of bright, ultra-intelligent people who would want to be engaged in a significant way at their new parent company. To keep them vested and to give them a voice, Rometty peppered them with questions. If they didn’t speak up in meetings, she asked for their opinions and expected them to have a well-reasoned response. She created a norm in which the new consultants knew that they would be called upon to give input. In this way, she invited them into a conversation as active participants instead of causing them to be mere passive recipients of one-way communications from on high.

Questions to Consider

Leaders sometimes get stuck in a crummy communication cycle. They fail to communicate, their team complains about being kept in the dark, and so leadership responds by dramatically improving communication for about a month. However, as soon as the complaints stop, so does the communication…and then the cycle repeats itself.

Consistency is important. Leaders have to intentionally design systems that help them to keep information flowing. They also have to make sure communication moves in both directions. That is, they must listen to their people and not just give orders to them.

Ask yourself the following questions to improve how you’re communicating with your team.

  • How can I make my communications simpler to understand?
  • How can I streamline messages in order to say them more succinctly?
  • How can I give my team members more frequent reminders about our core vision so that they stay focused on the right things?
  • When do my people have the opportunity to express their opinions about how the team can improve its performance?

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