Executives Walk a Fine Communications Line — With No Owner’s Manual

By Lily H. Li, Asian Women’s Leadership Network

Among the issues facing senior executives amid a global financial crisis is communicating with internal teams about organizational changes such as downsizing and reorganization. On Feb. 6th, Speakeasy Inc. hosted a panel, “Leadership Communication in Times of Change,” for 60 members of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Advisors, which represents such companies as Ernst & Young, Nortel Networks Inc. and WellStar Health System Inc.

The discussion was facilitated by Scott Weiss, president and CEO of Speakeasy, an Atlanta-based communications training and consulting firm with offices in San Francisco and New York. The three panelists were Coleman Breland, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Time Warner Inc.’s Turner Broadcasting System Inc.; Al Kabus, president of The Mohawk Group, a division of Mohawk Industries Inc.; and Anthony (Tony) W. Mitchell, chief financial officer of the Compass Group PLC’s Morrison Management Specialists Inc.

Breland explained that Turner Broadcasting is tightly knit, “like one big family.” Kabus noted that The Mohawk Group shares its strategy with its staff on a daily basis. And Mitchell exhorted leaders to relate to workers in “a humble, gentle, personal way.” Turning to the panelists, Weiss observed, “I think all of you have highlighted this idea of humility and vulnerability in delivering difficult messages and how important that is. And the vehicle is also important. Obviously sending out an e-mail to 10,000 employees that you’re announcing layoffs and plant closings is not the personal type of message that we’re talking about.”

Sandra Ashe, Speakeasy’s senior vice president of faculty and curriculum, offered a voice of reassurance. “I think it’s so easy for us to think about what we need to say and how often we need to say it. But we also work with our clients to let them know that it’s perfectly okay to show your emotions if something is difficult or hard, for the employee or those people to hear and see that from you really adds to the credibility. And it’s perfectly okay to show someone that this is a very hard conversation for you to be having with them,” she said.

In addition, Weiss stressed that executives are grappling with the degree of disclosure regarding bad news—and there’s no owner’s manual on this. “This is probably the [question] that we’re dealing with the most with our clients, which is this threshold where leaders are in a position they have to communicate information to their constituents—whether their external constituents in the marketplace or internal constituents within their own teams and staffs—and communicating those messages in an open, transparent way could have a detrimental impact on the business from the perception of the company in the marketplace. So they have to ride this fine line between public information that [they] convey, where if [they] convey too much, [they] cross the line that may have a negative impact on the business and the morale and productivity of [their] teams. And that is a very, very difficult challenge for leaders today.”

Toward the end of the discussion, Ashe offered a prescription: oxygen. “I’m hearing a lot about thinking out of the box and being more strategic. One of the best ways to clear your mind is to be relaxed, which I know is difficult right now. There’s a tendency to keep hearing the bad news and to tense and to think, ‘I’ve got to push our way through this, I’ve got to come up with a solution,’ when in fact your own creativity and new ideas will come to you when you’re much more relaxed,” she advised. “And one of the things we tell our clients all the time is breathe… breathe. Oxygen… relaxing… getting a good breath… letting the pressure off of yourself opens up your capacity to come up with new solutions.”

A podcast of “Leadership Communication in Times of Change” in its entirety can be accessed here.