The finest chocolatiers stir melted chocolate as it cools to prevent “bloom,” or the gray and white speckles that surface when chocolate isn’t tempered properly. (When melted, the sugar crystals in chocolate separate and the cocoa butter rises to the top, unless all is stirred to reunite the crystals and create a shiny smoothness.)
In the same way, a winning leader stirs every member of his team to stay focused on a common goal, work together, and produce a pleasing result by communicating clearly and often.
We had partnered with a small European chocolate company to help it make inroads in the U.S. market. It seemed like a good match.
Our candies were hand dipped, while theirs were molded. We were an all-American company, while they had the “prestige” of being imported from the Old World, where fine chocolates were born. We were already established vendors with the better department stores, while they were the new guys on the block. Our chocolates were too expensive for midlevel department stores and grocery stores, but theirs could be a good fit in these new markets.
All things considered, we figured that this partnership would give us a great one-two punch. But things didn’t work out nearly as well as we had hoped.
The store buyers proved reluctant to give this new, unfamiliar brand a try. They showed some interest, but they were inclined to give their shelf space to established companies. Our sales were disappointing, to say the least.
Now, a fairly common practice at the wholesale level is “buying” space in retail stores in order to guarantee that your product will get placement on the shelves. Though other companies paid these slotting fees readily and considered it standard business procedure, our firm had never done it. I always figured that if you offered a good product and good service at a competitive price, stores would want to work with you. Frankly, the practice seemed a little shady to me.
With sales of the European brand lagging, however, the owner of that company proposed that we pay a top store to carry his chocolates. The hope was that this would make other grocery store owners think the brand was doing well and want to jump on the bandwagon.
All the members of my management team knew about this suggestion, and some said it could well kick-start the brand and crank up the profits for us. A potentially large sum of money was at stake; a losing effort could become a big winner. But I just couldn’t get comfortable with the idea.
After a short internal discussion, we called the other company’s president back and explained why we wouldn’t follow that course. I spoke gently, letting him know that I understood his frustration with the lack of sales, but I also made it clear that we would not reconsider our choice. In the end, we never did make any money with that European brand.
The simple fact is, however, that I was behind the times. Slotting fees were becoming standard, not only in grocery stores, but in many other kinds of retail businesses as well. And the other simple fact is that effective communication did not take place between me and my sales and marketing managers. They knew that slotting fees were by then normal and ethical, but I refused to accept the message, leaving me badly out of touch.
Successful leadership means, in part, making sure that everyone in the enterprise is talking about such important things as changing practices within your industry. One reason is so everyone will have a common understanding of how business is done and why. Then, when crucial decisions need to be made in crunch time, the whole team is on the same page. When that’s not the case, you can lose great opportunities.
It’s easy to assume that clear, effective communication is taking place between . . .
• A supervisor and the staff members who report to him or her
• “Frontline” workers and support people (e.g., accounting and computer services)
• Departments, such as manufacturing and sales, that need to work closely together if they’re to be successful in their jobs
• The organization and its best, core customers
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is often far removed from this ideal. And when everyone isn’t talking clearly and being understood, the results can only be less than desirable. That’s why a successful leader has to constantly make sure effective communication is taking place.
Let me suggest six specific areas in which a leader does well to focus attention on his company’s communications, and let me assure you that these are lessons I’ve often had to learn in the school of hard knocks. Each is a step that puts you more firmly on the path to success.
Whether or not we think much about them, all individuals and all organizations have core values. These are beliefs about what’s good and bad, right and wrong, important and inconsequential, worth pursuing and not worth the time and effort. These values guide what we think and feel, what we say, and how we act.
These values matter. They have major consequences. And employees are acutely aware of whether their leaders act in a manner consistent with the company’s stated values. Whenever it would be expedient to set aside those values—it would make a situation easier or it would save money, for instance—a leader is “on trial” in the eyes of his or her staff.
This is why a leader does well to think long and hard about the values for which he’s willing to take a stand and by which he’s ready to be judged. Then, in written policy statements, in speeches to staff, in corporate newsletters, in meetings, and even in lunchroom conversations, he communicates those values to one and all. He invites questions, and he explains and clarifies as often as needed. Then he makes sure his actions match his words.
I recommend the following as values that a leader might want to consider embracing and communicating:
• Put people ahead of product or profit.
• Value integrity more than profit.
• Know that the company exists to meet the needs of its customers with products and/or services.
• In business as in life, treat others the way you want to be treated.
• Tell the truth, even when it hurts.
These values and others worth pursuing appear in the pages of Scripture.
One of the good values I just recommended was putting people ahead of product or profit, and communicating respect for staff is a key part of that. (This also will inspire them to respect one another.) Without your people following you willingly, you’re no leader at all. How you speak to them and treat them every day, in every interaction, builds a relationship that will make or break you and your enterprise.
As leaders, we typically have more on our plates than we can accomplish. Making time to talk with staff members and getting to know them may fall pretty low on the priority list. And even if we’re willing to make the time, we’d better approach the relationship with gentleness, which includes humility, if we expect any real communication to take place.
Gentleness doesn’t come naturally to most people, especially to those of us who tend to end up in leadership positions. You are more likely to hear harsh and hard-nosed if you ask people to describe their bosses. So from where will this gentleness that I’m advocating come? It grows out of living in close, daily relationship with God’s Spirit, allowing him to work in and through us. It’s part of the fruit he produces in such a life.
Let me give you an example of how gentleness in talking with staff made a major impact in my chocolate company.
At one point, we in senior management realized that we needed to know our crew in the factory better, so we made sure to eat lunch one day a week in the employee break room. We sat at a table full of people and joined in the conversation.
In doing this, we were privileged to meet an employee named Carlos, who didn’t say much. Curious, we sat with him several times in the following weeks and began to sound him out.
To our amazement, as we asked Carlos about his work and how the shop was run, we discovered that he had great ideas for making things run better. This guy has real leadership potential, I told myself after one of our early conversations. Because he had limited English skills, however, his potential had gone unrecognized and untapped.
Carlos knew that his poor command of English would always be an obstacle to companywide leadership. In talking with our human resources people, though, we thought he might give good direction to a small department where he was also involved in the hands-on operation. We decided to try him out as manager of the kitchen.
Well, Carlos simply thrived in his new responsibility. His approach to planning the work and handing out assignments to his staff was excellent. Under his supervision, the kitchen became one of our smoothest running departments in the chocolate factory. And it all started because our senior staff showed a little respect and made the time and effort to get to know him.
The flip side of a situation like Carlos’s, where you’ve got a quiet but potentially outstanding employee, is that of a troublesome worker. The temptation for a manager is to just get rid of the difficult employee and move on, because you have it in your power. But I’ve found that, again, taking the time to talk and understand the situation better can yield huge dividends.
Another of our workers, Bob, was a solid, dependable guy who nonetheless quickly wore out his welcome in every department to which we moved him. Curious about why he had so much difficulty getting along with coworkers, I called him into my office a few times to talk. He seemed bright enough and communicated easily, so I found myself scratching my head.
Then one day as we chatted, the answer hit me. Bob was so bright that he was yards ahead of everyone else—so much so that he quickly analyzed any new department to which he was transferred and formed ideas about how things there could run better. He also was quick to “share” his ideas with his new coworkers. His insights did not find appreciative audiences. He threatened the comfortable status quo and his supervisors’ sense of security.
As an experiment, I assigned Bob to study the whole flow of product through our factory and suggest improvements. I was amazed when he soon came back with a detailed plan that would significantly enhance our operations. So then human resources and I decided to move him to a position troubleshooting the entire production process, and week after week he gave us phenomenal input.
Taking the time and effort to communicate gently had turned a troublesome employee into one of our most valuable workers.
While plentiful, two-way communication is generally a good thing, there is such a thing as too much information (TMI). And when your organization falls victim to TMI, the result can be confusion rather than clarity.
How well I remember the time back in the early 1980s when we took the plunge and computerized our factory. Once we got through the transition period (which gave new meaning to the word challenge) and had the systems up and running, suddenly there was no end to the detailed data we could have.
Did sales want to know which day of the week was best for sales of a particular line of chocolates? In which part of the country? In what kind of packaging? In which types of stores? The permutations seemed infinite. Just put in your request to accounting (which ran the system) and you’d soon get back reams of reports.
I recall a staff meeting several weeks into this brave new world when the table was stacked high with computer printouts. The people from sales, marketing, manufacturing, and every other department all had their piles of data. We had to peek out from behind our piles to see each other!
Clearly, the situation had become ridiculous. We found ourselves so buried in interesting information that we now struggled to sort out what was truly important. We had become unwitting victims of TMI.
What all of us had to learn was the difference between “good to know” and “need to know.” We could spend hours trying to digest stuff that was good to know but not essential to doing our jobs. It seemed like a wise use of time, but it actually kept us from completing our work.
Gradually, with experience, we learned to make that distinction between “good to know” and “need to know.” The result was the elimination of about 70 percent of those interesting but voluminous reports.
Another key area in making sure everyone is talking is to know the personalities of the people with whom you interact regularly. Because different folks think differently, look at life differently, and work differently, working effectively with them means communicating with each person according to his or her bent.
Whole studies have been done and books written about personality types. Many psychologists and other writers, for simplicity’s sake, say there are four primary types and that most people fall into one of those categories or a blend of two. For our purposes in this section, I’ll make it even simpler and talk about two basic types of people: left-brained and right-brained.
The left-brained types tend to be those who have schedules and agendas that they stick to, no matter what. They’re on time for every meeting, and they need to be given an assignment just once and can then be depended upon to complete it on budget, on strategy, and on time.
The right-brained people are what I call, in general, the creative types. They bring color, fresh perspectives, and unique solutions to an organization. They’re the exclamation point to everything you do! They can also drive you crazy unless you accept the fact that they’re different and learn to communicate with them.
Paul, a top guy in our company, was right-brained. One of the most creative people I’ve known, with innovative approaches to just about every aspect of his job, he was a tremendous asset to our firm. He was also literally incapable, on his own, of getting any assignment done on time.
Once I realized that was Paul’s nature and that he wasn’t deliberately pushing my buttons as a left-brainer, I didn’t hold it against him anymore. I learned to work within that framework. When we gave him a new project, I talked with him about a plan for getting it done. He wanted small deadlines and weekly—or even daily—check-ins. If his final deadline was in six weeks, we made the first small part due in one week. Then the next part was due the week following, and so on. Invariably, when I checked in with him, he was a little behind schedule, but he was developing great ideas. I told him how impressed I was and encouraged him to keep going.
Then, the day before the meeting, I called Paul one last time to see where things stood. “I’m really looking forward to your presentation,” I told him. I know he was up until two or three in the morning following many of those conversations, but he showed up at the meetings with a completed, winning project in hand.
We all have a tendency to want others to be like us, to think and work the way we do. But that’s not realistic, and I’ve come to see that it wouldn’t even be good. That insight, more than any other, has helped me to become a better communicator with the members of my team.
Finally, another area where good communication is essential is with your customers or constituents, as the case may be. Simply put, the successful leader will demonstrate and teach respect for customers, will encourage customer feedback—especially complaints—and will listen carefully to the feedback when it comes.
At one time my son David and I owned a restaurant featuring chicken-fried steak, a popular dish in Fort Worth, Texas. We offered a quality product, dipping each cutlet by hand in fresh batter before frying it. When you have a full house, though, with thirteen tickets waiting for attention in the kitchen and at least one order for chicken-fried steak on each, it’s easy to start panicking. When you’re also short a cook, the panic becomes almost unavoidable.
As we were “chewing” on all that, a vendor showed up pushing prebreaded, frozen steaks. “Think how much time you could save,” he said, “and your customers won’t even know the difference.”
Not being a connoisseur of chicken-fried steak, I thought his product tasted fine. David, however, thought the frozen cutlet was noticeably less tasty, and he urged me not to make the switch. After talking with the kitchen manager and looking at the cost and time factors, I overruled David’s concerns and decided to try the frozen product.
Well, our core customers were connoisseurs of chicken-fried steak, and they immediately picked up on the change. They didn’t like it, to put it mildly. I vividly recall the scene as one of them told me, while paying his bill, “I guess you’re doing like the rest of them and going for money instead of quality.” Ouch! And, as if that weren’t bad enough, he then added, “This will be my last time here. If you’re going to offer a lower-quality steak, what else will you try to get past us customers?”
At that moment, obviously, I wished I had listened to David. But I couldn’t turn back the clock, so I thanked the man for his honesty and asked him to give us another chance. If he would, I told him I’d pick up the tab for his next visit (after we’d switched back to freshly battered meat).
I also vowed—and made it a company policy—that in the future we’d ask a few key customers to sample new products and give us their feedback before making any decisions affecting their dining experience in our restaurant.
Just think what would have happened if I hadn’t been hit over the head and forced myself to listen to that irate customer! On another day I might have considered him a crank or a nuisance. I would have ignored his comments and continued to use the frozen product because it was cheaper and more convenient, and I would have learned nothing from the exchange. And I would have instilled that attitude in my employees. In that case, though, everyone would come out a loser.
Make the time to talk with staff and customers—gently, so they’ll be candid. (It takes a lot of gentleness to coax a customer to tell you what you’re doing wrong, which is what you really need to know.) Listen to what they have to say. Check on whether people within the organization are talking with one another and with customers, rather than just assuming it’s happening. This aspect of leadership won’t show up on any project report, yet few things equal its importance to success.
1. What systems do you have in place for making sure good communication is taking place within your organization? Are you just assuming that it’s happening?
2. Do those who work with you understand and share your core values? How do you know?
3. The last time you had a problem with a staff person, how did you handle it? How might you have handled it differently based on what you’ve read in this chapter?
4. Spend a half hour skimming through the current reading stack in your office. How much of it is truly “need to know” versus just “good to know”? What changes in handling this material could make you more productive?
5. What mechanisms do you have for encouraging and processing customer feedback? What changes might be needed in this area?