Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Communicating clearly and regularly with your team is essential to strong leadership, and it’s even more important during a crisis. Make time to think through your internal comms and dedicate plenty of time to speaking with your team. Prioritising this when the business is facing challenges can be tough, so think about delegating the planning of communication - for example, scheduling regular updates - so that you can focus on the message. And, of course, make sure your management team is reinforcing and amplifying your key points so that the team sees a coherent message from the leadership group.
Be open and honest
More than ever during uncertain times, your employees want to connect with you and understand where the company is going. You’ve hired smart people - they don’t need to hear that everything is OK, but they do need to know that you have a plan. In my experience, people respond well to a frank assessment of the economic environment and the company’s prospects. They know it is tough and just want to understand your plan.
When it comes to the really hard conversations, like cost reductions and lay-offs, it is best to be transparent. Some people will assume everything is worse than it is, so being open may even provide comfort that the company will make it through the crisis.
At Aconex, growth was not linear - there were bumps in the road. These are some of the things that I found helped me provide the open, calm and consistent leadership people expected when we hit those bumps.
● Explain the situation and challenges ahead. Be honest about the difficulties facing the company. Explain what has changed in the economy and how that is affecting your market and the company. Acknowledge that there is uncertainty and talk about how you are feeling about the challenges.
● Reinforce your company’s purpose, vision and values. Clearly state why you exist as a company, what you are trying to achieve and the values that bind you as a team. If staff are familiar with your purpose, vision and values, they become strong touch points in times of change.
● Outline strategy and key initiatives. Help your team understand the main focus areas over the next 6 to 12 months, so that they can align effort to what matters. Make it clear if there have been changes to your strategy and highlight initiatives that you have stopped. Being able to say no to some initiatives shows proactive leadership and focus (refer earlier blog here).
● Clearly map out how you plan to manage the crisis. Lay out your plans for the company. If you are cutting costs, explain how you have reached the decision and why it is important for long-term success. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers but show how you have reviewed the alternatives and why you believe this is the best path through the crisis.
● Share your numbers with the team. Be specific with your financial metrics - revenue and costs, current burn, cash in the bank and resulting runway. Of course, this is easier when the company is privately held. At pre-IPO Aconex, we were very open about our financial position which increased trust among our team. Even when our financials were heading in the wrong direction, it helped our people connect to the company and demonstrated that we weren’t hiding anything.
● Ask your people for help. Bring everyone together as part of the solution by asking them to help the company deliver on its plan. Everyone can do their bit to manage costs and ensure their efforts are directed towards the key focus areas for the company. This increases alignment and is much more effective than pushing all the answers down from management.
● Open up for questions Provide a forum for staff to directly ask questions. Being open to questions, particularly the hard-to-answer ones, builds trust. You may not have all the answers – that’s fine. It’s OK to say “I don’t know” or that you’ll get back to people with an answer.
You can’t communicate too much
Even in normal times, you can’t over communicate your purpose and strategy. During a crisis, more than ever, your team wants to hear about the company’s plan to survive and then thrive. Double or triple your normal level of communication with your team to neutralise the rumour mill and keep everyone aligned.
Most importantly, through all your conversations and presentations, be yourself - tell your company story in your way. You don’t need a perfect presentation. Communicating clearly in your own words beats the perfect deck. As a start up, you are probably a large part of the reason these people came to the business. Being open and honest will have tremendous power to engage and motivate them.
In the next post I’ll discuss how we communicated with “One Team” across almost 50 locations.