Every question is a cry to understand the world

Every question is a cry to understand the world

September 8th, 2014 // 6:23 pm @

CommunicationThe ability to effectively communicate is not a boon to a CEO, it is a necessity. The importance of effective communication is something that is not only critical in business but in life, and the reality is we are all much worse at it than we choose to believe.

To effectively communicate is not to tell someone something clearly; it is to help them understand whatever idea we are trying to communicate. The problem is we understand clearly what is in our minds, think it is simple, and assume when we communicate it we have been understood. This drives us to not take communication as seriously as it needs to be taken, and not put the time and thought required into it.

For a CEO effectively communicating with many disparate audiences is critical to being effective. There are two areas in which I believe it is particularly critical:

Firstly in aligning a company towards a common goal. In my experience companies are full of intelligent people who want to do the best they can for the company. Too often the problem is they have not bought into or understood the direction of the company and that is a managerial issue. When I review companies I ask as many people as I can what they believe the strategy of the company is, sadly too often the answers one gets back are disparate. Then you have a company with its resources pulling in different directions, which at best weakens a company and at worst destroys it.

Therefore a CEO must not only have a clear strategy in mind, but must make that strategy understood by everyone in a company. It sounds simple but it is something that requires constant attention, will never be fully successful, and is at best difficult to measure. However time spent selling the strategy to the company is one of the most important things a CEO ever does.

Working with H.J.Heinz in Hungary in the years after the Berlin Wall came down brought home to me how critical this communication can be. We had a company who had worked under a communist system for 50 years, spoke a very different language, but were intelligent and motivated. I spent a huge amount of my time explaining where the company needed to go, and how we could get there. Even down to explaining why making a profit was important, this may seem like a silly question, but not if you have lived and worked under communism for half a century. As time passed and people understood we opened a flood of positive change being driven from within the company, not from on top.

Secondly effective one to one communication is very important to managing and developing individual staff. If people know what is expected of them, then the vast majority will work positively towards it. Sadly the majority of managers never really make clear what is expected, what authority is given and what help is available. It is enlightening when reviewing a company to ask individuals how well they think they are doing. So very often the answer is vague, as they have never really had effective feedback on their performance.

These are just two particularly critical reasons to make communication effective, what is interesting is how to do that:

Firstly is the attitude one takes to communication, too many managers see it as an adjunct to what they do rather than a critical core part of their role. If as CEO you can get your staff a little more aligned to the companies goals that is time better spent than on almost anything else you do. Therefore make great communication your goal.

A good communicator is first and foremost a good listener; it is only by understanding people one can communicate with them. Good listening is not sitting quietly while the other person talks, it is active listening, working to understand what they are trying to tell you, encouraging them with positive feedback showing interest, and asking questions to ensure you understand what they want you to.

If you respect whom you are communicating with you have a significantly better chance of making your communication understood. Too often people will not ask questions simply because they do not want to be made to look stupid. It was said most effectively by the author Carl Sagan when he said ” There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”.

Some of our issues about communication come from deeper social and personal issues; these interestingly vary very noticeably from culture to culture. Put a West Coast American in a room with a Central European and even if they both speak perfect English the difference in how they approach communication is clear.

As human beings we need the self-honesty to look at our motivations for communication. Too often the real reasons are self-serving, to make our dominant position clear to all, to cover our own inadequacies, or other personal reasons which have nothing to do with effective communication. To overcome these requires a good deal of self-understanding and humility, sadly qualities rarely seen in CEO’s.

Interestingly and particularly in Northern Europe simple embarrassment stops many managers even attempting proper communication. The history of this part of the world is deeply rooted in a class system, and managers are emotionally sensitive to anything that smacks of talking down to people, this sadly makes them hesitant to communicate at all. It is interesting that in North America where the history of culture is more egalitarian there is less reticence to communicate openly.

The modern world has made despite what many people think communication more difficult. Modern technology makes communication faster; it does not make it better. It is simple to watch ourselves; we take more time and thought replying to a letter in a letter than we do to an email.

We have speeded up communication, and in doing so increased massively the amount of communication and in that process we have made it more difficult for any particular idea to be understood.

People want to understand the world around them and the company they work in, in my experience time spent helping them do so is the most useful thing a true leader can do.

 

 


Category : Blog &CEO &Management Technique

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