June 1, 2023

TPL Insights #173 – Follow this Simple Formula and Dramatically Increase Your Communications Effectiveness

By Rob Andrews

Most change initiatives stall because middle managers and frontline employees don’t understand where leadership is going, what is expected of them and why it is in their best interest to get out of the stands and into the game! Below I share the winning formula to get your team onboard.

Last week, I wrote about the most effective leadership communications methodology of which I am aware. It is an approach for which I would have paid big money during my tenure, leading organizations of 10,000+ employees spread across 500+ stores and three time zones. This powerful approach was developed by my late best friend and business colleague Bob Knowlton. Bob died of pancreatic cancer in 2009 and bequeathed his intellectual property, workshops, and coaching model to us. As a former broadcaster and crisis management consultant, he conducted tireless qualitative and quantitative research to determine the most effective formula for engaging constituents and driving lasting change.

Bob was an interesting character. For the first 20 years of his career, he characterized himself as a talking head. He began his career in radio and television broadcasting and, at one point, was the voice of Continental Airlines. He was tall and handsome and had a voice that was made for public speaking. I met Bob in November of 2006 in an AA meeting. I quickly recognized him as a man of integrity, straight talk, compassion, and rare intellect, and I soon asked him to sponsor me. Bob had been sober for 24 years at that point, and I was just restarting my sobriety journey.

During the 893 days that Bob was my sponsor, I got to know him well. We ate lunch together three or four days a week, went to meetings together, took AA meetings into Texas prisons, and argued about politics, religion, and other topics that are typically considered taboo. We spent hours philosophizing about how to enhance corporate performance, a subject for which we both had great passion. Bob said that after 20 years as a broadcast professional, he felt like a fraud. He said that as a “talking head,” he routinely promoted brands and people in which he did not believe, and he felt complicit in perpetrating dysfunctional cultures.

After transitioning to a boutique management consulting and culture shaping firm in 1992, Bob observed countless corporate settings in which management was attempting transformation. Time after time, he witnessed boards, CEOs and senior leaders fail at their transformative initiatives and concluded that ineffective communication was at the heart of these repeated failures. Bob loved people and had a relentless drive to do the right thing. Certainly, he had an intense desire to see his clients succeed, but he had a real appreciation for front line employees, which is what led him to ask so many questions of hourly employees, shop floor supervisors, and middle managers.

Bob shared with me a conversation he had with a frontline supervisor in an elevator while on a consulting team at Owens Corning, which was in the middle of a big transformation effort at the time. He asked the supervisor what he thought of the transformation underway at the company. He replied: “I think it’s all a load of crap. All we hear around here is Celebrate Change, Cut Costs, Get Excited, Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! Communicate what? We still don’t know what we’re trying to do. Meanwhile, the execs still put fresh flowers on the G5 every day while we’re expected to do more with less and accomplish something we still don’t understand.”

Unlike many consultants, Bob sought to understand what middle managers and frontline employees experience and what makes a positive difference in corporate cultures and major change initiatives. Bob concluded that virtually everyone wants to do a good job for their employer and that leaders at all levels have the capacity to move, touch, and inspire others. What most leaders are missing is a genuine, personal commitment to a bold vision, a willingness to take a risk and declare that commitment publicly, and a real interest in and connection with those they lead. Leaders who have successfully executed large-scale organizational change tend to show remarkable consistency in three areas:

  1. They know exactly where they’re going.
  2. They passionately believe what they’re saying and have “skin in the game.”
  3. They connect with the needs and interests of the people with whom they are speaking.

Along the way, these leaders show other characteristics that make them stand out:

  1. They are not afraid to say “I don’t know” and can trust others to come up with answers.
  2. Their language consistently emphasizes possibility over need and can over must.
  3. Instead of pontificating, they say only what’s necessary to generate the desired result.
  4. They make clear, specific action requests that leave no doubt as to the next steps.
  5. They intentionally bring up the toughest questions and issues and expect others to do the same.

They are disciplined in their approach and careful to include:

  1. Establishing the Relationship: What is your connection with this constituency? Your first task is to shift from “you and me” to “us”. You do this by establishing a background connection with the people in the room.
  2. Laying Out a Clear Vision: Where are you going? What is the “future state” you are creating? This is the leader’s vision. What kind of organization could this be in five years? How do we want to be seen by the rest of the world? How do we want to feel about the work we do?
  3. Communicating a General Strategy: At the outset, constituents care less about details than they do about the existence of a plan. They just want to know you have thought things through. This makes the change more tangible and concrete.
  4. Making the Case for Urgency: People are quite willing to cling to a flawed, broken system rather than follow you into the unknown. Any change initiative should include a credible case for urgency. Moving quickly to capitalize on a short window of opportunity is a powerful motivator.
  5. Addressing the Implications: What impact will the impending change have on your constituents? At this point in your message, people are listening to how your initiative will affect them directly. Be clear and concise about the overall implications for the company and your employees.
  6. Making Specific Requests: What do you expect of your constituent(s)? Be very specific in your language when you lay out your requests. Include your request for support, input, and communications, as well as any adjustments to their routine over the short and long term.
  7. Addressing the Hardball Issues: Everyone will have questions and concerns. Some may be universal across all constituencies; others may be specific to groups or individuals. All constituents will be listening closely for evidence that you know what the issues are.
  8. Communicating the Rewards: Will rewards be shared among all who make the effort, or only with a few? You must acknowledge the contributions of all groups and work to generate outcomes in which everyone wins. Rewards usually tie back closely to the realization of your vision.

Next week, we’ll explore Gallup research that augments Bob’s work. Be on the lookout for an upcoming webinar we are constructing for the express purpose of teaching the basics of this powerful methodology. I sincerely hope this material has been helpful.

Warmest Regards,

Rob