As always, I want to offer my sincere apology to Sue Grafton for using (stealing??) her approach for the titles of her many outstanding mystery novels for this series of articles that I hope makes YOU a happier and more effective leader working with a truly empowered team that really enjoys what they do! Oh, and if you have not read any of Ms. Grafton novels I highly recommend that you give her a try.
Communication Is Key to Everything
Outstanding communications may be the most critical ingredient in everything you do as a Middle. You need to take the lead in improving and directing communications between you and your Teamers, Senior(s), Clients, Partners, Coworkers and basically the rest of your Organization and perhaps the world.
Effective communication is a key to the success of any endeavor and must be open, honest, timely and task sufficient, that is, meeting the “needs” of the audience for the communication.
But effective communication requires trust. You first have to work to build a trust relationship with each of your Teamers. Then you need to include folks outside of your team(s) that is the rest of the Organization. Your clients, Coworkers and all of the stakeholders that work on projects with your Teamers need to know the latest and best information possible on their projects. Let’s cover getting the best communications possible with these ideas, tips, techniques and processes:
Listen First and Watch What You Say - As a Middle you need to listen to people first and also to watch the words and phrases that you say. You are under the microscope by your Senior, your clients and your Teamers. Not many workers have that dilemma to face each day. You really are “caught” in the middle!
Internal Communications - These are communications with your Teamers.
External Communications - These are communications with the “rest” of the Organization and perhaps the outside world.
Reports for Your “Clients” - These are specific reports to your clients on project status.
Tell Them What You Heard Them Tell You - A simple technique to help you ensure understanding and agreement with others.
Listen First and Watch What You Say
“Words have special powers. The power to create smiles or frowns. The power to generate laughs or tears. The power to lift up or put down. The power to motivate or de-motivate. The power to teach good or evil. The power to express love or hate. The power to give or take. The power to heal or harm. Choose your words carefully.”
– A.D. Williams
As a Middle you will be judged by what you say by your Senior, your Teamers and Coworkers. I suggest that you avoid the following phrases that I always worked to stay away from.
“We” Versus “They” - I always tried to stay away from “they are doing this” or “they are doing that” since as a member of the Organization we are all in it together and should think of everyone as “we.” If I heard someone use “they” in a meeting, I always suggested that “they is really we” since we all work for the same Organization and hopefully have the same goals. Using “we and they” tends to foster separate thinking and battles over resources and power. I’ve had managers (and even one owner) that actually created “we and they” thinking between teams to create a sort of “checks and balances” system in decision making. My experience is that we and they create more problems than it solves. Always use “we” in your communications.
Working for Me - I never like it when a Teamer said that “they worked for me.” It sounds too much like a blue collar and white collar working arrangement. I always suggested that the Teamer “works with me not for me” and it always seemed to improve our relationship and trust that I had with each Teamer.
Thinking Outside the Box - Lots of people say this but I hate it. First off, don’t ever put yourself or your Teamers in the box.
Touch Base With You - “I’ll call you” or “write you” or “stop by to talk with you” but please don’t touch base with me. That sounds like you are patting me on the head for a job well done!
We’re In This Together!! - Oh really? I usually heard this one from my Senior and they didn’t really demonstrate that in their actions, so I tried never to use it with my Teamers.
We Can Make This Work - Oh really again! We can’t make the project work if it is poorly defined, planned, staffed and monitored. Projects work because they are clearly defined, properly staff, managed well and corrected when needed.
I’m Just Doing My Job - “It’s nothing personal, I just have to let you go.” Perhaps you’ve heard this one too. There are times and situations when you just have to say “I’m not going to do that” and try to stick to it with your Senior(s). There is always the right and wrong thing to do, and you need to live with yourself and your Teamers.
My simple suggestion is that you do more listening than talking and always think about and plan ahead what you are going to say before you open your mouth.
“Be a good listener. Your ears will never get you in trouble.”
- Frank Tyger
“Communication is everyone’s panacea for everything.”
- Tom Peters
By internal I mean the communications within and among your Teamers.
I always had a project status meeting every week; always on the same day and at the same time (again, habit forming for all). Project status information is critical to everyone. Teamers could come and go as they needed based upon our predetermined meeting project agenda, but you had to be there when your project came up.
I also had staff meetings when needed. I had more impromptu staff meetings than regularly scheduled ones. Some new information would come my way and I would get everyone together (with the help of Teamer Carolyn!) with a walk around verbal announcement of “let’s get together in 10 minutes in conference room 3.” I always wanted to tell them now rather than let the rumors start. I also used impromptu meetings for service awards and other special recognitions of my Teamers.
Make time to escape from your computer and telephone and get out of your work space and walk around and talk with your Teamers as often as possible. This informal interaction will improve the overall communications and trust between you and your Teamers immediately. This is a must do NOW!
“Ears that hear and eyes that see – the LORD has made them both.”
- Proverbs 20:12
“Communication – the human connection – is the key to personal and career success.”
- Paul Meyer
External communications are typically directed to the following audiences:
Perhaps your Owner, CFO, CIO or CEO.
Your clients – this may be your most critical audience. There’s more about client communications in the next section.
Perhaps firms, partners and vendors that you work with from outside of the Organization. Be very careful what you say to the outside world. It can come back to haunt you big time.
How do you communicate effectively with this potentially very diverse collection of audiences and information needs? First off do everything possible to avoid doing separate reports for everyone! That’s a waste of time. They all need to know a wide variety of information about your team, but make sure to have it all in one report covering at least your policies, your “message(s),” your processes, your current staffing level, the latest status on all projects and your current quality improvement efforts.
I would suggest an internal intranet web site with update access for you and your Teamers to post and update information as needed, and provides “read only” access for each of your audiences so they can find what they need to know.
I was also obsessed with the content and quality of telephone messages (my thanks to Senior Ron) and insisted that all of my Teamers left at least this information daily on their out of office message:
“Hello, you’ve reached the office of (your name) at (your Organization’s name)” and the actual date, that is “this is June 14th or this is “Wednesday, June 14th”
In or out of the office and what time you expect to be back
Whether you will be in meetings all day.
If appropriate (for example, while you are on vacation): “I’m currently out of the office, please contact (the name of your sub) until I return to the office on (your return date).”
“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.”
- Vernon Howard
Reports for Your “Clients”
“Written reports stifle creativity.”
- Ross Perot
I learned how to provide the most effective reports possible to the clients that my team did work for from one of the best Seniors that I ever had the chance to work with, that is Senior Steve. The Organization was going through a major reorganization and two groups that provided publishing services, one for corporate materials and the other for product materials were merged into a single team. Each group used a different project management and reporting system and Senior Steve called a meeting with me and the leader of the other team to sort things out. His first commandment to each of us was that whatever system we used, “the client must have easy and simple access to the latest and most accurate information on the current status of their project(s) whenever they wanted it!” I never forgot this message and a few months later I was in charge of both teams and we used the same project management reporting system. I offer my thanks always to Senior Steve!
Your clients simply want to know the latest status on their projects. You must provide them with an easy way to look for the status of their projects without “bugging” you and your Teamers too often.
We used a SharePoint system. There are hundreds of software packages out there to do project status reporting and SharePoint is an older system, so I suggest that you look for the one that best meets your special needs. Our Teamers could post new projects and update project status as it happened. For example, when a writer sent off a draft to a graphic designer for layout they went online and posted the appropriate new status information and comments on the project. The client also had access to the same information so they didn’t have to call me or my Teamers to find out the latest status on their project.
Look for a system that gives you the ability to send messages to your clients when status updates are made to help them know the latest information without having to actually look for it. They will love the proactive alerts! Posting the information for your clients is a lot better than answering telephone calls or dealing with their visits to your desk.
I suggest that you ask your clients (with a follow-up survey) for their overall satisfaction rating on the quality of information received from your Teamers when a project is completed and make suggestions for future improvements.
“A competitive world has two possibilities for you. You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change.”
- Lester Thurow
Tell Them What You Heard Them Tell You
“There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth – not going all the way, and not starting.”
I developed this habitual technique that I suggest you consider adopting. Whenever meeting with someone or a group I always tried to summarize and repeat back to them what I just heard them say and commit to. After listening to them and perhaps taking notes as needed, I would approach them with “Now please let me tell you what I just heard you say.” No one seems to get offended, and trust me on this it works to ensure understanding and agreement between everyone on what needs to be done, by who and when.
You can actually tie together multiple statements and commitments using this technique during meetings. For example, assume that you are doing a direct mail post card campaign to generate new sales and you follow up in a meeting with the following “OK, I just heard that the copy and graphics will be finalized by the 12th, and if we allow five days for printing and two days for mailing we should have our Call Center ready to receive calls on the 20th. Correct?” Always repeat what you’ve heard, back to everyone to seek a simple “yes” or “no” response. No “maybes” permitted! Never just assume that everyone knows and agrees with the commitments that have been made.
“The way to keep yourself from making assumptions is to ask questions. Make sure the communication is clear. If you don’t understand, ask. Have the courage to ask questions until you are clear as you can be, and even then do not assume you know all there is to know about the given situation. Once you hear the answer, you will not have to make assumptions because you will know the truth.”
- Don Miguel Ruiz
The Four Agreements
I wish you empowerment, happiness and every success!!