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For more than two years Harvard Business Review interviewed professional communicators and HR leaders at a variety of organizations—nearly 150 people at more than 100 companies. Both implicitly and explicitly, participants mentioned their efforts to “have a conversation” with their people or their ambition to “advance the conversation” within their companies.
HBR got it right: Leadership really is a conversation
Smart leaders engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands. Furthermore, they initiate practices and foster cultural norms that instill a conversational sensibility throughout their organizations. Chief among the benefits of this approach is that it allows a large or growing company to function like a small one. By talking with employees, rather than simply issuing orders, leaders can retain or recapture some of the qualities—operational flexibility, high levels of employee engagement, tight strategic alignment—that enable start-ups to outperform better-established rivals.
Leaders earn trust when they are authentic and straightforward. That may mean addressing topics that feel off-limits, such as sensitive financial data.
Athenahealth, a medical-records technology provider, has gone as far as to treat every one of its employees as an “insider” under the strict legal meaning of the term. Insiders are defined as employees entrusted with strategic and financial information that could materially affect the company’s business prospects and hence its stock price—a status typically accorded only to top-tier officers. Opening the books to such a degree was a risky move, discouraged by the company’s underwriters and frowned upon by the SEC.
But Athenahealth’s leaders wanted employees to become insiders in more than just the regulatory sense; they wanted them to be thoroughly involved in the business.
Perhaps this level of open communications would have prevented the Volkswagen and Wells Fargo scandals that damaged the reputations of these prestigious companies in 2016.
Headlines you won’t see in 2017
Now that we considered headlines you will read in 2017, let’s briefly mention headlines that you won’t see this year. Resolve this year to pay attention to trends that are here to stay.
“Employees prefer news about their jobs from social media” The truth is that employees prefer to get their news from their direct managers.
“Technology implementation stalls when leadership seeks employee input on changes” Perhaps wishful thinking by those holding tightly to Windows 98, the success of your change management (OCM) plan depends on early and frequent employee input.
“Exit surveys show employee value propositions make little impact on workforce retention” Your enterprise’s employee value proposition (EVP) is the sum of all contact, or touchpoints, that make up the employer brand. Creating a culture of communication, and embedding an ethical framework, will improve employee retention, loyalty and productivity.
Here’s to a less anxious, more engaged New Year.
David Cheatham is the founder of Transform Communications, LLC, a communications consultancy specializing in aligning employees and implementing change across the enterprise. The company’s tagline sums up David’s approach to the workplace: Inform, Engage, Inspire. ® David also teaches in the School of Business at Rutgers University. Contact: David@Transform-Communications.com
© 2017 David Cheatham