How to Improve Communication with Employees During Scaleup

More communication occurs through body language than words

learn more about Jana Matthews

By Jana Matthews


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American-Austrian educator Peter Drucker once said, "Communication takes place in the mind of the listener, not the speaker." It's not just what the CEO says or writes that matters. Communication depends on what your employees hear and observe.

With this in mind, here are five ways to improve your communication while scaling your business.

Pay Attention to Body Language
More communication occurs through body language than words. How quickly you walk, whether you listen with a smile, or roll your eyes when someone talks, says more than any words you might utter. Folding your arms over your chest signals you are closed to new ideas, so be aware of the unspoken messages you communicate to employees through your body language.

Be Proficient in Different Communication Modes
Different people have different ways of taking in information. Some prefer to read, others prefer to listen, while some need graphic images to illustrate the concepts. Some won't believe it unless you say it to them personally, others won't believe you till they hear you say it to the whole group. If you want to be an effective communicator, you need to be proficient in all these modes.

Create Decision Rules, and Be Clear about What is an Exception
In scaleup, the pace quickens and people at every level need to make many decisions quickly. The CEO needs to communicate a set of "if (condition), then (decision)" rules to staff, so they can make decisions without having to check every situation with their manager or the CEO. "Exceptions" are outside the bounds of the normal, "if…then" decisions and need to be bumped up to managers for review, but whenever possible, summarize the exception, and then add it to the decision rules.

These rules provide the tracks and switching systems that facilitate clear communication, quick decisions, and a successful scaleup.

Develop and Share a Written Plan, with Quarterly Reports of Progress
Most employees want to do a good job. It's demotivating for people who are doing what they think is the right thing to find out later that they are off course and are not doing what was expected of them.

The CEO and top management need to set the mission, values and vision of the company, then decide what yearly goals will move the company toward that vision.

Employees need to be involved in developing the plans so they can understand how what they do enables the company to achieve its goals. They also need to understand how not doing their job puts the company at risk of not being able to achieve its revenue goals, marketing goals, new product development goals, and so forth. Written plans enable everyone to understand where the company is going and who's responsible for what. A planning process that involves all employees, and quarterly reports of progress are essential communication mechanisms.

Understand the Reasons employees "Don't Get' What you are Saying
Often employees simply do not understand what you are saying. So, say it again, and try using stories, examples, or analogies.

Or maybe employees don't "get it" because they don't like what they are hearing, and fear change. You need to patiently and quietly explain why changes are needed, emphasize that some of the changes required may be scary, but assure them that things will get better once we get across this "bridge"—from "where we are to where we need to be".

The third reason relates to trust. Perhaps you didn't signal that the company was in financial trouble and are now telling employees you need to lay-off people and bring in a COO to manage operations. Or perhaps employees think you are laying off people to have enough money to hire a COO so you can play more golf! In either scenario, they are likely to be suspicious, distrustful, and have doubts about what you are saying.

Good CEOs effectively communicate what's happening, how that's affecting the company, and what's needed to continue to scale. But sometimes a consultant is a useful messenger to communicate what's happened, why changes are needed, what actions must be taken, and how the future will be better after those changes are made.

Communication is one of a CEO's key responsibilities, so learn to choose your words carefully, communicate in a variety of modes, use decision rules, plan, and remember that "What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear your words."

Jana Matthews

Professor and director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth, University of South Australia

Jana Matthews is the ANZ Chair in Business Growth, Professor, and Director of the Australian Centre for Business Growth at the University of South Australia’s Business School. She has a doctorate from Harvard, has founded five companies, and was on the founding team of the Kauffman Foundation’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Leadership. Matthews is an expert on entrepreneurial leadership and business growth, has written eight books, and designed award-winning programs that teach CEO’s and executives how to lead and manage growth companies. She was selected as one of the most influential women in Australia in AFR and QANTAS100 Women of Influence Awards 2018. 

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