A Marketing mentor described Product Marketing this way, “Imagine the most critical audience you want to reach. What is the best possible thing they could want from the information you give them? What’s the worst possible thing they could assume? Have three messages to address each for every audience you care about.” When communicating a critical message to your employees, you need to think like a Product Marketer. This kind of strategic communication doesn't come naturally, but it's another critical element to keeping employees happy and motivated.
Strategic communication starts with the understanding that communicating with a group is fundamentally different than communicating with an individual. The speaker doesn't have the luxury of checking in with each member of the audience as they make each point.
If you're a fellow geek, this might sound like TCP, which drives most of the internet, and UDP, which is used for broadcasting.
As a leader, you can't scale slow and reliable. So how can we be effective?
Like UDP, we can't communicate something once and assume the organization received it. An old marketing adage says that people needs to hear something seven times before they've understood it. An old marketing adage says that people needs to hear something seven times before they've understood it. An old marketing adage says that people needs to hear something seven times before they've understood it. An old marketing adage says that people needs to hear something seven times before they've understood it. An old marketing adage says that people needs to hear something seven times before they've understood it. An old marketing adage says that people needs to hear something seven times before they've understood it. An old marketing adage says that people needs to hear something seven times before they've understood it.
Failure to over-communicate leads to complaints that a manager isn't transparent. We assume transparency to mean answering all questions honestly. In this case, however, employees mean they didn't hear you.
This happens as a startup scales, old communication mechanisms start to break down, employees used to being spoon fed information begin to feel disconnected from other parts of the organization. Your goal should be to provide tools and conduits for employees to get information that doesn’t rely on you communicating directly. Talk a lot. Write even more. Any topic that comes up more than once, you should probably document somewhere. An employee complaining about searching the intranet is better than that employee not remembering something critical.
In a study published by Google, researchers found the one determinant of successful teams is that everyone feels free to speak their mind. Idiots proclaimed “Google discovered being nice,” but it’s much bigger than that.
Psychological safety means I feel supported, that I can throw out any idea, no matter how out there I think it is, and without fear of judgement. It means that we as managers draw opinions out of our team and make sure everyone is heard and respected. Failures of psychological safety look like people shutting down. An employee engaged at the beginning of the meeting goes quiet, stares at the table, doesn't engage on topics you know they care about. This is a sign that something is wrong with the team dynamic, which will lead to bad outcomes and attrition.
When forming a communication plan, consider the official path that information will take through the organization. Each have pros and cons, but are each more appropriate for certain messages.
From The Top - large and/or controversial changes come from the exec team. This gives managers air cover to take action that might not be popular. Major operational changes or exec departures should come from the leadership team.
Cascading - some messages are sensitive or personal and should be delivered by a direct manager, starting with the exec team to their reports and so on. These can be 1-on-1s or groups, as appropriate. Non-exec attrition is usually best delivered personally.
Middle-out - something like a promotion is best coming from the employee's manager with support and congratulations from leadership. This helps the employee understand that their manager recognizes their day-to-day progress and that their efforts are recognized across the company.
All communication is important, but some messages are more critical than others. Some messages make or break trust with your employees and deserve planning.
As we learned in Part 1, key to Mastery is recognition. 70% of employees would forego a 10 percent raise for a boss who said "thank you" more often. I experienced this firsthand at Fond, after building a recognition product. We saw morale measurably improve internally and for a number of customers.
People want recognition in different ways, public and private, from peers and managers. It's fair to ask an employee 1-on-1 for daily recognition, though some programs will always be company wide.
Announcing attrition is an area every management team gets dinged on at some point. It's uncomfortable, it's personal, and the organization will read into it no matter what the circumstances.
When a person resigns, some part of the company will think that person knows something negative about the company. If another person is fired, some part of the company will wonder "who's next?" So communication around departures should be focused on reassuring the employees in the stability of their positions and company.
I recommend building a communication framework around departures and communicating it to the company. You can't make employees happy about a friend quitting, but a well-executed communication plan means you don't lose more trust through the process.
When an employee resigns, they'll want to immediately tell all their friends at the company (or already have). In the positive case, it can take some of the sting out of the announcement. In the negative case, it can look like organizational disfunction and damage trust.
The latter is the point I make to departing employees. The situation is usually amicable, so they're not out to hurt the company and will understand being deliberate. I'll develop the communication plan with the employee: factor in time to let them tell close friends and follow quickly with official communication.
Firings, lay-offs, tend to get tricky with labor laws state by state. Consult HR folks and lawyers in your state to figure out how best to communicate.
In some cases, you aren't able to say more than "<Person> is no longer with the company." This does make it hard to reassure the rest of the team, but they'll probably also ask questions about what's concerning them.
If people are wondering how they're doing as employees, I'll talk to them about company expectations and their career needs. If they seem concerned about the company, maybe share even more than usual about how the business is doing.
One of the best experiences you will have as a manager is recognizing a team member’s hard work with a promotion. Even in the best case, however, promotions may incur a negative reaction. This is both tall poppy syndrome and a corollary of The Peter Principle, where employees are constantly comparing themselves to the worst example of employees a level above theirs.
If you're not an organization that limits raises and promotions, employees aren't "competing" for anything and this adversarial view is silly. Having a well developed leveling/expectations guide helps to reinforce that every employee is running their own race.
Early stage startups tend to use Slack for everything. Slack is great at real-time, highly directed communication. It sucks at announcements, general questions, documenting decisions, human emotion, or anything that needs to be referenced 10 minutes after it was posted.
In addition to Slack and email, every tool we use now has a messaging capacity of some kind, creating new silos of content. These point messaging features can be extremely useful, in context, but hide information and decision making away.
I also expect that trend to continue, ever more messaging systems instead of less. So we should be deliberate about how we use these channels. Here's a sample of channels and their uses I threw together for one team:
Your most important, but most expensive communication method is talking to the team. Here's how I think about and structure recurring face-to-face communication.
All hands meetings, where the manager talks at employees are important to introduce change, keep the team informed, and let employees know what’s top of mind for the exec team. This is also a good time to communicate what’s going on in other teams, which your team will always be curious about. You should also use All Hands to reinforce Purpose and recognize Mastery.
“Here’s a reminder of the work you’re doing, how it helps the business, and how the business helps our customers.”
“Team X just shipped project Y two weeks early, here’s the team to brag about their awesome work.”
In an internal study, a major ridesharing company attempted to figure out the behaviors that best predicted and prevented attrition. The greatest predictor of whether an employee would stay is whether they had a regular scheduled 1-on-1 with their direct manager and that the meetings actually happened. A good 1-on-1 isn’t a status report or performance review, it’s a conversation about the individual and their relationship to the company. Thus the 1-on-1 is the employee’s meeting and they need the freedom to free associate whatever’s going on with them in the moment. If they don’t have specific topics to cover, I tend to split time on:
Personal - how are they doing? Is there anything keeping them from 100%? Life happens, people aren't always at their best. Offering mental health days and lower stress work could help them personally and prevent their departure.
Feedback - here’s how you’ve done since the last time we spoke. Great here, let’s think about this area, based on this you're progressing toward promotion, etc.
Company Improvement - is there anything the team, the company, or I can do better? You’ll need to get creative at asking this question, but it's both about feedback for the organization and space for the individual voice their concerns.
Some questions to get into this conversation:
Team meetings are about tactics, decision making, and execution. Topics longer than 10-15 minutes probably don’t apply to the entire group and must be broken out into their own discussions, resolved, and those resolutions communicated in the next team meeting.
This last point is critical and it's where every manager fails time to time. Decisions that aren't communicated are worthless. I recommend setting aside some part of a team meeting to discuss who needs to know and how they're going to be informed.
Finally, The Rumor Mill
You can’t stop people from complaining or spreading rumors, anyone’s capable of it in some situation, but you should get out in front. Unaddressed complaints fester and can affect the morale of otherwise happy employees.
Part of growing from an individual contributor to a leader is finding issues with the company and building a coalition to resolve them. Thus complaining turned into action is leadership. Squeaky wheels may be turned into leaders if they feel empowered to resolve their issue.
In mitigating rumors, Managers must be judicious with how we deliver news. When delivering sensitive news to your team, make it extremely clear who knows and who is allowed to know. If there's a broader communication plan, I'll share that. Often employees just want to know when they can discuss something with their friends at the company. Leaving this timeline ambiguous invites leaking.
Is This Enough?
Not nearly! This is part of a four part series:
BUT it's also a lot. The above is a framework and set of guidelines. Strategic communication requires practice and adaptation to your team and culture. The good news is, it helps you retain employees and helps them be more effective in their jobs.
If you're looking for help with strategic communication at your company, get in touch here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.