So What Do You Have to Say?

We’ve done it for so many years now that it’s become institutionalized: on the first Saturday in August, my wife Annie and I head to Cape Cod for The Family Reunion. It gets bigger every year, and this time it was a living genealogy: all eight Howe cousins together with their eight spouses, aged 65-74; eleven second cousins with nine spouses, aged 25-49; and twelve third cousins, aged 8 months to 13 years.

In all, forty-eight of us who share the ancestry of my grandparents Horace Joseph Howe (1861-1911) and Stella Weston Howe (1879-1963) – or at least the blood cousins do. For better or for worse we are the family that the spouses have chosen to join.

When we woke up that Saturday morning, we figured that it was indeed going to be for worse. My younger sister Liz, who initiated this event sometime in the last century (but maybe not more than fifteen years ago) has a wonderful home for a party – on a good-weather day. It features plenty of room in her yard to spread out (and maybe even to seek relief from the conversational imperative), plus a sandy beach just 200 yards down the street to accommodate the overflow.

But on Saturday it rained. Rain on the deck, rain on the gas grill, rain on the yard. Rain. Rain-rain-rain-rain-rain.

So there we were – inside – all 48 of us, including twelve under 14. And guess what? It happened, like magic: we all talked. And talked, and talked, and talked. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., when the littlest ones finally gave out. It was the best group connection we eight first cousins had had since we were kids. And it was the same for our progeny – the second cousins – and theirs.

On the ride home the next day, it got me to thinking about the challenge of effective communication in companies. In recent months, I’ve been involved with two small company clients who were transitioning ownership and experiencing usual communication problems.

The first involved a deal that took eight months to negotiate and consummate, during which time 70 of the 80 employees were kept in the dark, almost until the day when the acquiring company’s management team was introduced in an all-hands meeting. They may have been in the dark, but they weren’t inactive: they became acutely aware of every incremental closed-door meeting in a company that had had few of them. They watched with more than passing interest the visits of “the suits,” ultimately identifying one anonymous visitor from his website picture as the president of the potential acquirer. And they confirmed the imminence of the deal when the six most senior managers all left town on the same day for what was determined by their plane reservations to be the same destination, the location of the anonymous visitor’s headquarters.

The intelligence gathering during this period was worthy of the NSA, as was the resulting inefficiency. At the insistence of the acquirer, who was concerned that people might jump ship, no announcement was made until the day that he and his team took over. Inevitably, some redundant folks were terminated, all with decent severance packages, but those who remain are in the midst of a crash course in new systems and procedures, extending their inefficiency.

In the second case, the identity of the potential investor was known for most of the ten months of negotiation, but the deal fell apart twice during that time, leaving the staff in a continuing state of uncertainty. The deal closed in late 2013, and within six months it was clear that – sooner or later – production would be relocated to a more modern, efficient plant an hour’s drive away. What wasn’t clear was who among the employees would be invited to relocate, when, and on what terms. The pressure for results amidst the continuing uncertainty drove the production manager to resign, exacerbating the problem by necessarily accelerating the relocation.

The common denominator in these circumstances is effective communication, or lack of it. As a CFO, I don’t claim to be a human resource manager, but in more than 30 years of working with 240-plus companies, I have a strong sense of what works in employee relations:

  1. Open book management: Train the staff to understand how each person contributes to the bottom line, and share the financial results with them.
  1. Conditioning prior to change: Employees work best when they know what to expect.
  1. Clearly defined goals and responsibilities: Tell each of them what they’re expected to contribute and hold them accountable.
  1. Established lines of authority: No one succeeds in reporting to multiple bosses.
  1. Well-considered consistency: Policy applied to one, applies to all.
  1. Training: Hard to hold them accountable if they haven’t been trained to do the job properly.
  1. Appreciation and reward: Money makes some, but not all of the difference; recognition is important, too.
  1. Vision: Don’t expect employee buy-in if the supervisors, managers, and executives all lack a common understanding of the mission and/or fail to communicate it.
  1. Empathy: Very few of us started at the top (I was NOT one of them). Remember what it was like on the way up.
  1. Honesty: Most employees are highly-sensitized to B.S.: they know when you’re winging it. Occasionally, having “no comment” is the best comment.

After you have executed your exit strategy and moved on to enjoy your reward, your legacy of positive communication might lead to occasional happy reunions – might we even say “family” reunions – with former employees. But the alternative might make you feel like an outsider at your employees’ reunion, on a very rainy day, wondering what you have to say.