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The best leaders don’t shout... they communicate, communicate, communicate!

The best leaders don’t shout... they communicate, communicate, communicate!

‘Always assume that the message doesn’t get through,’ writes Bruce Cotterill, a professional director, advisor and lifetime leader.

Spare a thought for those in your team who aren’t in leadership roles and don’t have access to your greater level of information

Bruce Cotterill

As a leader, you’ll be aware of the various everyday pressures that confront your company, your division or your team. The sources of these pressures vary depending on whether you are responsible for a corporation, a department or a small privately owned or family-based enterprise.

The global economy has suffered over the past few years and since the global financial crisis and its ensuing financial market meltdown. In the post-GFC world, increased uncertainty has placed added pressure on business to an extent greater than most of us has witnessed for some time.

In such circumstances, the need for improved communication within the business is at its most obvious. As leaders, we usually know the facts about the state of our businesses and the inherent risks or difficulties that the market climate might be generating. I’ve always believed that it’s easier to cope with the heat of the moment when you know the details around the extent of the damage or difficulty.

Spare a thought, then, for those in your team who aren’t in leadership roles and don’t, therefore, have access to your greater level of information. These people go to work each day and perform their roles, usually to the best of their ability, but unaware of the full details about what’s going on in the business. This lack of knowledge can, understandably, result in a high degree of uncertainty on the part of your people, particularly during times of economic upheaval, which, coincidentally, is when people feel most concerned about job security. So while it’s always important to communicate with your people, it’s an even more critical challenge for management to deal with when uncertainty exists.

Navigating the perfect storm: The Yellow Pages

In the period from 2008 to 2011 when I worked with the Yellow Pages company, it was one of many companies really feeling the combined heat of rapid technological change and global economic uncertainty. The company’s core business, revenue generated by printed classified advertising, was deteriorating rapidly. The global financial crisis accelerated an already challenging trading environment for many of Yellow’s clients.

To make matters even more difficult, the company was saddled with an unsustainable level of debt, created when it was subjected to a private equity funded acquisition at the peak of the market in 2007.

Borrowing the terminology from the well-documented hurricane that hit the North Atlantic coast in the early 1990s, we called this situation ‘The Perfect Storm’.

We had a combination of:

• A declining business due to structural issues created by the advance of the internet and the dominance of Google; 

• The Global Financial Crisis, resulting in company failures and a mammoth (25 per cent worldwide in the first 12 months) decline in advertising spend;

• A debt burden equal to six times revenue and 11 times EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation).

Bruce Cotterill: 'I’ve sat in open plan offices for 20 years. I can’t believe that executives are still hiding themselves away in their own inaccessible offices.'
Bruce Cotterill: 'I’ve sat in open plan offices for 20 years. I can’t believe that executives are still hiding themselves away in their own inaccessible offices.'

This ‘perfect storm’ worsened when the media became deeply interested in Yellow’s predicament and began telling the story, often quite inaccurately. Consequently,our people were bombarded with newspaper, radio, television and online articles, which, among other things, stated that our business was in severe difficulty, was likely to be wound up, and that many people would lose their jobs.

‘I remember that many of our people had set up “Google alerts” for news and information about our company. As I wandered around the business they would regularly approach me, concerned about the content of yet another press story and seeking my assurance that everything would be okay. In many cases, people in our sales teams were being questioned daily as to our financial viability by customers worried about advance payments for advertising.’

It was a classic example of an act or event which puts pressure on your people, the troops, who front up every day and do a good job despite what is going on in the world around them. The risk is that without good internal communication, your people will see and read the media’s coverage and assume it to be true.

Obviously, we don’t all get into similarly difficult situations, but the Yellow Pages experience does highlight the need to constantly communicate with your people during difficult times. When people don’t have access to information that keeps them accurately informed, they have no option but to rely on others, in this case the media, for information which in turn shapes their view of things.

Constantly communicating with our people in Yellow’s very difficult situation was critical. We gave our people accurate details of what was actually happening to both satisfy their own curiosity and, just as importantly, that of the customers and clients whom our people were dealing with everyday.

Whether you’re circulating a new business plan or dealing with a public relations disaster, you must be able to deliver clear communication to your people and your other key stakeholders. For me there is just one golden rule that works when it comes to communicating with your people:

‘Always assume that the message doesn’t get through.’

Next: So how do you get the word out?

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