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Transforming Communication From A Problem To A Competitive Advantage At Your Company

Ken Fendick, Head of Talent at GM, and I discuss the root causes of communication issues, how to diagnose it, and how to take positive action that lasts.

It usually starts with a Slack message to the Learning and Development team.  Something like this: “My team needs communication skills training.  What do we offer for this? ”

It’s tempting to rush into providing a quick solution for a request like this.  For example, if your company offers a public speaking course or a framework about understanding communication styles–either of these might satisfy this request.  At least temporarily.  

But the issue persists.  It shows up in different ways.  Slower decision making–or no decision making at all.  Lack of clarity on priorities.  Stifled innovation.  

Now what?

In the past several years I’ve been on two sides of this equation: the person feilding the request (L&D), and the person delivering the solution (outside consultant/vendor).  But the deeper I’ve gone into executive coaching and training teams, the more I realize that the solution for this request can vary widely–from skills training that targets communication to coaching that targets negative company culture. 

To dig deeper into this topic, I spoke with Ken Fendick, Head of Talent at General Motors.  

It was a stroke of good fortune that Ken’s team had been thinking about this topic for months when I met him in 2021. At the time, he led Learning and Development at the autonomous car company Cruise, and I’d just started my own firm.  In short, Ken gave me a major opportunity–just as I was getting started on my own– to work on solving a high impact problem at a rapidly  growing company.   

They’d seen it come up in company surveys, heard about situations anecdotally, and observed first-hand how communication skills can either propel positive results and team performance or drag things to a slow and painful halt.  

With Ken’s team, I designed a solution in 2022 that helped IC’s and front line managers at the company communicate clearer and with more impact.  But two years later, I wanted to learn more about what led his team to pursue this goal.  Why did it elevate above all of the other areas he could have invested in?  And what can others learn from our experience in trying to tackle one of the more elusive challenges for a company to solve?

Here are some takeaways from our conversation.

 

Telltale Signs of Communication Gaps in the Workplace

How does this show up in the day to day?  I’ll quote Ken directly: “People dumping everything they have into a slide deck and hoping that a message spontaneously emerges.”  That about sums it up.  But let’s dig into this a bit deeper.  Below are three signs that it’s time to take action on improving communication. 

Slide Deck Overload

We tend to communicate what we think is interesting about our work, rather than what our audience needs in order to take action.  We also love to show our work, so we over index on sharing details, when in reality, all our audience needs are the most important two or three items that will bring them up to speed to take action.  Third is that we jump directly into sharing these details without level setting or helping the audience context switch into our topic.  When we do this, we lose our audience almost immediately.  Our audience, in turn, politely nods like they’re following (they don’t want to look like they don’t understand) and when the meeting is over, they have no idea what they were supposed to do with all of this information.  

Leaders Struggling with Communicating Priorities

I see this play out at several companies–senior leadership has multiple priorities and mid level managers are left to sift through them in order to effectively lead their teams.  It’s a difficult dance.  And it can come down to the communication abilities of each manager on whether or not teams are executing at a high level.  I think of it like a communication blizzard–the winds swirl and things can look unclear for teams.  This is especially challenging during times of change and ambiguity. Clear communication strategies can help align teams and drive performance.

ICs, Managers, and Leaders Failing to Influence Decisions

Imagine wasting 30 or 60 minutes in a meeting without getting to a decision. Decisions are delayed.  Follow up meetings are scheduled.  More emails are exchanged on this topic.  More comments in working docs.  Time is wasted.  Much of this can be avoided with better communication strategies.  Look, I get it.  This stuff happens.  But when it happens too often, it’s a problem worth solving.  And it can trace back to either of the two root causes listed below.

 

2 Root Causes of Communication Issues

Ken’s team at Cruise kept fielding requests for communication skills training, so they decided to dive deeper to understand the root causes.  Ken described two specific root causes. 

Employee Skill Gap  

In this scenario, employees lack the skills to influence decisions with their communication. Picture a status update meeting filled with endless slides, overwhelming details, and no clear message or action points. This wastes time, slows decision-making, and stifles innovation. Without a shared language or a set of agreed upon principles for communication, companies are at the mercy of each employee’s own ability to tell a cohesive story.  As I’ve seen, that can vary widely from person to person.  

Company Culture Issues

When a company’s culture isn’t conducive to empowering employees to influence decisions with their communication, we end up with a similar result as above.  This can be due to a lack of psychological safety within the team or organization.  It can stem from a bad boss or trace back to a broader tone set from the top of the company–sometimes unintentionally.  When employees don’t feel empowered to share their ideas, morale, motivation, and performance suffer. 

Our Approach To Solving This Problem 

In 2022, Ken’s team and I used a two-pronged approach to improving both of the root causes listed above.  First, we built a learning program that targeted the five top pain points that came up during our needs assessment interviews.  Next, we worked with a handful of leaders in a one on one coaching capacity to begin to reinforce the psychological safety component.  Below is a quick overview of the five phases covered in the communication skills learning program.  

#1 Elevate Your Message

The number one communication pain point that I heard from executives and senior leaders was lack of a clear message in update meetings.  We solved this with a system called “entry point/core message” that I’ve used for a few years now with other companies.  In short, we help people get extremely clear about what they want from their specific audience, then we help them deliver it in a cleaner, more memorable, more impactful way.  The concepts work in smaller meetings, formal presentations and even in written communication.  

#2 Adapt To Your Audience

When I unpacked the lack of clarity issue above, I found that people rarely stopped to tailor their message to the needs of their specific audience from meeting to meeting.  So we built a checklist of questions to help communicators shift to the perspective of their audience.  As the program evolved, I added the What, Why, How framework to promote the concept of answering the main questions on most people’s minds before they’re asked.  We also taught left and right brain communication tactics to increase credibility and memorability.  

#3 Active Listening

Oftentimes communication issues can trace back to a lack of listening–or a lack of connection between the “sender” and the “receiver.”  This is especially true in fast paced companies where people are stretched thin and overloaded with meetings throughout the day. Our goal in adding this section was to increase self-awareness through focusing on the 3 levels of listening.  Incorporating what we’ve heard from our colleagues into our messaging also increases buy in.

#4 Drive Alignment

In speaking with HR Business Partners and TPMs I learned that even with a well crafted message, it can be challenging to get stakeholders aligned enough to make fast decisions.  So we built the “Driving Alignment System” by breaking down what the most effective people in the company did routinely to get people on board.  The system focuses on mapping out stakeholders for a particular decision, then building a communication strategy to influence each one.  This way the decision making meeting was often frictionless since the pre-selling was done.

#5 Executive Updates

Since effectively presenting updates to company leaders is such a crucial part of informing strategy, we included a game plan for doing this impactfully.  The “Executive Update System” helps employees prepare to deliver concise, brief, and high impact information to leaders.  With an emphasis on allowing the executive to context switch at the opening of the meeting, we shared ways to share where the topic fits into the bigger picture of the business, before diving down into the details. In speaking with company executives, we found that they preferred to have the ask up front in the meeting so that they can focus their attention on that particular question as they digest the information.  

 

Making It Happen

Now, how do you make all of this happen?

Investment in Communication

This involves more than financial resources. It’s about a strategic approach to developing a communication environment that raises company performance and culture. Investing in external partnerships can significantly enhance communication programs.

Culture Shift

Investment in a culture where everyone feels empowered to speak up requires answering questions like:

  • What would it look like to have a company culture where everyone feels empowered to speak up?
  • What steps do we need to take to create an atmosphere where everyone feels confident to share their ideas and be heard?

Leadership Buy-In

Improving communication starts with company leadership choosing to emphasize this area. Without buy-in from the top, it’s challenging to transform the company as a whole.

 

Make Communication Your Competitive Advantage

By addressing the root causes and implementing strategic solutions, it’s possible to turn communication from a problem area into a competitive advantage. It’s not about reinventing the wheel but getting back to basics and remembering we tend to improve in the areas we emphasize.  I hope that Ken’s insight helps you and your company make improvements in this area.  

If you’re interested in exploring solutions to create this kind of workplace communication and culture in your organization, I’d love to chat with you. Choose the time that works best for you, here.

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Hey, I’m Tim.

Tim Fortescue is an executive coach who specializes in leadership and communication development for teams. In short, he’s here to help you be consistently you.

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