Internal CommunicationsBy Gini Dietrich

There has been a lot written this month about internal communications on this very blog.

Some of it written by my team and others by guest bloggers who specialize in the topic.

We’ve read everything from how we communicate very first thing each morning with a daily email from Clay Morgan to how engaged my team is (yay!) with one another and their work.

We’ve talked about the tools we use to stay connected with one another and how Laura Petrolino conjures up some fake scenario every time I ask if she has a couple of minutes to Skype (which makes me want to make her wait as long as possible before calling her).

What we haven’t talked much about is how important transparency is in internal communications.

A Little History

I come from a very traditional background.

At a large agency, revealing financials or explaining how your billable hours help build an organization or being honest about the dire straights are not discussed.

It seems silly that a global communications firm wasn’t very good at internal communications, but that seems to be the norm (shoemaker’s children and all).

About five years into the growth of Arment Dietrich, an advisor asked me if I share where we are against goals with the rest of my team.

I was appalled. Why would I do that?

From my perspective, it wasn’t something you shared. I was the owner and it was my responsibility, alone.

And then the economy tanked and we lost more than half of our clients in less than a month.

When I called an all-hands on deck meeting to explain what had happened—and I was brutally honest—people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for laying it all out there.

I remember thinking, “But it’s so bad and it’s my job to protect you!”

As it turns out, it’s not my job to protect the adults who work here from the ugly truth.

The best part about it, though?

They all pulled together and were a huge support to me.

Less than a week later, one of our junior professionals had pulled together an expense-reducing committee and came to me with a list of things they could do without.

On that list were some pretty serious perks: Free breakfast every morning, El passes, weekly lunches, and free booze on Fridays.

They were willing to part with some of the things I never imagined they’d want to do without.

So we cut those things…and a lot of other wasteful things (we even stopped printing things to save money on paper and toner ink, not to mention what it did to reduce our carbon footprint).

In the end, we still had to lay off more than half of the staff, but they felt like they were all involved in the decision versus waking up one day and being surprised.

Feedback Must Be Consistent

It changed the way I approach internal communications. It also changed the way I think about having conflict conversations.

Today I don’t believe in waiting for annual reviews to provide feedback. I believe in constant feedback that helps a person grow.

I know I’ve told this story before, but as a young professional, one of the things that was on my review every year was “needs to be more strategic.”

But NO ONE took the time to explain to me what that meant or to teach me how to do it.

And yet it was on every review until I moved to Chicago to work for the ad agency.

What I’ve learned, of course, is strategy comes with experience. Playing chess or Scrabble also helps, which I tend to suggest to our young professionals when they need to work on strategy.

Because of that experience, I make a concerted effort to always let people know where they stand…the good, the bad, and the ugly…and provide tips, tools, and resources to help them move to the next level.

Structured Meetings Make for Better Internal Communications

Here is how I handle internal communications to be sure they are transparent:

  • Weekly all-staff meetings: In our staff meeting every week, I ask for the good, the bad, and the ugly. I ask what’s working and what’s not working. I ask for feedback on people’s weeks. Sometimes everyone says things are great and sometimes we get into a pretty intense conversation about where we need some help, better resources, or just thinking. It’s really hard for me not to get defensive in some of those meetings, so I do a lot of self-talk. My favorite is, “Listen to hear, not to respond.”
  • Weekly one-on-meetings with direct reports: We are very goal-oriented and continually get better at setting them and holding one another accountable. If someone isn’t meeting their goals, it’s pretty easy to take the emotion out of it and have a hard conversation that is based solely on lack of performance. More often than not, I learn things during those conversations that need to be tweaked or of resources that are missing. If I waited until a person’s annual review to have these conversations, these things would be so out-of-control, there would probably be no turning back.
  • Weekly executive team meetings: This is the only meeting of the week that is my meeting. The executive team receives an agenda at least a day in advance and on it are thing such as where we are against financial goals and where we are against our pipeline. These meetings are always really intense and brutally honest. We talk about where the business is, what’s going wrong that needs to be fixed, and how each of us are moving toward the larger vision. Everyone knows the state of the business and there are never any surprises (unless we unexpectedly lose a client, which is always communicated as quickly as possible).
  • “Surprise” Skype calls: Other than the staff meeting, I don’t see/talk to everyone weekly. When something big happens that needs to be communicated quickly, I make “surprise” Skype calls to the members of the team who don’t report directly to me. Early this summer, we had to let someone go. Because we’d also been having a larger conversation about missing our financial goals for the first two quarters, I didn’t want people to assume the worst (and what they conjure up is always worse than it actually is), I made the rounds. I told them each that, while we had missed our financial goals for two quarters in a row, this person was being let go because of a performance issue, not a financial one. Not unexpectedly, several said, “Thank you so much! I thought this was the first of layoffs!”
  • Weekly flash reports: The same advisor I mentioned earlier recommended we institute flash reports. They are sent weekly by every person on the team and include the top three things they accomplished, the three (or no more than three) challenges they are having, and their agenda for their weekly meeting with their direct supervisor. This allows me to see what are the priorities for each person and the challenges anyone is having to see if there is a larger trend. I also get to see what they’re discussing in the meetings that I don’t attend. It prevents any surprises.

While I spend about 10 hours of every week in meetings (and sometimes want to cry UNCLE!), this structure has created internal communications that are open, honest, collaborative, and transparent…even on those days when I have to say, “Listen to hear, not to respond.”

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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