How Good Communication Can Grow Your Business

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The government is shut down, markets are faltering, there’s a coal baron up for head of the EPA. Things are rough. I think we’re in for a serious global political reckoning — a resource distribution of millennial proportions. To quote Lin Manuel Miranda writing for King George in Hamilton, “oceans rise, empires fall.” It’ll happen, and maybe it’s not a bad thing if you look at a big enough time horizon. The next decade or two might be rough though. 

And yet. I’ve got two young girls to raise.

What do they need? They need resilience and they need problem solving skills. They are just almost-5 and almost-2 4 and I don’t know what kind of world they’ll encounter when they reach adulthood. But I can certainly help prepare them for the unknown.

Today’s organizations, and the people that inhabit them, require the same preparations.

Yes, workers today need technical skills — software, hardware, social media, and whatever full stack is. Moving an organization, nimbly adapting to serve customer need, requires team members who are empowered to meet customer needs the strategic plan might not have anticipated. This goes beyond the bullet point of written and verbal communication skills that now adorns most job ads. Employees also must have the social skills to move their own teammates along — to encourage people to follow a hunch and solve a problem — even if a particular course of action was not explicitly commanded from on high.

Of course, those organizations must also have strong leaders who empower those workers and support them even when they make mistakes. Leaders must set a strong north star and clear guidelines (guardrails) within which employees are free to act to help customers, to help a company achieve its goals.

Leith Sharp, Director & Lead Faculty, Executive Education for Sustainability Leadership, Harvard University, has a particularly handy way of talking about this abstract concept: hierarchical leadership (i.e. the pyramid-shaped formal structures of yore), and adaptive leadership — molecule-shaped teams that move and bend to wrestle with problems and move forward solutions.

These communications tools — the ability to listen to a problem, crowdsource a solution, and excite and empower coworkers to help you solve it — these tools are absolutely crucial for tackling the problems companies face today.

When it comes to so-called corporate responsibility, we have a whole set of previously un-articulated problems: energy and trash removal expenses are on the rise, supply chain transparency has become de rigueur and the fires and flooding associated with climate change are having real impact on logistics. Customers demand brand responsibility — quite an abstract concept. Corporate responsibility helps make it concrete, and corporate responsibility professionals must be comfortable with the discomfort of working across the organization to collect data, set goals and connect with colleagues to meet them. The challenges of corporate responsibility are mostly communications challenges, and the opportunities loom large.  

Without a shared mission, a shared process for identifying problems, and a shared language for fine-tuning solutions, we are toast. Burnt toast.

Luckily we have tools like Stephen Covey’s Speed of Trust and the general theme of emotional intelligence to help us solve the serious environmental and social problems that lay before us.

Examples of these solutions are numerous if you know where to look for them. They don’t always make headlines because they don’t reverberate up and down an organization, they weren’t necessarily pitched and approved by the PR people. They are just simple solutions to solve problems for customers and employees alike, born of the problem and solved with good listening skills and creativity.

Southwest Airlines faced a challenge of monstrous proportions thanks to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. Within hours, of landfall, the roads around Houston’s Hobby Airport, the state’s third-busiest airport, began to flood, stranding passengers, staff and flights. Of course Harvey can’t be directly attributed to climate change, but climate change indeed makes storms stronger and more frequent. That once in a blue moon storm becomes a lot more frequent, and companies of all kinds need to be prepared to respond, even if they can’t prevent damage entirely.

“The operational impacts [of Harvey] were huge for us,” said Megan Lee, Southwest Airlines’ senior manager of community outreach, to TriplePundit. She noted that the airport closure lasted almost a week and contributed to a “domino effect” that impacted operations across the nation. “Those are all the airplanes we expected to use somewhere else. Southwest has a really high fleet utilization percentage, so we don’t have a lot of spare aircraft sitting around,” said Lee.

Southwest does not charge customers change fees so it was able to accommodate affected customers in affected regions rebook without a huge change in routine.

But in addition to supporting customers, Southwest had more than 4,000 employees on the ground in the Houston area who were victims of the flooding. The airline’s private charity organization was called into action. Funded largely by employee donations, the Employee Catastrophic Assistance Charity was able to launch into action immediately and funnel one-time grants to staff members affected by Harvey. The company also conceived of, developed and produced a telethon so that all 56,000 employees nation-wide could make one-time grants to support their colleagues within weeks.

But raising funds to support Southwest employees wasn’t anything that unusual for the company or its staff, said Lee to TriplePundit. “We really just leaned on our culture. I think this is why we have this wonderful, longstanding charity that supports employees. It has always been a priority for us to put our employees first and take care of our own.”

“I think the one thing we’ve learned is that no two disasters are alike. You try to learn what you can from everyone and continually improve your process and your knowledge,” said Lee. But being proactive and having a third-party system in place can help both the company and the employees cope with the unexpected need for catastrophic assistance.

Another example of employee engagement, listening and adaptation comes from B Corp Badger of Gilsum, NH. Badger is a small, family-owned, family-run, and family-friendly company that makes salves, lotions and other skincare products. Badger “blends the finest organic plant extracts, exotic oils, beeswax, and minerals to make the safest, most effective products possible to soothe, heal, protect and otherwise treat your body. We work hard, have fun, and incorporate honesty, respect, and integrity into everything we do.” That _everything_ includes having babies.

Badger’s “babies at work” program allows new parents to ease back into work by coming back to work with their infant in tow,  at least until they can crawl. Parents get increased flexibility to work from home and are paid for ¾ time, with the understanding that those babies will take time to feed, change and soothe in between naps. Each new parent designates two “voluntary, alternate caregivers within the company to attend to the child while the parent is unavailable due to meetings, telephone call, or other event.” These alternate caregivers serve an unofficial function too — they become a part of the new parents’ extended social network — something all new parents desperately need.  

The program is available on a case-by-case basis and Badger reserves the right to terminate it if a particular baby-and-parent team aren’t a good fit. But Badger’s leadership has found that the benefits of the program outweigh the costs. The benefits for new parents: easier breastfeeding, enhanced bonding, reduced daycare costs, financial stability for the new family, enhanced social networks and extended-family support for both parent and child, and an easier transition in to off-site child care.

Badger cites the following corporate benefits: having the parent back to work sooner, less need for temporary staff, morale-boosting, solidified employee commitment, and a whole new style of teamwork for the company.

When problems do arise, like a stinky trash can or a collicky baby, Badger’s leadership addresses them head on with a quick conversation with all affected parties.

The company has more than 15 children that have graduated from the program. It’s an incredible perk for employees with children and, as opposed to hosting an onsite daycare facility, doesn’t cost a thing.

These two examples from organizations large and small demonstrate that a company can be agile and support customers, employees and make a healthier organization, simply by listening and trying to do the right thing. While problems can arise unpredictably, like Hurricane Harvey which was only measured to be a tropical storm, or completely expectedly, like the frazzle and stress a new parent experiences coming back to work, solutions can arise from anywhere in an organization. Empowered workers can seek solutions to problems before they grow. Listening and adapting can allow problems and their solutions to float up to management with speed and  

Connecting makes for stronger organizations that can tackle problems heretofore unknown. And it’ll be key to solving the world’s problems too.

[Image credit PixaBay]

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