Have you ever played the “telephone game” and found out that what you said at the beginning of the chain is drastically different at the end? When you were a child, the results were amusing to hear. In a business, the impact of miscommunication can cost a tremendous amount of time, money and potentially clients and future business. So, how do you ensure that your message is being translated correctly from one location to the next and from one person to another?
Communicating with a team that is geographically challenged can add complexity, but is not impossible to master. “Communication” itself is the challenge, not the geography. What some people need and want varies from person to person, so as a manager and leader, you have to adapt. No system is perfect and nothing will ensure that you will get 100% consistency, but there are some things that you can do to ensure the message does not get lost.
1. Trust but verify. A very wise CEO and mentor of mine once told me that you are only as good as your weakest link. Very true in life and in business. The impression of your business when you are not there leaves the same impact as if you were in the room. Mistakes and errors can cost you business, but you cannot be in every location for all communication with every client. So you have to trust the team that you have, BUT verify what you want to see.
Ø Be involved, but know your audience. Lead your team situationally-it sounds basic, but it is the most common mistake made by a team leader-treating everyone on your team the same. If you have someone who is very detail oriented, you can get a higher level overview than someone who is not as diligent about details. Over-managing someone is almost worse than not following up. Know who you can delegate to and know who you need to follow up with on a consistent basis.
Ø Manage the situation, not the person. Your top person is most likely talented overall, but there are probably areas they haven’t mastered, so they need more follow up if put in that situation. Don’t assume that they will perform at a high level on every task.
2. When sending launch or follow up information, keep emails simple and concise. Emails should be bullet-pointed with what your objectives are. Too many people write emails as they speak, so the “fluff” is added in. You lose your message with too much information and will lose consistent execution. If you want to capture someone’s attention, make your subject line the topic of your message (i.e. “A question about our meeting today” or “Items to follow up on-please read and respond”). A strong subject line will ensure that they are reading what you are sending.
Ø Keep your bullets brief. No need for emotion. It gets lost in an email and people can misinterpret what you are saying. Only provide action items or things that you need to draw attention to.
Ø The email is not THE ONLY message. If something is that important for you to send a bulleted list, then it deserves follow up. Do that in person if possible. Email strands dilute importance.
3. Keep voicemails to a minimum. You have 30-45 seconds to hold a person’s attention. Don’t leave someone a lengthy voicemail about what you expect or what you want to see. Leave a message about why you are calling and what urgency your message has
Ø “Sue-hi, it’s Jen. I am calling to follow up on the updates to the conference next week. Can you call me back today to provide an update on where we are and what support you may need prior to the event?”
Ø You have provided the recipient with what you are calling for (gives them time to get prepared to call you back), when you expect to have a call back (give them a realistic timeframe) and the next steps (support needed, etc)
Ø If you do choose to leave a message, be specific. The worst thing for your team member to hear is “Hi, it’s your boss. Call me back.” They have no idea what the context is or what the urgency of the message is. This causes anxiety in people-in the absence of information, people make stuff up.
4. Make phone time, “face time.” I make it a point of talking with every member of my team at least twice a week, once at the beginning to set the expectation and once at the end of the week to recap. When you have a team of up to 15 people in different places, ensuring that they are all on the same page is key. As the manager, have a set of points that you want to talk about with each person-open issues or projects that you may need an update on, developmental objectives etc. Get document updates sent over ahead of time, so you can look at the document together.
Ø Ask a lot of questions and ask them in the “right” way. I call this a “virtual tour”-getting a snapshot of what is happening without actually being there. Instead of saying “How is your project going?” , which can get you a vague response that is not detail oriented, say “Walk me through the updates of your project,” which forces the person to give you specifics on what is happening. Evolve any close ended questions into leading statements and question-“Tell me about”, “What changes did you make,” “What progress have you seen,” to gain more information and details. This will lead to more open dialogue and consistency from market to market
Ø If you are following up on an initiative, the focus is the same. “Tell me how you implemented my suggestions this week,” or “What was the client’s feedback to our recent updates.”
5. Are you “Giving” time or “Taking” time? This is most important with conference call communication. Some managers believe that the conference call is the most effective form of communication because you are impacting more people. If you have a large team, a conference call can be a “Time Taker,” especially if you are using it to get updates on projects or follow up on issues that do not apply to all. Conference calls should be used to recap results, discuss future initiatives or changes to projects as a group. When you talk to a team who has sat through a non-productive call, they will tell you how much they dislike conference calls. The opposite is true for a structured, time controlled conference call.
Ø If it is a group project and you need team updates, set parameters for each team lead, and ensure that you set the expectation of what you are looking for as well as a timeframe for their update (1-3 minutes usually works best, pending complexity).
Ø Focus on communication that will “Give” people time-best practices of highly productive teams, more efficient processes or short cuts that don’t diminish the outcome. Time is the most precious asset your people have, so anything you can do to provide them with more will be motivating to them.
Managing a team in a productive manner is critical to the success of your organization-having a productive team is achieved through great management. Great managers are great communicators who understand how to inspire a high level of productivity in their team, even when managing from afar. In a technology driven world, we can take productivity to new levels with follow up and accountability. But know that the most effective multi-unit managers use every resource available to them AND understand that nothing is more impactful than a good old phone call!
Connect with Jen Mullen on LinkedIn here.