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Listen to your employees. They are your best customers.

Communications in organizations are a dynamic and flowing human system

Organizations are problem solving systems. Countless decisions are made each day by employees, teams, management, vendors, partners and clients that impact an organization. Executives and employees are the ‘electrons’ in the circuitry of these systems, travelling via the ‘wires’ between the organizations components: the people, teams and departments, to collect data, synthesize information and provide perspectives, insight and analysis. The better the system operates, the better the insight which in turn is used as input to make better decisions and solutions to business problems. Higher quality decisions, built one atop the other over time, lead to better products, faster service, increased innovation and financial results.

This simplistic view of organizations helps when looking at process and operational problems. However, one of the most common and important business problems that is insulated from this approach has to do with communication. Specifically, listening.

So what? Well, in our electricity analogy, the concept of conductivity can be compared to communication. Higher conductivity equates to faster and better communication. The greater the focus on listening, the higher the ‘signal to noise’ ratio, which is the metric to measure the accuracy of information received at the destination. Listen well and receive messages clearly.

Highly conductive communication with employees can power more than internal business activities. Employees don’t just work for your company. And they don’t just buy your product. They buy into the very idea of your company. Hopefully, you hire the smartest people you can find. But smart people have options. The fact that they choose to invest their time (which is much scarcer and more valuable than money) working for you can and should be incredibly humbling.

employees customers quote Chris Becker NetEffect

When dealing with major organizational change, often driven by technological innovation, efficient communication can provide the ‘electrical grid’ for powerful and rapid insights to solve problems and navigate the obstacles in the way of success.

So if the benefits are clear, what’s the issue? Better communication is like our electrical grid, it requires endless work to expand, improve and maintain. But something interesting happens when we raise this topic to senior management.

Most business owners will tell me that they do a great job of listening to their employees. “I have an open-door policy!” they’ll say. “Everybody on the team gets a 360 degree review every year! I do an employee survey!”

And yet when I spend time talking to people on the ground, the sentiment is invariably different. In businesses undergoing significant growth, crisis, or transformation, listening to employees is one of the very first casualties. When the pressure’s on you as an executive, it’s easy to have your own ideas executed and assume that if no one loudly objects, then everyone’s on board and feels heard. This is the exact opposite of what is needed.

So how can you tell if you’re listening effectively, and not just paying lip service?

One of the earliest indicators of chronic non-listening is feeling like your employees aren’t listening to you. They may have reasonable issues that they simply don’t raise because they don’t think you’ll listen, care, or actually do anything about it. Other symptoms of not listening to watch out for:

  • High employee turnover, absenteeism, or excess sick days
  • Stagnant growth, few referrals and little repeat business
  • Low morale and employee engagement
  • Lack of personal ownership when it comes to dealing with issues
  • Feeling annoyed that your employees aren’t more proactive

How do you listen in a way that helps your employees actively contribute?

Coming back to the diversity issue: your team is likely composed of a range of personalities and talents. And that’s a good thing. The reason you’re the B-O-S-S comes down to your ability to deal with ambiguity, take risks, and make decisions with incomplete information. But what makes a good CEO isn’t necessarily what makes a good engineer or a good product manager.

Understand that not everyone thinks and acts the way you do. Some people need a bit of coaching to say what they’re really thinking. Also:

  • Recognize the power dynamic at play. Even with the flattest organization structure, at the end of the day, you sign the paychecks. Understand that employees can feel like it’s taking a big risk to disagree with you.
  • Make a point of admitting when you make a mistake or don’t have the answer. Nobody expects you to have all the answers all the time. But employees need to know that your ego isn’t running the show.
  • Actively solicit feedback, and establish a safe environment to share. This means time and space that’s designated specifically for the purpose of listening. Remember that it’s natural for people to not want to raise issues for fear of blame or retribution. A safe environment that rewards communication will help get you the feedback you need, as early as possible to better respond to problems.
  • If possible, schedule one-to-ones or small team sessions. Not everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts in a large group. This doesn’t have to be with everyone, all the time. But dedicated time when needed to monitor that ‘signal to noise’ ratio to ensure you are hearing what you need to.
  • Use open-ended questions, but provide enough context and structure to get the conversation going. An employee may feel like they’ve got nothing to contribute, and then with a little prodding remember a recent challenge or interaction that could be instructive to the group.
  • Resist the urge to be dismissive.You may have already considered the idea raised by an employee, but respect them enough to acknowledge the idea and talk through your thinking and decision-making process. If a team member feels that you’ve shut them down, they’re less likely to contribute the next time they have an idea.
  • Reward people for bringing fresh thinking to the conversation. When an employee does share something you maybe don’t want to hear, make sure to thank them. Help everyone understand that opposing opinions, when raised in a respectful manner, are welcome.
  • Say no to HiPPOs. The HiPPO, or Highest Paid Person’s Opinion, often takes precedent even if it’s not the best course of action. Let the best idea win, regardless of where it came from.
  • Once you’ve listened, take action. People need to feel like their opinion matters. When people can see their ideas put into practice, they become engaged and invested in the company’s success.

Effective and high volume communication with your people can power your efforts to execute on your strategy, drive innovation, and lead organizational change.

Change Management Organizational Design Team

Meet Chris Becker, NetEffect CEO

Chris Becker is an experienced consultant and entrepreneur with a background in international consulting, managing new business startups and driving large impactful corporate change initiatives. As the CEO of NetEffect, his focus is on digital transformation. This includes identifying opportunities for companies to change the way they do business by leveraging the power of web, mobile, and other emerging technologies.

We caught up with Chris to learn how he works with both large corporations through to small technology startups to analyze, discover and apply innovative ways to leverage technology to improve performance, team interaction, quality of outputs and speed of action. Connect with Chris on LinkedIn here.

NetEffect helps large organizations think and act more like startups. What experience has given you the skills and insights to provide these types of services?

Early on, my focus was in organization design and change management. This has proven to be a solid foundation of concepts and tools when looking at how to help an organization be nimble, while still being mindful of how to effect change in organizations with thousands of people, a range of products and services, competing priorities and functions, and complex business processes.

While we talk a lot about technology, most of the challenges arise in the use of that technology to enable business process and to equip people with new ways of working. Anyone can get the technology perfect, and still fail on execution due to lack of attention to large organization dynamics and the changes affecting people. Even a well-conceived strategy can be lost in the minefield of execution.

Organizational priorities, the complexity of work, evaluating and positioning talent, and organization design all need to align with technology innovation and disruption. The result requires a more holistic effort, but the payoff is form and function coming together to create sustainable business value and advantage.

This approach has provided a solid starting point to enable our technology team to build compelling experiences and solutions. NetEffect can be described as a powerful blending of consulting, digital agency and product development capabilities.

Culture quote Peter Drucker NetEffect

Specifically, what kind of companies have you worked with and where do you provide support?

We have a broad team with experience in a range of geographies, industries and organization types. Organization design and change management was an early focus and has now become a part of almost everything we do. Since 1995, this has included the financial services (e.g. VanCity and Coast Capital credit unions in British Columbia, Goldman Sachs, Sun Life Financial), energy (e.g. EnCana), automotive (e.g. Nissan) as well as professional services, NGOs and retail (e.g. Canadian Tire, Hudson’s Bay).

Our focus now is on large scale change in complex organizations with a particular concentration in financial and professional services. Complexity is not just size. It can be driven by geographic coverage, product range, brand equity and innovation and organizational models. Organizational models for example, have expanded greatly over the past 20 years:

  • More collegial and partnering networks for organizations
  • Independent contractors and agents versus traditional captive employees
  • Loose affiliations between complementary companies
  • Joint ventures and strategic alliances
  • Complex vendor/sub-contractor relationships and more.

At NetEffect, we are utilizing these new working models to adapt and learn, and equip us with more versatile ways to work so we can bring these types of models to our clients. This can greatly increase client focus on core capabilities while building in expertise and speed through these other models. Greater flexibility to engage external expertise and capabilities help bring fresh perspectives to large organizations that often rely on their own internal functions and teams which can often result in them losing sight of the dynamics in the marketplace. The emergence of ‘Software as a Service’ is an example of alternative models for leveraging best in breed applications and technology. Change must be a continuous improvement process of self-examination and growth that can often be painful.

Recognizing how interconnected strategy is with execution helps ensure the real business need is always kept front and center when working on the necessarily deep technology efforts. Too often, technology is left with abdicated authority to make a change which inevitably leads to lost value and failed efforts. With the rise of nimbler, technology-enabled competitors, large organizations do not have time to repeat mistakes and restart efforts over and over.

Change quote Jack Welch NetEffect

We’ve had the chance to work with clients from the point where the strategy is defined but requires articulation to drive it down to meaningful words, phrases and themes that are going to matter to the people on the ground. These often expand to projects or programs that are designed to rally people within the organization to a common cause and move quickly. Having a clear starting point at this stage can make all the difference when moving to designing, building and implementing a solution – be it a new product, new ways to interact with the market, or innovative ways of working.

When you then combine strong technical and operational capabilities, including partnerships with best-in-breed software, you have a powerful combination to provide strategic execution capabilities to large organizations struggling to keep pace with new, smaller competitors that have a greater impact on industries over time.

What prompted your transition from a consultant to an entrepreneur?

Sooner or later you have to practice what you preach and eat your own dog food! Consulting from an early age was a great chance to see a wide range of organizations in action. Eventually my words sounded hollow without the sense of ownership and weight of responsibility that comes with accountability for outcomes.

So, around the mid- 2000s, I worked with a small team on a social media startup. As CEO, I led a team building a ‘User Generated Content’ Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform. We worked with media companies, large brands, and agencies to leverage, monetize and engage consumers in user-generated content. We successfully sold that business in 2015.

What followed was a powerful and somewhat unique perspective, combining complex organization consulting with the scrappy world of bootstrap startups. This is the spirit around which we’ve built NetEffect.

So the transition was gradual and I’d say it’s now a less of a transition and more a combination.

Consulting is embarking on a discovery process of getting to know and understand a business’s issues, and coming up with ways to solve those issues in new and innovative ways. From that perspective, consulting provides a wealth of ideas to help entrepreneurs figure out ‘what problem they are solving’. So in many ways, consulting and entrepreneurship are tightly interwoven.