Great communications Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

When times are tough, the first instinct of any leader might be to pull everything close to the vest, sequester him or herself, and focus on managing through the challenges.

That would be a mistake.

Pulling things in too close and cutting off communication with the people who most need to hear what’s going on — your employees — could compound the problems.

“If the employees understand the direction you are trying to go in, it’s much easier for them to understand an action that you’ve taken,” explains Anthony J. Alexander, president and CEO of FirstEnergy Corp. “They might not agree with you, but they understand.”

And when you need buy-in from the team that will be tasked with the hard job of execution, that’s exactly the way it should be. Whether you’re running a Fortune 250 company like Alexander, the focus of this month’s cover story, or managing a 50-employee services firm, when you face tough times, the most important thing you can do is keep employees informed about the situation.

In Alexander’s case, he reorganized the $13.6 billion energy powerhouse last year in the wake of a crumbling economy, laying off 335 people as a result.

Despite that, Alexander refused to tinker with his “out-front” management style, continuing to pound the pavement and meet with FirstEnergy employees across the company’s three-state footprint.

Alexander’s actions were prudent for many reasons.

First, he controlled the message. By meeting in person with people who were directly or indirectly affected, he was able to address questions and quell the rumor mill that was sure to sprout. He recognized that if you’re not disseminating real information, someone else who may not have the whole truth will spread his or her interpretations.

Second, he mitigated the inherent fear factor that accompanies budget cuts, layoffs and other large-scale organizational changes. While it’s not always possible to eliminate fear during times of change, when you’re willing to frankly answer questions, you secure good will from employees and often will reduce apprehension.

Finally, Alexander communicated his vision and reasoning to thousands of employees throughout the ranks. This ensured that they not only understood what was happening but were also able to willingly join him in the efforts to push the company forward.

There is no substitute for communication. Without it, you expose yourself to the very real possibility that you’ll just make any difficult situation that much worse.

Contact executive editor Dustin S. Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com.