Richard Killion reaches 7,000 employees with solid messaging Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

When Richard L. Killion served as general manager of Babcock & Wilcox Beijing Co. Ltd. just more than a decade ago, some of his employees and his colleagues didn’t speak English.

He spoke through Chinese translators who had some knowledge of the English language. And he learned the meaning and methods of good communication.

“I learned techniques of communication should probably be scaled down rather than scaled up,” says Killion, now president and chief operating officer of the Barberton-based Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group Inc. “You look at some executives who are on their career path and they think that the way to impress people around them is to use longer words.

“You’ll find from most employees that’s not something that’s effective.”

Communication is the lifeblood of your organization. You can’t afford to use 10-letter words or buzzwords that make employees think you’re speaking a different language. Not only will you lose employee’s attention, but the message you’re trying to convey will get lost.

Since taking over at B&W PGG in late 2008, Killion, once again, has been methodical in his communication with employees as he works to instill a growth culture after years of conservative business practices.

Essentially, what it comes down to is planning what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it, and then communicating your message in an engaging and concise way.

Here is how Killion gets his message across to 7,000 employees.

Put in effort upfront

You need to start out right when it comes to communication. The best way to do that is by conveying to employees your style of communication. It’s one of Killion’s priorities when taking over in a new location.

“I’ve always found it’s important to find a way to communicate what your style is — without acting arrogant, without acting like you’re very self-centered — just be able to tell people how you work, how you think, what you expect out of them,” Killion says. “When a new executive moves into an organization, there’s some sense of urgency. Either it’s a turnaround, takeover or the last (CEO) wasn’t doing a good job. Even if it’s a smooth transition, there are still some differences.

“You want people to have the advantage of you telling them early on what you expect, what your style is in communicating. Do it at a high level, then, ultimately, so that other people can follow along. People will accelerate on the learning curve and understand what the new leader’s hot buttons are.”

Communicating across the board to employees can be a time-consuming process, especially when so many decisions are fighting for your attention. But if you haven’t articulated what your communication style is to at least the highest levels within the organization, you’ve missed a primary step in engaging employees. See it as a time to immerse yourself in the organization and get employees comfortable talking with you.

Reach out to employees by communicating in a manner that speaks to your style. You may also find scheduling staff communication on a regular basis helpful.

“What we said last year — and what I think I would have done even if I was new to the organization — was there was going to be a year of change because the recession was so strong and we need to do (all-hands meetings) every quarter, along with that we could then talk about financial results,” Killion says. “Some predictability like that is good to a newcomer.”

That same effort that goes into explaining your communication style to employees should go into crafting your message. Killion puts preparation into all of his internal and external communications, whether it’s an all-employee meeting or customer presentation.

“I don’t just write some slides and say, ‘Here, go do it; put it on the projector,’ and it’s ready,” he says.

You need to take time to prepare a message that is not only clear but the right kind of message. For example, as B&W PGG moves into growth mode, segments of its operations are contracting and changes are occurring. The last thing Killion wants his employees to think is the company is trying different flavors of the month as it works toward its goals.

“We’ve communicated that there’s one sustainable growth plan here and a strategic plan that has variations, and we adapt as we go along,” Killion says. “But it’s not tearing up our basic strategy and starting all over again. We avoid anything in communication that suggests we have a complete failure and we’re going back and starting all over again.”

To ensure you’re conveying the right message and doing it clearly, you should consult with others within your organization. Think about what people or departments might be able to add insight to the topic of your message and who is well connected with employees throughout the organization.

For any internal communication, Killion brings in his internal communications manager, the financial controller, human resources, the people who will prepare the message and whoever else might have an important background based on the topic. One of the most important pieces to the conversation is that B&W PGG has trained communication experts on hand to help develop the message. Whether or not you have that expertise on staff, you can’t undermine the benefit of collaborating with colleagues.

“It’s a group that will come together and openly talk about what are the topics of interest, what should we be putting (in front of employees),” Killion says. “There’s some give and take, and some discussion on that and a little bit of debate. Then, we put the message together and we review it significantly from different viewpoints to make sure that it’s clear and the right message is coming across. As you know very well, there are different ways to say something to get the right results.”

The process is an effort to really narrow down the core talking points. At the same time, Killion and his group discuss what they’ve heard going around the rumor mill and whether or not the issues need to be addressed during all-employee communication. If it’s a rumor about job security or benefits, chances are a fact-or-fiction slide could make its way into a presentation. They also spend the time discussing stories or analogies that will allow employees to better relate to the topic.

The same steps take place with basically the same group when it comes to external communications at B&W PGG.

“So what goes out is consistent with internal communications,” Killion says.

Communicate the message

No matter what format you choose to use when communicating with employees, you have to keep in mind two things: Is the style engaging? And is the message easy to understand? If you fail at either one of those, your message probably won’t stick with employees.

With about 7,000 employees scattered throughout North America, Killion’s preferred method to reach his staff is through quarterly all-hands meetings that allow for updates on key initiatives, financial results and how those two tie together.

B&W PGG gathers the local employees in the cafeteria and connects employees located in remote sites in the U.S. and Canada through a webcast. The hour-and-a-half-long meeting is recorded and then transcribed into written form so employees can access the information at a later date.

In order to make sure he’s not just cramming information down employees’ throats, Killion thinks of the process as having a beginning, middle and an end.

“I stand up and before I get into any details say, ‘Here’s what this is all going to be about today and here are probably the key topics,’” Killion says. “Then we have some repetition as we go through on what some of the keywords are. Then we have takeaways at the end.”

You need to be clear from the beginning about the purpose of the meeting or the conversation. Killion says employees generally want to do a good job, and along with that, they want to know what it is you’re asking of them or trying to convey to them so they can continue to do good work. By stating the point of the meeting immediately, your employees quickly understand their reason for being there and are engaged.

Throughout the conversation or presentation, you need to repeat the key phrases or information that you want employees to absorb.

“It’s the old slogan, ‘I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you, and then I’m going to tell you what I told you,’” Killion says.

In his all-hands meetings, Killion doesn’t only repeat information, but he uses visuals to demonstrate what he’s saying and to stress certain points. For example, a PowerPoint slide might have a handshake when Killion is talking about teamwork, a dollar sign when he’s talking about financials, an upward slope to depict an uptick in business or a world map to signal global views.

“It’s all to make it more interesting but also to make a visual, something that people can retain rather than just boring word charts,” Killion says. “And it absolutely helps different kinds of learning styles in the audience.”

Again, you can’t chance employees slipping into a daze. Just as important as the visuals is your word choice.

“We make sure what we’re communicating is understandable to all the participants,” Killion says. “Don’t talk too high level; don’t use some of the buzzwords or phrases that are limited to engagement of the people who are there.”

As you’re wrapping up the conversation, you need to narrow down and repeat the key points you want on employees’ minds as they leave. Killion usually stresses four takeaways and displays them with visuals and bullet points. As he reiterates the message, he says, “Here’s what I want you to take away.”

“Drill it down and say, ‘Here’s what we really meant for you to get out of this session,’” he says. “People who might still have eyes glazed over from some of the material can still get the takeaway points.”

After you’ve emphasized what employees should have learned from the meeting, it’s an opportune time to move into staff response or feedback. The key points to the conversation are fresh on employees’ minds and it allows them to ask questions for any clarification. By closely listening to the questions they’re asking, you can also gauge how well you delivered the message.

After giving his presentation, Killion simply opens the floor to questions. Employees located off-site have the ability to e-mail a question that then gets read aloud.

You need to make sure your format allows for every employee to be involved in the conversation. And you need to make sure employees understand you’re expecting a two-way conversation.

“First of all, make them feel comfortable,” says Killion, who tends to use light jokes during the Q-and-A session. “Even though it’s a very, very large audience, it’s making sure they’re asking me a question rather than speaking in front of several hundred people.”

Chances are it might take a few sessions to really get employees to open up and be at ease with asking questions. But this is where your candidness with employees about your communication style comes full circle. By setting expectations and engaging employees in conversation from the beginning, a comfort level for interaction and communication is set.

After four decades with The Babcock & Wilcox Co., Killion has a distinct advantage. About three-fourths of his employees who stand and ask questions he’s known for years.

“That’s a comfort level,” he says.

“We stress through the presentation that our main objective is to communicate with them. It’s not just to get down there and do something that we think is an obligation but really to communicate. I think it’s the tone of the material that we present. What we try to do is bring it across in a style that is easy to understand and, then, when we get to the Q-and-A make them feel comfortable to ask questions. We don’t have a long pause before the first question is asked.”

How to reach: Babcock & Wilcox Power Generation Group Inc., (330) 753-4511 or www.babcock.com