Allison Barber isn’t surprised that there are more ways to communicate in business today than ever before, but the top complaint on workforce surveys is a lack of communication.
“If you look at employee surveys across every sector, every business — even nonprofits — the top complaint about the organization is a lack of communication,” she says. “But let’s review how much we are communicating. We have never had more communication in business than we have today, be it from social media, newsletters, e-newsletters, intranets and websites.”
So what’s the problem?
“There is a major disconnect, and I think it comes from a lack of authentic communication and a lack of targeted communication,” says Barber, chancellor of WGU Indiana, an online university established by the state of Indiana in partnership with Western Governors University. “We need leaders who we can trust; trust is connected to authenticity.
“A lot of times leaders will just blast everything out to everybody — the equivalent of direct mail, when you go home and you go through your mailbox and you just start throwing stuff away. It’s not speaking to you.”
Barber should know a thing or two about communication challenges. WGU Indiana is a virtual organization, and all 157 employees in Indiana work from home.
“We have had to be even more creative because I never see anybody at the water cooler,” she says. “How do we communicate to our employees in an authentic, targeted and consistent manner? I think those are the keys.”
Founded in 2010 as a nonprofit online university, WGU Indiana enrollment tripled in the first six months as demand for an affordable college education grew among working adults. More than 3,300 Hoosiers currently attend WGU Indiana and 40,000 students attend WGU throughout the U.S.
Here’s how Barber uses authentic, targeted and consistent communication to eliminate the disconnect that, once removed, can help leaders build camaraderie and collaboration among employees.
Be authentic in your communication
As a leader, you have to be committed to the value and power of communication. As with any powerful tool, its effective use can make or break an organization. One of the first steps in effective communication is authenticity.
“People are just smart — they will see right through communication that is not authentic,” Barber says. “Sadly, we have had a decline of respected leaders. The American people have started to distrust their corporate leaders. So the way to rebuild trust is through authenticity.
“Leaders show authenticity in several ways. We show it through transparent communication, being honest with our employees, being honest with the public and through passionate concern for our employees.”
Many companies are looking for new ways to care for their employees through benefits, work-at-home policies and family leave policies.
“Society is starting to say, ‘How do we connect better with the people who we value — the employees?’” Barber says.
One of the best methods for a leader to demonstrate caring concern for employees is by supporting efforts to give back to the community.
“You have entrepreneurs who are starting their own foundations, they are giving back to the community and when that starts to take place, it pulls back the veneer to show the heart of the leader,” she says. “And that’s where the authenticity comes in.”
If you’re trying to achieve authenticity, however, you’ll have to do much more than just go through the motions.
“Where you can go south is when a leader says, ‘Oh yeah, today is Clean the Park Day. I’d better go out there,’” Barber says. “If the CEO says, ‘I’d better go out to a volunteer project,’ your employees will see right through it.
“If you really want to be a strong leader, it has to be authentic, or don’t do it because your employees and consumers will see right through it.”
Talk to the right people about the right thing
Every piece of communication needs to be targeted to a specific audience in order to be effective. You need to be talking to the right people about the right thing.
“You have to understand where your employees are, what space they are in, what is the best way to communicate to them and what tool you use to target them,” Barber says.
“If I am trying to reach my employees, who are working from home, I’ve got to be in their space. They spend a lot of time with email and phone calls because we are a technology-based university. So everything we do is technology.”
Well, not everything. Barber is a staunch supporter of the power of the pen, which can be used very effectively and can make a lasting impression.
“If I want to target a communication to the employees in Indiana, I spend a lot of time writing handwritten notes because I am a big believer in them,” she says. “I write hundreds a year.”
The point is that there is no one-size-fits-all tool to communicate. If you aim to communicate to your employees through a 30-minute webinar, you may be wasting precious time and energy. If, however, you assemble a short video that tells about a single topic or two, your employees will watch it.
“My general manager and I do video announcements — commercials that are two minutes or less,” Barber says. “Employees really don’t have time to call in for a webinar because they are busy helping students.
“But if I create a communication tool that is two minutes long, and they always know that it is going to be two minutes or less, and it is going to be some upbeat video message about the next thing happening in our university, then they will watch it. They know it is a communication targeted and created specifically for them with respect to the rest of their busy day.”
There are different communication tools for all your audiences if you wish to communicate effectively.
“Whether I talk to my employees, students, prospective students or to corporate partners, all four audiences require a very different communication tool that I use so that it meets my listener where they are,” Barber says.
A generic approach won’t reach anyone effectively. The goal is a targeted communication that will engage the recipient.
“I am so committed to employee engagement because I think it is one of the missing elements in so many companies,” Barber says. “This is part about reaching your employees where they are, as you have to know them. We spend a lot of time trying to memorize all 150 people’s names, we have company picnics, we send them birthday and anniversary cards, we send them notes when they have a baby; we just try to embrace our employees in as many ways as possible.”
Establish consistency by being persistent
Everyone today seems to be incredibly busy in his or her job. So is there a way to find the time to do what needs to be done?
“Everyone has time — to do what they care about,” Barber says. “So if you are committed to employee engagement, committed to being the kind of executive who says, ‘Hey, my internal team is my first team, and if I get this right, for my external customers or my students or parishioners — fill in the constituents — it will work.’
“But it won’t work if you don’t get this right with your internal team. You are committed to them, and if you are committed to them, that will drive your consistency. Commitment is the value system. The consistency is the tactic.”
One of the fundamentals to ensure consistency is to manage to the best of a scenario, initiative or situation.
“When you have a remote workforce, you have to kind of throw all the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks,” Barber says. “So you try as many things as possible, and try to manage to the best of these.”
The more challenging the workforce situation, the more you just have to be persistent. A perfect scenario would be nice to have, but there may never be one.
“I’ve seen in some corporations that people manage to the least of these; so it is like, if only four people show up, we are not going to do it,” she says. “At WGU Indiana, we manage to the best of these, so if four people show up, we are going to make it the best opportunity for four people, because next time, maybe 14 people will show up.
“For leaders who are looking for a kind of forced morale building, which I am really offended by, somewhere along the line you have missed the boat in employee engagement if you have to make your holiday party mandatory,” Barber says.
“You get discouraged unless you manage to the best of these and be encouraged by the ones who do show up. Just keep swinging for the fence for those who will continue to show up. It’s a long-term deal. But that’s what you have to have as a leader.” ●
- Authenticity is the first step to effective communication.
- Talk to the right people about the right thing.
- Establish consistency by using persistence.
The Barber File
Name: Allison Barber
Company: WGU Indiana
Birthplace: Gary, Ind.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Tennessee Temple University; master’s degree in elementary education, Indiana University.
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? I was 10 years old, and I was anxious to work, but there were not too many opportunities for someone my age. I saw an ad for a door-to-door salesman, selling packets of seeds. The ad did not mention an age requirement so I sent in my name and address and a few days later, I received several packets and a bill for $18. I immediately went outside and started knocking on doors. I was turned down seven times. I remember reciting the Bible verse Proverbs 24:16. “A just man falls seven times and rises again.” (I attended a Christian school.) I was determined to keep trying, but I recognized that I needed a different strategy.
I rode my bike to my great uncle’s house, told him my plight and he couldn’t believe his good fortune. He was just thinking about buying seeds. He bought everything I had.
The lessons I learned: 1. Don’t sell seeds in the late fall (market research); 2. Don’t quit (personal determination); 3. Sell to people who want to buy (consumer research). 4. Always support a kid who is working hard.
What was the best business advice you ever received? It is actually a quote by President Harry S. Truman: ‘You can always amend a big plan, but you can never expand a little one. I don’t believe in little plans. I believe in plans big enough to meet a situation which we can’t possibly foresee now.’
Who do you admire in business? I admire Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, because his mantra is “Everything matters.” I appreciate his focus on details and experience.
What is your definition of business success? To play offense, not defense. That is true in any area of life, not just business. I have yet to find a successful leader who doesn’t take risks and doesn’t play offense. As my dad has always said to me, ‘Take it to the hoop.’ That is success!
Barber on being personal in an impersonal world: I really believe that what is important at WGU Indiana is that we are on the front lines of emerging technology, but yet we have this commitment to this high-tech and high touch formula. I think that is where engagement, transparency and commitment really come into play because if we didn’t create the culture with our employees, if we didn’t create an environment where people care about people, then we really lose the value of leveraging technology. Then it is a robotic system and people won’t succeed and won’t learn and won’t graduate in a system that doesn’t embrace them as people and individuals and support them in that way. I think that is always the risk with emerging technology. If we embrace technology, we can’t forget the people side of the business that we really all are in and should be in. That is the blend that we really try to get right at WGU Indiana.