Continental divide Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Until one of Tom Baugh’s managers pulled him aside to say employees didn’t understand the company’s direction, he had no idea his communication was failing.

Out of the conversation came an early lesson in Baugh’s role as CEO of Marketplace Events LLC: In order to get your message across to employees, you need an effective and uniform communication style.

Baugh’s analysis drove him to start the “Monday Morning Update” to communicate with his 100 employees based in 11 offices and two satellite offices in the U.S. and Canada. He uses the e-mail message to update employees on everything, from company performance to his personal life, and as a mechanism for feedback.

“There’s no great technology involved, but it’s extremely consistent, and I think people have come to rely on that consistency,” he says.

He credits the consistency in helping the producer of consumer home shows expand in the marketplace, including this month’s The Great Big Home & Garden Expo.

Smart Business spoke with Baugh about how to reach scattered employees.

Set communication as a priority. We said an important part of our culture is open communication, and we don’t have the luxury of people being able to kind of think that if they’re concerned about something, we’re going to pick up on it because, physically, we don’t have enough people that can see how people react and feel on a daily basis.

We knew we had to work twice as hard to develop a culture of we were going to be straightforward as a management team and we wanted them to communicate back up through the ranks.

I’ve gone in front of the company, in front of all the employees, and said, ‘Listen, I am really good at several things. I’m really good at leading at times. I’m really good at communicating at times.’

But I said, ‘I can’t do any of this as well as I’d like to nor can you do your job as well as you’d like to unless we agree this communication has to go both ways.’

Although you’re not physically with all your people every working day of the year, I think it’s possible to build a culture where they’ll communicate honestly, and certainly when present, they will.

Pick a communication style that everyone is comfortable with. More than anything I think it has to reflect whatever the senior manager is comfortable with. For me, I’m comfortable writing; I’m also comfortable doing. I will do brief video clips.

I think the tool that’s used really depends on the manager, on the CEO. Trying to force a communication tool on a CEO that’s not comfortable using it, to me, there’s going to be a level of frustration that sooner or later people are going to pick up on. That’s certainly the last thing I would want.

Our people know that I’m really comfortable writing, I’ve got kind of my writing style. They also know that I’m comfortable in front of a camera, and they know if I’m doing it on camera it’s got to be something that’s either really important or kind of silly or whimsical like for a Christmas message or a Thanksgiving message.

We do teleconferences, and I will get on the phone with folks and I’ll say, ‘You know what, we’re going to go through the message, and I know I’m not going to get any questions at the end of it because I know I’ve got 100 people sitting around conference tables in 11 different offices. And who wants to be the first to ask a question.’ So much depends on the CEO and the nature of the business and the physical set up.

I would think that feedback would be critical (for determining communication styles). I get feedback all the time. I just gave a good example — the teleconferences, our people hate them. They hate them because it’s not a format that really works well for us.

I learned early on that me doing a lot of conference calls, tying up everybody across three time zones in different offices, was not a good idea.

Make sure the employees got the message. I do think a CEO can have a significant impact on the culture, the direction, the vision of a company. I do think to a certain extent, however, that the greater personality, the greater effectiveness comes from the people that surround the CEO.

I guess what I’m getting at, the only way you’re ever going to know if the message gets across is if you have people around you that you trust to not only transmit the message but also be able to support it, further refine it and explain it.

One really good CEO who has a weak management structure underneath them can only do so much.

The key to our company is our show managers, and if we had layers, that’s the third layer. So we spend a lot of time trying to make certain that our show managers get it.

We find it’s not that hard (to measure whether the message was heard). The metrics will be different in every business. We’ll see it immediately with sales numbers; we’ll see it immediately with satisfaction numbers from exhibitors. You can tell it on a show floor.

Understand the importance of consistency. For a CEO, I think consistency means everything. The pressure on a CEO now is so much greater than it was three or four years ago because this is a different business model, this is a different world.

The consistency is noticed by people. It’s when there’s stops and starts, when there’s, ‘Oh wait, this was the message six months ago, but we’re going to do this.’ It’s a whole notion we are building this thing at this company — is it on a solid foundation or a shifting foundation. And at least for us, I can’t say about any other business, our consistency is our strength. There’s no doubt in my mind.

How to reach: Marketplace Events LLC, (866) 463-3663 or www.marketplaceevents.com