Connective tissue Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2010

Business leaders use a number of adjectives to promote their communication cultures — open, honest and candid are among the favorites.

But Arthur Hargate, the president and CEO of Ross Environmental Services Inc. — a hazardous waste management company that generated $35 million in 2008 revenue — would like to add another adjective: connected. And that, he says, is possibly the most important adjective of all. Before communication can be open and honest, you need to establish a real connection with your employees.

“You have to meet people where they are, and people have individual preferences as to how they want to provide and receive information,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Hargate about how you can build communication by staying connected.

Q. What are the keys to being an effective communicator?

Let me start with the issue of listening. It’s really critical to make a connection with folks, and to do that, you need to establish a level of trust. They really need to understand that you have their best interest at heart. To get there, they need to feel as if they have an influence on you, because the communication is two-way. In order to establish those open lines of communication, you need be very open and honest and listen for meaning. You need to be interested in their welfare, and once you’ve established that, they’re willing to listen to you. But they’re not going to be willing to listen to you until they trust you.

Listening is undervalued, and I mean listening really hard for meaning with everyone with whom you interact. You have to make a connection, and I don’t think you do that until you demonstrate that you can be influenced by what someone is saying to you. People really turn off when you make them feel invisible, and not listening well does exactly that.

Q. What advice would you give about learning to become a good communicator?

You can definitely build the skills. Willingness is a little more difficult. It’s a process, just like any other process. I’m fortunate enough to have had an opportunity to be educated in that area, and I’ve found that you need to study the process. It does require thought, it does require study, it does require analyzing how specific and precise you’re being with folks.

It takes additional things like understanding body language to recognize whether you’re being understood. You as a leader are responsible for the entire communication process. You’re taking the responsibility to make sure that you understand where the other person is coming from, and the second step in the process is that you’re taking the responsibility to confirm that they have understood where you’re coming from. If you have two people in a room who are both approaching communication from this direction, you’re really going to hit the mark. Both individuals are taking 51 percent of the responsibility to make sure that they understand each other.

Those are skills that can be taught. It’s definitely a process; there is a lot of science behind it, many years of business management theory, psychological theory and understanding how people communicate.

Q. Can you hire good communicators, or do you need to groom them?

It’s critical in any business to have good communicators, and it’s certainly more critical as you go up the chain of command. The willingness to communicate is No. 1 when you’re trying to groom others. That comes down to a personality aspect — finding people who really care about other folks, people who have the capacity to empathize. That’s tougher to teach. That goes to background, education, upbringing and your whole genetic code. If you are dealing with a person who hasn’t developed an interest in other folks and a desire to be empathetic, that can be problematic.

You can begin to identify good communicators in the hiring process. When I’m interviewing somebody, I ask a lot of open-ended questions and give them an opportunity to express themselves. Most of interviewing is getting folks to open up and talk about themselves. The people I interview, by the time they get to me, they’re going to be qualified. The skills and experience are going to be there, and by the time a candidate gets to me, those aspects are far less important than how they’re going to fit into our organization. That’s what I’m trying to assess, what is that fit going to be. A huge part of that fit is, can they communicate with other people [and] are they going to take the time to understand the people in our organization, our history, successes and challenges as an organization?

That’s the first step in being a good communicator. Understanding the environment and the people with whom you’re dealing.

Q. How do you make time for face-to-face communication with employees?

Face-to-face and one-on-one communication is always very effective, and especially in a small company, there’s no excuse not to make that a priority. That’s the best way to establish rapport and trust in all directions and, especially, the connection where everyone starts to realize that we all have each other’s best interests at heart. You make time for it because it’s important, so it’s a matter of discipline and not letting it slip down the list of priorities. I get a lot of help from my assistant and our corporate communications team. They know how important it is, so they help me make it happen.

How to reach: Ross Environmental Services Inc., (440) 366-2000 or www.rossenvironmental.com