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How Jeffrey Wadsworth communicates with his people Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

Jeffrey Wadsworth does not fear change. He relishes the opportunity to tackle a new challenge and veer from the status quo. It’s a trait that serves him well as president and CEO of Battelle Memorial Institute, where his job seems to be in a constant state of evolution.

“If it’s the sort of thing you’d do anyway and you’re passionate about it, then learning becomes easy,” he says. “You absorb the information because it’s something that is intrinsically interesting to you. I find everything we do very interesting so I don’t think of it as a burden. I think of it as just exciting.”

Battelle is the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization and has come up with a number of innovations in medical technology, telecommunications, environmental waste treatment, homeland security and transportation.

The complexity of the 20,400-employee company is something that invigorates Wadsworth. But it does create a challenge when he has to explain what the company does to inquisitive outsiders.

“One of the surprises for me was the degree to which the community is interested in Battelle,” Wadsworth says. “When I went around and met with the other CEOs, the message I got was everyone likes Battelle, but they don’t know why. They have very good feelings about Battelle, but they don’t actually know what we do or quite how we do it.”

The good news for Wadsworth is that he loves talking about Battelle almost as much as he enjoys being the company’s CEO. It’s a lot easier to fulfill that responsibility as the face of your organization when you love what you do.

“A lot of our people talk about what Battelle does,” Wadsworth says. “But at the end of the day, the CEO is the one. You can open doors as a CEO and president that other people can’t open, just by the nature of the job. It’s not the person; it’s the nature of the job.

“People have expectations of meeting with leaders of an organization. So over time, I gather more clues and signals about where the world is going because I’m able to have those opportunities. In a sense, it’s my job to gather all of that and articulate it into a vision for Battelle and describe what it is that we do.”

Wadsworth is constantly doing presentations at universities and conferences on such key world issues as energy, national security, health and life science. Every little bit helps in getting the word out.

“I’m constantly communicating to various groups about what we do,” he says. “It goes all the way from the sound bite to the detailed PowerPoint presentation. I try to explain what principles we operate by at all of the above venues.”

So you might ask the question, if Wadsworth is spending so much time talking to outsiders, how does he find time to keep his own employees in touch with what’s happening at Battelle? Here are some of the ways Wadsworth stays tuned in with his own people to help keep Battelle on top of its game.

Talk to your people

You need to first be in touch with your own employees about what’s happening in your business. If you tell outsiders about a new development before you discuss it with your own people, you’re asking for trouble.

Wadsworth wants his employees to feel as though he is speaking directly to them when he talks. He wants them to know that his focus is on that conversation and not on something else.

“I rarely use notes,” Wadsworth says. “I’m speaking and looking at them in the eye. I always try to invite questions and I tell them they can ask me anything they want. There is no taboo topic.”

Wadsworth likes to point out the tough questions that his mother used to ask him about whether he knew what he was doing as an illustration of his willingness to be challenged.

“I tell them, ‘Please ask what you want because it’s an opportunity to do that. If you don’t, please send me an e-mail,’” Wadsworth says. “I respond to every e-mail I receive.”

If you want to ensure that your communication hits home, then you cannot ignore questions that you are asked or fail to respond to e-mails. If people ask you questions or send you e-mails, especially if you prompted them to do so, then respond.

“A lot of them are things I don’t have to respond to because somehow my name gets on a lot of lists,” Wadsworth says of the hundreds of e-mails he gets each day. “But when employees send me an e-mail, business partners, people in the community, I respond to all of them. I think that’s important. I have help, but I respond to everything.”

You often have to go out of your way to show people that you do want to hear from them. Telling them once usually isn’t enough.

“I think I’m the most approachable person there is,” Wadsworth says. “It’s clear that I’m not. People are intimidated by the title. I think I’m approachable and I encourage people to talk to me, so I feel I am. But then it’s clear that it’s not that easy.”

Wadsworth flashes back to his younger days when he was an employee at Lockheed.

“The CEO of Lockheed, he encouraged us to ask him questions and it was intimidating,” Wadsworth says. “I try not to be and I try to share personal experiences when I meet with employees and groups so I come across as human and not something else. But that’s another good challenge. People assume that you don’t have time for them or that you won’t like a tough question or so on and so forth. You just have to encourage them to break those barriers.”

Be yourself and let the passion you feel for the work you’re doing show through when you meet with your employees. Take advantage of the power that you have to make things happen and to capture attention. That kind of energy can only help in your efforts to break down those barriers.

“You’re responsible for everything from human resources to the crisis of the day to communications,” Wadsworth says. “It’s a version of the buck stops here, but it’s also because you touch everything in the organization. You have the opportunity to make decisions and the prioritizations and the investments because you have that breadth of reach and responsibility.”

Involve others

Wadsworth loves Battelle, but he’s not omniscient about what happens at the company. Not when the company is doing $5.6 billion in annual research and development and interacting with more than 800 governmental agencies and contacts from more than 130 locations around the world.

But whether your business is large or small, you need the help of your people to make it all happen and help you do your job.

“I have some very good advisers,” Wadsworth says. “If one of them says, ‘Look, you really need to do something,’ I do it. If not, they are not valuable in the room. It’s more of a conversation and we often arrive at consensus very quickly with these things.”

It’s those times when you don’t easily reach consensus that the value of your team really shows itself. You need people who will be willing to counter you when you’re shaping your message.

“I have an overall philosophy of vigorous debate followed by agreement,” Wadsworth says. “It doesn’t mean you like the decision, but you’re going to agree with it after having a vigorous deb

ate. If you have vigorous debate, a lot of the poor options will fall away.”

When you don’t have vigorous debate, Wadsworth says you run the risk of ending up with dishonest agreement.

“Dishonest agreement happens when people around the table in the meeting all say, ‘Yes, we agree with that,’” Wadsworth says. “Then they go out in the corridor and say, ‘I don’t know what he was thinking about. That won’t possibly work.’ That’s the most insidious failure mechanism in my mind.”

You need to do your best to constantly remind your people that you want them to speak up if they sense a mistake is being made.

“Everyone is encouraged, and in fact, it’s their responsibility to speak their mind and challenge if they don’t agree,” Wadsworth says. “Great companies avoid dishonest agreement. It’s very dangerous to go out there thinking you’ve got everyone on the same page when you don’t, even though they’ve already told you that they are. That’s something we work very hard on.”

If you sense dishonest agreement occurring in your management team, you need to stamp it out right away.

“Be willing to confront it and say, ‘Look, I thought we had agreements on this. Now I’m told you have a different view,’” Wadsworth says. “‘How is that? Why didn’t we bring that up? What can we do now to encourage everyone to bring up their concerns in the right forum and not keep them inside and work against the team decision?’”

Stay in touch

Wadsworth gets pulled in a lot of different directions during an average day, whether it’s speaking off-site or working with his management team back at the main office. But no matter how busy his schedule gets, it’s still his schedule.

“I don’t walk in and get handed a three-ring binder and an agenda,” Wadsworth says. “I’m part of the plan.”

By being part of the plan, Wadsworth makes it a lot easier to stay engaged with his people and with what’s happening at the company he leads.

“It’s important that I know what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, where I’m going and what I’m going to say,” Wadsworth says. “There’s obviously a lot of competition for my time, and in that sense, people guide me with their thoughts. But at the end of the day, I decide.”

Wadsworth is in on planning meetings that are held several times a week to discuss the current priorities.

“We just look ahead to the next few weeks and just constantly discuss what the priorities are, the purpose of the next meeting and do I have the right materials,” Wadsworth says.

There is no way you can communicate too many times to your people. But if you’re not really tuned in to what you’re talking about and how it might affect your employees, the communication is going to be much less effective.

The relentless pursuit of more knowledge is something that has grown in Wadsworth over the years.

“I’m far more inquiring about why something isn’t working rather than rushing to snap judgments,” Wadsworth says. “I gather a lot more information about situations.”

It’s that deep curiosity that serves him well in leading Battelle.

“You have to enjoy dealing with complexity, which I do,” Wadsworth says. “You have to enjoy being a general manager. A general manager is somebody who goes to work and everything is their responsibility to integrate. Some people may find it intimidating. I find it exciting.”

How to reach: Battelle Memorial Institute, (800) 201-2011 or http://www.battelle.org/