Michelle Fee was frustrated. Cruise Planners Inc. was created to help people escape on a great vacation to beautiful islands and luxurious tropical resorts. But it seemed like her employees were creating their own islands in the workplace and the escape from each other was causing problems.
“The most difficult challenge is to be able to get all of your departments within your company to communicate,” says Fee, co-founder, president and CEO of the travel agency. “It’s not just about what you’re doing. It’s about how what you’re doing affects others.
“We had a franchise department who was selling people our business in a box, in essence. They didn’t quite understand what some of the business development team was doing or what the marketing team was doing to help the agents grow their business.”
Cruise Planners’ franchisees were therefore getting mixed signals about how to run their part of the business and they were passing them along to clients. Fee knew this lack of a coordinated message would eventually come back to hurt both her and the company’s 40 employees and 800 franchisees.
“It’s essential that everyone is on the same page and everyone buys in to your vision,” Fee says. “Sometimes that’s hard because everybody has a way that they have done business in the past. They want to come in and infuse it with their good ideas, but it has to be what the vision of the entire company is.
“Everybody was running like they were their own island. The attitude was, ‘We’re going to do our job and get it done,’ but it didn’t necessarily work for another department, because at the end of the day, we’re all intertwined. To make it happen, you all have to be one team and not individual teams. Otherwise, you’re playing against each other instead of playing for that same team.”
Fee set out to tear down the silos that had formed at Cruise Planners and build connections and regular interaction between her employees and franchisees. She also needed to deal with resistance to ensure that this important and valuable dialogue was taking place and that the silos didn’t come back.
Fee knew there were a lot of good ideas being discussed between her employees and some good suggestions that were being presented to new Cruise Planners franchisees. But since these nuggets weren’t being shared with everyone, the benefits were not being realized.
“We’d get agents in that would go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was like that because so-and-so told me that’s how you handled it,’” Fee says. “I’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, we haven’t done that in a year.’ So it was just trying to get everybody in a room to communicate.”
Fee had to show her people the value of interdepartmental dialogue if they were going to buy in to it. She wanted to demonstrate that the actions of one department really do affect another department and that there is value in getting those departments to talk to each other.
“We’re all intertwined,” Fee says. “If franchise sales brings in a new member and business development drops the ball, franchise sales is definitely going to bring that up at the meeting. Business development isn’t necessarily going to bring up all their faults and issues. But they can say the reason this happened is this and this and this. Nobody is bringing it up to shoot the duck. They’re bringing it up because we have to figure out how we can fix it.”
It’s impractical to gather everyone in a large organization every time you have something to discuss. So you need to stress the importance of having direct reports who can take a message and deliver it to their people to keep them abreast of what is happening throughout the company.
“Sit with each one of your management-level staff and find out what are their challenges,” Fee says. “What is their team feeling? So then they, in turn, go back and summarize it to their staff so that everybody is again on the same page. Obviously you’re not going to have a weekly meeting for every single person that works for you. But you have to make sure it’s funneling down.”
It could be as simple as having someone assigned to take notes at each meeting and distributing the notes to everyone involved. Stress that they take those notes and tell their people about what happened at the meeting.
“Maybe it’s somebody taking notes for the entire company and then typing them out and bringing them to somebody like myself to say, ‘Here’s what you discussed today. Are these the points you want the entire company to know?’” Fee says. “Here’s what we need to make sure is communicated. Send it to everyone in the company so they understand what is happening in franchise sales or marketing or technology or whatever.”
Many companies have weekly newsletters or bulletin boards or some way of communicating with their people. It’s not the medium that you use, but how you use it that will determine whether it helps your people stay informed.
If you don’t keep up with it, people will lose interest and not see it as a way to stay tuned in to company happenings.
“We have to make sure that we’re out at them,” Fee says. “We do a Friday home office newsletter. It’s a synopsis of the week, and we pull all the information together and say, ‘Here’s what we added to the intranet and here’s some other happenings.’ We put it all in one place so Friday at 5:30, they can all read what either happened during the week or what’s going to happen next week.”
Your goal is to create a culture in which employees feel like there are no secrets and that they are all working toward common objectives. By making yourself visible in the office and at meetings, you also present yourself as an option to address concerns.
“Make sure you’re infusing yourself into every department,” Fee says. “We’ve had managers who we might have on the surface thought they were doing a good job, but guess what? To their team, they weren’t.”
The goal isn’t to turn your office into the complaint department. It’s to show you’re serious about your plan.
“You just want to make sure that the people understand that if the company’s vision is not being sought, you have a door to walk in to,” Fee says.
Never underestimate the danger of leaving someone out of the loop.
“Believe it or not, the most powerful person in your company is typically the one answering the phone,” Fee says. “Typically, that’s probably the lowest level of employee you have. They are the one that’s empowered because they are speaking and talking on your behalf and selling your product or whatever it is you are selling. Unless they know and understand your vision and all of the things that are happening, you’re giving that person the ability to give the wrong message.”
Be patient with resistance
Employee resistance to working with each other usually isn’t anything personal. Fee says it’s more often a result of an employee feeling the need to focus more intently on their own to-do list.
“I don’t think people don’t want to come together and talk,” Fee says. “Everybody just gets caught up in their own world and thinks, ‘I have to get my job done.’”
But whether it’s pa
ssive or more obvious, it’s still resistance. And it’s something you often need to overcome in trying to maintain open dialogue between different departments in your organization.
“There are certainly times during our management meetings where two departments are going back and forth across the table about whatever, an issue or a challenge or something to help the business grow,” Fee says. “And another department is saying, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’”
You need to approach those situations directly, but with an open mind — at least at first.
“I give every college effort to make sure that person knows that they are just not fitting in to what it is we are looking to accomplish,” Fee says. “It’s not done that quickly, it’s over a long period of time of saying, ‘Here’s what we need your department to do and here’s what we want you to do.’ If there is failure along the way, it’s showing them that, ‘You failed, but that’s OK. Let’s try to pick you up and give you another chance.’”
You can often make inroads by reinforcing the larger goals that can be achieved through collaboration with everyone in the company. If there is a disagreement on a particular issue, show your willingness to hear various opinions. Give them a chance to state their case.
“Maybe my vision is one thing and somebody like that comes in and says, ‘Well, I kind of see it a little differently and I see it this way,’” Fee says. “Maybe I don’t see it that way at all, but I say, ‘Hmm, maybe if I take this part of what you were thinking and add it to what I’m thinking, it could be even better.’ So you really do have to be open to change yourself. You make that person feel like they are part of it.”
Fee says she’s lucky to have not encountered severe resistance along the way to implementing a more collaborative culture at Cruise Planners. But when things aren’t so smooth, you need to know when it’s time to move past the debate.
“That person has to learn to come along and buy in to your vision or the vision of what the rest of the staff members believe,” Fee says. “You have to have a cohesive team. You can’t have one member dictating how they feel it should be run if it’s not what the whole team feels.
“You can’t have one person standing on the sidelines when the rest of the team is playing really well together. Everybody has to be part of it. Along the way, I’ve learned that sometimes you might keep someone on too long and they are not willing to change. So the company is going in this direction and they are standing there.”
When someone is starting to become a cancer in your organization, it’s usually pretty obvious to other employees.
“Everybody knows who that John Doe person is,” Fee says. “You just have to know when that one person is holding back the rest of the company. And guess what? All the other managers know who that person is, as well. Some of it is hard. I’m not going to say it’s an easy thing being an executive. But sometimes you have to make hard decisions.”
That often requires that you take a blunt approach.
“It’s like, ‘I’ve given you every advantage,” Fee says. “‘We’ve had multiple sit-downs. Our vision is this and the rest of the company is moving in that direction and you’re just holding us back.’
“If you have employees that are sitting there saying, ‘I’m only here for the paycheck,’ you need to look for new employees. Everybody should have that common goal, and the common goal is to make sure the company continues to grow in a positive direction. And if you have somebody that is sitting there that couldn’t care less about anything but what they are doing, then they are not part of a team.”
How to reach: Cruise Planners Inc., (800) 683-0206 or www.cruiseplanners.com