It wasn’t quite the same as your mother putting a special note in your brown-bag lunch for school, but it was close.
In the early days of her company, Cindy Marion couldn’t resist writing personalized notes along with employee paychecks.
“I loved doing that,” says Marion, founder, president and CEO of Marion, Montgomery Inc. “But the eventuality was we got big enough that if I did that consistently two times a month, it would take too much time.”
Marion found other ways to communicate with her employees as the marketing firm continued to grow, reaching 53 employees and $11 million in 2007 revenue and a projected $18 million for 2008.
“I think about it like plates on those poles,” Marion says. “Everybody needs to have their plate spun routinely to make sure they understand and are rewarded for the good things they are doing.”
Smart Business spoke with Marion about how to be a good communicator and why the word “and” is always better than “but.”
Q. Why is communication so important?
If (employees) ask a question, it deserves an answer. If it’s bothering them, it should be bothering me.
As parents or bosses, we sometimes don’t give our associates or kids enough credit. Most people are happy to understand the position you’re in. If you say, ‘We can’t do this, and this is why,’ they say, ‘Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about it that way.’
They aren’t the ones responsible for implementing a lot of these programs. They just take them at face value until you explain, ‘Well, the reason we’re doing it this way is this.’ The light bulb comes on, and they say, ‘OK, now I get it.’
You can’t tell them to be honest and then make a decision that is contradictory to that. You have to be consistent in your actions with what you’re communicating. You have to tell them often. You can’t send out a once-a-year update and feel like you are communicating with your employees.
Q. What’s the key to having a good dialogue with employees?
You need to send lots and lots of communication and reward good versus punishing bad. We try to catch people in the act of delivering unquestionable value to clients, and then we send out a companywide e-mail routinely. Probably every couple of days, something goes out saying, ‘Hey, so-and-so did this or so-and-so did that.’
A lot of leaders don’t do that out of the risk that it’s unfairly distributed or somebody gets left out by mistake. I routinely tell the employees that I’m going to leave somebody out sometimes and I’m sorry.
If somebody has a feeling that they were on a project and they didn’t get proper credit or didn’t get mentioned or whatever, they can come talk to me, and I’ll try to spin their plate in another way. I think it’s consistently pointing out positive behavior toward the ultimate objective and vision for the company.
Q. How do you make your communication inclusive?
A lot of it is in the words you choose. There’s a few key rules that leaders can use in situations to bring out the brilliance in people. One of those is reducing the size of your ‘but.’
We tend to often say when someone contributes an idea, ‘That is a great idea, but ...’ If we as leaders could change the word ‘but’ to ‘and’ in most of our vocabulary, ‘That’s a great idea, and how would you feel about improving it by this?’ it just changes the whole tone.
There are a lot of words that include, endorse and encourage the contribution of others. Using the word ‘but’ is often not one of those. Replace your ‘but’ with ‘and.’
Going around the table and saying, ‘I’ve invited you to this meeting because I think your skills in this area are so incredible; I wanted to be sure we got the value of your abilities there. And so-and-so, you’re in here because, good grief, the job you did with the Minute Maid event was wonderful. And so-and-so, you’re in here because you’re part of the reason we’re one of the fast-growing companies.’
Endorse everybody so they feel like their contribution really does matter because it does matter. Make sure everyone understands why they are in the meeting. There is some pressure for them to contribute for the very reason you asked them to be there.
Q. What’s the key to giving direction?
What I try to remember is, every time you give an instruction, there ought to be an inclusion that, ‘When you are completed with this project, what we should have is this.’ What do we want to have happen? Then you figure out the best way to do that.
If you don’t paint the picture of what we want to have happen at the end of this assignment, you’re probably not going to get what you want.
I’m amazed at the creativity that people will exercise in finding a solution if they really, clearly understand what you are headed toward.
HOW TO REACH: Marion, Montgomery Inc., (713) 523-7900 or www.mmihouston.com