To many CEOs, communication is a science of numbers: You get your messages out by repeating them to as many people as possible, as often as possible.
To Maxwell L. Anderson, however, communication is lot like art. The director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art says that any organizational communication is full of symbolism and open to a wide array of interpretations. Your appearance, your inflection, the words you choose, all of those affect how your employees will interpret what you have to say.
As the leader of your company, Anderson says that you must be aware that your every move will be scrutinized and mined for potential hidden meanings. To make sure your employees don’t lose the meaning of what you are trying to communicate, you need to get down on the ground level of your company and frequently engage your employees in person.
Smart Business spoke with Anderson about the art of communication and why each brushstroke matters.
Make in-person communication a priority. You just make time for connecting in person, even if, at times, the calendar is filled with obligations that aren’t as creative. I find myself very stimulated from the brown-bag lunches I have with my employees, where I get a chance to just sit down and have a dialogue with them over lunch.
It’s a chance to get great ideas out of a very informal setting, as opposed to a structured meeting. It’s particularly in those unguarded moments where people are sharing ideas in a casual context that they’re prepared to take a greater chance with an idea they might have otherwise felt self-conscious about raising in a formal meeting.
There is a kind of inevitable formality to a meeting structure with an agenda, a chair, a set of topics in advance. Everyone is conscious that their time is valuable, so it rarely allows for spontaneity, and no one wants to intrude on what has already been the prescribed purpose of a meeting.
Being in the presence of other people is where the power of imagination is unleashed. E-mail, by contrast, is a deadening, if necessary, evil. It ends up being a game of pingpong, passing obligations along to other people by virtue of copying them on the e-mail chain. We all long for the day when smart e-mail emerges, which it undoubtedly has to, and there is a kind of fluidity between in-person and video-based communication.
The written word is great for punctuation of moments in business, but moving from e-mail to video is certainly where we all should head, with text as part of the message but not the main vehicle.
Remember that communication is more than just words. That symbolism is very important. It’s very easy for a CEO to trip up in front of his workers by appearing to be aloof, disengaged or distracted, and telegraph, by consequence, any personal issue that might be facing employees or the overarching goals of the institution. Simply because the calendar gets chewed up with obligations, it doesn’t eliminate the need for a CEO to be concerned with the human ecology of the workplace.
Everybody comes to their tasks with a different level of enthusiasm, preparation and ambition. Like a good conductor, a CEO should be able to bring the best out in everyone and recognize that everyone has different strengths, capacities and interests.
Hire other good communicators.
You need to observe others within a professional context; see how they interrelate with colleagues, how much innovation they bring to the equation without much preparation and how fluid they are in a work environment such as ours, which is so much about breaking new ground, as opposed to producing a product that has been tested and shown to already be in demand.
We make choices every day here that relate to serving hundreds of thousands of visitors, any one of which can be magnified to epic proportions in the media, such as a label for a work of art that might be offensive to someone or an interaction in which a front-line staff member may appear to be unconcerned with a complaint or any other kind of experiential moment of truth. So you have to be on alert as to how minor decisions can have a major impact on people’s lives.
With that in mind, I certainly like to surround myself with people who have a sense of what is possible, the art of the possible, a positive spirit, an attitude where they put their particular concerns to the side in favor of what is best for the institution. Everyone hopes for that within an organization, but you have to manifest that yourself as a leader.
That requires making time for hearing out grievances, different points of view, disappointments and acknowledging that not everything that happens in your organization will be as everyone wishes.
As human beings, we’re not quite silverback gorillas, but we have some primeval appreciation for leadership as an attribute. In an exhausted, overcommitted world, I think everyone looks with favor at someone who can point everyone in a direction they can get behind and move toward. ... But in the end, to get the best out of people, there has to be something compelling and exciting about the experience of working wherever it is they work.
HOW TO REACH: Indianapolis Museum of Art, (317) 923-1331 or www.imamuseum.org