Jane Saale isn’t happy with the way communication flows at Cope Plastics Inc. It results in wasted time, missed opportunities and a shortfall in productivity — and that bothers her.
“One time it’s like this and the other time it’s like that,” says Saale, president and CEO at the plastics fabricator and distributor. “We don’t have a clear process and place to say, ‘Every time we do this particular thing, we’re going to communicate it like this.’ I would say from a communication standpoint, we have lots of room for improvement.”
Saale is hardly alone, however, in bemoaning her 380-employee company’s communication difficulties. It’s pretty safe to say if you’re reading this story or if you’ve ever been part of any kind of organized activity, you’ve experienced problems communicating. It’s all part of the human struggle to interact with each other.
“Does anybody ever get up in the morning and go, ‘How am I going to communicate today’?” Saale says. “Nobody says that. But it’s a challenge. You have so many different dynamics of people and personalities and different backgrounds and knowledge and expertise. You have different ways of how people interact with each other. It’s a big challenge.”
Despite the ongoing challenge of improving communication, Cope Plastics has weathered the storm of the 2008 economic crash and is back on track toward hitting the $100 million mark in revenue. Revenue in 2011 totaled $86 million, up from just under $70 million in 2009. Saale says the key to success is being yourself, accepting that you’re not perfect and making sure your team members understand that and are ready and willing to do their part to fill in the gaps.
“You have to earn their respect by being genuine,” Saale says. “They’ll trust you if you are genuine and if you talk on their level. Be yourself, know your audience and know where you need to be and what kind of conversation you should be having with the people you’re talking to.”
Here are some of Saale’s thoughts on becoming a better leader and striving for better lines of communication in her organization.
Focus on yourself
Saale’s efforts at becoming a better communicator begin with herself. She’s the leader, after all. If she does a poor job of sharing information, the company has no hope of becoming a more cohesive and more informed group.
“You have to have clear and concise directions and you have to make sure your folks know where you’re headed,” Saale says. “You have to be a good listener. You have to understand and know your audience. You have to set expectations, and they have to be clear.”
She says growth in her confidence as a communicator has been achieved through plenty of practice.
“It’s come from experience,” Saale says. “We have trade associations and I’m on several boards in the area. I’ve also gone through some leadership roles and done some speaking. The folks in my community and on the boards that I serve on, they have helped me grow as a communicator and as a leader.”
If you feel like you’re not as effective as you could be talking to your people and delivering information, find ways to practice. Learn what works and doesn’t work, and it will help you improve.
“I have topics that I need to speak about and those topics are written down, usually on a piece of paper,” Saale says. “But I don’t write it out. I used to write it out and I used to read from the paper, but I’ve come a long way. Now I just kind of go with the flow. “I try to talk to them on an even keel, and I don’t try to be this person who is the president and is trying to make this big statement. I’m much more personable. I engage my people. I giggle or sometimes I tear up, depending on what I’m talking about. I just try to be very personable.”
Another important component is the fact that Saale doesn’t shy away when she makes mistakes, either through action or something she said.
“You’ve got to lead by example and if somebody has a critique about something I did or didn’t do, I listen,” Saale says. “It’s a consistency thing that you always have to be aware of. “It’s about talking to them on their level and getting them to understand why some of the things that we do, why we do it that way. They need to know the whys behind things and I think that gets them to buy in.
“They may not all agree about certain things, but it is what it is. It’s all about engaging them as a team and helping them understand that we’re all in this together.”
When you get feedback in those situations and people pose questions back to you, the same rules apply as to any other situation: Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer.
“I don’t have a problem saying, ‘You know what, I have no idea,’” Saale says. “If you try to come up with a half answer, that’s not good enough. I usually just say, ‘Good question. Let’s get so and so in here who is more of an expert. I’ll learn from it, too, as we go through it.’”
You can’t worry about what your people think or about cynics who believe as the CEO, you should know everything about every last detail of the company.
“If people want to think that, they are going to think it, and there is nothing I can do about it,” Saale says. “But I’m surely not going to be one to say I know something when I don’t know it. I think I’m versed in all the different divisions in my company, but there are things I don’t know how to do. I understand the process. I’m versed in as much as I need to know.
“If there is an issue that comes up, I can get the background to understand what the problem is so we can try to get to the root cause to try to fix it.”
Bring people together
One area that has been a particular concern for Saale at Cope Plastics is interdepartmental communication.
“Most of our groups are pretty cohesive,” Saale says. “The challenge is when you start talking about inventory management to salespeople or to the branch managers and that dynamic of getting them to understand what the inventory manager’s role is or the material manager’s role is or what the salesperson’s role is. Everybody has their own directives and goals and objectives. It’s trying to get them to mesh.”
As part of the effort to fix this and bring more common purpose to everyone’s work life, Saale is working to instill shadowing opportunities for people to experience what happens outside their department.
“I need to get them to understand the whole piece — salespeople shadowing people in corporate and corporate going out and shadowing salespeople just to see what their challenges are on a daily basis,” she says. “That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking at to meld these departments together and communicate better and understand both sides of the equation.
“I just think it’s a huge value to have people who understand and are better-rounded and understand not just what they are doing, but how all the other departments need to work together.”
When you have meetings with department heads, make sure people are getting an opportunity to get familiar with what others are doing. You don’t want to overload them with things they don’t need to know or that don’t concern them. But a basic level of knowledge can go a long way.
“I’ve grown a lot with my plant manager and my director of manufacturing and understanding their challenges and the whole process of manufacturing and all that goes into that,” Saale says. “I feel with the background I have, I can be very empathetic and sympathetic when I need to, but I also understand these are the things we need to do to make it better.”
When Saale addresses her employees, she doesn’t go in expecting a ton of questions at the end of her remarks.
“Usually there are one or two people that you know are going to ask a question,” Saale says. “For the most part, people don’t raise their hands in those meetings. You just have to say, ‘OK, I have an open-door policy. But do me the courtesy of making sure your supervisor knows that you are coming to me.’ I don’t like people to do end runs.”
If you want to be collaborative, you’ve got to make yourself available. But you also need to take care that you’re not cutting out leaders who you’re paying to serve in a supervisory role and deal with certain situations on their own.
“That puts their supervisors in a bad way, and I don’t like that,” Saale says. “As long as their supervisors are aware of it and for whatever reason, they can’t get the answers they are looking for or they are frustrated, that’s fine. I just try to encourage them to go through the proper channels first. It is somewhat of a reflection on them if they don’t and it makes them look bad.”
As much effort as you make to hear the concerns of your people, you’ve also got to be careful that you don’t let them rely on you or on their supervisors so much that they become unwilling or unable to make decisions on their own.
“There are times I want to go, ‘Guys, you’re the experts. I’m not in your field, so guess what? You make that decision. If you fail, that’s fine. Try something else. I’m not perfect. We go one way and that doesn’t work, we’ll admit it didn’t work and go in a different direction,’” Saale says.
Saale takes the same approach of instilling self-reliance when she asks others to deliver information to the rest of the company. She doesn’t go overboard imposing her will on their thoughts and she doesn’t ask them to recite everything they are going to say to her before they talk to the team.
“You just have to ask questions, things like, ‘OK, what are you saying? Does that make sense?’” Saale says. “You have to give communication back to them. I try to be collaborative, almost to the point where people think I’m too collaborative or too soft.
“I don’t say, ‘OK, now read that back to me. Or tell me what I just said.’ I guess it’s a matter of how you present it back to them. But my approach is to give the people the opportunity to decide and make their own decisions. It’s always about, ‘How can I make you better.’ It’s all in the approach.”
How to reach: Cope Plastics Inc., (800) 851-5510 or www.copeplastics.com
Don’t think you’ve arrived as a great communicator.
Make sure your departments are coordinating.
Don’t let people shy away from decisions that can make.
The Saale File
Born: Alton, Ill.
Education: Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Ill. Business administration degree with a concentration in accounting. I love numbers, but I’m also an extrovert. Most of the time, your numbers people are kind of black and white. I’m not black and white. I’m definitely gray. I have a mixture of accounting and marketing in my blood.
What was your first job? I worked at Ken’s Pizza as a waitress. I learned about dealing with people and being a servant. It somewhat humbles you to serve other people and want to do the right thing and make them happy so they enjoy their experience.
Who would you like to sit down and talk to? Because I was too young and too inexperienced and naive to think about it before he passed away, it would be my grandpa. He’s the one who started this business. He passed away in 1995. I was 30 at the time and I didn’t have the experience and knowledge and know-how I have today. So I never sat down with him on a business level. He was always just Grandpa. And I would love to do that. Boy, would I like to pick his brain about things at work.