CWB March 2004


Communication Breakdown


The 'Fatal Mistakes' series continues with the symptoms of — and cures for — reluctant leaders.


By Anthony Noel

Last month we introduced a new series, "Fatal Mistakes." The premise is that there are five main operational areas within any business and ignoring symptoms of "illness" in any one of these areas can prove fatal. Those five operational areas are: Costs, Capital Expenditures, Marketing, Overall Management Approach and Communication.

We began last month with Communication, and the ailment of Deafness. Now we move on to a close relative of Deafness, Muteness.


In human physiology, deafness and muteness often go hand in hand and tend to be strongly related in terms of their seriousness. For example, a person who has lost half his hearing ability often speaks somewhat unclearly, for he is unable to properly hear himself. As total deafness approaches, speech suffers more and more.

In business, similar correlations can be drawn. But, as we pointed out last month, Deafness among managers is a choice, not an involuntarily acquired affliction.


Still, while it is possible to have one without the other, Deafness and Muteness in management situations are often fueled by each other. It is pretty hard, after all, to speak up about something when you refuse to hear what's happening.


Some indicators that symptoms of managerial Muteness has or will develop include: No regular meetings with key people, be they employees, customers or suppliers; no annual (or better yet, twice-a-year) reviews with every employee; and discomfort with the idea of being a leader, manager, employer — whatever you want to call it.


As for the first two of these indicators, remember something we said last time: Most of the maladies we will cover in this series are contagious. Employees get them from management.


Like it or not, as a manager, you are being watched — and your example will be followed by most of your people. Unless you consistently (not constantly — there is a difference, and we will look at it next month when we discuss Terminal Friendliness) remind people that you want them to come to you and speak their mind, they are far less likely to do so. But if you give reminders and make a point of meeting with employees on a regular basis, you give them ample opportunity to be heard - and you give yourself the chance to correct little problems before they morph into big ones.


When you meet, listening (the opposite of Deafness) is crucial. But after you have listened, speaking up is just as important. If you remain Mute, those you work with will only feel that they have wasted their breath — increasing the odds that they will choose Muteness themselves in the future.


All of this is very nice and logical. But what if you suffer from discomfort with your role as a manager in the first place? This threat of Muteness is less related to Deafness than the first two.


If the very thought of speaking up about things you see or hear and don't like sends you into a cold sweat, don't worry. You can overcome it.


For starters, don't beat yourself up for being a reluctant leader. You are not alone. Anybody who tells you it is easy to lead is full of malarkey. This goes even for a so-called "natural born leader."


In fact, in my experience, "natural born leader" is just another name for "natural born salesman." And as anybody who has ever worked for someone who attained a leadership role by climbing through the sales ranks will tell you, such folks may be many things, but in general, leaders they are not. There is a big difference between selling something and making it work. Managers make things work. Salesmen blame others when they don't.


It is a real dichotomy in business. The people with the most nuts-and-bolts knowledge about the product or process — knowledge usually acquired through years of study and a real passion for that product or process — tend also to be the most reluctant leaders. They have so immersed themselves in doing excellent work that they (1) can't understand how anybody can't love this stuff as much as they do, and (2) hate the idea of having to motivate them to love it and care about it and do it right.


"Let me make beautiful, functional stuff out of this material I love and LEAVE ME ALONE!" pretty much sums up the way many of us feel. A nice dream, but if you have even one employee or one supplier or one customer, it is a little too late for that.


So how do you overcome your natural inclination toward keeping your mouth shut and doing your job, and transform it into a willingness, even excitement, about speaking your mind and leading a group to make beautiful, functional stuff?


You do it by becoming (shudder) a salesman. But not some leader-wannabe salesman of the sort we so thoroughly disparaged just a few paragraphs ago. No. Your nuts-and-bolts knowledge and passion for woodworking puts you miles ahead of such clueless characters.


You know what it takes to do good work, and you know not everybody is cut out to do it. You have to "sell" that truth to your customers, your suppliers and, most of all, to your employees. Some will buy, many won't. You need to accept that and part ways with those who don't share your vision.


"Represent" is a word that came out of hip-hop that applies nicely here. "Testify" is an old-school term that also works. Whatever you want to call it, it is up to you, as the person leading this venture, to represent for your vision, to testify, on a regular basis, to your uncompromising commitment to doing things the right way — and to accept no less from your associates.


As we have said so often of so many other things in this column over the years, it is far easier said than done in the first few instances. But, like turning away unprofitable work or severing ties with a useless supplier, it becomes easier the more you do it.


To make doing it those first few times easier, keep your vision in mind. Refuse to let anything cloud it. Bear in mind that nothing will cloud your vision quite so fast as not keeping it in front of your people. So let them know what you expect. Give them what they need to produce it, including your encouragement.


Then, speak up. Call them on anything that falls short of the mark.


Of course, some methods for doing that work better than others, and we will look at them next month, when we diagnose and treat Terminal Friendliness.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.