“Building a Business”: Vol. 30

The North Bay Business Journal, a publication of the New York Times, is a weekly business newspaper which covers the North Bay area of San Francisco – from the Golden Gate bridge north, including the Wine Country of Sonoma and Napa counties.



Article published – November 17, 2008

BUILDING A BUSINESS: Turbulent times demand honest, regular discussions with employees

“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” – Will Rogers

I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs over the last few weeks. Most of them are shell-shocked by the economic reverberations that are undermining their businesses. Like all of us, they are befuddled by the high degree of volatility and the low level of visibility, a confluence I refer to as the Double V that is plaguing all of our businesses.

Most CEOs, however, share a troubling characteristic. They don’t know what to say to their employees – and because the uncertainty they see is so throttling, they’re not saying anything.

That’s a mistake. At this point, to find an employee who is not nervous about his/her company and employment situation is as rare as snowshoes in Sonoma. If you’re feeling frustrated over this dilemma, here’s a chance to use at least four “F” words to express your feelings.

• Face time. Make sure you’re spending time with your employees. Be seen. Be with them. Show them that you’re confident about your ability to get through these difficult times. Show them that you’re not afraid of the dialogue that’s needed, even if you don’t have all the answers.

• Be Forthcoming. Tell it straight as you best understand it in this Double V economy, and tell it all. Tell them that you don’t have all the answers but you’re determined to get through this. You’ll do everything possible to avoid layoffs but you’ll need their help. It’s time to pick up the nickels and dimes on the floor. Encourage them to find the savings in efficiency and productivity that offers the best chance to prevent layoffs.

• Give them the Facts not fiction. The facts are elusive these days and rarely consistent. You only need to look at the almost doubling of the AIG bailout money to confirm how little even our financial leaders understand. Recommit yourself to truth telling at all costs.

• Frequency. Don’t stop communicating. Over-communicate. Meet regularly with your employees to reaffirm your plans and direction. For the foreseeable future, not a lot of positive news is expected, and the odds are that your employees will continue to wade through headlines every day that herald unwelcome news.

Sprinkle these generously in your conversations with employees. Additionally, use the simple checklist below to help you prepare for your next meeting with them:

1. Admit the uncertainty. Don’t pretend you have all the answers. Don’t avoid the tough questions. Be honest. You’re in this together and will try to figure it out together.

2. Tell each employee what you need from him/her to succeed. Make them part of the solution.

3. Create a penalty-free environment. Encourage your employees to participate in the solution by giving them the freedom to take initiative and make changes.

4. Form is as important as content. Watch your tone.

Your positive attitude and authenticity will mean as much as the content of your ideas.

5. Be sure to fulfill your promise to keep them informed when there is a course correction required.

Don’t wait to get this done. Your employees are walking on eggshells every day.

If you follow these few simple steps, you’ll be rewarded by loyal employees who will hunker down and go the extra mile to help your company arrive safely on the other side of this storm.


Lary Kirchenbauer is the president of Exkalibur Advisors Inc., providing practical business strategies for family and other privately owned businesses in the middle market. He works closely with senior executives and their businesses to accelerate their growth and improve personal and professional performance. Please visit his blog, The Daily Bull, at www.exkalibur.com and look for other helpful counsel under the category, “Surviving the Storm.”





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