Accelerator: Just do it - Yes, it's always good to talk

A constant dialogue with staff keeps spirits up, says John Vincent, co-founder of Leon Restaurants.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We went to the Sony Radio Awards recently as guests of a man called Phil, who is launching a great thing called Food Radio. After dinner, Paul Gambuccini, who now looks like your Dad but still sounds like a fun big brother, gave out the big prizes. All the winners who came on stage said: 'Wow, this is unexpected', and told us that, in truth, the award was for the 'team'. Except for Terry Wogan, who said: 'I'd like to point out that I don't have a team. I have underlings. Employees. Peons.' And we all laughed, because it was funny.

Whether you think of the people who do all the work for you as a team or underlings or staff (we have tried using the word 'people', which seems to do the trick), it's clear that there are only two ways to get them doing the right things: good old-fashioned communication, or telepathy.

Lying in bed at night, it's easy to think: 'It's so obvious what needs to be done, why don't my team just do it'. The question to ask is: 'How obvious is it?' Are they acting out of stubbornness or a desire to stop you sleeping - or could it be that telepathy is experiencing teething problems?

We had a breakthrough this week when we sat down with a brilliant coach called Ed Percival. He pointed out that we had a powerful vision for Leon and a strong set of values, and that we nearly had a defined set of what we expect from our people each day and each week. When we looked at the measures we measure people on, they were not always specific and linked to the vision. So we took the managers sailing, found a pub and sat and wrote the measures together. It brought our daily targets into focus and reinforced our vision and values.

The way to get the best out of your people is to open your head, and some of your heart, to them: what your vision is for the company, what you expect from them, and how they and the company are doing compared with those expectations.

If we were honest with ourselves as bosses, how many of us would score full marks on all three? People love to be communicated with. The people who run our restaurants at Leon tell us that they hate secrets. They love to be kept in the loop of how the other restaurants are doing, which new sites we are thinking of opening, what's coming up on the summer menu.

I have been impressed with Vijay Mallya (the Richard Branson of India) and his insight that many leaders forget to say what they really expect of their people. Communication, like peace, needs to be constantly worked at. If you have a boss who never tells you what they think of you, it's human nature to assume the worst, and then everything they do just confirms your forebodings: 'He just walked past me without saying hello. I knew he hated me.'

Not everybody is prone to such extreme paranoia, but without communication, too many will go that way. There is a doom-loop that can set in. It's like getting progressively more behind with an old friend, until you get to the point where you are so embarrassed about being out of touch that it becomes unlikely that you'll ever get together again.

I decided to stop that happening with Leon - our restaurants are growing at such a rate, I no longer know the names of all the people who work with us. The more I felt cut off from them, the less I was engaging, through embarrassment at not knowing their names. So I called an amnesty on names and gave myself the rest of the month to sit down with each of our managers and tell them what's in my head.

The biggest challenge, of course, is that just when communication is most needed, it's most difficult to provide. When the problems of the firm are filling your head, when everyone needs a piece of you, when the bank and the investors and the creditors and the press are filling your diary, it's critical that you communicate internally as well.

So when you are in a tricky time, it's worth remembering these three tips (they say you teach best what you most need to learn): 1, One second of communicating what's in your head is better than none. 2, Any way of communicating now is better than the perfect way of communicating in a week's time. And 3, Honest bad news is better than spin any day.

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