MT Expert's Ten Top Tips: How leaders should communicate in a recession

Stephen Martin of the Clugston Group gives MT his top tips on getting your corporate message out.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In times like these, when staff may be worried about their jobs or their company's prospects, it's vital for corporate leaders to make sure their message is getting across properly. When Clugston Group CEO Stephen Martin spent a week working incognito on his building sites, as part of Channel 4's 'Undercover Boss' series, he discovered that despite the company's best efforts, his message wasn't getting through to front-line staff. Since he got back, he's been implementing a raft of changes. So we asked him what he'd learned.

1. Be seen
There is an instinct for managers to stay in their offices more than usual in a recession - you've no good news to tell people; you're snowed under with yet more budget revisions. But you need to be out and about more often, even if there is nothing particular to say. I found rumours sprang up to fill the communication gap and they always imagined the worst - ‘I haven’t seen our manager this week, they must be planning more redundancies’.

You need to spend more time preparing managers than normal - at a time when you are actually busier because you have fewer people, so this needs some commitment. If there aren’t the obvious good news stories - e.g. big new orders or plans to expand - you have to find interesting and helpful things to say. In our case, engineers are not particularly natural communicators, and being out and about without much to say can raise more questions than answers. But you still need to do it.

2. Communicate more regularly than normal
If you normally send out monthly bulletins, consider doing them weekly.

3. Explain redundancies to those left behind
We had put a great deal of effort into explaining the redundancies to those who left. We hadn’t realised the lack of explanation to those who were staying. I couldn’t believe the theories people created about who had been chosen for redundancy and why. They would decide it was based on length of service - and then hear of Jo from another site who had gone, which blew that theory. So they started again, trying to work out the logic. Because they didn’t understand the criteria, they reckoned ‘next time, it will be me’.

4. Break down the 'tie and suit' barrier
I was really interested to see how much a suit and tie creates a barrier. When I joined the business two years ago, I spent considerable time and effort getting out to all the sites and meeting people. When I went undercover, I realised no-one really notices or listens to ‘the suits’, and certainly would not give them honest feedback if asked for an opinion. They were more relaxed talking to a TV camera with the crew behind it than they were to management. My lesson was that we need to create more informal ways to communicate and listen.

5. Refresh your communications
You can’t standardise communications, and you need to keep changing them to have an impact. We saw our notice-boards as the main communication tool, but I realised people just walk past them. They have to be constantly refreshed and pictures work best - most of our teams read the Mirror and the Sun and we need to get our communications to relate to these styles when designing posters and notices.

6. Ask questions
We are now asking people regularly about how they want us to communicate with them. We have done this survey both by sending out questionnaires and by speaking to people.

7. Demonstrate that you’ve listened
We had been consulting on a number of issues, but hadn’t gone back to tell people what we were doing and why. At grass roots level, if people didn’t see any change they just assumed we were not interested in their views. They were not that bothered about the changes themselves - they did want to know we had considered their views and how we were making our decisions.

8. Introduce 'skip level' meetings
I realised we had spent a lot of time planning our communications but not checking if they had been carried out as agreed, or if the messages had got through. We have now introduced occasional 'skip level' meetings, where managers meet directly with teams two levels below - i.e. skipping the normal manager in between.

9. Choose your times carefully
Whenever we broke for lunch, I would always be asking questions about why did they do this, what did they think of that. Very quickly I was put in my place.  ‘Look mate, can you just stop asking questions.  It’s lunch.  I want to read the Sun.’ It made me think about the need to communicate when people want to listen - about not intruding on their space.

10. Help your managers become better communicators
I could see at first hand that a lot of managers are not good communicators.  This is a skill I really want to develop within our business. Some bosses are just shy, but the teams think because a manager does not say hallo he is not interested in them. Another manager always talked about his ‘open door’. But I heard one person comment: ‘I’ve always got to go to him - why doesn’t he come to me?’

Before I went undercover, I thought our communications were pretty good. I didn’t see the things that I was worried about - hearing people slag off the company or being casual about health and safety.  But I did realise that communications are one of the most critical business priorities in difficult times and that we all need to think of them from the bottom up.

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