If you don�t think that our society is experiencing a communication
overload, you really are living under a rock. We can (over)share
every aspect of our lives in real time via social media. We can
record all of the ups and downs of our personal sagas through blogs.
We can call or text anyone at any time.
And the communication avalanche doesn�t exist just in our personal
lives. Today, it�s a lot easier to get in touch with coworkers and
ask them for information whenever and wherever you need it. And you
can share every detail of your current project with your boss just
by clicking �send.� We�re much better off than we were 20 years ago,
Well, maybe not. According to OfficeMax cofounder, former CEO, and
serial entrepreneur Michael Feuer (pronounced �Foyer�), innovations
in communication sometimes make it more difficult to get the point
�Since we can say as much as we want in multiple forums these days,
almost everyone � including businesspeople � provide TMI (too much
information) in their exchanges,� points out Feuer, author of the
new book The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build
Your Business, and Outwit the Competition. �In many
organizations, the art of cutting to the chase has been lost.�
Feuer knows what he�s talking about: he has been involved with
launching a number of business ventures, including OfficeMax and
Max-Wellness, a recently launched only-one-of-its-kind health and
wellness retail chain concept.
The lessons he�s learned have convinced him that a great leader�s
management style should mirror that of a benevolent dictator, which
is not as scary as it sounds. Because at the end of the day, the
�dictator� side of you calls the shots and makes the difficult
decisions, but your �benevolent� side does so while putting the
interests of the organization and your customers ahead of your own.
And part of being a benevolent dictator is requiring clear, concise
communication at all levels, so that key decisions can be made
quickly and effectively.
�Before today�s instant transmission of words and numbers by
lightning-fast speed, you had to talk to your boss in person, on the
phone, or in a hard copy report,� Feuer explains. �In all of those
formats, it was in your best interest to get to the point quickly.
These days, though, there are e-mail in-boxes, shared calendars and
documents, instant messaging programs, and much more. Employees can
send a constant stream of information to others � and that�s a
problem that�s bleeding into face-to-face interactions, too.�
If you�ve ever asked an employee or a coworker a basic question and
gotten an e-mail that took you 15 minutes to read and answer that
should have taken 15 seconds, then you know what Feuer is talking
about. �Your team members may want to provide you with excessive
detail in the hope that you will recognize them as the ultimate
experts on various topics. However, you must let them know that a
succinct response is much more valuable.�
To encourage more concise and effective communication in your
organization, consider Feuer�s tips:
Be clear about what you need.
The first step in encouraging concise communication is to be
straightforward about what you need. In other words, if you don�t
want to read between others� lines, don�t force them to do so with
you. Remember, though, that one size doesn�t fit all, so you may
have to infuse your cut-to-the-chase request with humor or
compliments to soften the message � or you may have to resort to the
�ton of bricks� approach!
�When someone is giving me way too much information, I politely
interrupt and tell him that I recognize him as an expert on the
subject matter being discussed,� Feuer shares. �Then I say that
since I know it�s a given that this person knows his stuff, I merely
need a short sound bite. Usually, this strategy soon leads to more
frequent one- or two-sentence summaries. If it doesn�t, well�that�s
when the ton of bricks comes in!�
Overhaul voice mail and e-mail.
If someone is consistently wordy with you, odds are that person is
loquacious in most other situations, too. Asking her/him to put the
bottomline upfront when reporting to you is a good first step, but
you must be sure that person is applying this lesson to other
aspects of the workday. A good place to start is with voice mail and
e-mail, since these forums are used frequently throughout the day.
�Survey your team members� current responses for their business
e-mail and telephone messages, and prepare to be shocked by the
content and length!� Feuer advises. �Then supervise the shortening
process. You may even have your HR or PR department provide brief
scripts for employees who have trouble keeping their messages short.
Each script should be tailored to the person�s job function and
provide an alternate contact for emergencies. I think you�ll find
that your team appreciates the scripted assistance, because it gives
them one less thing to worry about.�
Talk through conversations.
Now that you�ve tackled e-mails and recorded messages, it�s time to
move on to something a little less predictable: conversations. While
you can�t control every word that comes out of your team members�
mouths, you can establish standards of what is appropriate. Tell
them that brevity and clarity are key, and point out that these
things will set your organization apart from the competition. After
all, clients and callers will appreciate the chance to do as much
talking and question-asking as they want.
�Also consider asking your employees to end all conversations and
messages with a tagline that expresses your organization�s best
attribute,� suggests Feuer. �Some tried-and-true examples are �Your
satisfaction is our number-one priority,� and �Getting to the point
makes us better.� At Max-Wellness, our branding tagline is simply
�Be well.� I�ve found that clients respond better to these than
gratuitous endings like �Have a stupendous day.��
Get frequent updates from key people.
(Simply put, micro-manage.) Somewhere along the line, micro-manage
has become a bad word. It conjures up images of bosses who can�t
delegate, who don�t trust their team members, and who don�t give
employees room to do their best work. No, you shouldn�t do your
team�s work for them, but according to Feuer, you should get regular
(and of course, succinct!) updates from key people. These
fast-and-frequent communications allow you to keep your finger on
your organization�s pulse.
�When you know what�s happening in real time, you can accelerate
your organization�s growth and prevent garden-variety problems from
snowballing into disasters of Biblical proportions,� explains Feuer.
�During the first 18 months of OfficeMax, I required every store to
call my home seven nights a week to give me sales figures, which I
recorded in a ledger. This ritual helped me to manage our growth by
knowing our daily cash-flow, with an emphasis on accounts payable
down to the last few dollars. This protocol not only accelerated our
growth but set a management style for executives to operate in a
similar know-what�s-happening fashion. Don�t underestimate the
importance of remaining aware of the flow of factual information!�
Use your negatives sparingly.
Say you�re telling your team everything they need to know, but you
still aren�t getting the results you want. What gives? Well, the
problem might lie in how you�re delivering that cut-to-the-chase
sound bite. Think about it: how many of your announcements start
with a negative, followed by a litany of unpleasant consequences?
(For example, �If we don�t increase sales next month, we�ll have to
start letting people go.�)
�Many leaders think that this style is more forceful and expedient,
but it�s actually counterproductive,� says Feuer. �If you make too
many of these negative announcements, your employees will be
motivated only by fear and desperation � at least in the beginning.
As time goes on (and presumably, a majority of your threats don�t
come to pass), your team will come to see you as a knucklehead, and
they�ll start to ignore your message altogether.�
Look in the mirror.
The Golden Rule � �do unto others as you would have them do unto
you� � definitely applies to leadership and business. It�s always a
good idea to treat your team as participants and partners in
whatever you�re doing; not just as people to blame when something
goes wrong. Remember that they appreciate appropriate amounts of
respect and praise, and that they also enjoy being given credit for
having the ability to grasp the obvious.
�If you�re not getting the results you want, you might be the
problem,� Feuer shares. �Leaders, especially those nearer to the top
of the organizational hierarchy, sometimes forget how it felt to be
directed. Ask yourself how you�d want to be told to do something
important. Chances are it wouldn�t be to do XYZ, or face dire
consequences without any further explanation. When you�re open about
what�s at stake and use a logical, positive tone, you�ll probably
find that your communications take root and grow!�
Remember that the medium is the message.
If you�re like most leaders, every minute of your day is more than
spoken for, and you may tend to tell your team what they need to
hear, regardless of the overarching circumstances. Despite your busy
schedule, try to always keep in mind that the vehicle or venue you
select to deliver your directive is just as important as the point
itself. Good news should be presented in an upbeat setting, and more
serious subjects should be broached in a setting that�s strictly
�Delivering a serious concern about sales would be an inappropriate
announcement to make at an awards event, for instance,� says Feuer.
�Knowing when to say the right thing will lend your message
credibility and significance.
�Yes, there will always be some people who will require the
ton-of-bricks approach when it comes to giving and receiving
appropriate communication,� concludes Feuer. �But if you�re open
about the level of succinctness that you want and model those
behaviors yourself, you�ll find that most of your team will get on
board quickly. And chances are, they�ll also be grateful that you�ve
cut out all the background noise.�
Michael Feuer cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store
and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of
investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide
with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of
Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and
founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness
retail chain launched in 2010.
For information about Feuer�s book The Benevolent Dictator