Lessons Learned

Learning how to effectively communicate with employees took many years to develop and refine.ÿIt sounds simple: tell them what is going on, listen to what they have to say and then they will do what you need them to do – but it is never that easy. It is all about developing trust and confidence through consistency, openness and repetition. ÿ

My cornerstone was the monthly “all hands” meetings with employees.ÿ It was targeted to be held during the second week of each month and never “skipped” or “canceled,” and as President or GM, I always had to be there, no substitutions or stand-ins.ÿ End-of-day or first thing in the morning did not work well since employees were focused on their next activity.ÿ After lunch seemed to be the best time, but we learned never to “dim” the lights so everyone was awake.ÿ Second and third shift meetings had a slightly different schedule, but always happened on the same day as the rest.ÿ

The general agenda was always the same and included a discussion of the orders and shipments for the last month, a review of key “measurements,” gross margins, discussions about safety and quality followed by a variety of topics such as policy changes, upcoming events, customer highlights, team presentations and profit sharing announcements.ÿ

We tried to keep the length to an hour, always started on time with presentations from a number of my direct reports in addition to myself.ÿ Consistency was important with these meetings; employees knew that there was a regular opportunity to hear how the business was doing and to raise questions if they had any.

Because of the large size of the meetings, even the most vocal critics would be shy about asking questions in front of their peers. ÿWhen asked, these always proved to be challenging to answer on the spot and sometimes had to be deferred with “will get back to you on this.”ÿ Questions about personal issues or that called out specific individuals were handled “off-line”. ÿ”Repetition” was important, often covering descriptions of various benefits changes month after month or even yearly. ÿHumor also helped. ÿI remember once being wrapped up in a fire blanket, rolled on the floor and doused with a Carbon Dioxide fire extinguisher to emphasize fire safety, and around Halloween, the staff all wore costumes. ÿFrom time to time, we provided “celebration” lunches before these meetings; as my Mom told me, food is the most direct way to the heart!

However, I found that these meetings did not have enough opportunity for listening to specific issues that employees had and therefore held monthly “Employee Council” meetings consisting of 10 volunteer representatives rotating from various departments to meet as a group with me.

No managers attended and members were encouraged to bring questions from their “groups,” and again-names were not mentioned and the “state of the business” was always discussed along with safety and quality. Meetings lasted about an hour, there was lots of dialogue and a summary of the questions and responses was included in payroll check envelopes for the week. ÿAbout 10 days before the meeting we put out a “Question Box” to solicit anonymous or signed questions that would be addressed at the conclusion of each meeting. ÿI worked hard to provide answers to any question, and issues that were unresolved remained on the list and were reviewed each month. ÿ

Examples would include: ÿinadequate snow shoveling and sand in the driveways, temperature levels in the offices, poor quality of the cleaning services, requests to add specific benefits to our offering, more durable gloves in the press area, questions about specific customers, etc. ÿIn November of each year, this group also allocated the 11 vacation days across the next year’s calendar, sharing the responsibility for the dates selected. ÿThey also provided members for organizing lunches, holiday grabs, and other employee events.ÿ

Monthly staff meetings, 3 hours long, seemed to work best with a fixed agenda and deeper dives into strategy, tactics and policies in each area. ÿThis was also encouraged at the Department level to push down information into each area. ÿWe scheduled a full shift overlap meeting for 15 minutes, despite the challenges in the parking lot and the loss of productivity and machine time because they were invaluable in passing on critical info and data. ÿVarious message boards in each unit recorded information to be passed from shift to shift. ÿOur cafeteria area had a looping powerpoint presentation that was updated weekly and highlighted key measurements, customer activity, safety programs and significant milestones and employee anniversaries. ÿOf course, the top management team was encouraged to always walk the shop floor and dialogue with employees, including answering questions and inquiries about the business. ÿEvery two years we used a 60-question employee survey to solicit input and measure ourselves against prior surveys.

A number of things did not work well. ÿA suggestion box was demoralizing and a nightmare to maintain, edjudicate and often time ended up rewarding those whose job it was to come up with cost savings. ÿUnless you can dedicate resources to a monthly Newsletter, it can become very irregular and difficult to meet the “consistency and frequency” test that is so critical to all communications. ÿThese communications techniques cannot be “delegated” to Human Resources and have to be led by the management team, setting examples for the department, area and shift meetings.ÿ

All in all, these were all simple and straightforward ways to have a dialogue with employees. ÿThey were successful because management was visible on a regular basis with consistently presented information, and issues and challenges were transparent to everyone in the business.

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Jim Sharpe (MBA `76) is one of theÿHBS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence for the 2009-2010 academic year, who ran an aluminum manufacturing business for 21 years while working with his wife, Debby Stein Sharpe (MBA `81) after both left careers at GE and large companies and sold the business in late 2008. ÿJim can be reached at: jsharpe@hbs.edu, 310 Rock Center, 617-496-6285.