CEOs of small companies help employees see the same big picture they do

Ahhh. White sands bend around a peaceful blue bay. Or, a spectacular view unfolds all the way down the slope of perfectly packed snow. Visualize yourself at the destination. Call this number, and you are there.

But life is not a vacation. When it comes to work, knowing the destination--achieving business goals---and the route to arrival--company philosophy and values--isn't always so clear. The big picture is in the boss's head, not in a travel brochure.

Large companies hire professional communicators to translate the CEO's vision for the workforce. Writers who specialize in internal communication keep employees focused on business goals, help workers understand marketplace pressures so they can offer better customer service, provide people with information to make sound decisions, and clarify workplace matters like company benefits or operations. Effective internal communication programs boost morale and the bottom line.

But in small companies, a CEO is usually on her own to draw the staff a vision-picture. Actually, it's usually words instead of a visual. Mostly, it's all about talking--frequently and specifically.

Whether you are a company president or department manager, you have conversations with your staff without giving it much thought. In fact, research shows that women are more comfortable and confident in this role than men, even when they are acting on instinct rather than formal training.

With a conscious attempt, however, you can sharpen the vision-picture for your staff. It's worth the extra effort. Getting everyone in step with your vision helps employees make a solid contribution toward business success.

Simply stated, communication is a component of excellence in overall management. Here four steps you can take.

1. Get personal

In one-on-one conversations, you gain employees' commitment, offer guidance on their day-to-day work, and reinforce company values. You probably know each person's family, likes and dislikes, and strengths and weaknesses, so even a business conversation unfolds as personal and meaningful.

"I'm very fortunate that I have a small company that still allows me to be able to know everybody's name and keep up on what everybody is doing," said Phyllis Browning, president of Phyllis Browning Company, a real estate company. "It's important to me to know if someone has problems at home like a sick child or going through divorce. It's going to have an impact on their professional lives."

She works with three managers overseeing more than 125 real estate agents. That's a lot of people to keep up with, especially considering she started with two agents when she formed the company in 1989. "It's been steady growth. The biggest change came about eight years ago when we opened an office on Blanco and Bitters roads. Our agents needed a place to stop for a Coke--a small office with a computer and a bathroom so they wouldn't have to drive back to the Alamo Heights office," she said. Suddenly, she faced the challenge of staying in regular contact with staff members in multiple locations.

"It's difficult. I do not get to the Blanco and Bitters office as much as I'd like to," Browning said. "We have one meeting a week with all agents from all offices. We also have one place were we have phone duty, where an agent sits on the telephone and takes in calls from signs or newspaper ads. That one particular place is at the Broadway office, selfishly, where I am, so I can see who's on the phone and get to know them."

2. Explain why we do this every day

Lib McGregor Simmons manages a staff of 10, double the size when she started as pastor of University Presbyterian Church 11 years ago. Her mission might seem obvious, but actually, like any business operation, the big picture can get cloudy. Simmons clarifies. "I set the tone of trust and articulate a vision. Then, at the same time, I help the staff be aware of making it concrete."

When they understand the tangible, specific actions needed to reach goals, people can do their very best. "I spend time with each of our program staff every week talking about the concreteness of what they are doing. We're relating it to the bigger picture," the Rev. Simmons said.

The challenge is to connect the dots between an individual's work in the trenches and the big picture. It makes more sense when a worker sees the whole pie, not just "my slice" of the work pie. To that end, Simmons holds a weekly, 30-minute, calendar-and-communication meeting for the whole staff. "Their primary responsibility is to do work in their small arena. My job is to help them see the connection to other activities. If we're all succeeding, that's better for the whole church," Simmons said. "We talk about how programs might relate to each other."

3. Allow relationships to flourish

Another factor that helps employees achieve business goals is finding supportive relationships on the job. People find co-workers with common interests and become friends. They call on each other with questions, draw from each other's experiences, and depend on one another's guidance. People bonded in workplace relationships learn faster, perform better, and are more committed to the company. In conversations, employees arrive at a common meaning for what goes on at work.

Phyllis Browning Company promotes relationships with a mentor system, linking a new agent with a veteran agent. "When a new agent needs someone, an experienced agent is there to help them, along with their manager," Browning said.

"The way our company works, people genuinely care about each other. We had an agent who fell and broke her hip. She was living in a two-story house. An agent with a one-story house took her in and helped take care of her," Browning said. "That's the type of people we want in this company, those that care about everyone--including their customers and clients."

When staff members take time to talk, what might appear on the surface to be idle conversation distracting them from their work in fact may be beneficial relationship-building. When the conversation includes the company president--or even just knowledge of the leader's opinion--these unofficial discussions reinforce the big picture.

4. Build conversations into business operations

Structure and process crowd out relationships, especially in growing organizations with new levels of management to lighten the CEO's load. Browning, however, asks her managers to keep her informed about agents, so she remains knowledgeable and connects with them when conversations do occur. "I have three wonderful managers. They feed me information when there might be something I should know," she said.

Formal meetings mushroom in businesses that need to force conversation. While meetings can be deadly dull, conversation shouldn't be. A more pleasing option puts staff discussions about the business and individual contributions into ongoing operations and processes.

For example, Simmons leads a mid-week worship service, and while staff members are not required to attend, doing so gives them an opportunity to share stories about what is going on in their lives. In addition, a once-a-month staff lunch brings everyone together. "One of us cooks--a chef of the month. We go through our monthly activities, and people bring a list of issues they have encountered," she said.

Listening is half of any conversation, of course. "It's real important for me to hear what agents are saying," Browning said. "We have a group that meets once a month to bring to the table any problems they are experiencing or any changes they think should happen. It's an advisory group, and the agents select who they want to serve for one year."

Simmons makes a concerted effort to listen, too. "I try to pay attention to the content of what they are saying. But I ask myself, 'What's really going on here?' I try to keep the big picture in mind."

What's really going on here? That's what employees want to know, too. When people come to work, they just naturally talk with each other about it, looking for insight. The boss's big picture provides an answer.

This article by Sheri Rosen first appeared in San Antonio Woman magazine, March/April 2005