“Nobody ever tells me these things”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner”
“I guess I should have included you in the list of people getting my memos”
The list of obstacles to good communication is almost endless. And each failure can mean serious losses—errors, delays, bottlenecks, misunderstandings. Accordingly, the executive who maintains effective communications up, down, and laterally has taken a giant step toward increasing his effectiveness.
At our workplace
GETTING YOUR SECRETARY TO SCREEN CALLS
It’s up to you to tell your secretary how you want incoming phone calls handled. Calls can be broken down into general categories: Business calls—urgent
- Business calls—routine
- Calls of solicitation (salesmen, for example)
- Calls of inquiry
- Calls from business friends that may be either business or personal calls
No general rules tell you how to handle calls in each of the above categories. But using the list as a basis for a discussion with your secretary you can tell her—
- which calls come through immediately
- which calls require taking a message for a call-back
- which calls require a turn-down: “I’m sorry but I am quite sure Mr. Smith is not interested.”
But it’s important to realize that your secretary is a public relations operative in her position as call-screener. A secretary may make it all too clear that she’s on the line to keep people away from the boss. The result can be cold, impersonal, and destructive of your executive image. The effective secretary is one who shows that she’s not only serving her boss but is rendering a service to the caller.
HANDLING THE PAPER FLOOD
The correspondence load tends to be a highly individualized problem. No two executives face the same situation. By the same token, no one employee can cover all aspects of the problem for everybody. Here are some basic methods that executives can use to individualize their handling of paperwork:
- The physical factor It’s not unusual to find a lopsided pile of mail in an undersized in-box. Of course, a barrel-sized receptacle would increase rather than minimize the problem. But just check to make sure that you have an adequate container for incoming material.
- Pre-sort delivery One method of pre-sorting can be especially effective if you can get cooperation from your mail handlers. Here are two versions of such a plan:
One Executive’s Mail-Handling Technique
Andrew A. Lynn, President of Yardley of London, Inc., handles his morning paperwork as follows:
- Read all mail.
- Dictate replies to all letters requiring personal attention.
- Instruct secretary on how to reply to routine letters.
- Forward mail to be handled by others to the appropriate associate, with comments or instructions, as necessary.
- File mail to be acted on at a future date in pending files, and instruct secretary to present them when they are due.
- Sort out reading matter and periodicals, put those to be read in a briefcase for home or commuting perusal.
Even where secretaries are competent to reply to routine letters, Lynn feel the executive should sign them. He says, “You should know the contents of any letter that goes out over your name. You owe the recipient the courtesy of a bona fide signature.”
You may agree with Lynn’s statement. On the other hand, some executives use the time-saver of having their names signed by an
assistant with the notation, “Per R.C.” the initials of the assistant.
Now here comes “SIX OBSTACLES TO COMMUNICATIONS WITH YOUR BOSS” that you may face every-day.
Even the best of bosses may have qualities that may create communications problems. Here are the six major complaints executives make about their contacts up the lines and what can be done about them:
1. When He Won’t Listen.
It has been noticed that many top executives say they don’t listen to communications from subordinates because information is presented in poorly organized form, or because opinions are brought in half-baked. Perhaps your boss ought to listen; but since he’s human, you may have to encourage him to pay attention. Whenever you communicate with him-
- Be brief.
- Be clear on the purpose of your communication.
- Define the problem involved, so that he can see it—fast.
- Organize the relevant facts so that he can get a grip on them—fast.
Map out possible alternatives, and give him your recommendations—clearly labeling what is opinion and what is fact.
- Appeal to your boss’s special interests: do things his way, as far as possible.
- Sell the benefits of his paying attention.
- Present any recommendations you have in terms of what they will do for him and for the company.
2. When He Won’t Talk.
“Cancel all overtime starting today!” Nothing more—no further word of explanation to you.
You know your people have been counting on the extra pay. With no explanation to give them, you expect trouble. It’s his mistake—but your problem.
Often a boss’s failure to tell the whole story is simply due to the fact that he has overlooked it. In the press of business, the matter slips his mind. Here are arguments that make your case with him:
- Lack of information can foul up your handling of a situation for which he is ultimately responsible.
- Incomplete information may send you off in the wrong direction—causing delays in meeting deadlines and similar waste.
- You may know of a Bette, alternative than one he suggests.
But, be specific. Talk about real cases and actual or potential consequences.
The most alarming aspect of this problem, though, occurs when the boss just hasn’t given you any clue at all that something is in the wind.
3. When He Won’t See You.
The boss behind the Mahogany Curtain is certainly a most difficult problem for every executive. You may have to prove that time spent with you is beneficial to him.
How? The steps recommended above for the boss who won’t listen apply to the boss who won’t see you. Add one additional requirement: you may have to pave the way with a telephone call, a brief preliminary one-sentence remark to him personally, or a message relayed to him through his secretary. In any of those cases, your short message must be well thought out to:
- arouse his interest
- suggest benefits that can be derived
- indicate that you will not burden him
4. When He’s Indecisive.
He’s the kind of boss, who, for example, fails to give needed information. But later, when things turn out badly, he says: “You sure screwed up the works. . . .”
On the other hand, the error into which many people tend to fall is the belief that the top executive will be able to answer any question—whether it has to do with a purchase of a box of paper clips or the relocation of an entire factory—off the cuff.
If your superior is indecisive, first make sure that you’re not expecting decision-making that would be as inadvisable as it would be impossible.
Let’s assume, however, that the boss is, in fact, a Hamlet in executive clothing. Here are the moves to make in order to get a decision:
- First, try to find out what decisions he would like you to make. That in itself is a decision, of course, but it’s one that would relieve him of a heavy burden.
- Second, when you do have a question for an indecisive boss, marshal all the facts he will need for a decision before you put the question to him.
- Third, spell out why a decision is needed and when.
- Fourth, if there is any chance of a kickback on the decision you ask for, spell it out. It’s amazing how often we delay decisions because consciously or unconsciously we are trying to anticipate any trouble they may cause. If you spell out what such trouble may be, you save your boss the time it would take him to think these matters through for himself.
5. If He’s a Bypasser.
He’s the boss who steps right in and gives orders to your subordinates. It’s safe to assume that there are reasons for the bypassing: the boss is in a hurry; he thinks he’s helping you; he expects to get quicker or better results. In any case, steps like these can help:
- Don’t show personal resentment. The important thing is not the damage done to your pride, but to the work and morale of the department. Keep it matter-of-fact; avoid accusations.
- Be specific about the harm done. Stay on a factual level. Don’t suppose or guess. Show what actually happened in the past. (If nothing has happened, there may be no point in raising the question.)
Watch for long-range effects. In some cases, bypassing may have no immediate consequences. But over a period of time, you may find your position with your people is weakened. They look elsewhere for information and instructions, for example. Discipline itself may become a problem. In this case, your best bet is to sit down with your boss and give him the whole picture as you see it.
Your biggest problem will be to keep the issue from becoming personal. Don’t let feelings and emotions complicate the situation.
If He’s on Your Neck.
There are many possible reasons for the boss hanging around all the time. Maybe he’s worried about the way things are going, wants to pitch in. In that case, accept his help.
Or maybe he feels uncertain about how well the job is being done. The remedy is to give him more information. Ask yourself:
- Are your reports too infrequent? Watch when he shows the greatest interest—if it’s a couple of days before the regular report is due, volunteer the information earlier.
- Do your reports contain the type of information he wants? Pay particular attention to the kinds of questions he asks on his visits to your department. Make that information available to him regularly.
- Are your reports too detailed—or lacking in detail? Either may be wrong.
In any event, remember that your first communications duty to the boss is to give him all the information he wants.
And, of course, to your subordinates, you’re the boss, try your-best.