Dial Q for quiet…or query?

by | May 27, 2013 | Blog | 0 comments

When are “passionate people driven by a common purpose” prone to silence?

Probably not when they’re delivering Procter & Gamble’s well-known household brands to consumers around the world.

But 200 P&G managers clammed up on a phone call with the recently departed CEO and the new CEO, who’s returning from retirement.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2013:

“Messrs. (Bob) McDonald and (A.G.) Lafley hosted a call on Friday with about 200 P&G managers. Mr. McDonald said he was glad his mentor was returning to the company, and Mr. Lafley reiterated his priorities: strengthen P&G’s position in developed markets, keep expanding in emerging markets, fill the innovation pipeline and cut costs, a person who heard the call said.

“The call lasted about 10 minutes. At the end, they asked whether anyone had any questions. ‘Nobody said a thing,’ the person said.” (emphasis added)

What’s going on?

Are these members of the extended leadership team thinking they’re totally clued in and informed? Or are they indifferent? Fearful? Distracted? Feeling like their buttons are being pushed or something else?

Is it a blip? Or a signal of something that could be consequential?

My experience shows that getting people to talk and ask questions on phone calls can be like squeezing blood out of a turnip—as the expression goes.

Yet, this group of 200 managers is different from many I work with. For example, they are all employees of the same organization. They are familiar with both the exiting and entering CEOs. They probably know one another.

You’d think they’d feel comfortable asking a question or even giving a shout-out, welcoming A.G. back to P&G.  But maybe this call is out of the routine, or something else is at play.

Regardless, leaders need to encourage conversations. Two-way dialogue is valuable for building shared understanding and even more importantly, trust.

Talking with each other, rather than at each or texting or emailing, is an effective and efficient way first to clarify and confirm what’s going on. Then when people are clear about the context and what’s going on, you start to agree on actions to take, assign responsibilities and mobilize everyone.

When I was working with another consumer product company that had a new CEO, a new strategy and a new business model, we started regular check-in calls to do just this–keep the extended leadership team informed and involved.

We also wanted to build rapport, credibility and trust.   

By talking in the moment, the new CEO could convey his passion, share breaking news and provide context. He also had others join him on the call to role model the importance of communication and teamwork.

After a few months, we expanded the calls from the top 120 to all 2,200 salaried employees who had easy access to a phone line. It was an easy and cost-effective way to be inclusive. Many of these individuals didn’t know one another because under the prior business model they had worked in silos in separate divisions.

For the first year, when we opened the line for questions though, we seldom had more than one or two people speak up per call even when the CEO asked questions.

Yet, our formal research showed that 92% said they appreciated the ability to ask questions of the top leaders. (Also, 85% said the calls provided helpful information for doing their jobs and understanding how they fit into the strategic transformation.)

So we decided to make it easier for people to ask questions. We introduced these changes:

  • We set up an anonymous email box that people could send questions in advance, especially if they lacked the confidence or were fearful of speaking up on the call.
  • We planted questions by asking members of the management committee to make personal requests of people for questions.
  • We added pictures of the speakers to the agenda, which we sent out in advance.

People responded to these improvements and started to talk more. They not only asked questions, but also offered comments and suggestions. This increased energy and engagement helped drive the company’s transformation forward.

The telephone remains a valuable workhorse, especially to connect people quickly, get them on board and moving in the same direction. But sometimes you have to take the initiative to help people talk rather than just listen.

How are you encouraging conversations on the phone and in person that will turn into action?  


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