Consider this case study: BlackBerry, once the big shot of the mobile industry, has fallen hard. Since the company’s peak in 2007, its stock has plummeted from $236 to less than $8 per share. So, why did Blackberry lose more than 95 percent of its value in less than a decade? The answer: ineffective communication.
Ironically, leaders at Research In Motion (RIM) — BlackBerry’s parent company — couldn’t maintain lines of communication with their eternal teams. “Everybody just kept their mouths shut [about missed deadlines], waiting for something else to break,” an employee said of the problem. And, because employees weren’t communicating, RIM’s executives were clueless to the true scale of BlackBerry’s problems.
Unfortunately, the company’s story isn’t unusual. Many otherwise-successful, growing companies falter because of miscommunication. Rapid growth is a wonderful opportunity, yet it abounds with chances for communication breakdown. Booming business necessitates new hires, but frantic hiring often leads to miscommunicated expectations, misunderstood roles and little interpersonal familiarity.
From my time at Klout, a rapidly growing social media analytics startup, I know the consequences of strained communication. When I arrived in 2008, I was the eighth employee. When I left 18 months later, the staff had grown to almost 60. Everybody agreed we needed more people to maintain our rapid growth, but that growth in itself created many Catch-22 situations: Hire fast, but don’t lower standards. Let senior team members step up, but don’t lock up key positions with insiders. Give new hires autonomy, but don’t let them run free without adequate training.
The secrets to effective communication
In the early days of a startup’s life, communication is easy; founders can sit around a table with the entire team. But once the team reaches double digits — often abruptly, and with dozens of new initiates — entrepreneurs may find it challenging to communicate high-level visions with each member.
Luckily, there are ways to promote effective communication during your startup’s growth spurt.
1. Make hierarchies clear, to prevent rivalries.
When I worked at Klout, a co-worker and I possessed different titles but had the same rank and worked on the same projects. Instead of collaborating effectively, we spent time working through personal problems and directly competing for ownership over projects. Rather than delegating tasks, we both sought to attend every meeting because we feared the other was trash-talking. The entire team suffered communication breakdown as subordinates emulated our distrustful habits.
Finally, a new product manager was hired from Zynga. After he saw that no one had ownership, he assigned seniority as he saw fit. Although it was challenging at first, productivity skyrocketed. With a fresh, neutral leader installed, petty fights about personal issues stopped, and communication about the job at hand became more important.
2. Don’t worry about being harsh; worry about getting the job done.
To make your rankings clear, you need a management team that is quick on its feet and assertive — even if its members come across sometimes as harsh. The product manager at Klout who solved our communication woes could be difficult at times, but the manager’s firmness was often necessary to keep us on-task rather than squabbling among ourselves.
As Klout’s founder eventually realized, a department without a clear leader may spell peril for the company. A leadership vacuum causes haphazard communication, as nobody knows whom to report to. In turn, this sparks friction between employees as the team pulls in multiple directions. Indecisiveness is worse than someone’s being a jerk (but try not to be a jerk).
3. Amplify your message.
After appointing effective leaders, constantly communicate the company’s end goals to each manager. Then, work with those managers to ensure that message translates into action items for their teams. This kind of communication is extremely important for clarity, as engineers’ contributions to the overall mission will be very different than, say, the sales staff’s role.
Especially as the company grows, it’s impossible to relate to every role. And while you personally may not be able to talk to every employee about where the company is heading, any and all communication efforts you make will be for the best.
During rapid growth, effective communication boils down to leadership and ownership. Entrepreneurs must be brave enough to make decisions, delegate ownership to team members and hold everyone accountable — on a regular, ongoing basis. Clear, effective communication might sound like a nice-to-have quality rather than a must-have, but it’s the needle and thread that keeps your growing company from bursting at its seams.
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