May 1, 2012

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In the Loop

Are Your Company’s Lines of Communication Working?

Heather Stewart

May 1, 2012

In its early days, Neutron Interactive was like most small startups: the organizational chart featured the owners and a couple of employees. The two co-owners literally worked elbow-to-elbow with the small staff, and communication was constant and free-flowing.

As the company grew, its spontaneous communication style didn’t change much. But with more and more employees, as well as entire new departments, co-owners Dan Caffee and Shaun Ritchie decided it was time to formalize and streamline at least some of the internal communications.

Pieces of the Puzzle
Two years ago, Neutron Interactive hired someone to handle human resources. Brittany Call was brought on as director of culture, and she quickly discovered the company had few, if any, formal policies and procedures.

Call helped the owners craft vision and mission statements, along with five core principles they wanted employees to focus on. The five principles are embedded within the employee performance reviews so workers will be “constantly aware of how they’re emulating these principles,” she says.

Although at the time the company only had about 20 employees, leaders decided to invest in a workforce tracking software program. Through the program, the co-owners were able to break the corporate vision and mission down into measurable goals for each team. And then team leaders further reduced those to specific goals for each team member.

Each employee knows “this is your piece of the puzzle; this is how you contribute to the organization,” says Call. “People are so much more likely to be involved and to work hard if they feel like they’re part of the goal, if they can see how their piece is contributing to the pie.”

Semi-annual performance reviews also include employees’ progress on the established goals. The tracking system works well for the “tech-nerdy” culture at Neutron Interactive, says Call. “If it isn’t on the computer, they don’t bother looking at it.”

Now at around 40 employees, the company has also had to create a structure of formal meetings, from weekly staff meetings to department overview meetings. 

“The chain of communication has changed,” says Call. “When you sat next to people, you could just say, ‘Hey, what are you doing today?’ Now we have different departments…so how do we make sure everyone is marching to the same tune?”

For one thing, the office floor plan includes no cubicles. Workers “sit in a very open bullpen,” which fosters dialogue and collaboration. While the senior leaders have offices, their walls are glass. In fact, says Call, the CEO can be more often found wandering the floor, rather than sitting at his desk. “He’s always walking around, he’s always talking to people, he’s always trying to figure out what’s going on,” she says.

Neutron Interactive is still growing at an impressive rate, and the company is creating a new layer of team management. The transition is difficult for the owners, says Call, as they have had to learn to trust that employees are making good decisions and heading in the right direction.

Key to that trust is communication—both the formal system of goal creation and progress reporting and the informal, face-to-face interactions that take place throughout the day.

Chief Communicators
Internal communication is a constant challenge for companies of every size.

In many ways, CEOs are the communicators in chief of their companies. But communication problems often start in the executive suite. CEOs don’t always track what they’ve shared and with whom. Many just assume that vital information trickles down through the chain of command—or worse, that subordinates can just read their mind.

When communication fails at the top, “people don’t understand what the strategy is, and therefore they’re not clear about what they’re supposed to be doing…and they go off and do other things that aren’t aligned with the strategy and are therefore not very valuable or useful,” says Pollyanna Pixton, co-founder of Accelinnova, an organization that provides leadership consulting and training.

The company’s core vision, mission and strategy should be clearly articulated to all employees. “What I suggest is that the people at all levels of the organization talk about these things with their teams and then pass it by their direct reports to make sure it falls in line with the strategy, so it’s a check-back and they’re being totally transparent,” says Pixton.

While many leaders think they’ve adequately—and repeatedly—stated the company strategy, too often the message gets lost in translation.

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