Why great leaders overcommunicate


By Brad Jacobs

A work environment is at its most productive when communication flows honestly and frequently. It’s impossible to overcommunicate with the team. 

I’m a big advocate of communication in all its forms. It makes it possible for me to convey my vision to employees in ways that can inspire them, like a rallying cry. I may send a communication to express gratitude, or share news, or request input. The message may be dense with data, or a simple, friendly touching base—but it’s never meaningless, because it’s a human-to-human connection. And in a large organization, that matters.  

I’ve never been an ivory tower type of CEO. The internet was just emerging midway through my time at United Waste Systems, so I wasn’t able to communicate with our employees as frequently as I would have liked. By the time I founded United Rentals, we had the benefits of sophisticated technology, and my team and I put many more hours into communications, even in our most hectic acquisition periods. Those experiences led to the strong communication framework we established at XPO.? 

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as overcommunicating. Every employee survey I’ve seen has indicated that employees want to hear more from management about what’s going on within the company. “Communication” perennially ranks high in XPO’s survey results—sometimes even outpolling compensation.  

In my CEO role, I engage as actively as I can through whatever channels I think will work best at the time: emails, social media, site visits, town halls, phone calls, and video chats. For example, at XPO, I would regularly have onscreen meetings with groups of frontline employees, like our LTL truck drivers.? 

Another thing I try to do is keep a consistent cadence to the internal communications, to reinforce a spirit of openness. I believe most people care deeply about whether people are up front with them. A CEO who communicates once every week or two weeks and then goes silent is inviting speculation that the company is in some kind of a jam.  

Every company faces challenges from time to time, and when that occurs, employees want leadership to be clear about what happened. I respect that, and if there’s a plan to resolve the issue, I’ll share it if I can. Some employees may decide they don’t like the plan, but they can see you’re not trying to hide things from them, and you have a better chance of getting their buy-in. 

From a practical standpoint in business, when I give someone my complete attention, it’s because I believe they have something time-sensitive or especially meaningful to tell me. The demands on my time can make it difficult to use face-to-face interactions for frequent communications, but that doesn’t mean I’m hard to reach. Each time I’ve served as CEO, for example, I’ve made sure employees knew that I wanted to hear from them. I shared my phone number and my email, and I invited them to tell me whatever they thought I should know.  

Opening up a listening channel at the top of the company can be a powerful way to signal that leadership values the free flow of ideas and information.? 

But a word of caution: If you fail to give the inbound messages your attention, your credibility will take a bigger hit than if you hadn’t established the channel at all.  

Several years ago, at XPO, an employee emailed me that the roof had been leaking at one of our facilities for two months. Apparently, the requisition process for the repair had been tied up by our own bureaucracy. If we didn’t respond promptly, the employees would have understandably assumed we didn’t care. Well, we did care, and we acted, expediting the fix and validating the fact that there wasn’t a black hole at the end of the feedback loop. 

You’ll want to implement strong feedback loops and a work culture where people accept that there’s more than one valid way to look at an issue. This is called dialectical thinking, and successful executives work hard at promoting it, because it’s easier to arrive at the right answer when people feel comfortable respectfully disagreeing with one another. One of my heroes, the physicist Richard Feynman, summed up the value of dialectical thinking when he said,? “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”? 

Often, when we buy a company, we discover that the frontline employees, middle managers, even some senior executives have never been asked, “What would you do to improve the company?” You’d think owners would want to know that!  

Why great leaders overcommunicate

We do just the opposite through multiple feedback loops: surveys, town halls, one-on-one interviews, group meetings, internal social media—whatever best fits the size of the acquired employee base and the time frame. Asking for input is a way to show respect, and we find it pays dividends on both sides. 

If body language was audible, we’d hear the people at these gatherings saying, “Okay, they value me. I’m going to give it a shot. I want to be part of this, because it sounds like there’s some real momentum here and this could be a good company to work for.” They may still reserve judgment, but we’ve helped to dispel the insecurity employees naturally feel when their company is acquired.  

Feedback loops are also powerful tools for cultural integration. They give us an opportunity to communicate in the clearest possible terms that we’re a results-focused company. Everyone is accountable; we all succeed or fail together. This sets us up to get buy-in from the new employees.  

Typically, we start with a series of questions that go to the heart of their own observations: “What’s the business doing well, that we’d be crazy to change? What’s the business doing not so well, that we’d be crazy not to change? What’s your best idea to improve the business? What’s something that could be made more profitable? Or more customer-friendly? Or improve the workplace environment?”  

We never shoot from the hip with big changes when we integrate an acquisition. We listen intently to our new employees about what’s working well and what needs improvement.? 

We get an avalanche of responses every time we do this at the start of an integration, and we document it and discuss it at length as a senior leadership team. We make sure everybody knows this isn’t a one-and-done HR/PR stunt.? 

Overcommunication is essential, and feedback loops make it reciprocal and continuous. The result? You’ll not only establish a culture of trust, but you’ll unleash an outpouring of ideas about how to improve the company, generated from within its own beating heart.? 

Excerpted from? How to Make a Few Billion Dollars?by Brad Jacobs, with permission from Greenleaf Book Group.