Building Your Communications OS
It’s often said that the job of the CEO is to set strategy, put the best team he/she can on the field, and make sure that the company doesn’t run out of cash. I would add that CEO’s must communicate their vision, the company‘s strategy, and institute a process for goal setting; all of which boils down to communication.
I believe the three main goals of internal communications can be separated into setting context or gaining alignment, setting or tracking goals, and recognition or gratitude.
Many startup companies begin with a very ad hoc system of communication. When you have less than 10 employees, communication isn’t that hard. As the organization grows, it becomes harder just to keep people in the loop of everything that is going on. Additionally, it becomes necessary to institute a system for goal setting to ensure that everyone knows how they impact the organization. Lastly, as the organization scales beyond a few dozen people, the CEO’s ability to have a relationship with each employee becomes impossible and a system for recognition is also needed.
As a CEO, it surprised me when a team member would ask about our strategy or how I was thinking about a recent product launch. I thought what was talked about in an executive team meeting would roll down through the organization, but it didn’t. And as it turns out, saying something in one all hands meeting a month ago is not enough! Get ahead of these issues by establishing a communication operating system for your company. Here’s what I recommend:
- Daily standup: While a daily standup is common for product and engineering teams, I recommend having a daily standup with your management team. After many years as CEO, I finally instituted this and saw first-hand how it changed the pace of the business and allowed my direct reports to unblock each other much faster. If something needs to be urgently tackled, the daily standup can be a galvanizing force to accomplish this.
- Dashboard / KPI notifications: once the company has built out dashboards and instrumented BI tools, I recommend having a daily dashboard or the 1-2 most important KPI’s sent out to the entire team via an email or slack message. This is an excellent way to get the entire team deeper into understanding the metrics of the business and tying those back to your goals. The repetition of seeing something each day carries a powerful message so make sure you pick the metrics that matter most and that the team knows what these mean and why they are important to the business.
- 1:1’s: Much has been written about how to conduct a good 1:1 meeting (Ben Horowitz, High Growth Handbook). I encourage CEO’s to adopt a style for their 1:1 meetings and make your expectations on this meeting known to others. You should do 1:1’s with some level of consistent frequency (avoid constant rescheduling or cancelling) and consider doing skip-levels at least once a quarter.
- Executive Team meeting: The meeting a CEO has with her direct reports usually has many purposes – it’s a great forum to make sure that each function knows what the other is doing and to debate / align on key strategic issues. Ideally someone (or an executive assistant) is tasked with taking notes and sending out action items. Consider sending out these meeting notes to the entire company afterwards. It’s a good way to keep everyone engaged and to make sure that items discussed are rolling down in the organization.
- All-Hands: Many companies start out with weekly all-hands meetings and as they scale move toward monthly or quarterly. For as long as you can, I suggest keeping a weekly cadence. All hands meetings should allow team members to engage either as presenters or through Q&A. Your company can also use this time to introduce new hires (especially new executives as they join the company). CEO’s can use this forum to reinforce company values, present and reiterate company goals, and share gratitude / recognize team members.
- Gratitude / Recognition: Most companies have a few different ways of celebrating employee accomplishments (either business related or values related) so while the All Hands meeting is a great place for this, you could also consider multiple forums for recognition. Examples include a slack channel to share gratitudes, an weekly email to share customer comments, and a monthly award.
- CEO letter: An easy way to keep the company informed and increase engagement is for the CEO to send a weekly email outlining the items she is thinking about. This can be very informal, can take 15-20 minutes to write and can simply be a stream of consciousness. This email is a great way to highlight the priorities of the week ahead and share insights into a sudden change in metrics or news in the marketplace.
Monthly / Quarterly:
- Goals: Any system of goals (OKRs, OGSM, etc) will have guidelines around goal setting, tracking, and scoring. At least monthly, revisit goals to track status and align whether initiatives should be reprioritized. At the early stages, a long list of goals can feel like progress but activity does not equal results. Keep an eye towards continuing to narrow your company’s focus. Importantly, scoring your progress against a goal will ensure discipline that the company sets realistic goals and can ladder into performance management.
- Financial plan / budget review: Outside of reviewing KPIs, reviewing the financial plan with your management team can help increase awareness of the company’s financial position and drive more informed discussions around capital allocation. Additionally, once you have budget owners, instituting a budget review meeting can help make sure they have visibility on how their spend is tracking against plan.
- Strategy and org planning: At least annually, your executive team should discuss and align on company strategy and review your long range financials, market position relative to competitors, and long term product roadmap. You’ll need to determine what capabilities and resources the company need to deliver its long term plan. At times, this may necessitate a re-org which would shuffle roles and responsibilities across the executive team. This kind of review process is usually best done through a multi-day offsite.
- Goal setting / scoring: Most startups could use a lot more discipline around goal setting. Re-visiting goals even monthly may not be enough in a dynamic startup. Regardless of the system your company uses, make sure that you’ve weaved your goals and scoring of those into the rest of your communication OS.
- Board mtgs / investor updates: Depending on whether you have a board or not, consider sharing your investor updates with your team. We used to flip through board slides at our all hands meeting and allow team members to ask questions. You could also consider hosting “meet and greet” sessions to introduce your investors to the rest of your team.
- Formal feedback: Regardless of how informal feedback is shared within your organization, you may want to consider having formal feedback sessions built into your operating system. We used to dedicate a half day during our executive off sites for 360 degree feedback – this process takes a good amount of prep work but has huge ROI.
- Customer advisory council: Whether it’s a formal customer advisory board or a less formal way to keep the customer top-of-mind, you have to be intentional about engaging with customers in order to build a customer focused company.
Lastly, one of the painful realities of being CEO is that you’ll need to repeat yourself a lot! Repetition of your strategy / goals is key. Until you feel sick of saying the same thing, keep going.
If you’re building your communications operating system and want a sounding board, please drop me a line (gautam at m13.co).