Five Questions about Effective Leadership Communication
Flemming B. Bjoernslev is the former President and CEO of Lanxess Corporation, which is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Flemming B. Bjoernslev
You have spent many years in senior leadership positions including as the CEO of corporations in the U.S. and in Europe. What career path did you take to get to where you are today, and what did your past positions teach you about the role of communication in business success?
As many other career paths, mine was not a linear development and it contained sufficient obstacles. I started as an emerging sales manager for Bayer AG in Germany not long after the Iron Curtain fell. At that time, I was in charge of sales of polyurethanes in eastern Germany and Bavaria, which meant that I had to completely change my approach in addressing customers in the aftermath of the communist era in eastern Germany. In hindsight, that was my first and crucial experience with intercultural challenges.
Following five years in Germany, I went on a three-year assignment to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was initially in charge of sales and marketing for polyurethanes in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay and later led the business unit polyurethanes for the Bayer group in that region. Although all these countries are Spanish speaking, I soon learned that cultural differences play a critical role as well. This was also the first time I truly learned how important communication is to business success, both inside and outside a company.
After three years in South America, I returned to Bayer headquarters in Germany in the middle of a severe crisis that led to the spinoff of Bayer chemicals, which became Lanxess. I decided to embark on the journey with Lanxess at a time when few thought that the new company would survive on its own. After four years leading one of Lanxess' marketing divisions, I took over the role of building up Lanxess Central Eastern Europe, covering sales, marketing, and distribution for Lanxess in the emerging markets of Eastern Europe.
Creating a new company is obviously always hard work, but at the same time it can also be a lot of fun and very rewarding. Constant communication for visualizing the targets and the potential approach scenarios in conjunction with team building events are corner stones to success. This builds a structure across cultural and language barriers focused on creating an entity that is profit and result orientated. Building upon a comprehensive success and failure tracking tool, in the first five years we managed to create tremendous team spirit, reduce the employee turnover rate substantially, thereby doubling the financial turnover in the region.
My most recent assignment started in 2012, when I took on responsibility as President and CEO of Lanxess Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After years of business success in North America, a major part of the Lanxess business entered one of the down cycles that is typical for the chemical industry. This called for immediate attention, and the past three years were dedicated to reevaluating the value chain, including adapting the organization for a return to growth. Even more than in the case of building a brand new organization, communication in times of downsizing is crucial to prevent paralyzing an organization. I found that providing face-time for employees with senior managers was a very successful tool - even at times when news was scarce. Creating the NAFTA platform to better operate Lanxess business out of Pittsburgh was an exciting time and will provide a solid foundation for future success.
Why is effective one-on-one and group communication with internal and external stakeholders critical to building trust and being successful as a manager?
It clearly is. If there is little or no communication, people have a tendency to create their own beliefs. These beliefs can be very persistent and often end in a lack of trust if reality and expectations do not match. As a native of Denmark, I am always reminded of my fellow countryman, the famous story teller Hans Christian Andersen, who once wrote that "one little feather may easily grow into five hens."
My experience has been that a continued mix of one-on-one talks in combination with group communication provides the best result. The pitfall here is to avoid pausing or even ending a string of communication prematurely. A truly successful manager is also measured by his communication skills over a longer period of time to prove his or her sustainability from a holistic standpoint.
Do you agree that the best managers are excellent listeners who can read social situations well and fine tune their messages so they meet the information needs of the audience?
I do. Over the years I have seen this as one of the hardest challenges in the line of communication. We all have a tendency to believe what we would like to hear, even if that is not at all what we are being told. Needless to say, this imposes one of the biggest threats of successfully managing crises from a communication standpoint.
I learned this the hard way at an early stage in my career. Since then I have always been listening closely, and I do my best to carefully read a situation so that I can customize my messages to fit each audience. However, this does not mean that one should deviate from the message that needs to be communicated, however painful the content may be.
What can managers including CEOs of large companies do to engage in meaningful two-way communication with employees across the organizational hierarchy?
I believe there are several options. One approach that I try to follow on a regular basis is to walk through the building and engage in conversation with the employees I meet. This way I keep my finger on the pulse of the organization as the more informal direct communication with employees generates valuable information that I quite likely would otherwise not get.
Furthermore, scheduling roundtable meetings with various departments to improve internal communication across hierarchies has worked very well in the past. In this setting employees are encouraged to address any problems that have occurred in the past and the solutions can be developed as a team.
Is effective leadership communication even more critical in times of crisis – for instance an industrial accident –, and how can managers improve their communication skills to meet the challenges?
Yes, it is. Fortunately, I have never had to deal with a major industrial accident, which reflects the continued efforts of Bayer and Lanxess concerning a global zero incident policy.
At Lanxess we continuously trained in crises management. I clearly believe that thorough crisis preparedness planning long before a crisis hits, including using external communication experts to guide one through a realistic but fictitious crisis scenario, is the right way to improve essential skills.
Crisis Management: Internal Communication Primer
regularly assists client partners across various industries concerning improving internal communication in times of crisis.
Regardless of size, industry, geographical footprint, and management's accomplishments, our client partners understand that employees are key stakeholders who must be communicated with before, during, and after a business crisis.
The following tips are designed to help decision makers at all levels of the corporate hierarchy manage potentially crippling adversity and actively preserve and even enhance the company's brand equity, reputation, and bottom line.
If you have any questions concerning this article, please contact us at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you.
- Recognize the need for frequent face-to-face communication with as many employees as possible.
- Develop and implement a customized internal communication plan long before a crisis strikes.
- Obtain senior management buy-in and ongoing support concerning two-way communication with employees.
- Continuously seek and act upon employee feedback to enhance much needed trust.
- Communicate crisis-related news to employees first whenever possible and enforce active Media Policies.
- Ensure consistent and coherent messaging by adhering to the company wide One-Voice Policy.
- Turn employees into valuable communication allies who will carry designated messages into the community.
- Enable continuous dialogue in order to maximize transparency and minimize employee uncertainty.
- Employ proven communication channels and tools and be ready to adjust crisis related messaging as necessary.
- Address employee questions and concerns as soon as possible and follow up on important employee input.
Food For Thought
"While ultimate determination of guilt or innocence occurs in a courtroom, organizational communicators realize that the court of public opinion adjudicates a verdict they can ill afford to lose."