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October 12, 2020
You're probably weary of writers exhorting you to step up the frequency and quality of your company communications, and what you’re about to read may strike you as counterintuitive. After all, the pandemic appears to be flattening in some areas, and things are beginning to get a little more “back to normal.” Why, then, should you be communicating more now, and why is it important?
Just in the last few weeks we've been getting some troubling reports from our contractor peer group members. One said that 60% of his 2021 volume is at risk. Another said he is forecasting to be off 15% next year. A third said that he is facing a half million dollar loss in 2020—a huge turnabout from his original positive forecast—due to project delays. Contractors have seen their strong, healthy backlogs decline, projects are being pushed into the future, new work prospects are slightly down, and suddenly the outlook for 2021 and beyond looks less rosy.
What does all this have to do with communication? Well, in the absence of clearly presented information, people make things up. And the things they make up are almost always worse than reality. As Mayberry’s Barney Fife would say, you need to “Nip this in the bud!”
Construction leaders need to communicate a clear picture of what the future looks like and what actions you're going to take to make a worsening business climate more livable. Here are four tips for getting ahead of the messaging curve and staying there.
Demonstrate leadership. You may have a written strategic plan and assume everybody in your firm sings from the same hymnbook, but events are constantly in motion. In a marriage, it’s not good enough to say, “I love you” on your wedding day and stop right there. In a business, just like in a marriage, the message needs constant reinforcement. In your business, you must communicate regularly and clearly to prevent incorrect or negative information from putting you behind the eight ball.
Provide a sense of stability. Your employees probably sense that things may have changed for the worse, and you need to have an answer for how you plan to deal with emerging conditions. You need to be able to say: “Here’s what we're doing. Here's how we're staying ahead of this situation. Here's how we're adapting to the new forecast."
Take the opportunity changing conditions afford to educate your employees. If you handed your employees your financial statement and balance sheet, they probably wouldn't know how to make heads or tails of them. For them, the forms may be simply an accounting formality, but thinking through your P&L and balance sheet numbers gives you a chance to educate your employees about where your costs are.
Put your costs into a pie graph by percentage, and let your employees see how hard it is to turn raw volume into profits. Some employees think that if you gross $1 million then $900,000 falls to the bottom line, but that's just not true in any kind of construction. Educating employees about how thin margins really are and how much care and effort it takes to eke out a little profit at the end of the year is a worthwhile endeavor.
Change your own thinking. Many business owners think, “I don't need to be spoon-fed. Why do I need to spoon-feed this information to my employees? If, in the absence of information from their leaders, employees make up things—and they will—there’s the potential for gossip, negativity, loss of momentum, and even the departure of key players. Leaders must grab the bull by the horns and deliver reality, even if it’s a harsh reality. You’ve got to control the message.
In the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise had one of the most famous courtroom scenes in the history of films. Nicholson became agitated and bellowed, “You can't handle the truth!” Your employees can handle the truth. They want it, and they want reality and leadership. Communicating more now in challenging times can cement your leadership and forge a pathway to a better future for the benefit of everyone on your team.
Wayne Rivers is the president of The Family Business Institute.