In 2016, everything changed for me.
I had just been promoted to interim VP of my department during a season of hyper-growth at an organization I previously worked for. You would think that there would have been cheers, huddles, and chants, everyone making crazy amounts of money, and extremely high morale.
But that’s not what was happening.
In the book "Creativity Inc" where Ed Catmull tells the founding story of Pixar, he says, “The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. I also realized that this kind of thing, if left unaddressed, could fester and destroy Pixar.”
This was the reality I was facing. What I realized was that the previous leader of my department had eroded trust to the point that it was developing into a toxic culture. On the surface, things looked healthy, but really, the good stuff was hiding the bad stuff.
After a discussion with my boss, I created a plan to change the culture at our company, starting with my team. After the meeting, I sent a recap to ensure that we were on the same page.
My plan started with an internal survey for my team, followed by in-depth 1:1 meetings with each person to uncover where the culture issues were hiding. I sent them the survey ahead of time so that when we sat down for our 1:1 meetings, there would be no surprises and they knew what they were stepping into.
My days were filled with back-to-back meetings. They were long, tiring days, but at the end of each one, I sent my manager a recap. It was important to keep him in the loop regarding the important changes that were happening in my department.
At the end of my first week, I put together a strategic plan and broke it down into what must happen, what I wanted to do, and what we should do.
At the end of that first month, we had record sales. The next month was even higher.
The biggest lesson that came out of that whole season was the idea of proactive communication.
Proactive communication provides necessary information before it is requested. It respects the time and headspace of those above, below, and beside you in the information and decision-making chain.
Why Communicate Proactively?
Everyone wants autonomy in their job. Nobody wants to be told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when it needs to be done. Communication is key to reaching that autonomy.
When you communicate proactively, you are increasing the flow of information. The recipients of your communication are made fully aware of what is happening and trust you to make decisions. That trust allows for autonomy.
Solve For The Micromanager
The most common complaint about bad managers is the label of "micromanager." Those that don’t offer autonomy, and instead, pepper their team with questions and tasks. But what if we gave these leaders the benefit of the doubt. What if the reason they were asking so many questions is because they truly didn't know any of the answers.
If we believe this, your response changes from frustration to, “how do I answer all of my managers' questions before they ask?”
Cue... proactive communication.
What Should I Proactively Communicate?
Many people think that it is possible to share too much information and have too much communication. But in reality, if you are still being asked to provide details or data for something, then you are already behind.
Listen to the questions that are being asked and the information that is being requested. That is what is important to that team member. Identify what your colleagues care about and provide that information to them consistently. That creates proactive communication.
While you are communicating, be sure to send a balance of positive and negative information. When you share only bad news, it creates the narrative that there are only bad things happening in your organization.
How Do I Communicate Proactively?
Proactive communication does not mean that you need to be working around the clock. It is being clear and purposeful when you share information. There are 3 types of communication that shape what you share and how you share it:
1. For Your Information
This kind of communication does not require any action on the part of the recipient, but keeps them in the loop on something that they are already aware of. Good quality communication of this type covers all the details that that person cares about.
It is more than simply BCC’ing someone on an email. Pulling a team member into the middle of an email chain to keep them in the loop can cause confusion. Take the time to pull out the relevant information so that your recipient can quickly understand what is happening.
Sending an FYI email shows that you have all the necessary information and you are comfortable with the decision that you are making.
2. For a Discussion
Some information needs to be discussed. When you proactively share data, metrics, and details before a discussion, you maximize your meeting and ensure that everyone is already prepared when you are ready to discuss.
Sometimes taking the conversation out of email and into a collaborative space, like a Google Doc, can be helpful. This allows you to outline relevant information in a concise manner, leave comments and questions, and update the data in real-time.
3. For a Decision
When you ask someone for a decision, try to simplify it as much as possible. Create a clear outline of what you want to see happen, so that the decision is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and does not involve more discussion.
It’s often wise to share your opinion on how the situation should be handled. This allows you to speak into the decision, show you’ve put effort behind it, and communicates that you are simply seeking confirmation.
By simplifying the problem you save the headspace and the amount of time that a team member has to spend thinking about it.
Proactive communication appears to be a lot of work. There are emails to write, meetings to line up, decisions to make, and discussions to facilitate. But being proactive is a lot less work than waiting for information to be requested or moving forward without looping your colleagues in. By sharing details before they’re needed, you respect the time and efforts of those in your organization.
Each day you have the choice: will I sit back and allow for misalignment, or will I lead with clarity, embracing proactive communication?