The No Surprises Rule
We blogged recently about how to write precisely and concisely, highlighting how important it was to learn the “Three Sentence Rule” early in our careers so that when we communicated with other executives, we communicated with extreme brevity and clarity. We might think of this as the “what” of executive communication. Today, we’d like to quickly describe a few ground rules with respect to the “when” and “how” of communicating as executives.
10 or 15 years ago, a fad swept through technology, executives everywhere were writing “How to Communicate with Me” articles for their teams and co-workers. In the most positive light, these were serious attempts by quirky executives to help their teams learn to conform to their own bizarre communications requirements. We would argue that a modern technology executive with a reasonably non-quirky personality need not pen such narcissistic claptrap. Communications is so basic, we should not over-think the process.
In today’s world, we have a variety of communications channels available: face-to-face, email, text message, internal communications tools (e.g. Slack) and the good old telephone. When an unexpected issue occurs on our watch, our primary duty is to inform our superior, by any means necessary as quickly as possible.
Whether we work in a large corporate environment with thousands of employees or in a small team with 10 people, immediate communications are an absolute requirement. If we fail to do so, our superiors may hear of the unexpected news before we have a chance to tell them. Think of a major system outage… while we work to determine a root cause, the VP of Marketing sends a quick text to our boss (let’s say the CEO in this case.). Now the CEO is in possession of bad news about something we are responsible for. Our phone will ring immediately, and we’ll be on our back feet explaining why we hadn’t taken a moment to call.
A worse example might be a system outage that we, as CTO, were not aware of, and the very same VP of Marketing texts the CEO again. Now when the phone rings, we are surprised, just as the CEO was surprised by the VP of Marketing. Our team has failed at a very fundamental level.
There’s an informal rule that states: No Surprises. The corollary is, communicate as early as possible and as often as possible. A site outage demands an immediate upward missive with frequent updates. The leaders who work under us must also live by this rule. We can never be left out in the cold when it comes to significant information. Furthermore, we are solely accountable for the communication of negative news up to our bosses.
The idea of communicating early and communicating often has a number of uses beyond crisis communications. In the early days of eBay, Marty Abbott (managing partner of AKF Partners) set 4 objectives for the site operations teams: Availability (99.9%), Scalability, Cost and Operational Excellence. Every member of the operations teams knew the current availability as it was communicated nearly continuously. The other 3 objectives were communicated with equal frequency. It would be a significant surprise if a colleague was working on a project that was not associated with Availability, Scalability, Cost or Operational excellence. A few years later, we borrowed Marty’s objectives at Shutterfly and simplified: Up, Fast, Cheap and Easy. All 50 operations team members knew those goals and we repeated them like a mantra.
The quickest path to failure as technology executives is non-communication, the opposite of communicating clearly and frequently. Worse, those executives that don’t stay ahead of the surprises technology throws at us every day will find themselves working in a different industry.
To summarize how to communicate:
When: early and often
How: any means available
What: 3 sentences.
We don’t need to write 5 page essays on how to communicate unless we are quite peculiar.