Because of the structure and mission of the learning organization, frequent and transparent communication up and down its ranks is vital to its overall effectiveness. Yet, for some people, conveying thoughts clearly and honestly can be problematic, especially when it comes to having a conversation with their superiors. For their own sake and for the benefit of their employers, learning professionals must figure out how to overcome any trepidation they might have about frank and straightforward communication with their bosses.
Richard Taylor, former head of learning for Reuters’ business divisions, noted the importance of brevity in these communications. In his role, he has to express his line of reasoning at speeds usually associated with race-car pit crews.
“I’ve got about 30 seconds,” he said. “We do have longer one-to-ones, but in general, my bosses and the other business leaders I support want to know what the impact to the bottom line is, not just on the money side, but also with the balanced scorecard. ‘What are you doing to help my business? If nothing, then I don’t have time for you.’ It sounds harsh, but it really makes me focus.”
Taylor must refine his arguments in terms of duration and content because his direct managers are business leaders, not learning people.
“They don’t know my vocabulary: They don’t know the learning profession’s metrics, methods or documentation. They’re trying to run a business, and they need me to be support. They don’t want a bunch of details. My communication has to be extremely brief, right to the point and talk about the business impact, not some big strategy or methodology thing. That’s for me to talk about with the learning group.”
Learning professionals at all levels have to be prepared to let their bosses in on everything, even the more negative aspects of a particular issue. When it comes to being the bearer of bad news, though, it’s important to handle the situation in just the right way. Be sure to meet with your boss face-to-face, and be prepared to discuss possible resolutions.
“Usually, I’ll send a pre-emptive e-mail with the heads-up that we should have a chat, but I tend to not put the bad news in that e-mail,” Taylor said. “First of all, I don’t want to leave a record of exactly what’s going on before I have a solution. I’m fine with problems, but I want to make sure there’s a solution at hand before I begin documenting it. I wouldn’t approach a superior with bad news without saying, ‘Here’s what I think we can do about it.’ Otherwise, it looks like you’ve lost control, and if you’ve lost control, then you’re probably going to lose your job.”