As a young lieutenant in the US Air Force, I was taught a valuable lesson by a staff sergeant whom I had asked to mentor me. Why I asked is for a different post, but this staff sergeant looked out for me and gave me the benefit of his years of service in the military. Because of him, I avoided several missteps in my early career and was set up for some big successes. Of all the things he told me, I think the one that I found most valuable was this:
“When you’re leading people, you can never communicate enough to them.”
The military creates a separation between the enlisted and officer ranks. Because of this separation, there’s sometimes (often) suspicion about what’s going on among the leadership. This is natural. That staff sergeant was giving me the best tool to overcome that suspicion: keeping the troops informed. When you have the opportunity, communicate the why’s and how’s for decisions. When procedures and processes change, make sure those are clearly communicated and give the opportunity for questions and feedback.
Also, don’t be afraid to communicate the status of your particular piece of the organization. If nothing has changed, that’s fine to report, especially if that’s expected. If there are issues, don’t be afraid to bring them up unless there is a specific business/mission reason you can’t. People can’t address issues they don’t know about.
It is very easy to under-communicate one-on-one. This is especially true when the person is waiting on you. Some of the things the staff sergeant pointed out could go through the person’s head:
- You’re blowing the person off because he or she doesn’t matter to you.
- You have prioritized other things over that person because he or she doesn’t matter to you.
- You don’t have a good answer and you don’t have the courage to face the person.
- You are so disorganized that you’ve forgotten.
None of those four are good. If you don’t have an answer yet, there’s nothing wrong with telling the person that you’re still working the issue. What’s better is if you can give a date when you expect an answer. If it’s well in the future, periodic emails to the person help reassure him or her that you’ve not forgotten. With all the task tracking systems and reminder apps we have nowadays, this just isn’t that hard. And it can mean a world of difference to that person who you lead.