Guiding Your Team Toward Communication

Why CIO of Federated Investors Rex Althoff believed putting his team on a lake would rescue their floundering team interaction.

In the middle of a lake is not where I expected to learn a significant workplace lesson, but that kind of environment away from desks and cubicles is what allowed my IT leadership team to face the brutal fact that communication is less about talking and more about understanding.

When I took my leadership team on our regular, two-day offsite last year, I knew that I wanted to focus on the basic but critical issue of communication. That decision came after I met an author who made a career out of helping companies leap from good to great. I started thinking about how that applied to my IT group and me: While I think we're good and we do a lot of things well, I don't think we're great.

My first actions were to look at the daily interactions within my group and then seek feedback from the business. People are never fully happy with the level of communication in any organization but, after my observations and conversations, I realized that if we were to be effective team members and keep the business engaged, we just had to become better communicators.

You will never get everyone to jump aboard an idea like this all at once; we all have healthy egos, and accepting that you need to improve something so basic is somewhat humiliating and tough to do. But the offsite was to be our first step. In preparation, I asked all 17 people on my leadership team to take a local company's personality assessment, which categorizes the type of communicator and team player a person is. Based on the results, I paired opposite types together and sent them all out on the lake for a paddleboat race.

Each person who was pedaling was blindfolded; the nonpedaler could see and was designated the navigator. In one boat, the navigator got so frustrated with the pedaler misunderstanding his verbal directions that he stood up in the boat and started pointing and yelling, "Over there! Over there!" It was easy for everyone to see the conflict between communication styles and how it leads from confusion to frustration, and ultimately to arguments.

That exercise brought perspective to the problem in a way that no amount of discussion from me ever had or could. Instead of focusing on the general lack of communication, we started talking about what individuals needed to hear and the missing pieces in our communications. Only a day after the lake incident, my team was already applying these insights to our long-standing problems. One example was the habit of our people turning in their time cards late, which had been a sore point of mine. We always had stragglers no matter how much I harped on the importance of getting the cards in. Now people stood up and said that we had to communicate the time card problem and the solution in multiple ways in order for everyone to get the message and fall in line. We developed the details behind that idea, and now time cards are no longer a problem.

I see the results of our communication improvement effort in project meetings all the time now. When a team gets stuck, the members recognize that they're missing a certain perspective and voice, and they will seek others out to get involved in a solution instead of arguing and getting nowhere.

Improvement in soft skills like communication will always be a work in progress, but I think that by focusing on understanding rather than talking, we've built a terrific foundation for more steps toward becoming a great IT organization. Next year at the lake we should all cross the finish line in great shape.

Rex Althoff is CIO of Federated Investors, president of Technology for Federated Services and a member of the CIO Executive Council. To learn more, visit council.cio.com.

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This story, "Guiding Your Team Toward Communication" was originally published by CIO Executive Council.

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