Bridging the Communication Gap
How to unite your firm under a common goal

Why, in an age when nearly everyone is texting, emailing, Tweeting, posting and chatting, is communication in most organizations atrocious? Without fail, the most common response to an area that requires improvement within an organization is internal communication. Does this mean that coworkers aimlessly walk by one another in the hallway or barely acknowledge one another at the coffee machine? Chances are, from a social ability level, firms are still conversing. What they are saying is probably the more important fact to consider. For instance, is the water cooler the primary vehicle within a firm for employees to hear about company happenings? Does the communication of the firm’s strategic vision resemble the telephone game from grade school? Do field workers and employees in satellite offices feel like they are inhabitants of “Gilligan’s Island” with no connection to the mainland? If the answer is yes, chances are that communication in your firm is suffering.

Typically, great communication is not something that comes naturally to the construction industry. Organizations are populated with adept technical people who have an affinity for building. When you ask these individuals why they began a career in construction, many will mention their desire to build impressive structures and their passion for seeing a project morph from nothing to something. Rarely do you hear someone say, “I got into construction because I love the people part.” As a result, engineering and construction firms tend to have more communication-related issues when compared to other types of businesses. Communication challenges run the gambit of inconsistent, project-related idiosyncrasies to deeply rooted animosity between a firm’s business units to inarticulately defined corporate strategy and long-term direction.

Strategize Preconstruction Planning

One of the first challenges firms experience relates to how project information is communicated. Many workers feel they are simply handed a pile of papers and told to “make it happen.” For firms that have a hand-off or turnover method for preconstruction planning, the poor communication that exists may be a result of the firm’s placing more value on setting the record in handing off rather than truly collaborating on an effective winning project strategy. Consider the field managers and how they receive the message. They are on the proverbial front line, managing the complex costs that most affect the health of the business, yet many firms communicate using only an archaic three-ring binder. Preconstruction planning should never be characterized by some anemic shuffle of information but rather by developing a cross-functional, project-based strategy that each participant had a stake in preparing. Communication must be at its peak during this tactical phase of a firm’s project execution.

Communicate the Importance of Every Role

Inter-firm strife is nothing new. Consider a firm with multiple business units—one that does private construction and the other that does public construction. One group historically generates high margins but has steep peaks and valleys in revenue. The other generates fair margins but is more consistent in its revenue distribution over time. Left to their own devices, one business unit might think they support the other business unit. Weak communication only exacerbates the tension that business units or satellite offices feel. Diversification is an essential aspect of any business strategy, but selling and communicating the business case is equally important. One group may be a loss leader that simply enables the other to be the margin provider for the firm. Great leaders convey the roles of each business unit to the other and continually reinforce the importance of each to the firm’s overarching strategy.

Set a Destination

Imagine stepping on a cruise ship with no idea of the destination. The good news is you are at least heading somewhere enjoyable. The bad news is you have no idea of the duration, where the ship is going, what to pack, etc. Now consider a construction firm: What is the firm’s direction and destination? More often than not, managers, estimators, superintendents, accountants, etc. have little idea of the firm’s health or the long-range plan for the firm. The good news is they are getting a paycheck, but is the firm going where the employees want it to go? Consider some of the important questions that are often left unanswered:

  • Are we growing? If yes, at what rate?
  • What is the firm’s succession plan?
  • What is my role in the future of the business?
  • What new markets are we looking at? Should I be looking at those markets?
  • What role does my office/business unit play in the future?
  • Are we financially secure? For how long? Can we weather a financial storm like the last recession?

Many executives discount the importance of sharing the firm’s health or long-term goals. In many cases, they don’t know where the business is going or lack a vision for their firm. Contractors must recognize how important firm and personal alignment are for a future generation of potential leaders. Lack of information may lead to further confusion long term when the successors are not in alignment. Imagine the frustration of landing in Key West when you thought the boat was heading for New Orleans. Had the destination been conveyed at the start, you could have made adjustments.

Leaders who shy away from complete financial disclosure should note that sharing financial health does not require leaving the firm’s income statement on the lobby coffee table. Sharing overall firm efficiency compared to one’s peers or even general backlog information to provide a sense of stability within the company may be all that is required to keep a firm informed.

Bridge the Gap

Leaders are always shocked to hear they have weak communication in their firm. A business owner might say, “We have weekly meetings and annual retreats where we tell everyone the strategy. We have a company newsletter where we tell them important events. What more do they want?” Sounds like a great deal of telling but not much listening. Firm leaders must get the pulse of the internal customers just as much as they do the external ones. Ask the people within the firm, “How are we doing? What could we do better? What will make this a better place to work?”

We often choose to not ask questions because we are afraid of the answers. Executives who promote constructive two-way dialogue are ultimately creating a high-performing organization where the people are invested in the direction of the firm. This by no means requires a firm to abdicate reins of leadership. Firm leaders should set direction, but—channeling the spirit of Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City—they must ask, “How are we doing?” It would be a disappointment to chart a vision for a firm but fail to gain commitment from those who ensure the ship gets to its final destination.