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Why CEOs Need to Prioritize Internal Communications

Written by

Simpplr Marketing

Published

November 1, 2021

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Stories inspire us, capture our attention, and fuel our imagination. A meaningful story is something to listen to and learn from. At Simpplr’s Cohesion conference in 2021, one of the keynote speakers, Jim Donald, proved a gifted storyteller. As a progressive business leader, his stories and lessons should not be forgotten. 

Become a Storyteller

Jim Donald is the former CEO of Extended Stay Hotels, Starbucks, Pathmark Supermarkets, and Albertsons. In each leadership situation, he revamped corporations, earning the title “The Turnaround King.” His management style incorporates effective business techniques, especially a hands-on approach. Jim is also a leader who learned the power of communication, and stories are part of his teaching method. He truly believes that CEOs need to prioritize internal communication.

People don’t remember data, numbers, or slides. If your story is a good one, no one will forget it. So, Jim conveys his messages in a story. You can strengthen and improve your customer and employee relationships through the art of storytelling which is the ultimate form of communication. Caring enough for customers and employees means ensuring they retain the information and message you are telling them or selling them. Jim’s knowledge comes from a journey filled with enlightening moments that he excitedly shared.  

Learning From Your Journey

Early in Jim’s career, he began as a night crew member at a store. He believes his experience earned him a type of “Ph.D.” or a “Physically Hard Day,” studying the role of social science in the world of hard scale retail.

One such story began when one of his store managers created a situation by not treating his employees with their deserved respect. Without it, the manager could not maximize the productivity of his store. Jim began an investigation, speaking specifically with the night crew. Jim learned from a short discussion that the manager lacked the communication skills to convey to employees how they were valued. Jim understood the power of internal communication. His conversation with the night crew convinced him of the proactive tool in the practice of caring. It also meant he needed to go where others had not gone before. If one person had visited the store and listened, they could have avoided the situation.

Go Where You’ve Never Gone Before 

Jim discussed another interaction with an employee on the night crew named Anthony. At 1:30 in the morning, Jim showed up at one of Pathmark’s largest 24-hour stores in one of the toughest areas in the country. He visited the store because executives working close to you aren’t always candid, but your frontline employees will be. Jim found the store short-staffed. There was also a lack of internal communication between executives and the rest of the company. 

The night crew employee had a lot to say. Anthony complained that Pathmark had a history of non-communication. He also explained that management often offered help but rarely followed through. To him, leaders didn’t care. But when Jim showed up, Anthony felt understood and special that the CEO would visit him–one of 30,000 employees. After he discovered Jim’s attitude of caring, Anthony spread the word. Though in the early days of the internet, the story of Jim and Anthony’s 1:30 AM discussion reached people throughout the entire chain.  

Jim not only believes in the idea that “you must go where you’ve never been before.” He believes in the accompanying gift of curiosity. Being curious is one of the best attributes an up-and-coming leader can have. To Jim, it means not to expect that things will come to you. You must go out and find them. 

“Great leaders,” Jim emphasized, “regardless of the level of the organization, always perform on their employees or customer’s home court. Not their own.” 

Communication doesn’t start in the office. It begins when the message is delivered and understood. You need to make sure that you go out of your way to communicate with everyone at their level, throughout the organization .

Stay Close to the Front Line

In 2000, Jim became CEO of Starbucks. The first week he began his training, not in the executive offices, but as a barista at a store in New Jersey. Jim worked doing the usual duties of working on the frontlines. After the third day, the manager began giving him real insight into running a store. It was not about making the perfect latte. It was how to run a fast-paced, safe environment for its customers. She took him in the backroom and showed him a mop, pail, and a safety sign placed for easy access. 

The manager explained that nothing was allowed in front of that space because they could not afford any spills or slick areas on their floors. It wasn’t so much about the number of drinks spilled. It was more about the customer and how many drinks they would have to sell if one of their customers fell. So, they made sure the area was clean and clear to mitigate danger and the potential loss of revenue due to a fall. 

Years later, Jim had an interview at a local Starbucks with Forbes magazine senior editor, Peter Kafka, on the company’s international growth. Jim gestured with his hands and accidentally knocked a drink out of a customer’s hands. He immediately ran to the backroom, knowing where the mop, bucket, and safety sign would be. Jim promptly cleaned up the mess. Peter was amazed that Jim, the CEO, knew where the mop bucket was. Jim responded, “Peter, one of the most important things that one can learn in any business is listening to the frontline is the most important.” 

Leaders must stay close to the front-line employees who are closest to customers and competitors. If you think about it, your employees and customers communicate your message and your company’s mission.

Communication is also Listening

Listening is another form of active communication. It is an integral component of your success. A good story is excellent, but have you paid attention to responses? Have you heard the employee’s stories?

Jim shared that you need to exhibit care and concern for others. Listening is a natural response and a form of communication. These actions set precedence and become a part of your position as CEO. With it, you can grow your role, build your business, deepen your customer relationships, and lead employees through times of uncertainty. However, it must be a natural response ingrained in you. 

Communication must be central to your operations, including the messages nobody wants to share. It is not only about the victories. It is about the realities.  Whether it’s good news or bad news, you’ll find that your leadership foundation continues to grow when the message is truthful, natural, and central to your role as CEO.

If you want to hear more of the lessons and stories that Jim Donald shared during his exciting and educational keynote, and why he believes that CEOs need to prioritize internal communications, watch the entire video here.

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