"Who needs to know about this?": Communication as you scale
A while ago, I wrote a post about why it get so hard once you scale past 50 employees. Afterwards, someone asked me what I think the most counterintuitive thing is that you need to get right as you're scaling past 50 employees. Here it is:
Communication is both one of the most important things to get good at if you want to build a well run, efficient company, and it is also one of the most underestimated things. [To be clear, I’m talking about internal communication with your employees.] Why is it so important? Let's put it this way: if one of your employees thinks you're in a canoe on a river and the other one thinks you're in a motor boat on a lake, they're going to be making very different choices about what they do every day. Even small differences matter — if someone is building a car and someone is building a bus, they may both have four wheels but it's a very different product and you make very different decisions to build it.
It’s counterintuitive because communication feels so easy when you have less than 50 employees. But once you get past 50 employees, it never ceases to shock founders and leaders what people don't know or understand. “How can they think it's a bus?? I said it's a car at the last All Hands!!” One of the most amazing things about 30 person teams is that communication and shared understanding is relatively effortless. Whelp, hate to break it to you, but once you pass 50 employees, it is no longer easy and your baseline assumption should be that “no one understands”.
It’s really important to realize that a significant chunk of your job moving forward as CEO or leader of a team of 50+ employees is internal communication — setting high level context, communicating vision, sharing decisions that have been made. Spending time ensuring everyone is operating with the same context is one of the most valuable things you can do. This applies to how you start every meeting, email, slack post, all hands, etc.
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My two rules of thumb for CEOs (and all leaders) are
“if you feel like a broken record, you're probably doing something right” and
“always craft your comms for the person who just started this week.”
Main take away from that is: Start with the context, always. You need to assume that no one remembers why you’re doing what you’re doing, and you should always start with the why, even if you feel like you’ve said it 100 times.
The true name of the game as you grow past 50 employees is signal vs noise. Simply put: more employees = more noise. More messages in Slack, more presentations, more emails, more of all the things. As an average employee, it becomes harder and harder to figure out what is important, what to pay attention to. Where can an employee go for signal? Where can they reliably turn for important information that they should know in order to do their job well?
Here are the things to focus on in order to start to get good at communication:
1) You, the CEO, are now a spokesperson. As a CEO, every word that comes out of your mouth will be seen as signal — as important to read or listen to, internalize, repeat to others, and sometimes cause behavior change. This means you need to
a) pick and choose your words consciously — you are an important communication channel. Don’t wing it and use your moments wisely.
b) Create consistent moments where you communicate with the company. More on this below.
c) Design other channels that people know they can rely on for signal. More on this below.
Employees are an audience just like customers. This remains true regardless of scale. Someday I expect to see HR departments with marketing functions, but for now, let me just say that if you’re past 500 employees and not thinking of your employees as systematically and carefully as you are thinking about your other audiences, it will eventually bite you in the ass.
2) Your leadership team needs to see communication as a big part of their jobs: I wrote about leadership teams over here. They're... complicated but important. One of the significant functions of having a leadership team (including a slack channel and a regular meeting) is ensuring that all the leaders in your company are on the same page about what is happening. So make sure that (a) you have a leadership team and (b) you use it for that — overshare and over-communicate with your leadership team.
Leaders also need to see it as part of their job to share important updates with their teams. People call this a “communication waterfall”, and if done well, it can really help ensure that every employee is getting the information and context they need to do their job.
Here's what a great communication waterfall looks like:
> you share an update in the leadership team meeting where leaders get to ask questions and understand
>> then you share an update with the whole company in the All Hands (or whatever)
>>> then your leaders follow up with people on their team either individually or in their own team meetings to repeat the messages and answer questions.
>>>> A great final step is to review feedback, thoughts and common questions that came up at the next leadership meeting.
Communication waterfalls are essential for big moments, like a layoff, an acquisition, etc., but it is equally important to practice them on all the “small” things: product launches, performance review processes, etc. Most companies and leadership teams are bad at this kind of planning and execution, so if you get good at it, it can be a huge superpower.
3) Your All Hands needs to be full of signal (and people should feel like they want / need to attend): Sorry to say it but the time for the weekly all hands or the daily whole company stand up has come to an end. I’m always a little horrified when I meet companies with hundreds of employees that are doing a meeting called a stand up with everyone in it. Past 50 employees, your All Hands needs to become all about signal. You want people to tune in every time because they know that important info will be shared. I'm a fan of the monthly All Hands that transitions to quarterly once you get past about 500 employees but that is because I usually design my All Hands to feel big and important — something you shouldn't miss. It is fine to do it more frequently but be careful of filling it with noise so that people feel like it's optional to tune in.
4) You need a CEO communication channel. It is super helpful to have a channel — a regular email, a Slack channel, a regular video, an internal podcast, a Friday Q&A, etc. — where the CEO can share what's on her mind. It's important to find a medium that feels right to you and a cadence that you feel you can stick with. It does not have to be a super frequent cadence, in fact, it can be better if it's more like bi-weekly. This channel is different from an announcements channel (see below) but rather a place that every employee knows to look for signal specifically from the CEO. This can start out as just the CEO sharing whatever is on her mind but over time it will need to become “produced”, meaning that others will need to help create the content.
5) You need a consistent place that you post important internal announcements. Once you pass 50 employees you will rapidly discover that the all-employees Slack channel or email group is WAY too noisy. After having that realization, typically you end up with two channels: a) the all staff chat room that is full of noise and b) the announcements Slack channel that is full of signal. Everyone can post in the first, only a few people can post in the second. If you don’t use Slack then the proxy is the all-company email alias.
There are two other things you will want to have that relate to how you run the business. These are both about ensuring that you are effectively and efficiently making decisions and finding / fixing issues, but they are also about ensuring that a larger group of people hears the context around how the business is doing, what the issues are, key decisions that have been made, etc. Said differently, these two meetings could just as easily be in a “How to effectively run a company of over 50 employees” blog post AND they are also really important pieces of your internal communication infrastructure.
6) You need some kind of regular business review, and you need to share the takeaways with the broader team. If you’ve worked at a bigger company, you might have been part of a QBR (quarterly business review). What I’m talking about is similar but you need to design what is right for your current company and business. In first principles, you need a group meeting where you and the key leaders of the business get together to ask and answer the questions
“How did we do over the last week/month/quarter/six months?“
”What went really well?“
”What went poorly?“
”What do we want to learn and do differentlly moving forward?“
These meetings are most effective when they end up with a standardized format and people are required to review the materials in advance. You want more discussion and less presenting. You want to walk out of this meeting with a list of things you are going to start doing, a list of what you’re going to stop doing, and probably a list of things you’re hoping to learn in the next period.
I am not prescriptive about the cadence of these meetings. I actually think it’s very important to examine the cadence of your business first. Some businesses benefit from doing it monthly, others quarterly.
[Eventually, once you have a board, you will want to ensure that the calendar aligns so that this meeting happens a week or two before your board meeting.]
The internal communication point is this: I would generally suggest, unless there is a very good reason not to, that you include more people rather than less in these meetings. It is GREAT for people to hear the context and discussion. It generally makes them better at their jobs.
Generally it is a great idea to also summarize and share the key takeaways from these meetings with the whole company either in a written form or at the next All Hands.
7) You need a clear way (place, process, format, etc) that decisions get made and a clear way that they get shared
It is usually puzzling to new CEOs but at around 50 employees, people start getting very confused about how decisions get made. Along the theme of “things that were once effortless now require effort”, decision-making when you are a small company is usually pretty easy for any number of reasons including that most people personally know the CEO and can just ask when they need something. As you get bigger, people start to get anxious or confused about what decisions they can make, when they need to get approval, who they need to loop in, etc.
There is definitely a whole blog post that could be written about decision making but I’ll tl;dr it here to get to the communication point.
Decision making is something that now needs a process. How do people know when to loop you (the CEO or leader) in to a decision? How do they know what they can just decide versus what they need your or other’s input on? What information do they need to prepare / share when they’re asking you or the leadership team to make decisions? Every company has a different way that they handle this but a lot of folks ends up using some decision-making framework (like RAPID or RACI or MOCHA) and either a written- or meeting-type process for how things get bubbled up to the CEO and the leadership team. Whatever your process ends up being, in addition to getting clear on that and efficient at making decisions, you need to realize that just making a decision isn’t enough — you also have to communicate about it.
After any decision is made, the next question in your mind and in the minds of your leadership team needs to be: “Who needs to know about this?” and then ensure that someone owns communicating out the decision.
A decision isn’t useful or powerful unless the right people know about it and understand it — why the decision was made and what needs to happen next. This is critical to the bus versus car point above. Part of the way that half the company keeps building a car when you’ve decided that it needs to be more of a bus is because you didn’t tell them or you only told them half the story (and it was the part about it still having four wheels). Anyway - I’ll stop exhausting the metaphor. Hopefully you get the point.
So here’s the short summary again... when you scale past 50 employees, as CEO you need to:
start thinking of yourself as a spokesperson
make sure your leadership team knows that communication is part of their job
make your All Hands full of signal
create a channel that the CEO uses to share with the company regularly
create a consistent place that people know to pay attention to for important announcements
have a regular business review and ensure you share the takeaways with the company
have a clear way that decisions get made and make sure you communicate about important decisions
Basically “Who needs to know about this?” needs to become your new favorite question. Try asking it at the end of every meeting, see what happens.
Okey dokey - if there are things around communication that have worked well at your companies in the past, I’d love to hear about them. Hope this helps some of you!
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