The Executive Brief

Consistent Communication: An Essential Quality of an ESOP Leader

Mike Frommelt ESOP, Culture, Leadership

KeyStone Search has had the incredible opportunity to work with numerous ESOP companies through leadership succession and transitions. Employee owned companies are some of my favorite clients because they really get it when it comes to the importance of cultural fit and alignment. And while identifying leaders for an ESOP is never easy, it is incredibly rewarding to see how employee owners share in the success when a new CEO or executive leader helps bring the company to the next level.

Evaluating ESOP Leaders

There are many competencies and characteristics we evaluate during a search for a new ESOP leader. KeyStone evaluates potential ESOP leaders based on three tiers of evaluation:

  • Skills and Competence
  • ESOP Leadership Qualities
  • Unique Culture and Core Values Profile
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I want to focus on the second tier - ESOP Leadership Qualities. We have identified 5 Essential Qualities that ESOP leaders must possess to be successful. They are:

  • High Self-Esteem / Self-Awareness
  • Consistent Communication
  • People Developer
  • Strong Listener / Open-Minded
  • Action / Decision-Oriented

You can read more about each leadership quality here. I want to discuss Consistent Communication, one of the most important factors influencing whether an ESOP leader will succeed or fail.

What does it mean to be a Consistent Communicator?

Consistent Communicators understand the need for and value of communicating on multiple levels on a week-to-week, or even day-to-day basis. Having an open door policy is important, but that only begins to scratch the surface. The best ESOP leaders are proactive, seeking out ways to share information with other leaders and all employee owners. They understand employee owners will be more effective, productive and engaged if given consistent information on the state of the business, the go-forward plan and how each individual employee owner fits into that plan.

Consistent Communication is easy to overlook

Unfortunately, the ability to consistently communicate is often missed when companies interview and evaluate potential leaders. Too often, it is lumped in with the traditional definition of communication skills, i.e. how well the candidate presents his/herself and how well s/he speaks in front of a group. While presentation skills and public speaking ability are important, they do not always translate to being effective in day-to-day, one-on-one or small group communication.

Throughout my 25 years of executive recruiting experience, I have observed many executives who are wonderful at town hall meetings, but simply do not prioritize consistent and routine communication. Many rarely speak consistently with their direct team, much less the entire employee population. I have found that some executives enjoy communicating while others do not. Maybe sharing information too readily takes away their power, maybe they find it boring, but the driver does not really matter: what does matter is that consistent communication is not happening.

How to identify Consistent Communicators

There is good news. If you specifically look for this skill, you can identify Consistent Communicators in the interview process. 

Begin by probing into their communication or management cadence, asking questions like:

  • How often do you conduct staff meetings?
  • How often do you meet one-on-one with your direct reports?
  • When and how often do you meet with employees below your direct reports (such as walking the shop floor, conducting brown bag lunches, etc.)
  • In these meetings, do you discuss business goals, personal goals, or both?
  • Are you having discussions on mission, values, culture, etc.?
  • Do you consistently share and re-share the vision and strategy?

These are polished executives, so those who are not making the grade will try in and fake it in the interview. After all, they did not get to where they are without being able to think on their feet. To combat this, don't be afraid to dig deeper and ask for real life examples, such as:

  • What is the best question you have gotten from an employee owner in the last couple months?
  • What recent conversation sticks out in your mind with an employee on the manufacturing floor?
  • What was the best idea brought to you by an employee owner in the last month?

The best candidates will have recent, relevant examples. Red flags include answers like "well, there have been a lot of these over the years," without specific examples, or examples from many years ago.

Remember, you're not looking for earth shattering examples here - don't grade them on the impact of the examples, grade them on the habit (or lack of habit) of consistently communicating. Game changing examples can be discussed in other parts of the interview.

There are certainly many areas to cover in an executive interview to determine both competence and fit. And while Consistent Communication may not be the most sexy or stimulating topic to discuss, it is critical. Town hall meetings only come around once or twice a year. It is the day-to-day leadership that creates momentum and ultimately long-term success.