Failure to Communicate

Talent Management

October 29, 2012

by Marshall Goldsmith

As anyone who regularly checks this space knows, I am a big proponent of good communication in businesses. The quality of information flow within an organization often is a good indicator of the quality of the organization, period.

Sadly, this attribute is lacking in many companies. And in this day and age, enterprises that suffer too many breakdowns in communication just won’t survive.

When I see companies like this, I sometimes think of the giant sauropods, the distinctive-looking dinosaurs with gargantuan bodies, long necks and tiny heads. These beasts must have been an impressive sight to behold. They were the largest creatures ever to walk the earth, and many weighed more than 100 tons.

Yet, because of their physiology, it took could take minutes for nerve impulses to travel to their brains from the other parts of their enormous bodies. (By contrast, human beings can almost instantaneously discern if they’ve, say, touched a hot stove.)

These dinosaurs’ imposing size was simultaneously their greatest strength and weakness.

Similarly, many “dinosaur” organizations of our time are daunting in their sheer size.

Because of their mass and structure, though, exchanges of information and ideas move through these enterprises about as efficiently as bodily signals inside a brontosaurus.

Specifically, I recall an experience I had early in my career with the old AT&T, when I was invited to corporate headquarters to speak to one of its top executives.

I was pretty green at the time, and I remember feeling really intimidated as I walked past rows of secretaries, miles of carpet and lots of pictures of dead old men before arriving at the palatial office of this bigwig.

When I finally got there, the executive didn’t even bother introducing himself.

Instead, he looked at me condescendingly and asked, “How much experience do you have working in Fortune 10 corporations?”

I nervously replied that I had none, but I had a lot of experience in a wide range of other companies. He seemed completely unimpressed.

I then enthusiastically described what I thought would be important changes for the organizations of the future and how the traditional AT&T – including its leaders – might need to change. I also explained how the company’s bureaucracy, high overhead and stifling corporate culture might not work in the “new world” of business.

Our session didn’t last long. He made it clear he had more important things to do than talk with some neophyte who couldn’t possibly know more than he did.

Needless to say, I left this meeting feeling humiliated and angry.

In retrospect, though, I wish I’d told him he was right: I didn’t know how to prevent an obsolete dinosaur such as the old AT&T from barreling toward its own extinction.

I might not have been an expert in the largest companies in the world at the time, but I didn’t have to be to predict the eventual outcome – anyone could see AT&T’s hierarchy and bureaucratic structure were not going to work in a rapidly shifting business climate.

To borrow a phrase from “Cool Hand Luke,” what AT&T had was a failure to communicate. The company’s leaders (who believed they knew it all to begin with) couldn’t honestly and openly discuss future issues and challenges, so it continued to do more of the same.

Of course, we all know what happened in the ensuing years: AT&T deteriorated, as it neglected to adapt to a quickly evolving market. After a long, slow decline, the organization – one of the largest and most successful in history – was bought by SBC, a company that actually spun off of the original A&T in the 1980s.

SBC bought AT&T for about one-third of the price the Procter & Gamble paid for Gillette – a razor blade company! Who could have ever guessed a company that important could fall that far?

In my next column, I’ll talk about common challenges to organizational communication and how you can avoid sharing the former AT&T’s fate.