By Ankit Mahadevia, CEO and founder of Spero Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
Recently, Spero announced the filing of its first ever New Drug Application, for our medicine tebipenem Hbr. Interestingly, as we approached this milestone, the more involved discussion amongst our senior leadership team was not the external communication, but rather how we’d share this unifying event within the company.
One of the primary objectives of a leader is to create unity of purpose, or a shared understanding of an organization’s vision and priorities. Strong unity of purpose builds connection with your mission and keeps the frenetic pace of a growing company manageable– even in the midst of all the activity, moving parts and noise. The foundation of unity is clear communication across the organization. Even before the pandemic, communication in a quickly evolving company is a complex endeavor; today, communication is complicated further by a working world that is far more distributed and lacking sometimes the centralizing function of the office setting.
So what works best to keep your team focused and together in this peri-pandemic world ?
Broadcast communication in a hybrid working environment
In a hybrid setting, an irregular number of team members come into the office and congregate at irregular times. Broadcast communications, such as All Hands meetings have become critically important to ensure that some key information is heard by the entire team in the same way at the same time. The tactical details matter as they accrue to your strategic intent.
- Cadence – Plan the cadence of All Hands discussions based on the velocity of change. Too often, and folks tune out (you can tell by the number of emails you get during an All Hands meeting). Not often enough, and you’re missing an opportunity. For example, we went to weekly All Hands during the uncertain start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and have now backed off on the cadence after finding a rhythm.
- Messengers – Enterprise-wide messages should come from the top; personally, I’m not a fan of hogging the microphone, but my team has educated me on what should come from the CEO– for example, corporate goals, a change in strategy, and setbacks where it’s important create a sense of ballast and stability for the organization. We do see, though, great utility in frequently passing the microphone to other leaders and employees at every level. This supports our collaborative culture and allows the appropriate members of the team to get some well-deserved recognition
- Choice of Topic – Not all messages are best delivered at an All Hands dialogue. A few considerations for what makes the most sense.
- Simplicity – All Hands messages need to be simple; nuance is interpreted many different ways by a larger audience. Unfortunately, growing enterprises are never simple – taking care to ensure clarity and anticipate any ambiguity is important. For example, when we went through our corporate goals for 2021, we focused on each goal at a high level, and addressed the details through Q and A. If you think an All Hands topic is going to generate a number of questions, it’s important to align with your leaders so that they can support your message, rather than iron out nuance in real-time public dialogue.
- Focus – not every issue is an “All Hands” issue. Too many messages, and you will see the number of phones that are out (and cameras off) increase. Messages relevant to all hands should:
- Create an organizational result – for example, highlight key organizational developments, or share information that places the team’s work in context
- Avoid topics that are simple and tactical enough to be covered in another medium (e.g. email or the company intranet)
- Humanity of the message: Even though the messages are simple and broadcast, keeping them human and authentic is critical especially when many are still connected only virtually. Specific actions can help, such as highlighting the accomplishments of individuals for a key milestone, or revealing something about yourself and your feelings about the message as the speaker.
- Avoiding the “dunce cap” problem – It pays to titrate messages such that their implications don’t put the dunce cap on a particular group or single out an individual without some prior discussion or advance notice – those discussions are likely best had in a smaller forum. Sometimes, this is unavoidable – for example, a particular program setback that needs further explanation by the leaders of that program. In those cases, it’s important to preview the messages with those affected, and if possible, have them participate in their delivery.
Beyond Company Wide Communications – delivering more complex messages
Sometimes, messages you want to convey may be deeper, more nuanced, or not yet ready for prime time. What are some venues leaders can use?
- Leveraging your next level of leaders: Spero has created a group of the next level of leaders – we refer to it as the SLT (strategic leadership team – more on SLT here); SLT serves a critical function as a sounding board not only for messages we will deliver at All Hands, but also as messengers to their teams for more nuanced topics. There are several benefits. First, since most of the company either reports to, or manages SLT leaders, it is a very efficient way to communicate. Second, enabling SLT members to spread the word allows for smaller group discussions (for example an SLT members’ reports) where nuances can be unpacked in more depth. Note that on messages where complexity is likely to crop up, it’s important to ensure leaders are clear on the same set of key messages, and that these leaders follow-up with teams in smaller settings.
- Other mediums of communication – Both the pandemic and our growing embrace of social media create new opportunities to communicate. Emails, messages, videos, and posts on the company intranet or social media can be effective and lasting ways to remind our teammates of who we are, why we do what we do, and the nature of our values. For example, our team will often send biweekly messages highlighting important accomplishments and key values we’ve seen in action; we are experimenting as well with short videos to create unity of purpose. The best messages for these formats are typically positive, do not require in depth Q and A, and are still focused and simple.
The All Hands meeting we did have to celebrate our NDA submission was a memorable and unifying moment for Spero. Key contributors told stories of late nights, long hours, and some creative thinking to meet our goal, and, consistent with our culture, acknowledged many of the individuals that made this happen. Communication is a crucial part of creating the type of mission driven culture that performs, is resilient, and sticks together. Choosing the right forum, message, and format can support this objective and build on the healthy communication that you have among your team as part of delivering on your mission.
Special thanks to James Brady, Spero’s Chief Human Resources Officer for his thoughtful contributions to this article