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I am a newly hired C-level worker at a very small company (less than 30 staff) and am part of the decision-making body. It is my first time at this level of responsibility and here is my first challenge.

We discuss most topics via e-mail as everyone is located in different offices/countries. There are times when I suggest an idea or ask for everyone else' opinion - sometimes on very critical questions and issues - and nobody (or very few) reply. There seems to be tacit disagreement or maybe something else.

I am not entirely sure whether they are just too lazy, too busy or maybe too uncomfortable talking openly on the issues I raise. But the point is the issue needs to be addressed also for their own good and they don't seem to realize this.

What can I do to engage everyone to communicate more openly, and make them aware of the consequences on their career and company... without blackmailing them?

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What I would do, especially on critical issues (this doesn't scale well) is just ask everyone individually for opinions, sometimes even over phone where there's no record. Blasting out group e-mails where you accidentally betray your awareness that Agile is one of the worst software methodologies is a good way to get in trouble with your boss who was planning to announce that the entire company is switching to Agile because of an article in a 2002 copy of Dubiously Effective Yet Still Fashionable Business Practices from the dentist's office waiting room.

Too specific, sorry. Back on topic.

1-on-1. Phone if necessary. Form relationships. Try to ease back into e-mail (since it is almost definitely more efficient). The dialogue will be helpful as well, so it's not as if this is a poor trade-off operation.

Good luck!

  • +1 for building relationships; +1 for people may not want to share opinions in writing so try the phone. Also consider that they just might not think it's as important as you do. You are new and you might be raising questions that were raised and put to rest before you arrived. – MJ6 Aug 26 '14 at 22:00
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    Never assume your own competency, it's easy to not recognize your own mistakes or to be rehashing old issues. – Calvin Aug 26 '14 at 22:01
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I'm guessing you are a newly hired executive for this company. You've said it's a distributed company, with your fellow executives rarely meeting face to face. My answer assumes those facts.

As an executive, one of your most important jobs is to shape the company's culture and decision-making processes. (I'm not saying you need to build a massive decision-making infrastructure with vast documentation, quite the opposite.) You and the rest of your leadership team need to be able to handle decisions nimbly, and in most cases you need to be able to decide and move on.

It sounds like you're used to an email-thread style of decision-making discourse. That's a workable scheme, but everybody has to participate, and they aren't right now. So, if you keep trying to "push that rope" you won't get very far.

I am guessing your co-workers have another way of making decisions, and you haven't quite figured out what it is yet. That's not a criticism of you: these things grow up organically, especially in small distributed companies, and your colleagues may not be conscious of how they do this kind of work. It's also possible they do it badly.

Have one-to-one conversations with your fellow leadership team members. Ask each of them directly, "how did you make a critical decision?" Work through a recent example. An obvious one is "how did you all decide to hire somebody into my position?" Make it clear that you're asking so you can learn how they work together, not to challenge them. Any recent decision, or maybe even a decision that's currently being made, can be an example.

Be careful not to ask the totally abstract question "how do we make decisions?" You care about how these folks actually decide things, not about how they think they should decide things.

If your function in the company needs to make lots of decisions, you may need to start shaping the executive culture very intentionally. You may need to insist on a weekly Skype teleconference or some such thing, with a formal agenda of "decisions we need to make this week / next week / this quarter" etc, and work out a way of making those decisions together or visibly delegating them. This doesn't have to be hard. But you and the leadership team are jointly responsible, even for delegated decisions, so you need to have some dialog about them.

If you're not the CEO you need the CEO to help drive this. If you ARE the CEO you need to get buyin from your colleagues. Do keep in mind that some of the early executives in startup companies aren't really cut out to remain executives as the company grows. If somebody refuses to play along, you may need to grow the company around them.

Go read The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

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FYI - You're a leader.

This means you need to lead. If it is an issue that requires buy in from others in order to make a successful decision, then schedule conference calls with the relevant parties and make that decision on the phone.

If it is anything else then you need to trust yourself and pick a direction. You've given them the opportunity to voice an opinion, without such a thing you just need to plow ahead with the path you think is appropriate. Sometimes you'll make bad decisions - we all do. Learn from those and keep moving forward.

More to the point, you don't need everyone's opinion on every little thing. So make sure whatever it is you are bothering them about is actually important enough to invite comment. Also make sure the people you are bothering cares about the outcome.

Finally, recognize that some people won't comment unless they feel the decision is imminent. If you say "After our last meeting I was thinking we might want to consider doing X. What do you think?" I'd probably ignore it unless it was a pressing issue that I cared about. Honestly that verbiage just sounds like someone who isn't sure what they are doing.

However, if you said, "After evaluating X, I've decided we're going to implement that next month. Let me know by Thursday at 2:00pm if you have an opinion." Then you've done two things. First, you stated a direction. Second, you have a definite time frame for those who think you're wrong to comment.

A third, better, approach is: "I've scheduled a conference call for Thursday at 2:00PM to discuss going forward with X." Again, this better be something that requires buy in otherwise you're wasting everyone's time.

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