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How teaching prepped this software CEO

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in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

As CEO of one of the fastest-growing private companies, Bronto Software’s Joe Colopy says, “It’s hard to understand what it means to be a leader until you’re in a situation where it really matters.”

For Colopy, whose company has grown 200% the past three years, the journey from entrepreneur to CEO of an 80-employee company has meant completely changing his game.

Among other things, he says, he’s had to sharpen his skills when it comes to articulating top-level messages.

EL: How often do you get in front of your employees to communicate?

Colopy: I might have the same conversation 10 times a day, but with different people at different levels. It’s easy to assume, “Oh, everyone’s already heard this, so I don’t need to say it again.” But it never ceases to surprise me how I need to overcommunicate the same story again and again, to tell everyone to pull their oars in the same direction, and let them know that what they’re doing matters, in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish.

EL: What cues let you know it’s time for a CEO message?

Colopy: I’ve definitely had “aha moments” when I hear people’s questions or I hear about a decision they’ve made, and I think, “Why would you do that? That makes no sense.” Then I realize, they’re not on the highway. I don’t blame them. It’s just a sign that I haven’t done a good job of articulating the message, or haven’t communicated frequently enough. If I do a good job, I won’t have to address specific cases like that, because these are smart people.

EL: What sort of communication tools do you lean on?

Colopy: One thing I’ve found valuable is posting videos of my past presentations on an internal instrument called Brontopedia, and using them as part of the formal orientation process. It’s a very scalable way to get in front of every new employee for a couple of hours. The videos are a mechanism for communicating exactly what we’re doing and getting everyone on the same page. And it’s very valuable to have that come directly from me. Otherwise, it’s kind of like a game of Telephone, where you lose data every time a message passes through someone’s filter.

EL: Why is this part of the job so hard for so many CEOs?

Colopy: The hard part is taking a complex idea and breaking it down until it’s so simple that anyone can get it. I spend a lot of time boiling down concepts.

Before I started the company, I was a teacher for several years. I taught overseas, where English wasn’t the first language of my students. When you’re a teacher, you can tell when your students aren’t paying attention—and, unlike being a leader, you’re not even paying them to pay attention. So you have to be very good at being clear and straightforward and engaging. And that’s exactly the same skill set you need to be a leader who communicates well. Doing that every day for years was the best training I could have had.

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