How Do I Become a More Effective Communicator? (Podcast) | Ep. #069

Elizabeth Larkin, Michael Kelly, and Eric Dollinger

As a small business owner, there’s nothing more important than being an effective communicator. In episode 69, hosts Elizabeth Larkin and Gene Marks answer this question:

“I have great employees. And for the most part, the ship runs smoothly, but every now and again we hit an iceberg. I’m not great at talking to my employees or people in general. How do I become a better and more effective communicator?”


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Elizabeth: Welcome back to another edition of the Small Biz Ahead Podcast.

Gene: We’re back! We’re small businesses and we’re getting ahead. We’re going to teach you to get ahead on this episode.

Elizabeth: Yes. So, I just wanted to do a reset because we have a lot of new listeners now, which is great. I just want to reintroduce us to people. I’m Elizabeth Larkin and I’m the managing editor of Small Biz Ahead, the website/blog, that Gene Marks writes for. And Gene is a small business owner and a consultant.

Gene: Yeah. Well, I’m a business owner and then I’m a writer, I guess, right?

Elizabeth: Writer and-

Gene: I write a bunch of different places.

Elizabeth: And you speak publicly…

Gene: Correct, I do some speaking as well-

Elizabeth: You spend a lot of time on airplanes.

Gene: I do. But… so I have a 10-person company outside of Philadelphia and we have about 600 small and medium-sized clients that are all small business owners that are using the technologies that we sell. Then I write… I write for the Washington Post everyday and I write for Forbes and I write for Ink and I write for Entrepreneur. So those are all different places. And then of course I write for Small Biz Ahead every single week.

Elizabeth: Yes, Gene has a weekly column on Small Biz Ahead that’s very popular.

Gene: And it’s fun.

Elizabeth: So tell us, what is on the minds… this is a really hard question but since you have-

Gene: What’s on the minds of small business owners? Is that what you’re about to ask me?

Elizabeth: Sort of. So you work with 500-600 different small business owners, so you’re just immersed in small business constantly. So what is on the mind of small business owners right now as far as how often they communicate with their employees. And how well they communicate with their employees, and different ways they can communicate with their employees.

Gene: It’s funny, can I say this? If you run a business, you are by no means a management expert. There are people that work here at The Hartford that probably could not buy something for a dollar and sell it for a profit because they’ve worked at companies all their lives. But they have skill sets of managing people, which is a legitimate professional skill set that we, as business owners, are jealous of.

Elizabeth: Well there’s no school for that. Like even… if you get an MBA do they teach you people management?

Gene: No. In fact, I always said, if I were ever going to go back for a Masters degree in something, it’d be in psychology. Because… people say, “Go back for your MBA,” and I’m thinking I really need to understand if people are lying to me or not.

I can speak on behalf of the business owner clients that I have and even managers of small companies, but they look at you and they look at managers at larger companies. Once I say, “Okay, these guys could never do what I do. They couldn’t run a business like me.” But they definitely have more of a skill set of managing people. When you grow a business, you get to a certain size where you’re like, “Jeez, I wish I had that skill set. I could really use it right now.”

The smart people that I know recognize that failing. If they can do something about it, they try to. Maybe they’re still young enough and willing enough to learn how to become good managers. Or at the very least, take their money and invest in bringing in management level people to run their businesses. Just because you’re a successful business owner doesn’t mean you’re a very good manager and you find that out.

Elizabeth: Yeah. We see that the articles people read on Small Biz Ahead, our most popular topic is-

Gene: People.

Elizabeth: Basically how to manage people.

Gene: Yeah. It’s managing people. Whether you have one employee or 50 employees, you have the same issues. It’s always people people people people. Someday they’ll all be replaced by robots and we won’t have to worry about this anymore.

Elizabeth: But until then, your employees are your most important asset.

Gene: They always are. And they always will be. I always laugh about, like oh they’ll be replaced by robots, but they’ll be plenty of jobs. Believe me, people will always find something for them. Look at the tax code. Tax code used to be 100 pages and now it’s like a million pages. People will always find ways to keep themselves busy, robots or not.

Elizabeth: We’re going to be right back with our question. This is actually about how to become a more effective communicator.

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QUESTION: How Do I Become a More Effective Communicator?

Elizabeth: Our first question is from Tim, he just gives his last name as C., and he’s from Idaho. Idaho, I don’t know-

Gene: Tim? Idaho? Boise, Idaho.

Elizabeth: Have we had a question from Idaho? This is great. So Tim writes,

“I have great employees.”

Good for him, he’s lucky.

“And for the most part, the ship runs smoothly, but every now and again we hit an iceberg. I’m not great at talking to my employees or people in general.”

Gene: Yeah, I get it.


“How do I become a better and more effective communicator?”

Gene: Isn’t that great? I see that all the time. Tim, dude, I get it. If you’re a business owner, you’ve gotten to a certain level of growth where you managed on your own. You’re probably independent, you’ve figured things out on your own. And now you start bringing people on and they’ve all got their issues and their problems, and then they can’t use it… they’re not you! If they were you, then they’d be running businesses. So they need… and there’s this disconnect that Tim is obviously feeling, because he’s like “I don’t get it. If that were me working in that person’s job, I’d be doing X, Y, and Z.” And it’s like… right? You have this disconnect.

Tim, there is… you talk about being an effective communicator. For starters, you have to recognize in yourself whether or not you are a good communicator and a good manager or not. I mean, are you or not? Is this something you think you can be? And is this something you think you want to be? Again, I… clients sometimes look themselves in the mirror and say, “You know what? This is not my thing.” So if you don’t think it’s your thing, then you’re going to have invest. Just like you invest in a piece of equipment or machinery, you’re going to have to invest in management level people that are good and effective communicators.

Elizabeth: So how would you find someone like that? You’re on LinkedIn and you do a search for your industry. You’re looking for… maybe to bring someone in from bigger company? Or-

Gene: Yeah, it really is. Now if you bring people in from a bigger company, you will get somebody… if you go through the interview process and you connect with that person, who probably does have those management and communication skills. You have to. I think you learn that in a corporate environment. However you will potentially, Tim, pull your hair out because that person is going to bring their big company bologna along with them. You know, some bureaucracy here or procedures and policies that they have for communication.

Elizabeth: Processes.

Gene: Processes. You’re going to be like, you got to be kidding me. We’re only a 20-person company here and you’re bringing that to the table. Whoever you hire has got to realize that you’re a small business and not a big company, so you’re-

Elizabeth: They love processes.

Gene: Yeah. Right? Everybody loves processes except people running small companies where we have no processes. You’re going to have to brace yourself for that experience. I do think that if you bring someone on from a bigger company, obviously you’re going to be going through that interview process. That person will probably have more skills at managing people, particularly if they did manage people at the company. Then you’ve got-

Elizabeth: You’d only want to look for someone that managed people, right?

Gene: That’s right. My story is… I have a client that they have now 50-60 people, and they brought on a sales manager. A manager. Because the guy that runs the company is terrible at managing people, so he hired a sales manager. The sales manager came from a much larger company in his industry. This is a true story. The sales manager started up and he was supervising their five sales guys in this company. This guy came in, he was great. He was such a nice guy. He was doing lunch and learns. He was putting in happy hours with the group, and like customer… you know, different procedures for a service. And the business owner… it was driving the business owner nuts because the manager wasn’t selling.

I remember my friend, the business owner, was like “The guys been here for six months. He hasn’t made a single sale.” Because he didn’t really… dude you didn’t bring in this guy as another salesman. You brought him in as a sales manager to manage your salespeople. He came from a corporate environment and he’s trying to bring what he’s learned from the corporate environment to your business.

Elizabeth: Were sales up though? I mean, was he effective?

Gene: Not yet, but it was still just six months, so the only thing that the business owner was looking at saying, I just added $125,000 to my overhead and my sales aren’t even up. This is not working out. They parted ways after only six months.

Elizabeth: Really?

Gene: They parted ways. It was bad. Not only was it bad for the owner, but the guy that took this job felt terrible. Can you imagine? You’re hired… this is what he knew how to do. But he didn’t have any patience, the owner didn’t. He had the wrong objectives. So I guess it gets back to Tim’s original question about improving communication. If you don’t think you’re the guy to improve the communication because you don’t want to learn and you don’t have that personality, then I do think that you’re going to need, at some point, to bring in management level experience. It’s going to be somebody with a corporate background.

Elizabeth: What if you can’t afford to do that?

Gene: Then you can’t do it.

Elizabeth: So, how can you improve your communication skills? Like YouTube videos?

Gene: No. YouTube videos? If you’re doing communication skills along with your employees, again you have to recognize what your weaknesses are. The best way, in my opinion, to communicate… what I’ve learned from experience is being as transparent as possible. People will… you’re able to communicate better when people empathize with you and feel they can connect to you and don’t feel like you’re BS-ing them as it is. So okay, no one is going to say you’re going to get up there and inspire your team to great heights or make passionate speeches. If you can at least be honest and transparent with your people, if you can be clear on what your weaknesses are and admit your mistakes. I’ve just found that your people will connect with you more, the more human that you are.

Elizabeth: So our CMO at The Hartford, her name is Kathy Bromage-

Gene: I’m a huge Kathy Bromage fan.

Elizabeth: You know her. She always describes it, and I just love this phrase, she calls it setting the table. Before she makes a change, she’ll meet with the people who are affected by… even if it’s a good change-

Gene: What a concept.

Elizabeth: Bad change, good change, whatever. She meets with them and tells them this is why we’re doing this.

Gene: Yes.

Elizabeth: She calls it setting the table, so she just doesn’t say, “Oh, we’re getting rid of that vendor and replacing them with this vendor. Just make the change.” She actually takes the time to meet with people and explain, here’s my thinking behind this, here’s who I got input from. People love that-

Gene: People love it.

Elizabeth: Because then they know why. And you’re being a little… the transparency is just very important.

Gene: I think that’s such great advice as well, and it does dovetails into what we were just saying. When people feel included in what they’re doing, and they know what the end goal is, and also when they’re aware of your concerns, your fears, your weaknesses. People will connect with you that much more. Again, and I know Kathy. Kathy is also not somebody who is going to stand in front of a crowd and give some inspirational speech or whatever. She’s a very, very plain speaker. And she shares… you feel… she’s very human. You can connect with her. I think that’s a huge… you asked, “What if you can’t hire a good manager? What do you do?” I would say, as transparent as you can be to connect with your people is the best way you can communicate with them.

Elizabeth: I think that’s really good advice. We’ll be right back with Gene’s Word of Brilliance.


Elizabeth: And we’re back. Gene, take it away.

Gene: My Word of Brilliance, it’s a number this week, Elizabeth. The number is 24.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Gene: 24% actually. According to research that was recently released, the cost of benefits… this should come as no surprise to anybody running a business. The cost of benefits for your employees has increased 24% over the past dozen years. 24%. That’s health and retirement and other employee benefits. By the way, this is in a time when the cost of living and wages have been flat. Inflation, 1%. But the cost of benefits has increased-

Elizabeth: Why is that?

Gene: Significantly. Well, healthcare is a big part of it. So healthcare costs have been… putting all politics aside, the healthcare debate and whatnot. It’s impacting a lot of employers. Now, there’s a big reason why a lot of employers hold back on hiring new people because there’s a big benefit cost. Way more. Think about that. You put it into perspective. How harder a decision it is right now to hire a new employee because your costs are actually 24% higher than they were if you were making that same decision a dozen years ago. What’s also interesting about that number, Elizabeth, is that it’s been a turn. It’s been a flip.

Up until about a dozen years ago when all this changed around, the majority of the benefits that were being provided to you, the employee, was retirement related. That’s because for a long time, people and companies were doing defined benefit plans.

Elizabeth: Pensions.

Gene: Pension plans. Exactly right. They were guaranteeing you what your income was going to be-

Elizabeth: The good old days.

Gene: Oh, my goodness. Right? And you can only do that now if you work for the government somewhere. Although a lot of governments are changing that around. So the majority of the benefits was retirement related. Now it’s flipped. Now the majority of benefits are healthcare related. There’s less benefits going to retirement because most companies are putting money into 401k and defined contribution plans. That’s another issue for your workers because people… we see study after study how people… the average American has got like $1000 in savings or some crazy number. Here companies are even scaling back on what they’re contributing to people’s retirement plans in lieu of healthcare costs. Big issues facing all of our employees going in the future.

The question to you as a business owner is, how do you balance that out? How do you provide a competitive benefits for healthcare while also making sure there’s some kind of retirement plans for your employees. Because honestly, I’ve seen this with my own eyes, people become of retirement age, they retire. They realize they don’t have enough money to retire on. Then what are they doing within a few months? They’re coming back to you, the employer, and saying, “You got any spare work for me? Can I be on a consulting basis?” Comes back on you eventually. So that’s a big issue. 24%. Let’s hope that number doesn’t rise, but that’s my word of the day.

Elizabeth: We’ll be back in a couple days with our next episode.

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