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Potentially scary company news can be easy to break

Establishing and maintaining two-way channels of communication is how Tervis President Rogan Donelly builds trust with employees for the delivery of any kind of information.

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Breaking news that could possibly be unsettling to a company’s employees — say like a 31-year-old being named president, or that after 71 years the company is embarking on an entirely new product line that won’t be manufactured in their own plant — doesn’t have to be scary, providing channels of two-way communication have been established.

In the past two years, both of those developments were announced to the more than 600 employees of Tervis, the Venice-based manufacturer of insulated drinkware. Tervis President Rogan Donelly, now 33, is the third generation leader of the family company founded in 1946 by Michigan businessmen Frank Cotter and G. Howlett Davis. Working his way up through the company for seven years while his father, Norbert Donelly, was president, Rogan Donelly was not unknown to the workforce. That has proven effective in the internal network used to communicate with the Tervis team.

“We are roughly 600 people, so we’re not a huge bureaucratic company,” says Donelly. “We encourage our people to communicate cross-functionally with their manager and with the executives, so that is first and foremost in our culture.”

That communications culture was put to the test earlier this year when Tervis moved beyond its signature plastic insulated tumblers to introduce stainless steel tumblers to its product line. Unlike the plastic cups, the new product wouldn’t be manufactured in its Venice plant, but rather imported from China. The switch, Donelly says, was in response to consumer demand as similar products made by Yeti began to grow in the marketplace.

The news didn’t come as a surprise to the employees, he says. That's because of the ongoing communications efforts that include quarterly “town hall” meetings, monthly small group roundtables, regular email blasts and SharePoint, an intranet collaborative platform that provides an opportunity for anonymous feedback.

“The reason we added stainless steel was because of the consumer demand, and we heard from a lot of our sales folks and people within the company about this stainless steel product they see on the beach and on boats infringing on our marketplace,” says Donelly. “That recognition was an easy one because it was so apparent, and not some crazy idea we had to launch a bamboo product and rally the employees behind it. It was an easy decision to convince our team.”

“Communication is how you build trust and consistency within the organization. You can leverage that if you have good news or bad news, as long as you can communicate what you need your people to know, what it means and how does it affect everyone.” Rogan Donelly

The cornerstone of bringing a contemporary perspective to operating a company with hundreds of employees is to use multiple channels of internal communications. And at age 33, Donelly is a member of a generation comfortable with that approach. The quarterly town hall meetings provide him and his executive team the ability to directly address all employees at one time on topics that include quarterly financial reviews, marketing plans and miscellaneous pressing matters. 

Donelly also hosts monthly roundtable luncheons with employees marking anniversaries with the company that month, which he says provides an opportunity for personal interaction. “I learn more than they do because it is a cross-functional group,” he says. “We will have an informal conversation that last about 90 minutes, and folks can use that time either to ask me questions or talk among themselves and bring up ideas.”

In addition, SharePoint allows employees to submit anonymous suggestions or complaints. Companywide email is used to inform staff of developments between quarterly town halls. It’s all in an effort to demystify what can otherwise be an information void between factory floor and C-suite.

“Those are just the structured communication forms, and it has to start there,” Donelly says. “We try to knock down as many silos as possible. We’re not hung up on titles or bureaucracy, and no matter what area you’re working in you should feel free to come to any level within the organization to voice a concern, an idea or a question.”

That approach toward open communication builds trust, Donelly says, a valuable tool when the time does come for any company to deliver potentially distressing news such as a pending lawsuit, an unfavorable financial report or introducing a new product line for which manufacturing will be outsourced.

“I’ve always felt you should over communicate rather than under communicate,” says Donelly. “Being an owner of a small family business, I don’t worry about job security if I put my foot in my mouth from time to time. Communication is how you build trust and consistency within the organization. You can leverage that if you have good news or bad news, as long as you can communicate what you need your people to know, what it means and how does it affect everyone.”


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