Can business leaders make U-turns?

I live in a world where transparency, honesty and truth are the pillars of my profession. I spend time with leaders crafting messages to ensure they are clear, factual and honest and we discuss and debate the best way to deliver messages that are difficult. More so now than ever the conversations are linked to change; we need to refocus on x, we are going to merge with y, we need to review our organisational structure and chance how we operate etc. The change programmes we manage are part of our day to day roles now.

Managing this amount of change isn’t easy but our integrity as a profession ensures that our role to be honest and truthful with employees, giving them a voice throughout it all, remains core.

I say all this after reading article after article about the Government U-turn on increasing National Insurance contributions for some self-employed workers. After a week of criticism for going against the election pledge Philip Hammond changed his stance and apparently, this isn’t ok either. This blog is not about whether the political decision is right or wrong, it’s about our reaction to change, our reaction to leaders saying ‘we got it wrong’ and what this says for businesses out there trying to manage so much uncertainty. It’s no wonder we have leaders worried about being honest when the public example is so shaming.

As an internal communication professional, I’m constantly reassuring leadership teams that being honest is not only ok, it is a must – people respect the honesty and just want to know the truth. I don’t believe it makes you weak as a leader and I don’t believe it suggests that the entire leadership team is in chaos. We are in uncertain times and some decisions aren’t going to be the right ones but we should be able to say ‘ok, we have listened, we go this one wrong and we won’t move forward in this direction’ without fear.

Inside organisations leaders as individuals and leadership teams are making decisions that affect the future stability and growth of the organisation with a responsibility to sometimes hundreds or thousands of people. These are big decisions, not taken lightly and thought through. That doesn’t mean they are always right, they are human beings after all, and we should be happy that our voices are heard. We have strived for employee voice to have a real role inside businesses and as we watch the public voice play out in politics, it doesn’t give me hope that businesses will be encouraged by current outcome.

The importance of authenticity

Last month at the big yak, we talked about leadership comms. This sparked so many thoughts and ideas and you can read my top takeaways here.

What continues to play on my mind is the role of authenticity. We had a good discussion about the role of the leader and how leaders can sometimes struggle to grasp the benefit of engaging with employees at every level. So how do you overcome it? And why is it important?

I strongly believe that we shouldn’t make all leaders use channels they aren’t comfortable with. I remember being told years ago from my global colleagues that every board member needed to have a blog and start using it. I knew straight away that one of my board members would never do that – he was face to face all the way and I would end up writing stuff for him just to meet the measurement criteria set by the global comms team – not authentic at all.

So why do we struggle to find the right channels for our leaders and what can we do to help them?

A great discussion at the big yak highlighted the need to understand the world of the leader. Who do they really care about? And it’s the same for all of us – their boss. And for many in leadership this is the board and shareholders. So we need to make sure what whatever we are asking them to do – they can explain the benefit to this audience.

I remember working with a CFO who, after a painful session at the company conference, couldn’t understand why he should care about the feedback? ‘I don’t care what they think, I don’t see why I need to do it anyway.’ We spent some time talking about why getting the message right in that form is important, that we need the people in the room to buy into the goals and understand what they need to do to help us all achieve success – both on a company level and on a personal bonus level. Come the next conference we did a lot more coaching on style and delivery – tell a story like you would do with your children before bed – and while it will never be his comfortable space he now totally gets it and spends time preparing and getting it right.

I really believe the days of writing comms for the company are coming to an end. I spend most of my time editing content rather than starting from scratch and if I am starting from scratch it is in collaboration with the real author and we go backwards and forwards. I am not the corporate mouth piece but I will enable the board and all employees to communicate effectively, in the right way culturally and in a way that engages the audience with the message. We can only adapt and move forward if we all agree that being authentic is at the heart of good communication.

CIPR President Elect – what is your view on internal comms?

Last week I approached the three candidates standing as President Elect to find out a bit more about what they think of internal comms. All three replied instantly so here are the answers from Emma Leech, Gary Taylor and Sarah Hall:

1. What do you think the role of internal comms is inside organisations  today?

Emma: Internal communications plays a critical role within organisations. We work in ever more competitive and rapidly changing environments and ensuring we attract and retain the best talent, unlock potential and ideas, and differentiate on excellent and authentic customer service are obvious wins. Less obvious is the tremendous impact that loyalty, engagement, great change management and advocacy can have across the organisation and – very pragmatically – on the bottom line.

I’m also a Fellow of the Institute of Internal Communications and as someone who has worked in the field and now manages a team in this area, I clearly identify with the importance of working with professionals who can listen to the organisation’s heartbeat and respond to it. From using local intelligence to feed into crisis communications and planning, to identifying and helping to tackle strategic business issues, or simply developing messages and campaign opportunities, internal communications has a key role to play.

Gary: The way organisations are changing, it’s more important than ever to communicate – especially change – with staff members. Your staff are the best people to explain, promote and celebrate the good work you’re doing  – they need to feel informed and part of the decision-making process. An effective internal communications strategy can help achieve this. Sadly, it’s often shunted to one side, seen as less important that the external  communications function or just as the trickle-down of information from the Management Team, at a pace and in a form that suits them, not the staff.

Sarah: Internal comms (IC) is critical for two reasons: there’s an increasing expectation for organisations to be open and transparent; and organisations are striving to become social. The shift to social organisations is a huge opportunity for IC. Figuring out how to move from command and control management, to a more open, networked organisation is a big job and requires a specialist skillset. It’s an issue that will continue play out for IC over the next generation. Although there is much being said about employee advocacy, the notion of employees as advocates won’t sit comfortably with me until the relationship between the organisation and employee is equitable. While this plays out however, the opportunity to use modern platforms such as Facebook at Work, Slack and Yammer as a means of engagement, is a huge opportunity for anyone working within this area.

2. Where do you think CIPR can improve how it supports internal comms  people?

Emma: I think we could start by responding proactively to the Inside Group’s agenda. I’ve been amazed at how vibrant and collegiate the Group is and the support of the recent #thebigyak event is a great example of the energy and fresh thinking the Group has to offer. We could learn a lot from that as an Institute. I would want your ideas on how we could provide better training, develop the Diploma, and support professionals in the field. I think there’s a job to be done in actively promoting the very real and financial benefits of great internal communications that will help raise the profile and value of practitioners. I think it’s also important for the CIPR to help support members better as part of their career journey to ensure that internal communications colleagues don’t hit roadblocks in terms of progression which can be a real issue.

Gary: By creating, encouraging and acting as a platform for greater engagement between internal communications practitioners /specialists. There’s a huge body of untapped knowledge that events such as #thebigyak help to release. But too many practitioners – in all areas, not just internal – are left to work on their own, at the mercy of what  non-practitioners think is ‘right’. We should be there for them with something they can point to, a source of good practice and latest thinking.

Sarah: Internal comms is an important public relations discipline and it rightly continues to grow in stature as understanding grows of what it can achieve.

The CIPR has a powerful opportunity at its fingertips.

  1. To enhance its own internal comms between HQ, board, council, groups and members, using the knowledge and expertise within its membership
  2. To support the growing number of internal comms practitioners and better serve them with the knowledge and tools they need to succeed
  3. To celebrate this expanding body of knowledge and practice

As President-Elect, I’d strive to make the CIPR a best practice model for how IC can transform organisations. I’d look to help IC professionals communicate the value of their work to employers and demonstrate return on investment.

Finally I’d make this burgeoning area of the industry a key aspect of the 70th anniversary celebrations in 2018. It’s an important area of public relations and there are some excellent people within the membership pioneering the way.

3. With all your experience what is your key advice to those working in  internal comms?

Emma: My advice to colleagues is to engage, enjoy, learn and make change happen. When you’re closest to an organisation’s issues, you’re often closest to the solutions. Listening is everything. Using that insight to deliver real strategic value is a major strength. Some of the best campaigns I’ve ever been involved with have been internal communications led – a simple conversation that sparked a big idea, change project, recruitment or fundraising idea. We often make the mistake in PR of believing our own hype – great internal communicators bring challenge to that and a truly authentic organisational perspective. That kind of insight is gold dust in business today – sprinkle it wisely!

Gary: You are the communications professional. You do this every day. Depending on your relative position within the organisation it can feel daunting to have to say to the higher-ups “you’re wrong on this” – but your organisation’s reputation (as well as your own) relies on good, professional communications.

Sarah: Internal comms practitioners have an incredibly exciting opportunity. As the C-Suite looks to public relations professionals to make sense of the changing world around them and manage reputation, the value placed on practitioners is growing. I’d urge all IC practitioners to focus on their continuous professional development (CPD). It’s critical to demonstrating your worth in organisational terms. Finally, collaborate to share best practice (as already happens through fantastic initiatives like The Big Yak) and lobby your industry bodies for support in educating employers and the business community about the incredible work you do.

Horsing around

It’s week six in the new job and last week I spent the day taking part in an Equine Assisted Development day with my new colleagues to establish how we will work as a team. After years of attending workshops, development days and leadership coaching I would trade them all in for just one day like this – I had no expectations yet I left the day feeling slightly revolutionised.

Working with the horses as a tool to help us identify where we fit in the team, how we manage people, influence others and support each other is simply genius. But why should you do it?

You will learn more about your colleagues than you expect
How we behave with the horses and in front of each other in a situation like this is very telling. People I had interpreted as very confident showed signs of fear and anxiety and for others who are often quiet and shy their true determination to overcome obstacles shone through. Watching each other, understanding body language and how it affects the horses is a great way to draw parallels for your work life.
I found out where I fit
Being an ESTJ I know most people see me as the life and soul of a team and I have often thought of myself as someone who is very happy to lead people. What I learnt from the session was that I actually prefer being at the back of pack, keeping everyone together and supporting the leader who is out front. Understanding the herd mentality and linking that to the team – working with the horses as that team, in the physical place that you fit, demonstrated the importance of working together, communicating and for me, knowing that it didn’t matter who was in what role – what is important is that all the roles are taking an active part.
Understanding the important of your behaviours
It’s very easy to think about your own world when going through change. Change effects everyone differently but when you’re leading a team of people or in a position of leadership you need to consider how your behaviour impacts them. Working with the horses as a team and then changing formation you’re incredibly aware how sudden changes make an impact and how you need to work together as a team to make that change smooth.
The importance of personality
Working with two horses who had very different personalities meant we were able to really understand how you have to adapt your behaviour to get the right results. This isn’t anything new but actually seeing it, watching your colleagues influencing through body language alone, gives you more depth to what is often a very throw away comment. Understanding personality delved into trust, pace and confidence more than I could have imagined.
The physicality of seeing the impact of body language and learning from your colleagues while unearthing some real insight into how we individually work is invaluable. Some people might be sceptical about the parallels you can draw from such an experience but take the leap, go out of your comfort zone to find out more about yourself, but also to benefit those around you.
If you want to find out more just get in touch or you can speak to Charlotte Dennis

Why good leaders make you feel safe

When it comes to leadership there is no one I enjoy listening to more than Simon Sinek. After discovering some of his work a few years ago I have followed him since and this recent post on TED has once again sparked thoughts and ideas in my mind.

Talking about leadership and providing examples from the military he asks the question about whether certain roles attract certain types of leaders. He asks the question about where leaders that have an emotional connection with their teams comes from.

Is it about the people? The individuals? No, it is the environment they work in.

Why risk everything to save someone else? Because that person would do the same for me – it’s about trust and cooperation. But trust and cooperation are a feeling – I cannot tell you to trust me and you will.

To keep that organisation alive and safe from the ‘dangers’ outside a leader that creates an environment of trust is a leader that will create a great organisation. If an employee follows the rules because they fear for their job, it doesn’t make for a great worker and it won’t make for a successful company.

He goes on to compare leaders to parents. “We want the same for our children as we do for our employees: Opportunity, education, we discipline them when necessary all so they can grow up and achieve more than we could ourselves.”

I’d suggest anyone takes 12 minutes to watch this video. Not only to hear about the manufacturing company that had to save $10million and ended up saving $20million without making anyone redundant but also to clearly understand what leadership is. There is a big difference between being an authority and having authority over people, and being a leader and having people follow you…

 

What comes first… The trust in the top or the bottom?

I was having a conversation at work the other day and the topic of command and control and trust came up. We were discussing how control can imply a lack of trust in those around you and it made me wonder if the two do go hand in hand.

If I am a control freak (and some say I am!) does this mean that I don’t trust you? Does it mean that I always think you will get it wrong or just that I know how I want it?

Does the person on the end of the control feel like they are being controlled or do they feel untrusted? Is that the same thing?

Looking into this further and with the Edelman trust barometer published this week we focus a lot on the trust in those above us, those who lead us and those who govern us. But what about their trust in us?

I started reading throwing sheep in the boardroom this week (that’s another blog post) and the foreword really struck a cord….

If you were asked to open a restaurant how would you do it? You’re looking after the menu, the design, the building, everything. Now say you plan to open a steak restaurant…. You’re going to need steak knives. Your mind doesn’t then say, ah but people could use these knives to stab other customers so when I design my restaurant I’m going to put all the tables in cages.

That would be madness.

Yet this is how we have come to think about people and employees in business. If we always think they will do the worst we will design business structures, social channels and organisations around the very worst situation, not the reality. And if we do that, it shows a lack of trust in our people. So if the leaders don’t trust the people then why should the people trust the leaders?

And if everyone is thinking about the worst case scenario then they are going to want to control it and do it themselves to make sure that the bad stuff doesn’t happen…

What we need to consider is spreading that load. No one can control everything and if you show some trust then they will show it back… I just wonder who is going to make the first move….

 

What we can learn from Mr Selfridge

jeremy_piven_selfr_2443089bOver the past few weeks I have been catching up with the latest drama to appear on ITV; Mr Selfridge. I am big fan of the store so I’m thoroughly enjoying this series but it has also made me think about how leaders communicate, inspire and engage a workforce. Now I’m not sure how much of it is fact, but from my sofa there are a few things internal communicators and our leaders can take away…

1. Perception is reality

Every time he addresses the people, his team or any stakeholder in his business he makes sure he has the right face on. He makes sure that the team are inspired to do their jobs and he does this by putting a brave face on it, or by sticking to the party line. This doesn’t mean that I think our leaders should lie their way through communications but it does mean that I think people look to leaders for guidance and stability – they need to demonstrate a sense of control and reassurance. There is a consistency to his approach that is comforting.

2. Everything that needs to be said can be done in 15 minutes

In the episode where Mr Selfridge was out of action his team couldn’t understand how he had so many meetings in a day. His view? You can say everything that needs to be said in 15 minutes and everything else is just hot air. I love this statement as we spend more and more time in meetings (91% of people admit to day dreaming in meetings and 39% admit to falling asleep) and can often achieve very little. Quick, to the point huddles or briefings can deliver much more in terms of engagement.

3. We decide on the what and the why and you decide on the how

This is the key to engagement, and actually links to some work by John Smythe that we covered on day two of my CIPR Diploma. Mr Selfridge demonstrates just how this theory can work. They decide to do a sale to compete with a new store and encourage everyone to come in and shop – what is included in the sale is down to the heads of department – the how is up to them. This is real employee engagement and empowerment and demonstrates what can be achieved if you use the power of the teams and the experts to deliver results.

4. Get to know your people

There are several examples throughout some of the earlier episodes where he goes out on a limb for people. People he thinks have credibility and are the right cultural fit for his business. Culture if the most important thing if you want to compete in today’s market and knowing your team is the key to achieving this. It’s also a lesson for IC Pros to make sure that we are credible in our roles – if we are, our leaders will go out on a limb for us and support what we are trying to achieve.

5. Network and use external events to your advantage

Mr Selfridge is all about his network. He is meeting people all the time and using external events that interest the press to his advantage. I was surprised, upon visiting the store at the weekend, that they aren’t replicating windows from the show in real time – I thought this would be a great idea to capitalise on the programme. Use external events to hook your internal audience and always make time for networking inside and outside the organisation – you never know when you need to make a deal!

I am sure there are many more things to take from the show, and there are probably many of you that haven’t even seen it, but for me it has shown the importance of inspirational leadership and how you can create a culture of engagement through short, sharp communications and real empowerment.

For those who have missed it and now want to check it out, visit ITV player.