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A Hard Place Between Two Rocks: A future for the Strategic Internal Communicator?

BY mikeklein As I pursue a positioning as a “Strategic Internal Communicator” and an advocate for “Strategic Internal Communication”,  I have found two recent conversations quite challenging.

The first, with Liz Guthridge, a long-time co-conspirator and one of the endorsers of my book, “From Lincoln to LinkedIn”, who said “I think Strategic Internal Communication is too small and restrictive of a playing field.  These really are leadership issues (emphasis mine, as it generally is on my own blog) that greatly affect the company’s operations and reputation. Plus, with today’s hyper-connectivity, I think it’s hard for traditional internal communication people to manage these issues.”

The second was with “Silvia”, who recruited me to come back to Europe for a contract a number of years back, and who has since developed a career coaching service.

In an hour-and-a-half analysis of my strengths and  weaknesses that I signed up for while contemplating a return to permanent in-house work, she concluded: “You aren’t an Internal Comms Manager or a Head of Comms.  You are a writer.  You love writing.  You show no evidence of any skill at organizing events or managing a team and that’s a big part of what people want.   On the digital side, you don’t really have the technical piece. And why limit yourself to Internal Comms?  Haven’t you heard that ‘Content is King?’”

Never mind that I have fifteen years of credentials as an activist in the internal comms profession, have written a book on the subject, and am genuinely passionate about what I do.

To put it bluntly, the Strategic Internal Communicator (me, in this case), is in a hard place between two rocks—the immovable commitment of HR folks (and the people who recruit for them) to hiring people for top IC positions on the basis of broad executional and transactional skills rather than deep strategic acumen and fluency, and the tone adopted by some people who have “graduated upwards” from IC who think these are loftier matters to be addressed by souls with mightier positions on the food chain.

But, as George Bernard Shaw once said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man." 

At the core, the strategic internal communicator has three main roles in an organisation that is capable of making full use of his or her talents.

The first is to take ownership of the organisation’s strategy and vision and weave it thoroughly into the fabric of conversations in the business—particularly through shaping its words and narrative.

The second is to identify those places where the organisation’s words and action contradict or fall short of its vision and narrative—and either address those gaps rhetorically or challenge the organisation’s leaders to close or transcend them.

The third is to understand where the levers of influence lay in the organisation, and provide those influential people with the information and context required for them to make a real difference.

Event producers, web masters and executive coaches don’t do that.  CEOs don’t do that.  Strategic Internal Communicators do that--and we do a lot of other stuff in order to get the organisational headroom to do that.

Sure, the never-ending drive for corporate efficiency will continue the drive for overspecification of top IC roles.  And the never-ending drive for higher fees and status will continue entice excellent IC pros to drop their tools and migrate ever upward.

The need for organisations to maintain coherence and inspire confidence in an increasingly connected and competitive world means there will always be need for our talents as Strategic Internal Communicators.

But for us to be able to make full use of those talents, we must fight for our place.  Even if it is a hard place and if it means being unreasonable.

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5 thoughts on “A Hard Place Between Two Rocks: A future for the Strategic Internal Communicator?”

  1. Ouch, Mike! I don’t necessarily think I’ve “graduated upwards” from IC and think these are “loftier matters” that higher ups need to address. Instead, I think we need to pivot to a new role that is better suited for our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world where we can’t control or really even own anything.

    We need to be leaders who can coach, curate and convene. Everyone thinks they can communicate, and in today’s hyper-connected world, they can–inside and outside their organizations. They may not do it as well as we’d like them to but we can’t stop them and we may not be able to edit them. Rather than wringing our hands or trying to fish for them, we need to take action by helping help them fish. This means being a coach as well as curating and sharing what they do. It also means helping convening groups and communities for conversations.

    We also have to be on the playing field rather than the sidelines. We’re influencers too. We have a critical role in improving the focus, clarity and alignment within organizations to increase performance. Often times this can be helping people think more clearly. Labeling all of these actions as “strategic internal communications” is to narrow.

    Any ideas of a better label?

    And am I being an appropriate blend of reasonable/unreasonable in order to make progress?

  2. Liz, I am not saying the role and positioning you and other IC pros who have moved on into “leadership coaching” are doing anything wrong. That there are executives willing to pay or listen to that coaching is no bad thing.

    But what I find a real problem is when the organisational narrative is left solely to executives to articulate and own and the IC pros do little more than administer and “convene” the related processes, the ability to adjust both the content and context is lost.

    To use your fish analogy, where the coaches teach the executives to fish, and the IC administrator-managers organise the banquet hall and make sure the hand-scripted name tags are at each place, no one is cooking the fish and making sure it is seasoned appropriately and memorably.

  3. Oops, Mike. I’m not being as clear as I should. In our role as coaches, curators and VUCA-era communicators, we are working not just with executives, but also with employees.

    Take a look at this article I wrote for PR News, bit.ly/1gLlZ9G, “How to Make Your CEO More Video Savvy.” You’ll see that Avery Dennison’s corporate communications team is altering the way it works as it reshapes the company’s corporate culture. Heather Rim, the visionary VP of Global Corporate Communication, leads a small and growing team. Team members–who often share responsibilities across internal and external–view themselves as enablers, not creators, as they help employees–not just the leaders in the C-suite–tell stories.

    By the way, I see communicators, leaders, employees and customers all in the kitchen cooking the fish. Yes, with all of these stakeholders, the kitchen is a crowded place; yet, it’s the best place to create.

    And to use another analogy, in a VUCA world, we also need to be more like Improv actors rather than scriptwriters. We have to work in the moment more and be able to react and respond in real time rather than producing off on our own.

  4. First of all, Liz–I shared your article with one of my colleagues–it’s the best thing I’ve seen on CEO video and I see where you are coming from on that.

    At the same time, the preference you show for the “improv actor” vs. the “scriptwriter” is something I find a bit worrying, and not simply because of my own preference for the scriptwriter approach. Improv works where the context is strong and well understood and there is a shared sense of intent (and/or humor). Scriptwriting works where the context needs to be held together, and the content needs to be proactively aligned with the context in order to move the organisation towards its intent.

    Neither approach is wrong or right–but each requires a realistic assessment of its appropriateness for each situation.

  5. Glad you liked the article, Mike. The real credit though goes to Heather Rim and her corporate communications team at Avery Dennison as they’re reinventing themselves and making a big impact. I’m honored to have them as a client.

    Yes, the “improv actor” instead of the “scriptwriter” is a different way of working. And even though I advocate improv for our times, I have to admit I’m personally not always comfortable with the approach. It sometimes pushes me out of my safety zone.

    Yet, to stay relevant we have to push ourselves and be open to the changing landscape. In my latest blog post, I write about attending the opening of Shepard Fairey’s latest show and the change lessons I gleaned from it. Even though he’s a street artist, graphic designer, and activist, I was still surprised Fairey and the museum/gallery allowed everyone to take photos of all of his art, which he created this year for the show. Art and communication belong to the people. (By the way, the post is at http://bit.ly/1kcyPbw)

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