The leadership role of the communicator: some tangible advice
BY Mike Klein
One of the welcome developments of the last few years is that we are hearing less about a need for “competent communicators” and more about the imperative to be courageous.
Indeed, this is suddenly a hot topic. The IC Kollectif book, “Disrupting the IC Function” launched last week and included a four-piece section on “The Leadership Role of the Communicator. This week, Vital Speeches of the Day posted an article called: “Your CEO needs you,” which illustrates an appetite among senior executives for sound communication advice delivered under the right conditions.
This article, published by longtime comms-industry commentator David Murray, demonstrates through the personal testimony of a CEO from a Texas bank and a broader survey of CEO communication needs and perceived strengths from Montreal’s Concordia University, a desire for guidance and support on communication issues from those at the top.
My take—some tangible advice
In my experience, here are five tangible things that a communicator can do to shift their relationship with senior leadership, and develop a base of support that can make your leadership ambitions credible:
Secure supplemental sponsorship
Having good personal relationships with one or two people at C-level who aren’t your direct boss can be hugely helpful on a number of dimensions, ranging from organizational self-esteem to gaining access to other key leaders and senior managers to having access to on-the-record and off-the-record conversations about the state of the company or the team.
Generate and share insightful data
Measurement is something that senior leaders love, in part because injecting real numbers can accelerate understanding and speed up conversations. Unfortunately, a lot of standard “eyeball” measurements (reader numbers of messages and channels) are largely meaningless. I find the most useful measurements are built around attitudes about initiatives and proposed changes, trends and changes in those attitudes, and the extent to which employees use or reject organization-sponsored language to describe initiatives and changes. Being able to say that 50% of respondents called the “Performance Optimization Program” with alternate names like “the damn cost-cutting program” is a finding that managers will take notice of.
Streamline approval loops
Approval loops consume time and money, but they also can sap the prestige of a communicator, as they illustrate the communicator’s level of trust and authority over sensitive messaging. Work with sympathetic senior stakeholders to reduce exposure to interference and to avoid being overruled.
Identify your influencers
In organizations, 3% of people (the top peer influencers) drive conversations with 90% of employees, whether they have been identified or not, and whether they have been formally or informally integrated into the flow of business news and information.
Rather than rely on managers to drive verbal communication, as Barbara Fagan-Smith of ROI Communication suggests in the IC Kollectif book, do the survey or social mapping work required to find who is already driving it. An influencer list is a tremendous asset in increasing the velocity and credibility of internal communication, while potentially reducing time, cost, and burdens on already-pressed line managers.
Mobilize satisfied customers
After a period in-house, a communicator should have a series of satisfied customers, people and projects who have benefitted from your communication support. These people can be mobilized to testify to the value provided by your intervention, can provide access to credible people and supportive people in their networks, and serve as sources for additional comms articles and items as situations warrant.
Bring a folding chair
The focus on communication leadership seen in the IC Kollectif book and David Murray’s piece is a good omen – that we are accepting that our status in our organizations can be influenced by our actions and how we proactively lead within the system. Indeed, a quote I came across this week provides strong guidance. Said the late former New York Congresswoman and 1972 presidential hopeful Shirley Chisholm “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Internal communications pro with a bent towards increasing impact while reducing noise and friction. Former US political consultant, London Business School MBA. Tribal loyalties include IABC, EACD, Tottenham Hotspur FC and the Wisconsin Badgers.