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Leadership communication must come from the horse’s mouth

Nick Terry

In a world where Donald Trump has taken to barring the media and communicating via Twitter, you certainly don’t have to work at a news agency to have your say (and publish it) and information is exchanged, shared and liked at the swipe of finger, the idea of a HR department or internal communication team carefully crafting every CEO communication seems almost ridiculous doesn’t it? Article by Nick Terry Founding Partner and Managing Director of Top Banana.

Industry studies estimate that around a third of CEO’s time is now being spent on formal communication activities, that’s before you even consider informal chats with employees and perhaps a daily walk around the office. It’s without doubt a clear sign of the ever changing corporate landscape and the rising number of business leaders waking up to the fact that people respond to the personal, not the ‘on behalf of’.

A changing world
We are living in a world where we expect to have more information than ever before, faster than ever before. Old world HR teams dealt with compliance and process. New world HR teams are dealing with engagement strategies and human behaviour. At the heart of all of this is transparency. Today’s consumer world exercises it’s transparency rights on Tripadvisor and Google Reviews. The employee world, as well as sharing their feelings with the people they know, now takes to social media and, which includes CEO reviews and approval ratings for each company. It’s interesting reading that quickly demonstrates the connection between great companies to work for and business leaders who get out from behind the desk (and ghost writer).

People want authentic not perfect 
Authenticity is a bit of a buzzword. What it really means is that no-one is ever going to do you, better than you, however imperfect that may be. Employees no longer want polished internal announcements written ‘on behalf of’, they don’t want carefully edited film content with the corporate logo in the background and they certainly don’t want a foreword in the employee magazine that is quite clearly drafted by the internal comms manager. Employees don’t want a filtered, polished version of their leaders – they just want real information in an authentic way i.e. from the leader themselves, however imperfectly it’s delivered. Imperfection makes you human. It also makes you ‘one of us.’ As does showing vulnerability, emotion and a bit of who you are inside.

Only people can build trust
With trust in business at an all time low, the economic outlook unclear and uncertainty absolutely rife, the last thing employees need to see is a closed boardroom door, no sign of the leadership and an internal holding statement. Trust is the other buzz word of the moment –  and it can only be built person to person. In good times and bad, people need to see the white of the eyes and hear the emotion in a leader’s voice to understand the message and act accordingly. Next time the proverbial hits the fan, make sure you’re ready to get your message out fast, from you. And of course it’s not only about a crisis, employees want to hear from you, their leader, as much as possible. Start a blog, a video update, monthly Yam Jams – whatever works – to get a direct dialogue going with your biggest asset.

The magic in the middle
In large organisations it’s incredibly difficult to get in front of everyone all the time and this is where your biggest secret weapon comes in. Middle managers. Empowering this army of influential ‘silent sergeants’ in your organisation by communicating with them directly will have business benefits you won’t have believed possible. Our recent report in partnership with the CMI demonstrated that middle managers want their leaders to show a human face. They want stronger, better communicators and they value openness and honesty the most.  Just 37% of middle managers agreed that their leadership team is transparent in their decisions and actions with 63% looking for business leaders to reveal their thinking about important issues. It’s time for business leaders to get up and personal with managers and ignite the magic in the middle of their organisations.

Shut up and listen
Leaders getting out and communicating is a great thing – but there has to be some listening going on in-between (in fact more listening than talking works best). The great thing about getting stuck in on your own comms as a business leader is that you create genuine opportunities to listen throughout your day, gaining a unique and valuable insight into what’s going on in your business, from the people in your business. The age of broadcasting is dead, we’re living in a world of exchange. It’s that ‘employee voice’ phenomenon that’s vital to business performance. There’s not a lot of feedback opportunities with a corp comms announcement.

A time and a place
No-one’s saying that there isn’t a role for that all employee email or intranet announcement when you need to get news out and fast to everyone. And no-ones saying that business leaders should sit down and write every single one (although many do when they see the power of it). Taking a more active role in the colour of your communications, making sure there’s ways for people to access you and give you feedback, getting out and talking to people, formally and informally and ensuring everything that goes from you, genuinely is from you with corporate jargon and comms speak removed is essential to being authentic, building trust and engaging your people.

Don’t sack the comms team
This is by no means a call to sack the comms team and become a communications vigilante in your organisation. Work with those who support you on creating new platforms for you to connect with employees in an authentic way, generate feedback and listen to employee concerns and ideas. The rest of the business still needs running and it’s your support team who can ensure everything is working whilst you do that. The expertise and experience of these support functions will also help you to find the best platforms, get your messages right, ensure there’s no say/ do gap and action required or promised is actually happening. It’s vital to your integrity.

Horses for courses
There’s no one size fits all here and a big part of authenticity is finding communication platforms that work for you as a leader. In a live event situation, we’ve worked with leaders who take to the stage to deliver an interactive presentation, those where there’s no PowerPoint and only personal experience and stories and those where the stage doesn’t play a part and they’re at ground level undertaking an hour of completely unscripted open Q&A. I’ve also known leaders who loved rolling their sleeves up at live events and running employee feedback workshops. Some thrive at weekly drop in clinics or monthly townhalls with plenty of Q&A and others find informal bi-weekly video interviews, with employees as the interviewer work well for them. I’ve also known leaders have an open email policy and spend every Friday responding to employee emails. You may be a social leader who finds the internal social enterprise network works for you. The point is, try out different things and find ways that work for you. Be aware that feeling uncomfortable to start with doesn’t mean it’s not right for you! Everything takes practice, even for leaders.

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