There’s a divide in business. Some companies eagerly embrace a more-is-better approach when it comes to employee communication.
Others know that’s not quite right. Or at least they are skeptical about more communication changing a business result.
That divide exists within the communication profession, too.
Don’t get me wrong. I savor the bliss that comes with a well-designed visual or a heart-tugging speech. Those feel good. People congratulate us on our work. We want to do more of it. We create new channels, new mechanisms, new platforms that we need to feed. We go to bed at night exhausted from the churn.
There’s a better way. And I think many communicators feel the same.
The challenge lies in making the shift from outputs to outcomes.
If you’re lucky enough to be in an organization wired for results, versus activity-based, the door to communicator gratification is open.
Honest conversations will lead to focus on the work that matters the most. You’ll have to be more disciplined. Let go of lower value work (some of which is fun!), and dedicate resources (mostly, your time and energy) to the work that drives business results. There are tools to determine what that is, thanks to people like Jim Shaffer.
If you’re in a company that thrives on activity versus results, God bless. You’re at risk. No matter how much you do or how well you do it, your contributions won’t impact the bottom line, at least in a noticeable way. And if you’re not making money or saving money, what is your role in a for-profit business? Overhead, that’s what. Something to be reduced.
Think about it. Will a better video improve safety in a manufacturing plant, reduce wasted time in customer service, or get a product out of R&D and into the market faster?
Of course not. We’re smart people. But sometimes, we let our gift for prose or design—and the appreciation of it—get in the way of providing what’s really needed.
Strategic communication is simply a means to an end. And that requires us to define the end, or the outcome, our organizations really want.
That can feel uncomfortable. Maybe even scary. Who are we to say what the company really wants? I’ve had mini (but hidden) panic attacks when a leader misunderstood my questions as if questions were an affront to their vision.
And when it comes to declining to work on something you believe is a low-value project, finesse is required.
I’ve found throughout my career that “hard no’s” on random requests for brochure, video or event don’t work well. First, company leaders and colleagues grow frustrated, and understandably so, if they don’t understand the shift from service provider to outcomes driver. Second, if you won’t provide what they’re asking for, they may find someone who will.
That’s why moving from outputs to outcomes requires strategic conversations. More often than not, those kinds of conversations are embraced. Good business leaders thrive on discussing what’s amiss, and what the solutions could be.
Start with your company’s goals. What’s the most important thing for your company to accomplish this year, this quarter? Push leaders on what those goals really mean. Why improve employee engagement? Are we really saying we need more discretionary effort from employees on the things that drive business results? Great. Now let’s define what business result this effort can impact. Reduce time to market for new innovations? Improve manufacturing throughput?
At ConAgra, I asked communicators to find the pain. For some, this near-in and tangible focus was more productive than a big discussion on company goals. If we could talk candidly with leaders about the issues they were trying to fix, we started to build a partnership.
Questions were key. Was there something employees could do differently to solve that problem? What would motivate them to behave differently? If employees simply lacked the right information, there might have been a pretty straightforward solution right in the communication team’s wheelhouse. But often, the answer was more complex. This pursuit required communicators to work with leadership, operations, HR and others to address rewards, training, tool, and systems.
Sure, sometimes people thought we were outside our swim lane. But when we made our intentions clear—we were simply trying to deliver work that helped the company save money or make money—our approach was usually embraced.
Added bonus: We had a much better platform with which to decline requests for our skills that didn’t drive business results. As in, we did fewer holiday cards and more scorecards.
We still created cool stuff. It was cool stuff with a specific business purpose. And we slept better, knowing that our contributions really mattered.