How to Get Ahead in Internal Comms: Solve the Urgent Problems First, Not the Important Ones.
— July 19th, 2023
Early on in one’s internal communications career, success is measured by your technical skills–writing, editing, and making great Town Hall decks.
But there comes a point when advancing your career has much more to do with your ability to read people and truly connect with them and their needs.
Since communication professionals are often naturally good at connecting the dots, we can easily see the big picture and diagnose important, systemic challenges in our organizations. We also generally have some pretty great ideas about how to solve them!
And this is where we get ourselves into trouble.
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We can see how addressing systemic issues could make a big difference and we get frustrated when others don’t share our enthusiasm for solving the "real" problem.
“We need to take a truly cross-functional approach to improving employee engagement so that all the touch points in our employee experience are aligned.”
"We have to do a much better job of communicating culture so that we can be an employer of choice."
“If we’re ever going to really solve our retention issues, we need to completely overhaul the onboarding process to improve new hires’ productivity right out of the starting gate.”
Unfortunately, chaos and disruption are the only constants in business. We’re always lurching from crisis to crisis, frantically trying to keep things on track. That means that anything that’s not currently on fire falls into the “nice to have” bucket.
Your stakeholders are, for better or for worse, primarily interested in solving urgent problems, not important ones. While they may want to think about the big picture and what would truly make a difference to the business, but in reality the fire drill of the day will always be the priority.
There’s another reason why important problems are hard to tackle: they generally require buy-in and resources from multiple senior stakeholders; it is often very difficult to get alignment, consensus, and, most importantly, sustained commitment to initiatives that may not demonstrate short-term return on investment from a group of leaders, each with their own ever-evolving agenda.
It can be hard to shift gears from thinking about what you think is important to what they think is urgent–and therefore important!
But if you get good at spotting the urgent pain point you can help remedy, you'll accelerate your progress strengthening relationships and building social capital.
Remember that what a stakeholder considers to be their urgent problem rarely presents as a comms issue. That's ok, there is almost always a comms solution for every business problem.
Your job is to understand what has your stakeholder panicked and then use the tools and skills at your disposal to support them.
Urgent needs can take different forms, for example:
- A badly timed Exec re-shuffle has a lot of VPs fuming and the COO needs help smoothing things over before a critical project gets derailed.
- Lack of engagement with a high-profile, expensive new learning platform means many employees aren't getting mandatory compliance training.
- A recent acquisition's success is at risk because of some challenging employee relations issues.
However, if you look more closely, you’ll see that often urgent, tactical items point towards more important urgent issues:
- Serious employee retention challenges
- Persistent recruitment and employer brand issues
- Reputational risk—when issues inside the business start to show on the outside
- Dramatic decreases in productivity and increases in burnout
- Safety issues—increases in injuries and reported incidents
And, if you look again, you’ll notice that all of those begin to ladder up to the important opportunity we’re all passionate about—creating and communicating great employee experience.
So how do we get to solve those big, beautiful, important, strategic challenges? One, well-played, urgent issue at a time.
When we start to see the patterns in what’s urgent, we can then build the social capital and influence needed to help expand urgent solutions into strategies that integrate important systemic themes.
For example, instead of suggesting the business completely overhaul its onboarding process, support a leader in the Product team with a last-minute plea to help get an onsite orientation day back on track.
Use the opportunity to implement a few improvements you’ve had in mind, capture feedback, and create assets for your channels that showcase the Product team, highlight its leader, and signal that this success can be replicated in other areas of the business.
In this way, you make an ally, seed your expertise and position yourself as a trusted advisor. Over time, this is how you strengthen relationships, build social capital, and influence so that iteratively you can make progress on big, important, systemic, strategic organization-wide challenges and opportunities.
To be honest, I wish I’d known this strategy in the first decade of my internal communications career. I think I would have been able to make a greater impact much sooner.
I’ve captured a few other game-changing truths in a free ebook—Download Work Smarter for more career tips to help you get ahead!