Whenever I ask communication professional what is the toughest part of their job, I usually get answers like: I have to deal with my CEO, I struggle with my boss, management does not understand my job…..etc.
It is a paradox that communication with our senior leaders is linked to words such as dealing, struggle, misunderstanding.
Shouldn’t it be more like COOPERATION, TRUST, RESPECT, and CONVERSATION instead? Well, not necessarily. Not in every company.
I recently got a pleasant surprise when the CEO of a rapidly growing company said to me: “Katarina, I desperately need better internal communications.”
Wow! Can you imagine how I reacted? That is the kind of statement from a business leader that would have any internal communication professional on Cloud 9.
Still, instead of responding, I thought it wiser to listen carefully to why this CEO had become convinced he needed better internal comms.
“As you know, we’ve been growing very quickly, and as we’ve grown I’ve started to feel that people are losing track on what’s going on in the company.
“I want them to be informed about our plan, vision, and future that they are part of. And I need professional expertise to help me, “ he said. Chopin, Mozart and Leonard Cohen combined could not have brought sweeter music to my ears.
This is the CEO we all wish for. Can you remember the last time you heard anything like that from your senior leaders?
Whether we like it or not – and most of us don’t – top management does feel and think about IC differently, and usually not in the way we’d like them to.
But is it part of our job to change the perception of IC as people whose primary function is to send emails and organize town hall meetings, to one where we are recognized for our strategic role, where effective internal communication is a business driver? It certainly is.
So, what can we do to make the CEO-Senior Management/IC relationship more one of partnership in pursuit of a joint goal rather than IC being seen as a postbox pressing send buttons?
It’s not easy, or a fast process, but it can be done. I ’ve put together some ideas that helped me on my way to better relationships with the CEO/management and thus, to create effective strategic internal communication within the organizations I’ve worked for.
Starting from scratch – with yourself
How do we see ourselves as internal communicators?
Like many people before me, when I started out in IC my understanding of the role (and nobody rushed to tell me otherwise!) was to prepare personal announcements, to send emails or newsletters, organize employee events.
These activities are important, of course, and if deployed properly are effective comms tools. But I see the role in more strategic terms, as someone who facilitates communication flow between management and employees and the alignment of everybody to the same goals.
I see my role as someone who helps to build and maintain mutual trust, to nurture a great corporate culture and to foster engagement.
The IC professional should not be communicating on behalf of somebody, but should instead inspire management to communicate openly, clearly and effectively with employees, and vice versa.
We write the lyrics for others to sing the song – and that’s how it should be.
How do you see yourself as an internal communicator?
As a speaker, translator, influencer, advisor?
In my experience, many IC professionals do not have a clear understanding of what their job really means. I can empathize with that because I know how demanding the routine daily tasks can be.
I can hear it already: there are jobs that need to be done, emails and newsletters to be sent. But if our role is really to be recognized and appreciated at the C-suite level we simply must think about our job in more strategic terms.
Understanding the power of internal communication
Do we really understand the power we have?
One of my favorite quotes on IC is by Paul Barton (ABC): “Internal Communication isn’t about telling employees what to think, it’s about creating and enabling authentic, ongoing dialogues with and between them.”
This refers also to CEOs and management.
As communication professionals, we have great power to influence and inspire management and employees to act.
Not to passively listen but to take an action, especially in turbulent times. Let’s try to focus on the benefits of communication activities. Do we know their purpose?
Should they entertain, inform, engage employees? Or should they also, and principally, motivate and have an influence on management and/or employees, with positive business effect at the end?
Asking the right questions
The value of outcomes is worth!
At the beginning of my IC journey, I used to prepare communication projects instinctively, without thinking about them in any depth.
I used to choose a communication that I felt was right and would resonate with employees – but without any measurement or analysis to find out if they produced worthwhile outcomes.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t alone in doing this. I knew lots of communicators placed more emphasis on the activities they were undertaking rather than trying to figure out results that would be meaningful to the business.
In hindsight, this was crazy. We simply must be able to deliver answers to very reasonable questions: what is the purpose/goal of your communication activity, what’s your plan to achieve this goal and how are you going to know if you’ve been successful?
Do we want to change something within the company? Should the project change employees’ behavior? What are the expectations (by management or employees) and what will be the business value of communication?
And, of course, why should we do the project in the first place?
If we can’t provide answers to these basic questions to ourselves, never mind our CEO or senior management, then why should we be surprised if we’re not taken as seriously as we should be?
Regrettably, in my experience, we tend to ask these questions after the project has been completed, if at all. This is almost beyond belief.
Imagine dropping a team of blindfolded footballers with earplugs onto a pitch, with them not knowing where or who they were playing, or where the goalposts were located – and only afterward being surprised that they couldn’t count how many mistakes they made or goals they let it in.
And also being surprised afterward that nobody watching could take them seriously.
But of course we’d never think of our communication campaigns like that!
It’s more than a pity because having a clear understanding of where you are and where you want to go before a project starts, and asking the right questions before you begin, radically increases the chances of your success.
It also helps you avoid mistakes along the way. And measuring results afterward means you have very valuable information: do not underestimate the power of measuring the outcomes of your comms!
It is critical to proving the value outcomes bring to the entire company, management, and employees – and also the value you bring to the organization!
Bringing facts and figures on the table
Numbers are what management listens to.
Knowing and discussing the results of your communication is the best way to make internal communication more strategic.
Furthermore, it makes the CEO and management listen. When you talk about the benefits of a certain project in terms of what it means for company growth, how the project helped business goals or vision, management tends to listen much more carefully.
And are consequently more likely to support your next project. Of course, showing numbers is not a panacea, but it certainly helps.
If you can show where your department’s activity has made savings for the company, even better.
Mirroring – Think like your boss
Good communicators are like psychologists
The best communicators are great listeners, and in internal comms, that’s what we’ve got to be. Listening to employees listening to management and listening to the CEO.
What helps me to prepare for my communication project discussions with my CEO is to try to think like he or she would think.
What he/she would like to know about the project? How much does it cost the company? What will be the benefits like? How much can the company save? What will change by project implementation, etc.?
Try thinking about it like this: the information you would want to hear if you were the boss is more than likely what he or she will want to hear from you.
So put yourself in that frame of mind and have your answers ready in advance.
Finding your allies, getting to Yes
Coming together is just the beginning.
Having a CEO who is excellent (or even good) when it comes to employee communication is a big advantage.
They have so many things to deal with that communication is often the last thing on their minds.
And here we are, the communication professionals and it’s our job to support the CEO in fostering better, open communication within our organizations. So let them know it.
And if you struggle to convince your CEO on a specific project, find a board member who understands its communication and business value.
In my experience, there are high-level managers in every organization who can help us to get the support or active involvement of the CEO if it’s required.
We very often make the mistake of thinking of internal communications as focusing on employees. But, communication with management is in many ways as important, as it defines the overall communication culture in the organization.
Lastly, I believe that if we focus more on being influencers instead of tactical postboxes, on a real understanding of IC (strategic role) and its outcomes/benefits for the company (IC measurement), you will finally find your way to the CEO and senior management elevating internal communication to strategic partners and advisors.