Move outside your own sandbox or stop complaining, Internal Communicators
— November 7th, 2019
Often, when I work with my clients in large organizations or speak at conferences, the concept of ‘business partner’ raises its ugly head.
Senior functional experts (such as HR, legal, communications, market research, etc.) often complain that they don’t get enough C-suite attention.
In short, they don’t feel they are a business partner to senior leaders; and would like to be.
The problem is, though, that most of the ‘complainers’ are expecting an asymmetrical partnership with the business leader: they want the senior leader to invest in time with them, but they don’t invest in the senior leader.
In my experience, very few HR people, very few communicators, and very few people in functions generally have developed a really strong sense of business acumen of how the organization creates value for customers and shareholders.
It’s rare to meet a HR manager who can read a balance sheet. It’s rare to meet a communication person who understands the value chain. And I’ve yet to meet a corporate lawyer who meets with customers on a regular basis. I’m sure a similar thing could apply to other functions.
There has been a lot of good work and recent research in this area, especially from Zora Artis, the most recent of which can be found by clicking download on the image here:
Business acumen in internal communications – Why it matters and how to build it
The trouble is that playing in one’s own professional sandbox is too much fun. It’s great to meet people who have the same challenges, and get excited about the latest developments in your own professional field. And of course one never has any time to meet real customers, read the financial newspapers about competitor movements, or invest time in research to find out what is really going on.
Worse, as you get more senior, your stakeholders have no way of independently assessing the quality of your technical advice, they can only judge whether you behave and act in such a way that you add value, you act as a counselor, and whether you demonstrate understanding of their part of their business and their challenges.
They don’t care if you can calculate statistical significance, understand the latest legal precedents, or have a qualification. They want to know: can you add value to my business?
If I’m a senior business person, why should I partner with you if you haven’t taken time to understand my part of the business, my key challenges, the promises we’ve made to shareholders, etc?
Why should I partner with you if you don’t demonstrate consulting skills, invest in relationship-building, link your solutions to my problems, and articulate quickly how you are going to add value?
So, how do you play outside your sandbox to add value? There’s far less mystery about this than you might imagine. Let me give you three examples.
Be bushcrafty. Lately, I’ve been doing some work with Mike Pounsford on the concept of Bushcraft for Change. We wanted to give change and communication professionals some news tools and approaches they could use to make an impact.
So we looked around at other professions and borrowed some approaches from HR, Accounting, Psychology, Market Research, etc. We went and played in some other sandboxes and found some new things which we repurposed and then brought back for communication and change professionals.
Be liminal. Earlier this year, I gave a talk with Casilda Malagon at the RSA where we explored the theme of operating at the edge of your comfort zone. Liminalty is where knowledge and experiences are made: too much in your comfort zone and there is nothing new. Too far adrift and you have no anchors for your new knowledge. This is based on the ideas developed by Vanessa Rutherford and Ian Pickup, of University College Cork, Ireland.
Be rhizomatic. The two French philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari developed the idea that knowledge isn’t linear and explores in different directions, via curiosity, multiplicity, and nomadic. Here is a link (in French). Your career is not a linear path.
Go and play in someone else’s sandbox. For example, I was recently running a Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders simulation at Farleigh Dickinson University, in New Jersey, USA. This session was aimed at professional communicators who wanted to become business partners.
One of the participants, though, was Financial Wealth Management professional, having studied Economics and Sustainability in Europe. So why did he come to my workshop? He wanted to expand his horizons, play outside his comfort zone and meet new people. This finance professional came to a communication event; when was the last time you went to a finance conference?
Of course, a bit of bushcraft, a ladle of liminality, or a ration of rhizomes isn’t going to change the world, but every little helps.
I don’t believe asymmetrical partnerships can exist, but I do believe that functional experts who ‘complain’ about access or not being taken seriously, should look to themselves and their own behaviour before passing the blame to others.