The Insiders’ Guide to Employee Communications

By Poppulo

Table of Contents

Chapter 2 – Help your leaders and line managers to be better communicators

Ace your leader’s communication skills

Great communicators don’t necessarily make great leaders, but great leaders are always superb communicators. Because it’s not all about being eloquent, it’s about being inspiring, listening and connecting with people. Here’s how you can help them be the leader they need to be.

1. Understand your leader’s personal brand

  • Understand how leaders are seen by others in the organization (through 360 degree feedback). Talk to colleagues to see how they view them; watch videos of them presenting; analyze how they interact - how they come across in all sorts of different environments.

    Action: be a mirror to your senior leader; you really have to be honest with them about how they come across to others.

  • Who they actually are: what makes them tick. This involves a lot of interacting to find out what motivates them, perhaps psychometric tests to really get to know what they’re like as a person. Then you can see the potential for a gap: where the individual thinks they are here as a person and everybody else sees them as something different. What accelerates this gap is behaviors.

    Action: Really understand their core values and beliefs.

  • What they do: What are they doing as a leader that’s moving the perception of what they are further away than where they want it to be. What does the brand stand for, what are the expectations of working with them as an individual and what are their attributes as an individual.

    Action: be there to observe and tell them what behavior is strengthening or weakening their personal brand. But you’re also doing this in the context of protecting the corporate brand that they represent, so communicators have to try to marry these two things. If you do this well you’ve got a good platform for making them a better communicator and ensuring they’re on-brand.

Crisis communications: What we can learn from pilotsDownload for free

2. Identify senior management who have unhelpful traits that need managing

These traits, such as being aggressive, or very nervous, can be managed if they’re recognized and accepted. If managers who cannot control unhelpful traits are put into a crisis situation or pressure situations it’s likely that these traits will surface as they revert to type.

One of the things you can ask yourself when you’re looking at who should be selected for a certain piece of comms is what are the chances of the unhelpful traits surfacing? What can be done to make the executive aware of that and protect more robustly against it? What can we do in terms of offering as spokespeople other executives who perhaps have different traits that are less subject to worsening under pressure? This is a great way for you to understand where the weaknesses are and to protect leaders from having them heightened, whether its people tending to get over aggressive, or confused, or to overthink things. These are the things that can bubble up when someone is under pressure, so your awareness of that will help them through it.

3. Earn and Maintain Trust

For You: a better consultant to your leadership team.

For Your leadership team: better communicators to employees.

There’s a great formula devised by David Maister that can be applied here for earning the trust of your leadership: The top line is what you need to be doing to build trust with your audience.


Credibility: When you give someone advice, the person knows it’s coming from a place of knowledge, that it’s not just a gut feel for you, that is perhaps evidence-based etc.

Reliability: They know that you’re consistent and if they do something you will give them feedback, and that you will reliably inform them of how they’re doing.

Intimacy: The fact that you really know this person, you know what makes them tick and you’ve an empathy with them, when you give them feedback they see it in the right context.

The importance of building a rapport with the leadership team and making them see that you are very much on their side cannot be overestimated. The piece underneath the line, which might detract from the level of trustworthiness, is where if the leadership team feels what you’re doing is to better your own cause instead of theirs, it will dramatically reduce trust.

And, of course, the same goes for the leadership team when they’re communicating to the organization. It really has to be rammed home to them that they are doing this for the organization and not for their own self-interest.

4. Choose resonance over seniority when deciding who should talk for the company

Think carefully about who in the leadership team resonates best with the target audience for a particular communication, who is most trusted for the circumstances you are dealing with. It’s much better to know and research who your audience trusts most internally – and you’ve more data on this now than you’ve ever had before through platforms such as Poppulo, so use this data. But it also presents an interesting problem when you select one person over another and it can put someone’s nose out of joint. But be firm, fair, point to the data, and explain why you’ve made this decision to select this particular person to speak.

Understand what the dynamics of communications within the team are, what the potential points of friction are between people, and have an awareness around that.

Think about availability (especially in a crisis):

  • Who is calling the shots and running the crisis management?
  • Who is doing the communication?

Look closely at who is the best person to run the communications and who’s the best to communicate it and keep the roles separate – it’s not practicable to do both, especially if the CEO needs to be involved and needs to be rolled out to deliver the company’s position.

Leverage increased trust in experts, and recruit supportive experts early, both internally and externally. Having an internal expert out there in a communication role alongside a senior leader can be very powerful.

5. Simplify, work hardest at what to leave out in any presentation, and add lightness

It’s important to work hardest on what you’re going to leave out of executive communications. You’re going to have lots of pitched battles about this but stand your ground. Former Lotus racing boss Colin Chapman’s advice to ‘simplify and then add lightness” is really worth remembering when you’re working with executives on what they’re going to say.

Use stories supported by credible data, and not, in the inimitable words of advertising guru David Ogilvy, like people who “use (research) like a drunkard uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination.” So, be honest with the data you’re seeing, figure out exactly what it’s telling you and then hang your communications off that. Don’t first go for a direction and then try to stand it up with retrofitted data.

6. Get your leaders to tell stories that interest or motivate them

Not all leaders are natural communicators and some will be nervous. At the back of their mind some will be thinking of how they’re going to get all the details of what they’ve on paper into their talk or presentation.

If you can get them to change gears and get them to tell a story to illustrate what they’re trying to get across it’s going to have far greater resonance with the audience. The story can be from their own personal experience or something somebody else has done or achieved that they admire. So work with your execs to find those stories that really motivate them or that they enjoy.

7. Pick and mix the communication channels for maximum impact…

…and go where people are looking and listening. Look closely at the leadership team and which channels are best for them in terms of what their skills are, spoken, written, video, in-person, etc.

Amplify their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Look at each leadership team member holistically and get them to understand that if they are weaker in one channel, another one might suit better because they’re stronger there. It’s important to choose the correct member of the leadership team for the channel that is best suited to their personal strengths.

8. Give timely feedback and make it useful

Try to give evidence-based feedback by looking at the data, e.g look for supporting evidence to see if the desired outcome of a communication was achieved.

Don’t try to fix everything at once: hit your leadership executives with really useful pieces of information feedback, but get them to focus on one at a time.

When they are presenting, you as a coach should first look at them while they’re doing it so you can let them know afterwards how they performed. But if you want to give them really useful feedback, look at the audience while they’re presenting so you can see what’s resonating with them, what’s working and what’s not. That will facilitate great feedback.

Poor line manager communications – How to fix itDownload for free

9. It’s better to be constructive than kind

Most leaders will want to hear about where they can make improvements to their presentations rather than being given confirmation of what they already know they’ve done well.

So be as constructive as you possibly can – they’re not looking for kindness, they’re looking to improve. No presentation is perfect, so always look out for ways to suggest how even a great presentation can be improved next time out.

This section is based on a Poppulo webinar with Rob Shimmin of Shimmin Communications: How to be a better coach to your leadership team.

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