The Insiders’ Guide to Employee Communications

By Poppulo

Table of Contents

Chapter 8 – …And finally

The 10 most common mistakes communicators make

Everybody makes mistakes, it’s learning from them that counts. But as a communicator, have you stopped to think about the mistakes you’re making so you don’t repeat, and do better? Here's great advice to help you learn from the most common mistakes communicators make.

Mistake Nº1: Accepting without question the assignment presented

Every communicator’s been there. Somebody calls or drops by and says ‘I need a newsletter delivered’, and they deliver a newsletter. Or ‘I need an announcement via email’ and they deliver an announcement by email.

Accepting an assignment like this without question is a big mistake. It confuses the difference between a want and a need. A want is like a wish, whereas a need serves a business purpose, and as communicators need to drive performance through everything they do, their focus has to be about achieving business outcomes rather than fulfilling wishes.

All too often when we focus on ‘a want’ it only scratches the surface and doesn’t address the root of the business problem or issue that needs to be resolved.

— David Grossman, Founder & CEO, The Grossman Group

Underneath this key mistake of accepting the assignment without question are four subtopics, or traps.

Trap 1: The Drive-by assignment

It’s important to take control of what David Grossman calls the ‘drive-by’ assignment (when a leader walks by your offices and wants something done but says they don’t have time to talk to you about it. This inhibits a communicator from gaining the greater understanding they need of what the assignment is indented to achieve. “We need a better understanding of the topic and its business value and we want to be as helpful as we can be to achieve goals, but it’s important to ask them to schedule a time to sit down and talk about the topic and have a really productive conversation.

Say to them, great, I got it and I’m going to start thinking about it and working on it, but here’s what I need from you when we meet”. Give them homework: “When we meet to discuss the topic I’m going to need a few things from you, e.g this deck or that information.

— David Grossman

This way you’ve set the stage and begun a partnership from the start.

Trap 2: Not ensuring the engagement of the right people up front

Before starting an assignment we need to ensure we have the right senior people on board. We need to ask up front who are the senior champions or who are the leaders who really need to have skin in the game. Who are the people that can either help accelerate implementation or who can get in the way of success.

We need to think about how do we engage those people up front as part of the process so they are involved right from the start.

Trap 3: Not questioning reality

This is where we take the assignment ‘as is’ with the assumption that the leaders share this with us – but the reality is that multiple realities exist. There can be multiple interpretations of what the actual problem is or what the solution is. So, how can we pause, how can we stop ourselves and say we need to question the reality here? What are the facts? What data do we have?

Our gut is fine but what information do we have that really helps us understand the reality of the situation. As smart and well-intentioned as people are, the reality is we all look at the world through different lenses and biases. We need to deal with this by asking and challenging and questioning the reality up front. “If we don’t, it surely will impact how we tackle the solution and it could result in us missing something big as a result.” What’s important here is that we need to ensure we’re having the right kind of discussion with the right people up front before embarking on an assignment.

Trap 4: Jumping in too fast

This is where you jump into the assignment too fast, and move too quickly without having the up front dialogue mentioned above, and not asking the right questions to get an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the topic.

It’s common for people to fall into this trap because it feels good to be doing something, especially when there’s a sense of urgency and we want to get on these issues and solve them. But what is at risk is that we are missing important steps when we hurry and shortcut the right planning and conversations up front.

The end result is that it’s not necessarily done right the first time. I like to think that you need to go slow to go fast. That’s the alternative to jumping in too fast: ensuring we are having the right conversations, asking questions to find out what precisely is the reality, getting all that information up front so we go in the right direction to get the right solutions because we took a very thoughtful approach.

— David Grossman

Best practice around taking in a project or ‘intake’

Just as a therapist might ask a first-time client ‘what brings you here?’ or a mechanic might ask ‘well, what’s the problem with your car’ a communicator must get an understanding of what’s at issue before they take on a project, or embark on ‘intake’ with their internal client.

We’ve already mentioned the need to have a meeting up front to clarify issues rather than accepting a ‘drive-by’ assignment, and several critical topics will have to be covered at that first meeting:

What is the business outcome being sought? What is the business environment and the need that’s driving the need for a communication output? What does success look like? What are the roadblocks? What will the approval process be? Who’s the audience and where are they coming from? What is the message, the deliverables, the timing? These are just some of the core topics that are so critical to understand from the get-go.

David Grossman has formulated a ‘3 Steps to Intake’ framework:

  1. Set up intake as an exercise with your internal client
  2. This is about asking questions
  3. This is talking about next steps

Step 1: Setting up intake as an exercise shows the internal client that you are being really purposeful and not just asking random questions. For example, you say to them that here’s an exercise you’re going to do at the beginning of every project:

“For five, 10 or 15 minutes I’m going to ask you a series of open-ended questions to gain insight so that we can best meet your needs on this project and help you deliver on your goal.

“At the end of our time I’m going to ask you about one insight that you might have had from the questions and then we’ll talk about next steps.

The benefit here is it helps you understand the situation and often helps your client better understand the situation too: when you introduce a framework to a client it’s important to tell them explicitly what you’re going to do, how it will work and how this will benefit them.

Step 2: A core set of open-ended intake questions. Good questions move a client forward, it’s like a voltage – for example:

  • What is the desired business outcome?
  • Explain the business environment and the business need
  • How would you describe project success? How would you like to measure success and are there current measurements to consider?
  • Who are the target audience/ What do we want them to do?
  • What are the project deliverables you envisage?
  • What is your desired timing?

It’s important to ask open-ended questions like above as they allow someone to volunteer information and introduce an area of inquiry to explore and to think about possibility without limiting any kind of response.

These are obviously sample questions, but at the end you might ask the internal client if the process of questioning has given them any insight they would like to share, and this can expand and enhance overall clarity around the project.

Step 3: The questions in Step 2 will have created a greater understanding of what needs to be done so the next up is to discuss what the next steps will be.

So wrapping up under Mistake Nº1, ask yourself:

  • Are the right stakeholders engaged?
  • Have you questioned reality?
  • Are you getting drive-bys?
  • Have you had to jump in too fast?
  • Did you do a proper intake?

Mistake Nº2: Not listening

Not listening to internal clients' needs and not continuing to listen for what’s new and what’s changing as a project progresses. There is also an advanced skill required and that’s to really listen for what is not being said and also to listen for emotion as well as content.

Here are some listening strategies to consider:

  • Think about each conversation as an opportunity to learn, and be prepared to listen
  • Stop talking and listen instead. The ability to pause in conversation and really listen to what is being said instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next is really important
  • Assume positive intent – be careful of misinterpreting negativity
  • Beware of body language. For example, folded arms can signal disagreement
  • Pause and think before asking a question
  • Check for understanding: better to check that you’ve understood correctly than make assumptions which could be incorrect

Mistake Nº3: Not adding value

Successful communicators are of a mindset to add value every day in everything they do. So how do we have that mindset in every interaction we have, and how do we fight the danger of being complacent and taking the folks that we work with for granted, so that we are regularly bringing best practices to the table?

It’s that article of interest, it’s an email that says ‘I saw this and I thought it would be valuable to you…’ These are the types of things that show that we are several steps ahead of the client, letting them know that we’re always thinking about them.

It shows that we care, that we’re doing our best to solve the problems, the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of us.

Mistake Nº4: Getting lost in the tactics

Many get lost in the tactical stuff instead of concentrating on the winning strategy, which is all about business outcomes. What are outcomes? One definition is an outcome is ‘an observable result or change in an organization’s performance possibly supported by transaction-based metrics, resulting from an event or action’.

So the outcome of our actions is what’s going to make the difference to the business. If what we’re doing, internally and externally, is not causing a change in business results, we need to think long and hard about what we’re actually doing.

The mindset here has to be that we are business people first and communication professionals second. While our expertise might be in communications or related disciplines we are always business first. What we do is help business leaders solve business problems. It just happens that the lens we look through is a communication leadership lens.

Mistake Nº5: Focusing solely on the internal client’s needs

You want to build a positive relationship with your internal clients but the truth is it cannot all be about the client’s needs. Too many internal communications professionals or consultants are pleasers, apt to do whatever the client asks for. It’s critical to have a mindset of shared responsibilities with our internal clients; we are on equal ground, no matter who they are and it is our job to be as authentic with them as we can be. As internal consultants we have needs for the relationship to work too, and also have a right to ensure that these needs are met.

That can be about access to information, it can be about having time to do quality work. “When was the last time you said to a client: ‘I need time to do quality work here. I hear your sense of urgency, I want to do a fantastic job for you and I need time to do quality work.”

It’s important you get to this type of 50-50 relationship with the client. Also, ask yourself what you can do to improve the partnership: “what other possibilities are there to change the trajectory if it’s not what we want it to be, and what can we do to improve and build on the partnership to make it even better”.

Mistake Nº6: Only one recommendation

Always present options, not one recommendation. Everyone loves options, and commitment, real commitment, comes from having a choice and being part of the process. Being strategic is in many cases about choosing between options.

We are of best use to clients when we can say ‘here are a couple of possibilities we considered’, or ‘here are a few ways we can proceed’ or ‘here are some of the strategic questions we need to be thinking about and some of the strategic choices that are in front of us’.

I am in no way suggesting that we don’t have a point of view or a recommendation, but we’re offering our clients different options and we are engaging with them in great dialogue.

— David Grossman

Mistake Nº7: Not being our authentic selves

This is all about you trying to be someone other than who you are. And it often manifests itself in telling internal clients what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Again, we’re back to the importance of needs versus wants. Don’t try to be someone you are not, or act in ways you think might be expected of you. If you’re not being true to yourself you’re not being authentic and others can quickly see through that.

A big part of being who you are is being a truth teller, speaking your mind competently and not shying away from difficult conversations. Being open to taking a personal risk, raising issues which you might be uncomfortable with and bringing up the old elephant in the room.

What is so interesting about this concept is that not only do we need to be a truth teller but we need truth tellers around us. It is one of the best strategies that successful leaders have: they want to have truth tellers around them who are not afraid of telling them what they need to know. So be that person.

Mistake Nº8: Limited checkpoints

This is not staying in tune with changing events, priorities and tasks as the project you’re working on progresses. We need to have regular updates with our clients so that we can ensure we are on track, and if we are not on track how can we get back on track quickly, and be updated on any new developments.

We need to ensure that checkpoints are built into every project and that we start every meeting with a check in. A good way of doing this is to start every catch-up meeting with your internal client with the question: “What’s new since we last spoke?”. This question, together with project milestones and checkpoints, will ensure that we are in lock-step with our clients.

Mistake Nº9: Repeating mistakes

The issue here is not the mistake itself, but how you handle the mistake and learn from it. The reality is we all make mistakes, but try not to make the same mistake again and again – and what is most critical is to ask yourself: what have I learned from it?

“What I know about the best leaders is that they regularly take time to reflect, they think about what has worked for them and, more importantly, what hasn’t worked for them, so that they can learn from that,” said David.

“This learning is not only important for us but also those on our teams. We need to think about how we can ensure we are passing along this learning to our teams and how can we take these learnings from project to project, project to client, and client to client.”

Mistake Nº10: Not knowing where you stand with your client

You need to get regular feedback from your client to ensure success. It can be achieved with three simple questions:

  • What’s working well?
  • How can we do better?
  • What one piece of advice do you have for me?

It is critical to ask these questions early in the engagement process as if it’s left too late it will not be possible to fix any issues or problems that exist.

They need to be asked in real time, at the various milestones and checkpoints so that you are not just able to listen and process the answers, but to put them into practice.

Asking these three questions also has the added advantage of getting the client on record regularly. We want to know where we stand so we have the greatest chance for success when it comes to our clients.

This section is based on a Poppulo webinar with David Grossman, CEO, The Grossman Group: The 10 most common mistakes communicators make.

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