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Blog: Four simple ways to improve how senior leaders communicate

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8th Jan 2013
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Happy New Year to you all! Some of the great blogs and articles I’ve read on HRZone across 2012 were about HR’s role in supporting leaders.

They led me to think back to a number of recent conversations I’ve had with our Strategic Communication Research Forum members about the overall issue of leadership comms across their businesses. A number of times in these discussions, we’ve chewed over the options for developing a long-term leader-led comms strategy, versus the somewhat tactical short-term ‘fixes’ we might have to come up with if we’re dealing with a leader who’s not a natural communicator or in a crisis situation, or if we’re looking to them to help sustain employee engagement across a long-term change initiative, for example.  There are four key areas that we’ve explored in our research in which – if HR could engineer small wins – would come together to dramatically enhance the strategic focus of our senior leadership comms programs:  1. Match downward with upward The lack of true upward channels in many organisations is still a common issue. It’s often the case that employee survey results get seen by the senior management teams as their one way into the upward communication of employee issues, ideas and concerns. But the notion of really enabling ongoing and meaningful two-way dialogue between staff and the hierarchy of the business is still a ‘toughie’ for many of us! Implementing some forum for upward communication to executives – a standing employee committee, perhaps, that reports to the executive team on a periodic basis; a series of lunches/skip-level briefings in which discussion is centered on the issues employees bring to the table. Simple though they may seem, these are just a couple of the ways we’ve seen companies dramatically enhance senior leadership impact on, and connectivity with, employees.  2. Manage interventions tailored to the individual and situation This is about drilling down on two things: the needs of the leader, and the needs of the employees. Such evaluation does, of course, happen in best-practice organisations. Many recognise the value of tailoring their tools to the individual leader and their personal styles (e.g., gregarious leaders may eschew a formal presentation and conduct a free-form discussion, but those who need the emotional crutch of a script and slide deck will have them). There are those, too, who will be sure to structure their senior leadership intervention around an audience’s individual needs. However, even in these better practices, there are caveats worth considering. In terms of “leadership segmentation,” while the level of support and/or precise format of the tool may be amended (e.g., script or no script), little consideration often seems to be given to whether that tool itself is the most appropriate for that leader’s style (e.g., instead of trying to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole, would it be better to use a different channel or forum altogether?). Does a webcast build trust? Does an open e-mail line to senior leaders increase visibility? Does a town hall help build line of sight to the company strategy? Possibly, but how much of this is truly considered?  3. Make your solutions outcome-based While the message, medium, format and tool are all important considerations, to take a senior manager’s time and then not show some demonstrable outcome is a crime. Far too much time in planning senior leadership communication seems to center on the primacy of “getting the message out",  much less on what the ultimate outcome (and outcome measure) will be. That focus should form the heart of any strategy we develop around leadership comms and surely has to be central to the support HR can offer here.  4. Try to get away from tools While useful in many circumstances where time, speed and coverage are of the essence, there simply has to be a move to get away from a solely tools-based approach to senior leadership communication. Formal tools promote formality. The real value is in informal, open, discursive situations – lunches, skip-level meetings, invitations to meet the executive – in which employees are able to have a frank and open discussion with executives about how they see the organisation and ways they feel it could be streamlined. HR can play a key role in advising on these kinds of formats, and establishing them within the business.  Hopefully some useful food for thought for the coming year. 

Rebecca Richmond is managing director for EMEA at research and training provider for the internal communications industry, Melcrum.

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