A Story from the Heart

I finished 2015 emerging, blinking, from 3 months tucked away in a glorious bubble learning ‘The Heart and Craft of storytelling.’ http://www.schoolofstorytelling.com. You might well ask ‘why so long?’ – and believe me, when you’ve been sharing 2 bathrooms between 12 people for a prolonged period of time I asked myself that many times! But time flew and there is still so much more to explore.

While I’ve been advocating storytelling for authentic leadership for a long time, I feel far better equipped to use and share the craft now. In a packed three months I’ve learned how to find and express authority and lightness through voice and gesture. I‘ve learned how to tell archetypal wonder tales, creation myths and autographical stories in order to create understanding and self -awareness. But possibly the greatest lesson I learned was the how critical ‘heart’ is to create shared meaning and powerful response.

Every Thursday in our Storytelling hut was performance night. This is where we practiced our arts in front of residents of Emerson College, family, friends and well-disposed ‘outsiders’. Our audience would pile onto mammoth purple cushions and squashy settees with the latecomers relegated to hard chairs, and we would regale them with stories we’d learned that week and those we’d created. Our main purpose was to test our new skills – theirs to relax and enjoy. By and large both expectations were satisfied.

However, one Thursday was different. Fired by the constant depressing news from ‘outside’, we decided to devote our penultimate performance day to raising money for refugees – victims of war. At first we weren’t really sure who we wanted to help, we just knew that we needed to express solidarity with fellow human beings who had lost so much. Then we heard from a friend about a boy washed up on Lesbos. He was fleeing for his life from Syria and desperate to study then go back and help his country. But he had broken his specs getting off the boat trying to reach dry land – imagine that those of us who don’t have good vision? So we had our purpose, we asked people to help us raise enough money to get this boy new specs and we committed ourselves to finding a big audience and making our performances really count.

Students and audience of all different ages, nationalities and personalities came together to create, retell or simply hear stories of alienation, loss, compassion and redemption painted with images that made us laugh, cry and sigh as one. The evening ended with a Norwegian peace poem, where each verse was read in a different language, Norwegian, Italian, Chinese, French English and sign language for the deaf. Students joined hands and sang – the audience sang – it was electric.

We raised more than enough for new specs– enough for many evening meals for a whole refugee camp in fact. Pondering afterwards we wondered what that boy would see with his new specs and what stories refugees might tell over their meals. Many in the audience went away telling us of their inspiration to do more in service of our shared humanity.

I will remember that evening forever, the joy it brought and the power it wrought. I have a strong intent to use my new skills and my awoken heart to break down cultural division and judgments and limiting assumptions about difference.

I ask you to hold me to it and if you do, I’ll tell you a story about Red the fox.…….

Becoming a Trusted Advisor without losing your head

Watching Wolf Hall* on TV this week, I find myself wondering what would have happened if Cromwell had been less of a ‘fixer’ and better able to coach Henry.

This month I ran the inaugural Master Class –‘Coaching leaders to communicate effectively’ for the Institute of Internal Communications. http://ioic.org.uk/news/2014/november-2014/coaching-leaders-to-communicate-effectively.html
The delegates found it challenging, a bit scary and in some cases a breakthrough experience – just like a healthy coaching session in fact. What they found challenging though wasn’t the material or the practice; it was the concept of ‘letting go’, of being seen as the expert advisor.

The challenge was fuelled by two underlying fears. The first – that others won’t see our value if we don’t lay it out in front of them. The second – if leaders can do it as well as we can, what’s left here for us? When we’ve worked long and hard to gain the respect that comes from our knowledge and experience of communication, clearly we’re not going to give up the expert tag in a hurry.

And we shouldn’t. As consultants in or out of house, our hard won expertise is our currency. But being a trusted advisor is so much more than being the one with all the answers. Sometimes we’re so eager to tell our leaders what we know – to spell it out – we forget to listen, deeply. Trust comes from mutual respect and valuing each other so, showing your leader the respect of drawing out and hearing their answers before imposing yours makes sense- doesn’t it?

Of course we have to know when it’s right to adopt a coaching style and then be able to flex our style according to the context and individual leader need. We also need the ‘license’ to coach which usually comes from a proven track record of getting the basics right and offering relevant and useful insights. The next step is being brave enough to take a risk and let go of needing to be the expert all the time. This is when we’ll be fully experienced as a trusted advisor and appropriate business partner.

Perhaps if Cromwell had taken this risk Henry might have stopped at two wives and fewer people may have lost their heads….

* For the uninitiated http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02gfy02

Time to rethink employee communication

Good employee communication matters to business – it drives clarity and employee engagement, helps build trust between employees and leaders and facilitates the implementation of change. So why is it that so many leaders still do not see the importance of investing in communication? And why do so many professional communicators still feel they can’t make their voices heard?

The problem, I believe, is twofold: on the one hand misunderstanding of what IC is about (seeing it only as a means of transmitting information in order to inform and/or persuade), on the other lack of skill on behalf of leaders and professionals to make the necessary shift to a different, richer model of communication.

As Harvard professor Boris Groysberg and consultant Michael Slind concluded, having conducted a two year review of leadership and organisational communication (Harvard Business Review June 2012) the still prevalent broadcast model of communication no longer serves the needs of globalised, diverse, technology savvy, critical workforces.  A new, more honest, more intimate, less managed, leadership-as-conversation model of communication is what is needed and what pioneer businesses are increasingly adopting, they argued.

It is this conversation model of communication that can most effectively support leaders to create clarity, shape culture, motivate employees, promote creativity and engender trust across a diverse, geographically dispersed workforce.

What does this mean in practice?

  • It means introducing a simplicity and an immediacy to communication which is currently lacking in many ‘professionalised’, ‘highly managed’ environments
  • It means IC managers and leaders stop worrying about sending ‘messages’ and start having real conversations, listening to people and responding (talking with them, rather than at them)
  • It means authenticity and personality coming through in the way managers and leaders talk – no jargon, no polish, no spin, but real people talking about real things, sharing real concerns, aspirations and achievements . Inevitably some managers may need support to get to the point where they are confident to do this, but this is about helping them to discover their own voice,  not about ‘media training’
  • It means spending less money on costly, ‘high gloss’ channels and campaigns and concentrating instead on improving the quality of human interaction, whether that’s face to face or using available technologies.
  • Finally, it does mean that the focus of IC stops being the IC function – communication professionals are there to enable, to coach, to support; but it is leaders, managers and employees who are there to communicate!

The future of Internal Communication is no longer to be the function that ‘does communication’. To continue to contribute to organisational success the IC function has to shift away from a broadcasting mentality and towards a more coaching/enabling role. How the budgets are spent and what range of skills are needed has to be rethought too. Those responsible for communication departments should not only expect, but demand this!

Lincoln: a communication masterclass

Daniel Day Lewis recently won an Oscar and a BAFTA for his superlative portrayal of Lincoln in the film of the same name. Placed in a testing context, balancing ethical and personal dilemmas in order to create significant change, Lincoln is faced with the choice between bringing a vicious civil war to a swift end thus saving lives and the conflicting need to prolong the war in order to ensure his promise to abolish slavery is enshrined in law. Further personal pressure is added by his wife’s anguish over their remaining son’s desire to enlist in the war.

In this situation of complexity and ambiguity we see an example of authentic leadership being played out. Day Lewis portrays Lincoln as a man of vision and ethical principles and in the service of this vision he is a wonderful communicator. While recognising the need to be politically astute in picking out key people to influence, he doesn’t engage in rhetorical grand-standing, but rather diffuses tensions and wins agreement by picking key people out and having meaningful conversations with them. He tells personal stories, listens, reflects, empathises and is assertive when appropriate, adapting his approach to each encounter without compromising his values or his vision. In Day Lewis’s Lincoln, the sheer humanity of the man along with his courageous choices inspired me. I left the cinema longing for leaders we want to follow – ones who can take our Institutions through the change they so badly need today.

So where are the Lincolns today? Yet, inherent in that question could be the root of the problem. Perhaps we shouldn’t be looking for more Lincolns, we should rather be looking for more individuals to take up leadership roles who are prepared to know and trust their own humanity, and willing to rely on their followers to take up the challenges of a complex world. To this end we could argue that current leadership development programmes are missing the point by concentrating too much on standardised behavioural competences and not spending enough time encouraging aspiring leaders to be authentic and relational. To be an authentic leader requires a discipline of rigorous self – challenge, reflection and learning how to understand and connect with others.

So, can we learn from the legendary effort Daniel Day Lewis put into becoming Lincoln? To convince an audience of a character’s validity the method actor will dive into his own lived experience to find experiences that link him convincingly him to the character. Similarly the aspiring leader needs to know why leadership calls him or her and really get what they stand for before they can be convincing leading others. Lincoln showed that someone with this self-awareness and capacity for reflection, has the resilience to tackle complex and constantly changing situations and deal with ambiguity from a clear ethical perspective.

Trust, belief and goodwill still exist in our organisations which, while badly dented, are desperately needed to make change happen –now. If we could start supporting leaders to know and show their humanity in appropriate communication behaviours and if we could show them how to stand in others’ shoes and hold meaningful conversations that motivate and engage, maybe then we would develop the people and the leaders we need and want to follow.

Are communicators doing the right things to help leaders engage?

The latest CIPD Employee Outlook report makes interesting reading and should at least get us to question our priorities, if not our effectiveness, as professional communication practitioners.

The report shows that most UK organisations – with the public sector being particularly poor- continue to fail to engage the majority of their staff –only 35% are actively engaged, while a huge 61% are neutral. Linked to this is, amongst others, a worrying erosion of employee belief and trust in senior managers in all organisations.  Employees are particularly critical of the way senior managers consistently fail to listen to them and to show understanding and respect.  To quote the report authors:

“This dissatisfaction with the way employees feel they are consulted by their senior leaders is also reflected by an increase in negative views on the extent employees feel they have a voice in their organisation.”

Satisfaction with communication on the other hand, at least in terms of information transmitted,  seems to fare much better. The report shows that just over half of all respondents are fairly or very well informed about what is happening in their organisations.

What should communicators conclude from this?  Can we say we are doing a good job on this evidence?  Yes, we must take some credit that at least half of all UK employees appear to know what’s going on in their business. Yes, there is still a job to be done in getting the other 49% to the same place – by managing the information flow, by creating clarity about organisational purpose and priorities, by helping to shape the organisational narrative.

But, when our leaders continue to struggle and falter, when dialogue in the organisation is poor or non-existent, when trust and employee engagement remains at an all time low, we should also ask ourselves whether we have our priorities right. How many of us are prioritising helping our leaders to get out there and connect with employees in meaningful, authentic ways? And I really mean prioritising; helping leaders to address this issue should  no longer be a ‘nice to have’, no longer one of many streams of activity (“we’ll get to it when we can”), no longer too difficult to do, and certainly no longer someone else’s responsibility.

Many communicators are very effective at the ‘heartland’ stuff – creating strategy, managing channels and processes, adapting messages for different audiences. These are important things we should continue to deliver.  But if we cannot support the development of open, constructive conversations between leaders and employees in our organisations, if we cannot help our leaders to get better at listening and at connecting, if we cannot get these numbers to change, we are simply not doing our job!

Read the full CIPD report  - http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/survey-reports/employee-outlook-winter-2012-13.aspx

Can Authenticity be Manufactured?

Posted by Sheila in Authentic Leaders, Transforming Leaders on 26th November 2012 | Comments Off
This was one of the questions that came up in the IOIC  seminar  that I spoke at on Wednesday.  We were discussing a video clip of Hilary Clinton following polls that put her behind Obama in the race for the White House in 2008. She was talking from the heart – or so I believed  -  and while much of the room agreed with me, some were suspicious. The implication from the doubters was she’d been trained to deliberately turn on the tears to manipulate the audience. If that was the case the media trainers had done one heck of a job right down to the bags under the eyes and the sheer exhaustion in her voice!

To me she showed herself as a woman as well as a politician and I identified with her as a committed tired woman determined to do her best.  (Apparently so did women in US as her popularity ratings went up dramatically following the broadcast.)  I don’t think you can manufacture or train that ‘from the heart’ response.

However I do think as a communication coach you can help the leader weigh the options and risks around how much emotional vulnerability to reveal at critical moments. You can also help them acknowledge the different facets of themselves and recognise which facets will best talk to their followers – if you want to connect with other women you can show the you that struggles with your weight and cares about your children as well as the leader facet that cares about your country and its future. In essence you can’t tell a leader what to do to be seen as authentic but you can guide them in how to maximise the opportunities.

You’ll never get all the doubters to believe from one apparently authentic experience, but coaching leaders to develop a sense of self and ‘other’ awareness that is backed up by appropriate and consistent actions will generate a greater experience of their authenticity.

See what you think

Does an Authentic Leader need to act the part?

Posted by Sheila in Authentic Leaders, Uncategorised on 29th October 2012 | be the first to Comment »
I’d been coaching a client, I’ll call him John, for several months.  John was a Leader running a large department in a not-for-profit organisation. His main coaching goal was to build better relationships with his peer management team in order to ensure that more of his ideas were taken up by the organisation.  While he had strong relationships with his direct reports and a high performing department, his peer relationships were tense and consequently less productive.  We had been working on this for a while. One day at the end of a particularly intense session, John raged in frustration.   The ensuing exchange, which went roughly as follows, was light hearted but food for thought:
John:   This is too hard…why don’t you just give me the arts to pretend to get along with
my colleagues.
Me: (stung… caught in the moment and  unable to respond with an illuminating question)
I can’t just give you the arts to pretend to do something you don’t believe in -and anyway even if I could –  I don’t want to.
John:   But you have to – it’s your job, you’re my coach …so WHY NOT!
Me: Because, it’s not authentic and your colleagues would see straight through the pretence no matter how artful
John Hrummmmmph.
Me Humm…
This exchange raises a number of questions. I held John’s difference and challenge to his peers to be both desirable and positive for both him and the organisation but was I unconsciously echoing what Goffman (1959) describes as ‘ a belief that we tend to see real performance as something not purposefully put together at all – being an unintentional product of the individual’s unselfconscious response to the facts in his situation?’ I saw John as authentic believing that training him ‘to perform’  in a way contrary to his natural style would damage his ‘realness’ and possibly his credibility with his peers.   However, taking this view to an extreme, what happens when a leader doesn’t manage his or her performance,  and  speaks  or behaves exactly as he or she thinks or feels at any given  moment?  This person may be perceived as real, but are they an appropriate or credible leader?   What are the implications for the organisation and what is the role of the coach and communication specialist here?
Three years later,  following in-depth conversations with Leaders and Coaches, I’ve started to come up with some answers to this and other questions around Leader authenticity and I look forward to sharing my findings at the Institute of Internal Communication’s Insight Forum Trusted to Lead at the Radisson Blu Edwardian on 21 November.  ( to book Email Brenda@ioic.org.uk)

Is there a danger in relying on social media for internal communication?

Posted by Domna in Uncategorised on 24th June 2011 | be the first to Comment »

Social media, many communicators argue, are the future of organisational communication. They are democratic and pluralistic, not top down and dominated by ‘management speak’. They connect people with common interests, build communities and enhance dialogue across borders, real and virtual.

But listening to Eli Paliser talk about what he calls “the danger of the internet filter bubble”, I could not help but question whether we’ve got it right. Paliser’s case – eloquently made in his recent book, TED talk and various interviews, including a couple on the BBC this week – is that instead of empowering us to access information and connecting us to others, the intranet is increasingly limiting our access to people and information and distorting our view of the world.

Social networking websites such as Facebook and search engines like Google are at the forefront of this, he claims, through their use of sophisticated algorithms which track our use of the web and decide on past history how to filter information and connections for us. The result is that even when we think we are in control of what or who we are searching for, it is the sites that actually decide on our behalf.

Communicators can argue that this is no more than good old fashioned audience
segmentation: you get to know what your audience likes and give them more of the same. What’s wrong with that? Paliser’s argument is that, if all we ever get when we search for information or people to connect with is what we tend to like and none of what we find different, dangerous, outrageous, or surprising then real dialogue between individuals and groups is compromised. What you end up having instead is groups of individuals living in parallel bubbles, separate universes, increasingly reinforced and sustained by internet algorithms.

Paliser illustrates this point by showing the results of a search for ‘Egypt’ he asked several of his friends to conduct simultaneously. The returns were significantly different (tailored to his friends’ preferences and past history) and at least one of his friends did not get any information about the recent uprisings despite the topical nature of that information!

If, as Paliser argues, social media and the internet are limiting our access to information and true dialogue rather than enhancing it, what are the implications for introducing social media inside organisations? Is there a danger that instead of introducing real dialogue we end up with strengthening silos? Instead of enabling the creativity that comes from sharing different viewpoints we reinforce group think? Instead of shaping a pluralistic enabling culture we drive the fragmentation of culture?

While I am not convinced that this is necessarily the case, I believe that we must consider the possibility that social media could present a danger as much as an opportunity for the future of internal communication. How practitioners deal with this tension is going to be pivotal to real communication improvements in the workplace of the future.

Communicators and management jargon: why ‘buzzwords’ must not die

Posted by Domna in Uncategorised on 8th March 2011 | be the first to Comment »

Communication professionals should advise managers about language and communication; they should coach leaders in how to express themselves with clarity, how to adjust their style to their audience, how to use language and other codes to create an environment of trust and to engage employees behind common purpose. They should also tell managers where they get it wrong, for example where they use inappropriate or clichéd language, where they fail to listen or engage with their employees and where they confuse communication with transmission. But is it ever the job of communicators to ‘eradicate’ aspects of management language they don’t like?

The evangelical zeal with which hundreds of communication professionals contributed to an online thread titled ‘these buzzwords must die’, must worry us just a little. The thread which claimed to want to eradicate business jargon, passed sentence on several everyday business words and phrases – ‘synergy’, ‘strategic’, ‘leverage’, ‘localize’, ‘out of the box’, ‘going forward’ and ‘in my honest opinion’, were some of the outcasts.

There is no doubt that much formal management communication is full of clichés. But it is also the case that words and phrases in the management vocabulary, in any vocabulary, exist for a good reason – if they were not useful they would not be there. How can you ban the concept of ‘strategic’ in a business setting? Why is it such a bad thing to talk about ‘synergies’ or ‘localisation’ where these concepts reflect precisely what you are trying to express? And why would you want to restrict the use of very good metaphors such as ‘out of the box?’ It may be overused, but where it is used correctly, it does a different job to ‘new’ or ‘original’ or ‘innovative’ or ‘different’. In short, how is restricting the richness of language an answer to better communication in the workplace?

Of course communicators are right that many of the words and phrases they demonise are both overused and abused by managers and this inevitably influences how clear and how trustworthy managers are perceived to be. The answer to that should never be to ban anything, however, but rather to educate managers about their language use and its impact. To do this, communicators themselves have to understand how language really functions and how it interacts with culture and context to create meaning.

When communication professionals argue that words should be banned because they are overused or ‘do not mean anything’ they are wrong. When they argue that language should be stripped of anything that is unnecessary and redundant, they are wrong. Language is NOT simply a vehicle for data transmission. It is a means by which we build relationships, establish rapport, negotiate meaning, co-construct culture and shape and reshape our identities. To do this we use all language – the common and the rare, the simple and the complex, the creative and the banal. And we need it all. At the right time in the right context, with the right audience, for the right purpose; but we need it all. Nothing should be ‘eradicated’. Perhaps instead of looking to cast dreaded ‘buzzwords’ into oblivion, communicators should dare to rediscover the uniqueness and usefulness of some of the language they find so intolerable – particularly the rich metaphors that surround us and allow us to express so many things in such economical ways – ‘boil the ocean’ anyone?

Do we measure the right things when we measure employee engagement?

Posted by Domna in Measuring Impact on 10th January 2011 | be the first to Comment »

Employee engagement and its relationship to communication and performance continues to exercise practitioners, if the plethora of online discussions and conference presentations is anything to go by. However, as some recent studies (for example from Lancaster Business School and the Work Foundation) show, our understanding of the concept and our ability to measure and manage it effectively remain unsatisfactory. For example, the Work Foundation research argues convincingly that it may be much more appropriate to look at engagement as a multifaceted dynamic process which employees largely negotiate, rather than as a narrow, stable set of performance outcomes which companies can produce through engagement programmes.

As I was putting the final touches to my PhD thesis, I found out that a company I had used as a case study to research how culture influenced the interpretation of values messages by employees had just commissioned an engagement survey from a well known research organisation. Apparently, the scores were embarrassingly low. The company was just coming out of a pretty serious transformation and cost cutting programme which had meant a number of job losses and, for those who managed to hold on to their jobs, considerable changes to team set ups and working practices. Surely, a certain level of uncertainty, cynicism and dissatisfaction with management was to be expected? Still senior managers refused to accept that the picture was as negative as the engagement survey would paint it.

Now here’s the thing. If I had been told this story as a complete outsider I would have assumed that managers were simply resisting the truth; that they had failed to ‘engage’ with their employees during the change and that, now they were rejecting the message that they had contributed to the creation of a deeply disengaged workforce. Instead, I found myself thinking that they were right to doubt the survey results. Not that I believed that the survey was methodologically flawed. I am sure that it measured exactly what it set out to measure in the first place – how happy individual employees were with the organisation and with management at that particular point in time.

My data also showed that at a personal level some employees (but not all) were pretty unhappy with the implications of the changes for them. At the same time, my research uncovered strong shared meanings among employees relating to pride in the business and its reputation, belief in delivering technical excellence and customer service and a fierce loyalty to the brand that was not undermined by any of the personal issues. In short, while many employees appeared to be dissatisfied with the way the change had been managed, they continued to be fiercely loyal to the brand and extremely proud of the kind of work they did. This allowed them to maintain their loyalty to the business and to continue to perform very effectively, despite everything else. Whereas the engagement survey picked up on the former, it completely missed out the latter, thus presenting only half of the story. No wonder leaders were unwilling to accept the survey results as a true picture of the organisation they themselves were proud of.

See also “Rethinking Engagement: Lessons from the Work Foundation report on the Employee Deal