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.
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

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!

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  –