CEO Confidential

Improving how leaders communicate

I recently facilitated an interactive workshop for internal communications professionals hosted by Charity Comms where experts shared their tips on how to develop the communication capacity of leaders. The views and advice given and applied effectively could achieve positive results in any business.

The way in which leaders communicate with employees can have a major impact on any organisation. Get it right and they will be more inclined to support the organisation even in difficult times; get it wrong and trust can diminish, employee morale drops and can become a downward spiral.

The start point for any internal communications professional is building a trusting relationship with the Chief Executive and senior management team as this enables them to find out what is on their agendas and help them get their messages right. It can take time however to win trust and the personalities and skills of senior leaders make a big difference to how easy it is to engage them in internal and leadership communications.

The priority given to communications also varies widely across organisations and persuading senior leaders of its importance can be difficult. Using research and feedback from staff surveys can be a useful way to do this.

In recent research carried out by Agenda Consulting, using data from 50 surveys from 50 organisations, covering 9,100 employees in the UK, we identified that the top three factors influencing staff engagement were leadership, the values, and communication. These are the factors that most influence whether or not an employee would recommend an organisation to others as a good place to work which highlights that investing in messaging and communications can pay dividends.

To improve communications, leaders need to get close to their people – they need be accessible and give people the opportunity to talk to them. Several of the internal comms experts recommended breakfast clubs as a good way of doing this. These  meetings, hosted by senior leaders, have no set agenda other than to listen to employees’ experiences and ideas.

Others said that road shows where senior managers worked alongside staff ‘ in the field’ for a day every few months were equally powerful. Often it’s the little things that make a difference to the perception of leadership, such as the senior management team mingling with staff informally.

With all communications – written and face to face – the tone of voice is very important and drafting a “tone of voice” document can really help managers focus on getting their messages across succinctly and clearly, avoiding “corporate speak” or using jargon. The messaging must however, be authentic as people will know if they are scripted.

A good way to preempt messages being poorly received is to set up a network of champions in different parts of the organisation to test how they might come across before they are issued.

Effective communication isn’t one-way and shouldn’t always be driven from the top – listening is as much a part as delivering the message.

Here are some other helpful techniques and tools:

  • Present a ‘menu’ of choice of communications routes to each individual leader so that they can select those which suit their personality and they are comfortable with
  • All leaders need feedback about their communications and some might need media training/coaching to improve their skills
  • Initiate blogs and in particular a CEO blog for employees – prepare leaders to respond authentically and appropriately to any questions raised by the communication
  • Hold breakfast meetings with the CEO – people can apply and be part of it – make sure it is an ‘open’ forum and without any formal agenda
  • Encourage monthly staff briefings from the CEO. Explore using different technology options, such as webinars to include people located who aren’t based in the head office
  • If appropriate, hold drop-in sessions and surgeries with senior managers or the CEO
  • Conduct WebEx phone-in conversations with the CEO (groups of 20-25 work well, better conversations than larger groups)
  • Hold Q&A sessions on specific topics (or open) with directors – using adobe connect/telecom/live online discussion – good for efficient and effective engagement through leadership particularly during times of change
  • Yammer – a private social network tool for companies – should be encouraged as it’s a great tool for increasing communications
  • Encourage leaders to attend existing team meetings
  • Include a communications section in the management development training
  • Create toolkits for senior managers on how to plan communications and use the communication channels most effectively
  • Management cascade – send a fortnightly reminder to managers about the main messages they want to focus on and ensure they update their teams
  • Put pictures and information on the intranet to connect with the whole organisation

When organisations give priority to effective communications, it is likely that their people will remain more engaged and thus more inclined to stay. If internal communications can persuade the senior team of its positive impact, and work with managers to build confidence and skills, the outcomes will benefit all.

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By Clare Harris, head of business development at Agenda Consulting.

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Clare Harris
Clare Harris, head of business development at Agenda Consulting, a research consultancy working in the not-for-profit sector, specialising in employee and volunteer surveys, as well as HR, workforce, and volunteer management benchmarking studies
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