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So This Is What Communication Can Do?
Everything that we do for our clients is based on the idea that improved communications will improve an organisation's performance and contribute to the achievement of its aims. Whereas we do work in external communications, our particular expertise and interest are in communications within organisations...
Sometimes there isn't enough communication through an organisation about what is expected of the people who work in it, or more often appreciation of when they have done a good job. There is no communication of the strategy of the organisation, and little communication of performance information. Gossip and the grapevine fill the communications vacuum.
These are serious failings, as it has been well documented that in such circumstances people simply do not give of their best; often that shows at the front-line, the interface between the organisation and the customer. We have all had experiences as customers of poor service; it drives us mad because we are simply not getting what we think we have a right to expect, and it makes us cynical of advertising which takes of the "customer promise". Ultimately, if we have the energy, we find an alternative.
Poor customer service (which may be to internal customers just as much as to external) can almost always be traced back to poor internal communication. Either the operational communication is not in place: the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing; or it is evident that the person you are dealing with is disenchanted with their work or their employer or both.
We tell such organisations that they are missing out on the benefits of good communications, and the chief benefit is effectiveness. There is no magic in making progress: what is needed is a clear focus on what good communications are (which we provide), then courage, patience and hard work.
By way of illustration, a story?
We had done some work for the directors of a medium sized media company. Originally a British company, it had grown rapidly by acquisition; it now had around 800 employees in offices all over North America, in Australasia, the Middle East, and continental Europe.
We had written the presentations the directors would give to the annual senior management conference and other events. They covered subjects such as the strategy of the company, the culture the emerging organisation should espouse as so on.
One day, one of the directors called me. He said that as he flew round the world for meetings in the company's different locations, he was getting fed up with being told the company's communications needed improvement. He took a common sense view that if communications were an issue, then it was an issue which was harming the organisation's effectiveness. Could we help? Could we outline who needed to communicate more? And what? And how?
We could help of course. Inevitably, there were some politics to overcome first: but interested parties were quickly corralled into a working party to which we would report. Once that was done, we were free to address the company's issues as we saw fit. Our competence and expertise were respected.
The directors had no preconceptions as to the outcome of our work. They knew there was an issue; an employee attitude survey they had commissioned had confirmed what they were being told on the ground, that there was a problem. We felt we could help them make a quantum leap in communications, which would really help them make progress with their business aims. It was refreshing to be working with senior people who appreciated that getting the communications right was essential if the company was to move forward. We did not have to argue the case before we could get started.
They also wanted something done quickly. No time to set up an elaborate audit involving questionnaires; let's do a survey of attitudes to communication of a cross section of staff which would be statistically valid.
Finding out what people thought and felt
So, in a pragmatic spirit, we went to work on two fronts.
Interviews of up to an hour with directors and other key people (e.g. the communications manager) told us what they felt was important to achieve through communication, what was being done (and done well), and what the failings were. These encounters gave us a feel for the communications style of the organisation: directors enjoyed face to face meetings particularly the annual management conferences, but were passing up many opportunities to communicate richly with other staff.
But in addition it was vital to find out what the staff thought. We can be most effective if we work with the grain of people's opinions and experience. Our experience tells us what communications activity to recommend in order to answer the needs we have uncovered. Our confidence allows us to advocate our recommendations persuasively.
So we conducted nearly 200 phone interviews with people at all levels, all over the world. We had a script, with a number of set questions, and an opportunity at the end for interviewees to address any issues they thought pertinent.
There are many advantages of a telephone survey of this kind. You may not have from them the benchmarks which questionnaire surveys provide, but you can gain a rounded and varied picture of people's views.
This kind of survey also allows you to test your early conclusions in the later interviews as you go along. It should be no surprise to see the main themes emerging very early on. People wanted more information of the company's aims and strategies, and performance. They could not understand why, when directors came for a meeting with the local managers, they could not address other staff. People wanted to know very simply what other units in the company actually did. They wanted more contact with their peers across the company to discuss common problems and opportunities.
We believed we were getting a true picture by asking the set questions, and probing when we asked people to talk "free form". Where we had a hypothesis suggested by earlier conversations, we would test it in later interviews.
In general terms, people were very open. We asked for a cross-section of the company: managers in each territory gave us a list of people they thought we should talk to. If somebody said we should really talk to so-and-so as well, we asked for the phone number.
We did interview a small number of people twice. We did not know a large number of people in the organisation before we started, which was an advantage, but it was soon clear that a small number of people we phoned were "opinion formers". They were often just below executive board level or in senior jobs which did not fit obviously into the corporate structure. They all had developed views about communications, which they shared without rancour. We felt these people were influential and would be influential in shaping others' opinions, so we made sure they were given ample time to discuss what they would like to see happen, often in a second interview.
Very few cast any doubts on our independence, or the confidentiality of the interviews. People had lots to say, and there was a sense they had not been able to say it before. In that way the survey itself became the first communication of a new kind: the organisation listening at last. (And later we made sure that our conclusions were published.)
It should be no surprise that many people have plenty to say about the way they communicate or "are communicated with", when asked? The fact is that communication within organisations is largely about relationships and people think and talk about relationships all the time.
When people chat, they talk about who talks to whom, or who likes whom; when left to their own devices, they don't talk about their organisation's "vision and values". If you don't believe me, just listen in on any conversation between work colleagues on a bus or train, or in a restaurant.
One theme dominated the responses. A vast majority wanted more communication with the top team. They wanted them to talk to them, and to listen to them.
Very early on, even before embarking on telephone survey we knew how important it would be to the credibility of our ultimate recommendations that the employees themselves sent such a clear message. Directors are often taken aback to be told that it is they who need to kick-start a new communications culture, and then remain committed to it. This is one reason why the independent consultant can be so valuable: he or she is freer to deliver the uncomfortable truth, albeit with rigorous explanation of the tactics they must now follow, rather than pretend that anything can be changed very much by "initiatives" which strictly do not involve the senior people.
People have a developed sense of leaders? "charismatic", as opposed to functional, role. People think leaders should be telling what they should be doing, guiding them, appraising them, making jobs full and absorbing, acknowledging good work, listening above all. Listening to a person is to value them.
So people want the really senior people to be more available, to be interested. It did not need to be much, a short meeting with a visiting director, but that would be enough to make people feel valued. Even if we did not then, we know now that leaders set the communications culture of any organisation. Get the leaders to really address the issues openly and without preconceptions, at the same time as listening to what the organisation has to say, then much good will follow as a matter of course.
Conclusions and advocacy
In this case, when the moment came for us to draw conclusions from our survey,
the directors were quite open to being told they needed to do more. We had decided to present our findings in terms of themes, giving priority to those which employees attached most importance to. We then included three pages of the most telling quotes recorded verbatim, both positive and negative.
When we presented our report, some of these quotes drew gasps from the assembled company. There was a sense of shock: "Have things got so bad that somebody will say something like that"?
The quotes simply told the story better than our analysis - a lesson for corporate communicators everywhere, if they need to be convinced of the power of "the story". The quotes made it easier for us to sell in our recommendations.
The directors largely accepted our thesis that leadership communications are the starting point: leaders throughout the organisation must deliver the corporate story, and listen to and refract the feelings of others as they reflect on that story. The directors certainly recognised that they had been focused on deal-making at the expense of explaining to staff what they company was doing. They agreed they could do more listening. They wanted to do more on peer-to-peer communication, and as resources allowed, to bring together more people in functional or product based conferences.
They needed more persuading that they really could share some of the outputs of their monthly board meetings with the staff. When one of them objected, I challenged him to tell me which of the key decisions by the board in the last three needed to be kept secret at the moment they were agreed. To his credit, he did an analysis and when we met next, told me he reckoned only two out of 18 decisions were that sensitive. He was a convert.
Making a difference
Did we make a difference? Yes we did, and the difference we made was the greater because of the approach of the top three in the organisation, who were thoughtful and adaptable, while remaining tightly focused on the aims of the business. Maybe it was because they were naturally sociable and friendly, unafraid of engagement with others.
According to the next annual attitude survey, we made a difference. Scores were much better than the year before in questions about communications. That is the minimum we would have required of our work.
More important to us is the range and variety of the company's responses, well beyond our recommendations. An in-house communications specialist now works closely with the CEO. Directors now routinely address staff wherever they are visiting. Information and commentary on performance is now much more widely available. An intranet is used as a library for company information: for example, a directory, information on processes products, links to product websites, while the discussion which matters is done face to face. (We think this limited application of intranets is the best use of them.)
We can gauge a little how far the business has come. We have been invited back many times since the consultancy assignment to produce presentations and videos. The very fact that there are more internal conferences is a good sign. The subjects of the presentations are the progressive steps which must be taken to imbed a common "way of doing things around here". There is recognition that that process takes time; it is a process which is being communicated by leaders throughout the organisation.
In other words, in terms of communication, the organisation "gets it" and is "getting there". In commercial terms, it is has been strikingly successful
So what do we bring to the party?
Consultants are by their very nature specialists. We are specialist in media and communications. To be a good specialist, worth listening to, you need to have experience of many organisations, and you need to have thought seriously about your subject.
We bring to bear all our experience of media other organisations, all our thinking and discussion over the years about psychology and communications, and the reading, learning and questioning which a good consultant must never cease to pursue. We are also practitioners: I write articles, presentations and speeches; I speak at conferences; I work as a facilitator; I write and direct video and audio programmes.
You should get better as a consultant as you get older, because your experience matures into a philosophy. For me, this is a set of universal statements about what is valid in communications. I am able to advocate action on the basis of these beliefs because I am so sure of them.
Advocacy is important too. Good advocates advocate good policies. They are persuasive; they also accept responsibility, and are ready to be held accountable.
Consultancy is an extension of facilitation (one of our strengths). One belief I have, tested by time, is in the power of listening. So often our job as consultant is to listen, with acuity, to what our client organisations are really thinking. We rephrase and interpret what we hear. And then following the logic of our interpretation lead our clients to course of action, which seem natural, inevitable and, importantly, their own.
Got an opinion? Want to thank Albert?
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