Monthly Archives: November 2010

Winning a Two-Front War

Mike Klein–Commscrum Copenhagen

While this may be the best of times for business communicators—with a growing realisation that the work we do is actually done at the core rather than the periphery of the value chain, there is an equivalent recognition that neither most business leaders nor even much of the profession is willing to embrace that realisation, choosing instead to see business communication as mainly a source of internal journalism and driver of yet more top-down cascading.

Few are exempt.  Even cutting edge pros—members of the CommScrum linked-in group, still find themselves selling and delivering a higher percentage of top-down executional programs than they would prefer to, and as yet, are unwilling to fall on their swords for more effective if less easily explained alternatives.

Leaders as communicators, communicators as leaders.  Two distinct fronts, one distinct war.  At stake, not only the relative performance of business communicators as a profession, but potentially, the performance and viability of business itself.

The core issue is the same—communication is not merely a facilitator of performance but is part of both process and output.  The understandings required of C-suiter and Lead Communicator are fundamentally different, and the conversion experience needs to be quite different.  Neither group can be ignored, particularly if we are to shift this conversation within the next year as CommScrum does.  But neither group can be treated equally.

The C-Suiter needs to see, touch and feel how communication shapes and smoothes each aspect of process, production and acceptance.  S/he needs to see the maps and verbatim quotes that demonstrates that the organization is much more of a dynamic and relatively freely connected social system than a neat series of boxes and lines through which information flows downwards pristinely and immediately.  S/he needs to also recognize that “engagement” isn’t some kind of a whistle-while-you-work-for-peanuts employer nirvana but a series of states which offer challenges as well as opportunities for improvements in innovation as well as productivity.

The Lead Communicator, in turn, needs a transfusion of facts, images and cojones to be able to win a wrestling match with a C-suiter when the C-suiter asks for posters, mouse mats, Facebook page or a cascade.

CommScrum will do our part—this is the direction our live activities for the coming year are heading in.  But what more can we do?  The opposition is fierce—not only the comfort that executives take in the seeming stability of hierarchical approaches, but also a communication conference and association industry that has more to gain by selling skills instead of upgrading attitudes.

Any ideas?

Lindsay Uittenbogaard–Commscrum The Hague

OK – we keep talking about the need for this step change.

The distinction you make Mike, between 1) leadership recognition of the potential value of communication and 2) the willingness of leaders to embrace that value, helps to clarify this ‘problem’.    But it’s not as if our leaders ‘got it wrong’.  It is our job – in part – to cascade  messages top down and drive programs to meet the needs of our sponsors.   The step change we communicators are talking about here is that communication can make a bigger impact.  It can improve business performance, employee motivation and innovation.  BUT HOW, EXACTLY?

Tangibly speaking, what does this extra piece actually look like?  In practical terms – how can we describe how this extra, golden dimension of possibility works in real life, without becoming so lofty and abstract that we lose our audience?

I don’t think that people are unwilling to embrace communication, I think they are unable to – because they don’t understand how to.   People in business will do anything to move faster, better, cheaper.   Why would they have any reason to ‘block’ that hidden value we communicators seem to be sitting so uncomfortably on top of?

We click in the minds of our leaders as resources when they want x – but we don’t click in their minds as resources when they need y and z. Why not?  Because there are dozens of other execution processes that people know and use that don’t involve communication as we might.  It’s a slow re-education process and these people need to be shown the alternative – how it fits together and what the better results can be.

Winning the two-front war means working with leaders to truly understand what they need, connecting and articulating a communication involvement that makes sense to them and them showing that it works.   Not easy.

As a starter, here is a challenge: is there a Commscrummer out there who can write down clearly what that extra communication involvement means while keeping their feet on the ground?

Kevin Keohane – CommScrum London
Geoff Barbaro makes the point that leaders who are “poor communicators” can nonetheless be effective in their roles (heaven forbid).  Granted this might well mean they deliver EPS quarter on quarter and their companies are hell-holes, but in other instances they may well preside over fully “engaged” workforces in fully sustainable businesses.   Visionary, charismatic orators able to inspire legions to a clear and compelling shared Mission, Vision and Values do not great leaders (necessarily) make – they can run businesses into the ground as well as anybody else.  [Just as great writers are not by default great communicators (Liam Fitzpatrick already took that bullet so I should be safe).]

If there is one thing that agency life provides in spades, it’s perspective and variety.  In a given week I am advising the CEO of a European technology company on strategic positioning, and then sitting with the Vice Chairman of a Big 4 firm about a major change initiative, and then advising small professional services firm on aligning their values to their talent development framework, and ending the week launching a corporate website launching/repositioning a brand “from the inside out”.  Perhaps if were part of the internal comms team at a big insurance company, or head of employee engagement at a technology company, or head of communications at a law firm, my perspective would by definition be quite different. {Back to the CommScrum Typology of Internal communicators(TM)].

But if there is one trend I’ve detected, it’s that for the most part the end justifies the means when it comes to communications and employee engagement – in a world where all too often there seems to be a communicator’s mentality of entitlement (the means justify the ends).  Just as ad agencies need to live in a world where the answer might not be a :30 second TV slot, communicators need to lead in a world where the answer isn’t about “communications” as they define it but the results they deliver by hook or by crook.

So – I’ve boiled it down to this: the so-called “talent” agenda is, according to both McKinsey and The Economist, in the Top 3 in terms of driving sustainable growth (just behind availability of credit and economic recovery).  A recent SAS study of more than 20 Global Fortune 500 companies clearly indicates that the effort to attract, engage, and retain talent almost always falls over at the functional leadership and line management level (years ago, it was about making the case to “leaders”.  Many communicators seem to be stuck there).  Communicating with employees is clearly an important element in addressing the opportunities to add value through talent.  But so does Marketing, and so does HR, and indeed IT and others.  Therefore, it’s Darwinian.  Those who can demonstrate the ability to connect the dots at a “higher level” than the packaging and distribution of content will contribute greater value to their organisations and will be “communicators as leaders”.  Those who continue to believe that “internal communications” has some sort of sacrosanct mandate will be like the Recording Industry of America trying to outlaw MP3s and become channel managers – with content management too if they are lucky (?).

“New” leaders in employee (talent) communications will probably not come from traditional “internal communications” camps (though some certainly will).  And some organisations, and the practitioners within them, will trundle along quite happily along the tried and true “old world” tracks.

Deborah Hinton – Commscrum Montreal

Is it just a two-front war?  Most days the challenge seems more complex than that!

On the question of Communicator-leaders or leader-communicators, I think we should be developing way more of more of both.  In the short to mid-term that’s what the ‘talent’ agenda needs Kevin.  And, if we positioned ourselves to go out of business for the longer-term [someone said that on this space a while ago, and it wasn’t me] we’d be headed in the right direction.  Leader-communicators rule!

Mike I agree that far too many of us are spending far too much time on delivering tradition top down communications and fighting fights that we would all like to think are behind us.  Is it because after all everyone knows how to communicate?  Or is it because of what Lindsay suggested:  Somewhere along the line either we aren’t delivering the value that organizations expect/need [and we’ve promised] or we have not gotten the credit for the value we’ve delivered.

If we aren’t delivering the value why is that?  Is it because we don’t have the skills and knowledge we really need to deliver value today [see other conversations here and the current discussion on the CommScrum Group on LinkedIn: Building communication mastery in a cross-disciplinary inside/out world].  Or, is it because we have the skills and knowledge but haven’t been given the chance?  And, if we aren’t being given the chance then how do we position ourselves to get/take the chance?

Or, is it because when it’s done well, communications are so integrated in the discussion and so seamlessly delivered that we don’t [and perhaps shouldn’t] get credit? Or, is it all of the above?

Side bar:

I spent nearly two days last week at the Mellon Colloque at the Canadian Centre for Architecture []. Part of an occasional attempt to break out of my bubble.  The topic was “The expanding curatorial field”.  Pretty isoteric stuff.

Interestingly what I discovered is that the curatorial world is facing some of the same challenges/issues we are.  What are the boundaries of the field?  What is the role of the curator?  How do you curate – the noun and the verb, the process and the product?  And what has primacy – in this case Architect-artist or Artist-architect rather than Communicator – Leader or Leader – Communicator.  And, disappointingly though I learned a lot, there were no evident or easy answers.