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.


6 thoughts on “Winning a Two-Front War

  1. Indy says:

    To add to Deb’s point, here’s a link to an interesting article about the changes facing the advertising industry. It’s long, but it will make you think…

    Some disconnected thoughts:

    – The reaction of people who value their “writing craft” to changes in IC reminds me of some photographers who couldn’t understand why I left that profession when the digital transition arrived. It’s very hard to face up to the reality that where “good execution” was once a competitive advantage, it is now only so in a very small minority of cases.

    – So, if that’s the direction internal comms is going, where “good execution” is paid for only occasionally, amongst a volume of user generated content – what is the new role of the communicator? Probably words like co-ordinator, conductor, facilitator spring to mind. But perhaps we need to go back to the discussion about companies that have no IC department…

    – Set against that, from another direction – business leaders are starting to learn about (stealing a phrase from Karen Drury on commscrum-LinkedIn) dialogue rather than just delivery. Communicators should be in a good position to be part of how dialogue happens – and ironically, if they manage it, they’ll be a bigger part of the leadership team than they are now. But do they have the horizons to do it? I should comment on Deb’s LinkedIn thread, but I don’t think the key skills are that hard to learn – the hard part is accepting that you can’t be the same person any more if you’re going to take on the new role. That you’ll be measured on different things.

    – Of course, on top of the personal mental barriers are the cultural ones – how do you get there from here in your current organisation? And that’s the hard one – we’re at some kind of cutting edge – there are signals all around that change is on the way… but the timing is uncertain and rewards contingent on the timing… If you leap to carving out a new role for yourself before the change comes, you’ll just find people don’t understand what you’re trying to do…

    – There’s a value to articulating a far future – I believe in organisation design that fits the situation, but the reality is that our “business professions” have all been defined around the classical M-Form corporation and specialised business functions. My instinct is that if we want to see the new role for communicators, we have to engage with what the new form of the corporation will be. Not the complexity of all the different ways it could be done, but the most likely changes, the ones that are easily turned into a McKinsey/Accenture best practice manual and thus will be rolled out across a lot of the world in the next 10 years…

  2. Indy says:

    I should throw in this piece about IC moving towards a curation model – curation is definitely an important activity in the postmodern communication landscape:

  3. debscrum says:

    Oh Indy. So much to say. So little time.

    Look forward to checking out both links you’ve provided above and in the meanwhile…

    Starting with your last comment. The curators I spent a couple of days with last week would be horrified to know that communicators might consider themselves curators [they are fighting the creep: everyone is now a curator of something – their wardrobe, their home, their life…]. Sounded a lot like the challenge of everyone knowing how to communicate/being a communicator.

    And now to your disconnected and intriguing thoughts:
    – good writing is no longer a competitive advantage for communicators is exactly right. Necessary but far from sufficient especially as there is more and more user generated content
    – agree that if we are to get any real insight into the role then looking at organizations that don’t have IC departments would be a good place to start. When this idea has come up before I don’t think anyone offered any examples of this. Interestingly I had a conversation with someone yesterday who talked about a Toronto media company that only just got an HR department [through acquisition]. Unfortunately not much to learn there – it is run by a megalomaniac entrepreneur who simply doesn’t value anything beyond his own brilliance [and brilliant he is having built 2 media empires from nothing]. Unfortunately simply horrifying to work for.
    – to your third point I think some of these things are hard to learn. For example how to think [and yes Dan, I’m almost through Opposable Mind and loving it]. I worked with Robert Fritz to learn structural dynamics and thinking for over 8 years. I’m certified as a structural consultant. And I feel barely adequate…The way we think is very hard to relearn in my experience [doable, but not easy]. And if the people can’t change how they do the communications role then organizations will look for other people who can or…
    – timing is definitely everything. And what can we do to help organizations ‘see the light’ sooner than later [which goes to your last point, and sadly the McKinsey/Accenture models that we all have to live with]

    Can we win on a two-front war?

  4. Indy says:

    Deb – so little time indeed.

    I know the curation word is often overused, but I think this is genuinely a case where it is important. Banging the culture drum (and I know it’s getting boring, I promise to switch to the complexity drum soon): Corporate culture is in part a product of the “official history” of the organisation. In the past, communications people were some of the ones who wrote that history, but in the current age, such an approach has less authenticity. One way to bring more authenticity back to the official history is to curate it from the communications produced by the company as a whole.

    On “thinking” – fair point – if good thinking skills were easy to learn then we’d live in a different world altogether. So it’s not all easy – and I learned about structure and systems away from communication so I forget that some communicators have a different background. All the same, the good communicators I know are definitely learning people and I extrapolate from this that if they spent some of their learning time on things Commscrum thinks they need, rather than (for example) the things the ABC accreditation thinks they need, then they’d be in a better position.

    The reason I need to go back to your LinkedIn thread is that I think it has the seeds of something we need. That is, a description of the skills we think communicators need that approaches the level of completeness of the one quoted by Kevin Ruck. I think that goes against our instincts to get detailed (and indeed to some level such detail is a bad idea when dealing with complexity) but if we’re going to build a future we need to create a vivid picture of what that future looks like.

    As for timing and the two front war…

    I think that we as Commscrum can only do so much on the “leaders as communicators” front. There are many potential points of influence: articulate a vision of leaders as communicators and why it matters/why it is good, celebrate leaders who “get it.” But to some degree there’s an element of waiting for opportunities where leaders realise the old ways are failing and are looking to change.

    I think we live in an age where there are more of those opportunities than ever before – the key to exploiting them is to be ready, not only with the vision of leaders as communicators, but the vision and reality of communicators as leaders.

    And for me, the communicators as leaders area is where Commscrum can be completely proactive. Not only creating the vision, but helping communicators, through details, discussion and events acquire the skills they need to step into the opportunities that come and demonstrate leadership.

    Finally, when I look at Geoff’s post I’m reminded of another LinkedIn discussion (Chief Collaboration Officer) and my guess that leaderly communicators of the future might not call themselves “communicators” because issues like “collaboration” or “people, strategy and culture in a complex world” need not just cross-functional people, but cross-functional teams. And I think that’s another useful angle on this whole debate. Communicators have dreamed of becoming a “function” like Marketing or Finance – with the voice and status that brings. However, the future of business is a set of new arrangements, new functions that are mixes of people from the old ones and that’s where the new role of communicators will lie.

  5. Winning a Two-Front War « Commscrum…

    This article has been submitted to IntranetLounge, a website with a collection of links to the best articles about intranets…

  6. Dan Gray says:

    Don’t know if it adds anything to the debate, but I’ve just been reading a couple of bits and pieces out of Ashridge.

    A few bullet-points adapted from their booklet “Living Leadership – A Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes” seem (to me at any rate) to get to the nub of the issue, which is all about living with uncertainty…

    – There’s no one person who can show the way forward

    – Applied intelligence of groups and organisations is what’s needed

    – The purpose of leadership is then to release that collective intelligence

    For me, that’s where the roles of the Communicator-Leader and Leader-Communicator converge.

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