Supporting leadership communication: Give them what they need

by Adrian Cropley

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There is a great deal of research around these days that makes the connection between employee engagement and excellent line manager communication. After all, as the saying goes, people don't leave bad companies, they leave bad managers. The reality is many elements make a ‘bad manager'. As communication professionals, we're not there to solve all the problems of socially challenged managers, but we do need to help them fulfil their role in effectively communicating with their people. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course. So, let's look at how we can sink our teeth into making our leaders better communicators.

We’re going to explore four things we can ‘give' them, that not only supports them to be more effective at communication but will build our value as communication professionals. Before we explore the four gives, firstly let me say there is a fifth give. ‘Give them a break'. Our leaders and managers have to be all things to all people in an organisation these days. Our role is to support our organisations as a whole to communicate more effectively, and focus on building leadership communication competence rather than doing it for them. So, let's eat that leader communication ‘elephant’:

Give them insight

The most challenging task is to get managers to buy into the idea that communication is a vital part of the role they play within the organisation. Starting with the end in mind is the key. We want to provide leaders with the data and measurement that tells them how effective their communication is. Therefore, we should initially look at some of the external data, information, and reports we have access to, and share this information with the management team.

Nothing speaks volumes like measures on the impact of change, as well as feedback gathered from employees. Research conducted several years ago by Ipsos Mori, tells us employee perceptions around leadership visibility, understanding of organisation goals and being kept informed are all eroded during change. The access we have to organisational research gives leaders something they don't get from anywhere else, thereby gaining greater buy-in.

One thing I've found useful when I worked in-house, was creating a little healthy competition between leaders. I took the data from our company-wide employee engagement survey and broke down the responses to the question, "How well does your manager communicate?" by division. I then published the comparisons between divisions (not the individuals) on the company intranet and ran an article in the company newsletter that referred to the results posted on the intranet. The program succeeded in sparking a little competition and a focus on bettering the score by engaging with my team. More importantly, it put communication on our leaders' radar.

Give them training

Now communication is on their radar, we need to provide the training to support managers. I found the best way is to keep the focus specific to communication skills, by training them on the 4Ms: Message, Market, Media and Measure. Helping leaders understand important messages, audience segmentation, applying the right channel and measuring outcome was so simple in concept, yet most valuable in increasing competence. These are straightforward concepts for managers and can be integrated with the many other roles they already play.

Instead of producing a series of training programs, incorporating a module of communication into an already established management development program is a significant first step. Not only is it not an additional program, but it gets the communication professional in front of the leaders. This is an all-important step toward becoming the strategic advisor and ultimately being able to coach the manager when needed. Also, think about running lunchtime refreshers, where leaders enjoy lunch and listen to the latest feedback or top tips. The use of a guest speaker at management meetings is an excellent way to provide further development. The idea is not to try and introduce another program or course but tap into avenues of growth that may already exist.

Give them tools

The best way we can support leaders in communication is by providing them with the tools that make it easy and remove the obstacles. We may have given them some techniques through training, but now we need to support them by providing ways to help them succeed. Providing communication plan templates, with simple suggestions on how to deliver the message, is an excellent way to demonstrate how accessible communication can be. If they are easy to use and follow, leaders are very likely to use them.

One tool that worked for me in a previous role was the "team brief." This was a simple set of slides and talking points for leaders to include in their local meetings. After the executive team met, I captured the key aspects of the meeting and some simple diagrams on the business strategy, financials and key wins etc. The key messages were clearly laid out, and I included written tips to help managers think about how they could translate this to their area of business and what this meant to their employees. This proved to be an efficient cascade approach to communication from the top.

Coaching is essential. It’s not about doing it for them, it’s about supporting them in their role as a communicator. We want leaders to see for themselves that they’re succeeding, rather than passing tasks on to the communication professional to do for them and only seeing the end result. By coaching them along a journey, providing the tips, tools and techniques, they know the outcome from excellent communication as something they’ve achieved.

Give them measures and rewards

Measuring the effects of communication is a sure-fire way of demonstrating to leaders that they are making a difference with their teams. The more measures we can collect and give to them, the more they will feel in control of what they are doing and the more they will buy into communication as one of their roles instead of someone else's responsibility. Measuring the effect of leader communication is not easy—finding the ‘hard’ measure for a ‘soft’ skill can be tricky. The focus should be ‘outcome' as a result of the communication, be it a change in knowledge, attitude or behaviour. It is crucial that we don't just rely on the employee opinion survey or 360-degree feedback tools, these are only one part of the measurement. Measuring what has changed is vital because it allows managers to see a tangible result—that employees are doing something differently as a result of their communication efforts.

Measurement is one way of rewarding managers as they see results; however, we need to find other ways to reward and make them accountable. As in mentioned in insight, a little healthy competition is a reward and makes them accountable, I have found sharing stories, or getting them to be guest speakers, sharing their communication success at meetings can act as a reward.

The most effective way of making them accountable and measuring against communication is to ensure communication is part of performance objectives and linked to salary or bonus. In previous organisations I have worked, a clear link to pay was key to establishing buy-in on the importance of communication. Communication was also part of the performance review process at all leadership levels in the organisation.

To help our leaders with communication, we need to break down our efforts into four ‘gives’, and ask ourselves some key questions:

Give them insight

  • Do they know it is their job?
  • Do they care about communication?
  • Do they know how they are doing?

 Give them training

  • Have they been given any training or support in communication skills?
  • What training already exists?
  • What skills do they need?
  • How do we fill the gap between what exists and what they need?

Give them tools

  • What tools, tips and templates do they have?
  • What resources guide them around communication?
  • What is your leader toolkit in your organisation?

Give them measures and rewards

  • What measures and rewards do you have in place for leader communication?
  • What is your reward and recognition plan?
  • Is communication it in their KPIs, objectives and performance management programs?
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Eating that leader communication ‘elephant’ is not so hard after all – four bites and you’re done. Just try not to get indigestion along the way. 

Author Profile(s)

Adrian Cropley OAM, FRSA, SCMP, is the founder and CEO of Cropley Communication and the Centre for Strategic Communication Excellence. With a career spanning over 30 years, he has worked for and advised CEOs and communication leaders globally, including many Fortune 500 companies, on strategic communication and change, as well as building training offerings targeted to communication professionals. He led the development of IABC’s Career Road Map, kick-started the global ISO certification process for the profession, and was the founding chair of the IABC Academy.