Why leaders avoid comms
Communicating should be as easy as breathing. After all, it is something we all do. It is part of the arsenal of basic human tools (eat, sleep, breathe, move, speak) that keep us alive and keep us connected. However, while it is one of the things that makes us the most human, we often mess it up - say the wrong thing at the wrong time, cause misunderstandings, offend people and have to clear the air. We are mostly pretty bad at it.
This makes corporate communications a poisoned chalice. We pluck a basic human function that we are not great at, give it capital letters and an office and a team, and then thrust it into the workplace. There are no Chief Breathing Officers, or Heads of Eating (a job I’d like) or VPs for Sleep (my husband is a contender).
No other corporate function arrives with such a fuzzy resume. Each have distinct areas, grown out of a clear business need:
- Strategy - make a plan
- Engineering - make the stuff
- Marketing - attract customers
- Sales - sell to customers
- Services - help customers
- Finance - collect and distribute the money
- Payroll - pay employees
All of these have been much studied by academics and are backed up by well-established methodologies and systems - Six Sigma, V2MOM, OKR, inbound marketing, CRM, design thinking, agile, scrums, financial reporting, taxation - that provide safety rails, boundaries and clarity. So far, so black and white.
And then comes comms, which is all grey. No systems. No guardrails. No clarity. Only vulnerable humans with a big job in one of the functions above who have to add communicating to their already long to-do lists.
Why leaders avoid comms
And this is why leaders, unless they are naturally gifted communicators or massively charismatic, usually avoid comms. Because the baseline that we all communicate does not make corporate communications simple or easy or rewarding.
There are no guarantees that employees will respond well to an announcement or that a journalist is going to write an effusively positive story after an interview. For corporate communications to work, the only methodology available is: know your stuff and be a human. And that makes people who are used to guardrails and boundaries and methodologies very uncomfortable.
Can you imagine a head of HR saying ‘I don’t want to pay staff this month; I just don’t feel up to it.’ Or a CFO saying, ‘I’m not doing the financial report, you can’t make me’. Or a head of strategy saying, ‘I’m not going to read the messaging before the meeting. I’m just going in there and going to talk very loudly.’ Or a head of product becoming mysteriously unavailable when a product goes live.
These are things that leaders who find communicating uncomfortable say and do.
How to fix this?
It’s not easy. One thing that worked for me was to meet leaders where they were at. I worked with one exec who hated big stages and large team meetings. Large audiences made him freeze up and struggle to be articulate. However, I noticed that he was brilliant in a room of 20 or less - witty, effusive, sparkly. We limited his large meetings as much as possible and concentrated on winning hearts and minds one small group at a time.
Another option is to bring in the tag team. If an executive was very uncomfortable talking to the media, we’d pair her with a subject matter expert. If he couldn’t get his head around the tech we were demonstrating, or was in fear of the system crashing, we’d bring in someone else to do the demo. If an exec was spectacularly non-charismatic, we’d pair her with someone charming on stage to bring the vibes.
However, as Simon Sinek says ‘things that matter are difficult’, and we saw great improvement amongst executives who were prepared to put in the time with media training, speaker training and story training (yes, this is a thing).
Leaders who are prepared to learn can become decent communicators over time. We worked with one executive who knew that his storyline was all over the place and not landing with any audiences. We brought in a story consultant, who helped him create a narrative for his team of over 3,000 engineers. When he began to use the framework, he saw that it landed. Over time, it became unconscious rather than studied, and he grew better and more authentic as a communicator.
However, this kind of learning makes senior people feel vulnerable. It takes some humility to stand on stage and be coached, or sit in front of a camera and do media training. It takes a person of courage to sit with a story consultant and explain how things could go horribly and badly wrong. Those who were prepared to go through the pain, who listened, heard and practised the skills, saw some good outcomes, got better at comms and started to enjoy it more.
Know your stuff and be a human
It turns out that know your stuff and be a human means so much more than just knowing your functional area. To be a successful communicator, leaders need to learn a few communications skills that provide them with the scaffolding to build a strong, relevant and authentic presence. With that in their back pocket, they begin to enjoy communicating and avoid it less.
Charlotte believes that in the attention economy, strategy and story need to be symbiotic.