The future of leadership communications

I wrote the below article for the Mar 08 edition of the Melcrum Strategic Communication Management magazine ….


‘Leadership is just plain you’

Internal communications has had it easy. It has controlled everything – channels, messages and timetables. We’ve told our leaders what to say, how to say it and when. However, Richard Dennison from BT thinks the honeymoon will soon be over. Here he explains why and how BT’s CEO has risen to the challenge.

Many years ago, when I was young and needed the work, I joined the army. Possibly not the smartest move I ever made but it was an enlightening experience in many ways. I learned a huge amount about leadership. One thing my commanding officer said to me which struck a chord and which I have tried to live by ever since is: ‘Leadership is just plain you’.

Do as I say

Fast forward a decade and I found myself part of a profession – the internal communications profession – that seemed to hold the opposite view. The aim of internal communications seemed to be to disguise who our leaders really were and what they really thought. It was all about advising them what to say, how and when. Then, when we’d persuaded our leaders to trust us, we went and put bland, stilted corporate speak into their mouths and into their written communications. We seemed terrified of exposing our leaders to their own employees ‘in the raw’ – all in the name of professional communications.

All change

Fast forward another decade to today and, sadly, not that much has changed. However I have a hunch that, over the next five years, we will see more change in leadership communications than we have in the last twenty. And here’s why …

The phenomenal growth of user generated content on the web has transformed the way people interact and communicate. Communications is fast, real-time and very informal. The cornerstone of this new communications culture is ‘authenticity’. As user generated content seeps through firewalls onto intranets, the once quiet, ordered and managed space inhabited by the employee communicator is becoming messy, noisy, confused and competitive. Corporate speak won’t cut it anymore. Firstly, people won’t read it – if they ever did. Secondly, people won’t believe it – if they ever did. And thirdly, consumers will have their own channels to let us know, in no uncertain terms, what they think of it.

New blood

Another big change will be the expectations, culture and ways of working of young people joining organisations today. Young people in BT communicate much more informally and in real-time. They’re not intimidated by hierarchy or status, to them BT is flat. This crowd doesn’t consume anything that doesn’t come in digestible, bite-sized chunks, in real-time and direct from the horse’s mouth.

Blog, blog, blog …

So, what’s the answer? Force all our senior managers to blog? My experience is that the more senior a manager is, the less likely they will be to blog successfully. This isn’t a criticism of their communications skills, but based on the fact that they rarely have the time needed to nurture a blog, and the fact that the more senior a manager is, the more likely their employee communications manager is to meddle and interfere.

There are other ways to encourage senior managers to engage with audiences more authentically. For example, instead of running a blog, Ben Verwaayen – my CEO at BT – has, for the last five years, chosen to set aside ninety minutes every six weeks to participate in a live on-line web chat. Anyone in BT can ask him a question on any subject for those ninety minutes. The questions aren’t screened and his answers aren’t edited – it all happens in real time. His answers are littered with spelling mistakes, have questionable grammar and punctuation and are often abrupt … and BT is a much happier and better place to work as a result! Thousands of people participate in these chats and it has helped build up a significant amount of trust that lends credibility to the many other ways he engages with BT employees.

This ‘micro-blogging’ works perfectly for Ben – he only has to commit ninety minutes of his time every six weeks. In those ninety minutes he is exposed to the issues his employees are facing and what needs fixing – without communicators and direct reports ‘shielding’ him. And, he has an opportunity to get his point across simply and clearly in language his employees understand and appreciate … even if the answers aren’t always what they want to hear.

In the field of leadership communications, the balance is shifting away from what we once thought of as ‘professional’ to ‘authentic’ … they need not be mutually exclusive of course!


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