Guest blog: What to do when leaders don’t listen

This month, internal communications consultant, Martin Flegg, shares his advice for getting your voice heard by the leaders in your organisation. If you like what he has to say, you might also like to join him and many other internal communicators at the ‘Changing the Conversation’ conference – details at the end of his piece.

boy with a tin can and piece of string held to his earYou’re an internal communications genius, right? So why is it that leaders sometimes don’t listen to your ideas? Maybe it’s because you’re having the wrong sort of conversation with them, at the wrong time and in the wrong places.

Here are four ideas to help you change the conversation with leaders to gain their active support.

Don’t talk theory
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when trying to get leadership buy in for your ideas is to try and have a conversation about communications theory. I sometimes tried this during my early communications career when surfing the achievement wave of gaining some internal communication qualifications. It never worked.

One of the great things about doing a qualification is that you finally understand the theoretical reasons why some of the communication tactics you’ve been using for years actually work (and more importantly why others don’t). Brimming with this knowledge you naturally want to share it with others as the justification for your communications approach.

Sadly, your enthusiasm is unlikely to be shared by leaders and talking theory at them can be the quickest way to being shown the door and leaving with nothing. In my experience, they tend to be more interested in understanding your communications strategy, the tactics which support this and the business objectives which both are designed to achieve. So, focus on these things rather than the theory behind why they work.

Save your musings about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the Kubler Ross change curve for your conversations with other internal communicators, and not for those which you have with your organisation’s leadership team.

The real decisions are made outside the boardroom
Internal communicators have been going on about the importance of having a seat at the boardroom table for years, and claiming that this is the only way to get your communication ideas heard within organisations.

Believe me, it isn’t. Most of the decision making and the forming of leadership opinion inside organisations happens outside of the rarefied environment of the board room and other formal decision-making committees.

I’ve often said that to be successful as an internal communicator you need to learn how to work with the governance processes inside an organisation to get your ideas tabled in the right place, and at the right time, to obtain the approvals you need to proceed. However, the key to having a focused and concise discussion with leaders, without loads of uncomfortable cross examination, is to have lots of conversations with some of them beforehand. You need advocates and supporters long before the day of the formal decision-making meeting and your appearance as an expert witness, so actively seek out opportunities to recruit them beforehand.

Some of the most productive conversations I’ve had with leaders have been in corridors, the lunch queue, office car parks or on train journeys. I also once got budget sign off for a communications campaign, while attaching a microphone to a director at an event! These are the occasions when the right sorts of one-on-one conversations can happen between internal communicators and leaders, so don’t underestimate them as opportunities to get your ideas heard, understood and adopted.

Learn the language of risks and benefits
Another favourite and perennial conversation for internal communicators has been the one about the measurement conundrum and our ability to present hard data to leaders to justify our existence.

I think that we get too hung up about this. The number of times I’ve been in meetings with leaders where there have been moments of revelation after I’ve presented communications related data have been few and far between. What more frequently happens is that some leaders try and ‘dis the data’ with questions about the efficacy of the methods of collection and the conclusions being drawn.

This isn’t the sort of conversation you want to have, so rather than just relying on numbers I’ve found that it can be helpful to also talk about the benefits and risks related to my internal communication proposals. Most leaders will grasp the benefits and risks of not doing something like internal communications well, if you can articulate these properly within the contexts of business objectives.

Many organisations maintain a high-level risk register that is reviewed and monitored by leadership teams. If there are risks to the business because of poor internal communication, then getting that risk on the register can help you focus the attention of leaders on your ideas for mitigating the problem.

If you don’t know how to properly articulate risks and benefits, then find a project manager who can help you to do this. PMs are some of the best allies any internal communicator can have in an organisation.

Show don’t tell
I heard this excellent piece of advice at a recent communications conference. If you’ve got an idea for a new way to communicate, it’s often much easier to engage leaders in the right sort of conversation about it if you can show them something tangible. Maybe you could create a prototype or demo to share with them?

It’s a fact that most written proposals which are tabled at meetings in organisations never get read properly by anyone, so only relying on them to get your communication ideas understood is a waste of your time. Proactively inviting leaders to a demo is a better way of having the right sort of conversation with them about the art of the possible.

Another opportunity to change the conversation
If you’re interested in exploring new ways of ‘Changing the Conversation’ in internal communications I, and the other members of the CIPR Inside committee, would be delighted to welcome you to our annual conference in Birmingham on 8 October. Find out more about our speakers and check ticket availability on the CIPR Inside website.

Martin Flegg is an internal communications consultant and director at ggelf IC, and the creator of The IC Citizen movement. He has worked in communication roles in the public sector, financial services and higher education for over 20 years and is a Chartered PR Practitioner and Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Connect with Martin on Twitter @martinflegg or on LinkedIn.

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