Guest post: Communication is the real work of leadership

My guest this month, leadership comms manager Shalini Gupta, shares her top tips for being our leaders’ trusted partners and supporting them to communicate well. She also describes us as unofficial ‘key workers’.

Word cloud with words and phrases about empathy and listeningWouldn’t it be easy if our leaders could just push a button and say the right thing in the right tone and at the right time?

Despite all the technology, nothing of this sort has hit the market yet. But what has hit us is a once in a century pandemic called COVID19. Almost overnight, communications teams have been put under the spotlight. So have their leaders.

Organisations have quickly learned that their leaders have to be careful of not only what they say but most importantly how they communicate during this pandemic.

Communications teams have welcomed the opportunity to become coaches to their leaders.-Their support is wider than just to speak of the strategy and vision of an organisation but also on how leaders can communicate through emotions. This offers an air of calm and control even in the face of the unknown.

The unknown where next steps are crucial but not necessarily evident.

All the answers
As humans we like certainty. But most leaders have little experience in the kind of uncertainty that exists today. People expect leaders to motivate them, to inspire them and be empathetic and real at the same time. Why? Because leaders have always been romanticised as the perfect communicators.

But we know that good leadership communication doesn’t just happen by accident.

In the coming months, as organisations face the fight to remain relevant, leaders will be hungry for more insight and support on how they communicate with their teams. We have to work with them as their strongest trusted partners guiding them through these uncharted waters.

Top of our game
Over the last few months, most of us have been locked up in our comms war rooms. We were also the unofficial ‘key workers’ in many ways! Our skills have never been more valuable.

But going forward, as communicators who want to remain true trusted partners, we must be at the top of our game.

We need to understand the internal challenges, the nuances of the external socio-political landscape and have our finger on the pulse with our stakeholders, internal and external.

To support our leaders find their sweet communication spot we must understand what their authentic style of leadership is. We need to arm ourselves with an informed view on how to coach them on content and what the tone of the message is so they are able to deliver what people want to hear, straight honest conversations.

Practical tips
Here are some top practical tips to help you support your senior leaders to become outstanding communicators in these challenging times:

1. Make values and purpose the compass for your leadership comms:
We know our leaders have to communicate quickly sometimes. However, without proper planning this can push us to draft messages that are short term focused, which cover the what and the how but we often miss the why. Bestselling author on leadership, Simon Sinek raises a good point about order of a leader’s message during crisis – ‘Begin with reinforcing your core values and set the tone for why you’re taking that action. If the leader messaging begins with a tactical response to a crisis, it often doesn’t hit the mark.’

  • We know people are striving for a greater sense of purpose and values that unite us in these times. Who better than us communicators to coach our leaders to weave in ‘the why’ with relatable story nuggets that they can tell themselves?

  • 2. Get your leaders in the shoes of your people:
    To build an effective leadership communication strategy, we need to make our employees feel valued and included. And more than ever before, our people need to be heard and understood..

  • Give opportunities to your leaders to regularly listen to your colleagues – from virtual coffee sessions to internal social media channels. Their visibility, empathy and honesty will show that people come first. If the leaders actively engage with their people now, they’ll be in a good position as a trusted leader to explain and justify tough/challenging decisions later. As Brene Brown said, ‘Trust is earned in the smallest moments’.

  • 3. Be clear on who needs to front your message:
    Is the CEO the only leadership voice in your organisation? Who will give what message and how?

  • Some questions you’ll need to consider are: what’s the visibility of other leaders in your organisation and are the right voices aligned to the messages you need to communicate? Are they joined up at the top and is everyone working towards the common goal of what’s good for the people? Provide common key talking points for all leaders.

  • 4. Capture regular insight from your people:
    We can all craft leadership messages, tell stories and narratives, but if it doesn’t bear any relationship to what people actually tell us, then it’s all hollow. Many organisations now do regular pulse polls to gauge sentiments and that’s great. But what more can we do to get under the skin of how our people feel?

  • As well as insights from pulse surveys, as communicators, think internal networking – involve yourself in groups, take part in other functional meetings – the more in-the-moment insights you can apply to your communication, the better informed you will be to shape your leadership messaging

  • 5. Share good news stories:
    These days any good news can feel like a rarity. Research has shown that along with tough messages, if leaders share snippets of positive news during these times it can have a huge impact especially when many people are being forced to work remotely. And often it’s the one way to dispel the tension and stress in people’s lives.

  • Weave good people stories into your leader messages. Stories that show where individuals and teams have gone above and beyond what’s expected of them in a particular critical situation during the crisis. This helps to connect people back to what the organisation stands for and the part they play in it.

  • There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to developing effective leadership communications. We know that the months ahead are still unpredictable and we’re all still learning how best to move forward. As communicators if we can focus on helping our leaders capture the hearts and minds of their people, we will emerge stronger.

    Shalini Gupta is a Leadership and CEO communications manager at BT. She has worked internationally in various communication roles in financial services and telecommunications including top FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies for over 15 years including GE Capital, Aviva, RBS/NatWest Group, Royal & SunAlliance Insurance and BT.

    Connect with Shalini on LinkedIn or Twitter

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