How to help managers communicate

How effective are your managers when it comes to communicating? Do line managers understand their role in facilitating two-way conversations and being a visible presence? Or are there barriers in place?

Today I’m delighted to share the next article in my brand new #ICVoices series, which is packed full of advice from 72 professional communicators.

We’ve tackled the issue of line manager communication. Specifically, how to help line managers be better communicators.

Line manager communication was cited in the 2018 Gatehouse State of the Sector survey as being the biggest barrier to internal communication success. So it sounds like everyone is struggling. There’s such useful advice in this article, grab a cup of tea and get stuck in, I know you’ll enjoy it.

What’s your top tip? As ever, you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC to join the conversation.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog: Why leaders need to serve.

What is #ICVoices?
#ICVoices exists to amplify the voices of professional communicators from around the globe via the All Things IC blog to help everyone learn. Countries represented include Australia, Canada, Germany, Nigeria, Switzerland, the UK, US and many more.

I asked questions on nine different topics and practitioners could choose the ones they wanted to answer. I’ve published communicating office moves and top tips for GDPR comms and this is the third article in the series.

Here’s what I asked: How can IC pros help line managers be better communicators? Any top tips?

Further reading via the All Things IC blog: Free toolkit to help team leaders be better communicators.

Create opportunities for them to practice

Make it easy for them – provide sample team meeting agendas, one pagers to share and answers to difficult questions – Charlotte Armstrong, Internal Communications Manager, @charlottedawna.

Teach them (they often weren’t hired for their managerial skills but for their technical ones) and give them freedom – you can give all the guidance in the world but if you’re obsessively strict then their communication won’t sound natural and therefore won’t be believable –  Joanna Freeman, Communications Executive, @joanna_r_f.

Read the communication before you deliver it, so many times I’ve seen line managers convey a message that they know nothing about . This makes the line manager I’ll prepared and the communication in turn is delivered in a shambolic deliverance. You’re not the subject matter expert, so don’t worry about knowing every detail, but be prepared to be questioned and handle this effectively by 1) being yourself and admitting you perhaps don’t know the answer and 2) taking a note to find out the answer setting a realistic timescale for updating the colleague who has asked the question – Jenny Hoolihan, Communications and Engagement Manager.

It’s partly about giving them lines to take and FAQs when there are important announcements taking place – always set out what you need managers to do. It’s also about helping line managers to understand that they are the leaders of the organisation they’re part of, and communicating to their teams is a key part of leading. Getting the chief executive to stress this is important. Also, it can be useful to bring managers together and do interactive exercises to help them to think themselves through the best way of communicating with their teams – Paul Lehmann, Director, Tankerville Communications, @phlehmann.

Build their confidence by coaching them and developing their communication skills, rather than asking them to regurgitate readymade comms. Help them to take ownership of the messages they’re sharing by adding their own style and personality, putting them in control. Inspire them to care about communicating and help them to lose the fear that often surrounds it – Alan Oram, Alive With Ideas! @alanhasideas.

Practice, so exercises – Nadine Powrie , Executive Coaching, @NadinePowrie

Ensure they’re clear about responsibilities

Help them understand that internal communications is not just a function but a leadership responsibility. The IC team can help them be better at it. But it’s best done by the managers themselves, not the IC team – Jason Anthoine, Founder, Audacity, @jasonanthoine.

Giving your team the context of what it is you’re communicating, having a clear purpose, clearly stated strategic objectives, assigned roles and responsibilities, defining desired outcomes and the means by which to measure them – Leah Bowden, Director @humanizecomms.

It seems a tiny number of organisations actually have a clear set of competencies for comms skills for line managers/supervisors – and often these tend to be light on detail. The challenge for the communication, then, is to get the IC pros to explain clearly what is expected of managers in terms of being better communicators and showing them how – this might appear in the competency model or in a statement from the CEO endorsing specific responsibilities. Be open to supporting them and provide a top ten list on being better communicators and why they are effective. Be open to supporting them too. – Kerry Sheehan, Associate Director Communications, @PRKezza.

Support your managers: process and tools

Provide a toolbox, support development programmes and hand hold with briefings – Dan Holden, Internal Comms & Engagement Manager @holddani.

Early notification, monthly ‘look ahead packs’ – Louise Johnston, Head of internal communications, @orchardberry.

I think comms pros need to make it easier for managers to be good communicators. It’s not necessarily their main skillset and we need to give them the tools and information in easy, quick bites to help make it part of their existing meetings and processes. We also need to celebrate managers who do a great job and share those stories with other managers so they know what good looks like – Pippa Van Praagh, Global Employee Communications Evangelist.

Give them some decent content that works in the environments in which they are briefing. Talk them through the process, help them with ways to engage a team, then sit in one of their briefs and feedback (privately), the “Even Better If”s – Tim Rutter, Head of Communications, Tata Steel Strip Products UK @timrutter.

Provide only the must know. Additional context can be provided elsewhere – Elisabeth Wang, Executive Director Communications and PR at Piedmont Healthcare, @elisabeth_wang

Offer pragmatic guidance/toolkits, but also an education of how being an excellent line manager means being the best communicator you can be i.e. that it’s not someone else’s job! – Jen Robinson, Communications Manager, @JenBobaroo.

Provide brief talking points – give confidence they know what they are ‘allowed’ to share – Justine Stevenson, Head of Group Internal Communication at London Stock Exchange Group @jusstevenson.

Provide quality, comprehensive kits for set pieces like change comms. For everyday, keep it short and snappy to allow managers to drop it into everyday team meetings and interactions – Kate Jones, head of communications and corporate affairs, @how_IC_it.

It’s not always a skills issue, it’s often the lack of process and content that’s easily cascaded. Ask the team in advance of any topics to cover – Jack Winters, HR Change Manager, @jacklhr.

Your role isn’t just to communicate, it’s to coach too. Share your wisdom, take the time to mentor, and create loads of great toolkits, templates and guides for them  – Ellie Buckingham, Freelance Comms Practitioner, @LilyRoseWrites

Recognise that many people are promoted to manager because of their technical ability, not because of their people skills. Provide line managers with regular communication training, toolkits and ongoing support – Helen Deverell, Communication Consultant, @helendeverell.

Provide a toolkit, thorough brief how to communicate specific items, assist with creating training in collaboration with HR, becoming trusted advisors  Tereza Urbankova, Head of Global Communication, @TerezaUrb.

By providing line managers with monthly ‘talking points’ about the company’s performance, financials, latest news, and initiatives, it gives managers a tool to consistently steer conversations in one-to-ones, and team meetings/briefings – Luke Murdoch, Internal Communications Consultant, @lukemurdoch.

Provide timely info and guidance so they are never caught off-guard or unprepared. Define clear, realistic goals and responsibilities. Provide tips and training as required. Provide adequate air cover – Bernie Charland, Director, Employee Engagement and Communications @mountainmagic.

Giving people the tools to disseminate information and have the knowledge and understanding to do so with confidence is a key goal for me in any company wide communication. Our managers tell us they feel valued when they are trusted with information and are given the time to absorb it/ask questions before being expected to relay comms to their team, which can only be a good thing in terms of outcome – Alli Cary, Internal Communications Lead, @allicary.

Provide them with clear speaking points and direction, free of lingo and words that only management understands. – Maureen Larkin, senior manager employee communications at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston @molarks.

Feed them the information to be communicated at the right time and in the right format for them – Bob Lawrence, International Operations Communication and Engagement Lead, @BobLHOC.

Online training on how to present information effectively. Ensure the work is done for them, they don’t have to translate the message so it fits the audience. – Rachel Bowyer, Transformation Communications Lead @Rachel_Bowyer1.

Influence the recruitment process to rank communication and emotional intelligence as more important than technical expertise –  Deb Ganderton, Director Service and Engagement @DebGanderton

Support your managers: skills

Educate and up skill line managers to be communicators. I think people assume they have communication skills. They firstly need the skills and then the tools to execute – Jenny Insley, Internal Communications Manager, @JennyIN5.

First, provide communication coaching to help those that are interested in honing their communication skills. Second, trust line managers with the right messages, and empower them with the right tools that can be used in the right (work)places – Etienne Lavoie, Strategic Advisor – Corporate Communications, @EtienneLavoie.

Provide structured coaching and training, not just when there’s a reorg or difficult conversation required. Doing manager communication training in a group will also encourage managers to help each other and share knowledge – Ciara O’Keeffe, VP product and customer delivery, @CommsOKeeffe.

Show them how their team want to be communicated with – James Harkness, Partner, @james_melford

Make it easy! For them to know what they need to say, where to go for more information/clarification/questions. Support them with soft skills – enabling them to be seen as confident communicators, able to listen to what their teams have to say, be authentic in their comms. Spend time understanding what is stopping them being effective communicators – Caroline Ledger, Strategy & Change Communications Lead, @CJLedger.

Consider how they can support the line managers’ development through advice and support on good communications – Adam Morris, communications and change consultant.

Working with HR is absolutely key – we need to make sure we’re aligned and that everyone puts an emphasis on communications being vital to Line Manager roles. Trying to be clear about our expectations of Line Managers. Providing them with a range of different support and materials, some face-to-face sessions, and intranet content for reference – Jenni Kampf, Senior Communications Officer, @Adventuresinic.

IC pros should help them to understand their internal audiences/stakeholders better. Present them the real conversations that are being had about a particular issue. Then the IC pro should work with them to close any communication gaps, devise appropriate communication strategy and tactics, that display the right tone/or empathy/or message to help employees adopt the right mindsets and behaviours. TOP TIP: IC Pros need to know their internal audiences well and then work to enable the line managers to be the best communicators they can be, equipping them to drive internal dialogue such that it ignites employee engagement! – Cynthia Mouanda, Senior Communications Manager, @CynthiaMouanda.

I think IC pros help line Mangers most by being a sounding board for understandable content. So often content is created for employees that is not well understood. If I don’t get what you’re trying to say, I can guarantee most employees won’t – Shelley Rolland-Poruks, Manager Corporate & Digital Communications, @chatshell.

Encourage them to be themselves

Be yourself. Sure, IC pros can provide you with talking points, and yes, they can be written so that you just have to read them, but that’s not how you get messages to resonate. You need to understand what’s going on and not be afraid to use your own words. That makes the message far more authentic and authenticity builds trust – Heather Shaw Senior Manager, Internal Communications.

Be authentic and human in the way you show up with your team – don’t be like Siri – it’s your quirks and sense of humour that build respect and ensure you’re heard – Shaun Rogers, Strategic Communications Partner – Australian Red Cross Blood Service, @ShaunRRogers.

Encourage transparency and confidence to allow their personality form part of their comms. They are more than just a manager, they are a person and that matters in the relationship between manager and the person reporting into them – Emma Edwards, Head of Comms, @mrseddy21.

Coach them to be themselves and not conform to a model they think fits their role. Authenticity, honesty and openness is key. Rowena Kivell, Director, Internal Communications.

Be authentic. Just because everyone else ‘bangs it on an email’ doesn’t mean you have to. A quick five minutes in the fresh air with a coffee might help your message land, and stick, much better than an impersonal email – Keith Riley-Whittingham, Communications and Media Exec. @keithrileywhitt.

Gently shake their idea of themselves being great communicators. Open perspectives – Sönke Klug, Internal Comms for Oldenburgische Landesbank AG, @soenkeklug.

Focus on the community

Empower them to become Community managers. They don‘t have to communicate all by themselves. But they should cope with the fact that their Team members might be better experts in certain operative topics than they are –  Oliver Chaudhuri, Unit-Leader Communications at HIRSCHTEC, @ochaudhuri.

Try and shatter any notion that you’re a gatekeeper – Comms might not factor too highly in their work objectives, but you’re all on the same team after all! One of my go-to lines is “you and your team are experts in what you do, my job is to promote that and get our colleagues excited about it” – Craig Major, Senior Internal Communications Advisor, Auckland University of Technology. @craig_comms.

The days of IC pros being gatekeepers are over. IC pros must enable line managers to be better communicators through coaching and training – Tim Fitzsimmons, National Manager Strategic Communications.

Schedule time for your team and stick to it. We can help line managers understand how their people look to home for support, information and motivation. I like to try to help people take a walk in other shoes so that they realise how important the relationship and information exchanges are – Lynda Thwaite, Head of Marketing and Communications, @LyndaTLive.

Understand their audience. What do they think of their teams? What do their teams think of them? Remember that they share the same goals as you – helping their people to work better, stay connected, and engage with the organisation – John Kay, Group Internal Communications Manager. @positively_.

Understanding the audience, obtaining the information and presenting relevant facts with a storytelling edge – Heather Neisworth, Internal Communications Strategist and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University (Internal Communications and Employee Engagement), @heathgirl-.

How to coach line managers

Sandy Yu, VP, Marketing and Product Management, @employeechannel, @ECI_Sandy has shared ways to coach line managers:

Coach line managers on ways to cascade down information. For example, IC professionals can help individual managers craft a message to team members that tie their specific team efforts to the overall organisational vision, values, and goals. That way the team can understand how they are an integral part of making achieving the organisation’s goals, which makes the messaging personally relevant.

Coach line managers on using multiple channels (messaging, chatting, surveying/polling, group and face-to-face meetings) to reinforce key messages. By using multiple channels, a line manager has multiple ways to reach team members and to make sure that they are reaching the right audience with the right message.

Coach line managers to think first about the needs of their audience, the purpose of their message, and only then, the contents of their message. By taking this approach, they can determine whether or not they have the right content – Sandy Yu, VP, Marketing and Product Management, @employeechannel, @ECI_Sandy.

Internal Communicators need to be role models

IC pros need to mirror the behaviours they want to see in management. It also helps to put managers into positions and with the support they need to be comfortable and look good in meetings, on video or via email – Zane Ewton, Communications Consultant, @ZaneEwton.

Demonstrate the benefits of great communication; show them how to plan their comms with the recipient and outcome in mind; role model excellent comms and leadership skills – Debbie Aurelius, Communications Consultant, @DebbieAurelius.

Work hard to be a trusted source for internal communications guidance, be an enthusiastic supporter of their goals and show how IC help them achieve them – Misty Oosthuizen, Senior Communications Manager, @mistyjoy73

I find it really helps when I explain the fundamentals of strategic communication, how to set the right goals and how to understand the audience. Once they understand some of these concepts, the lightbulbs go off and they really get it – Andrea Gregoire, Owner of Vision2Voice Communications Inc. @vision2voice.

IC pros should know the business they support inside out then help line managers to find the right language to talk to their people – Grant McDonald, Vice President Employee Communications, Barclays.

Make time to talk to them! Whereas it’s clearly helpful to ensure they cover the basics in any communication (who/what/why/where/when/how), it’s also important to encourage a manager to have their own style/personality. Organisations don’t benefit from communications clones; they benefit from people having conversations with people – Nicholas Wardle, Global Internal Communications Manager.

Help them understand their audience better by encouraging them to consider them more deeply and empathetically. Who are they? What are their motivations? What are their ‘turn-offs’? Why might they think/feel/act in certain ways based on their experience or personality types and how can managers adapt communication style in acknowledgement of this? Also talk to managers about what stops them from having conversations with their teams and look at how these barriers can be overcome e.g. time, geography, confidence – Cathryn King, Strategic Communications Consultant, @CathrynKingIOC.

Understand our role as a coach – like a conductor with line managers as their orchestra. Spend time at team meetings, offer drop-in sessions, teach rather than do for people – enabling them is far more effective – Karen Nijjar, Owner and Director, @karen_nijjar.

Be human. (Cut the corporate cr*p). Be honest but this does not mean negative – Julia Atwater, Head of Communications – Business & Platform Services, @juliaatwater.

Demonstrate the power of listening

Listen to the needs of line managers (and frontline staff). Ask the ‘stupid’ questions. Focus managers on desired outcomes rather than outputs. E.g. manager says we need a screensaver to reach staff. IC pros ask them what they are trying to achieve rather than just agreeing. Everyone discovers screensaver is not the most effective channel for the desired outcome – Carrie-Ann Wade, Director of Comms @CrayonCW.

For me, focus groups have been invaluable. By speaking to colleagues around the business about their communication preferences I can feed this directly back into line managers and make it real for them. By shaping communications around the audience we’re likely to see increased engagement, and increased buy in from leadership – Kieran Hughes, Communications and Engagement Manager, EY.

I find it helps to really understand the manager and the team – what are their daily habits, how do they like to work together. Then you can tailor your advice to suit the team, not try to shoe-horn best practice into somewhere it won’t work – Sarah Bell, Communications Consultant, @sarahbell135.

By staying approachable, having a listening ear and making use of their suggestions/ideas as often as possible – Aishat Onusi, Technical Adviser on New Media, @AishatOnusi.

Ask them what they’d like from you to help support them. Each manager is different. Some need a confidence boost, others want headlines, some need a bit of hand-holding. Get to know your managers. Understand their challenges and give them the tools to make their life a bit easier. I love spending time with them and their team – it really helps you identify key issues. We’ve also created a toolkit in the past which contained top tips and tools on how to communicate to teams. We gave every manager one – they loved it – Advita Patel, Communications Specialist, @Advita_p.

Make people feel important. ‘Talk to people about themselves, and they’ll listen for hours’ – Alex Bourgeois, Social Media Specialist & Internal Marketer, @wakanouka.

I always say – what do they need to know? What do you want to do? If they struggle with one or both it’s more of a coaching chat to identify the best point in the process for comms. Sometimes it’s later than people think – Caroline King, Group Head Brand and Communications, Torus @Caroline_Torus.

Combine all of the above

The million dollar question! There’s no one magic method. It’s a combination of giving people the tools, showing how the tools work, giving people a safe environment to learn and role modelling what good looks like –  Hayley James, Head of Internal Communications, @haylo_pr

We speak a lot about being coaches for leaders to help them communicate better. In reality it is not always effective due to time and focus limitations. I think it more of a combination of providing training, gathering and sharing useful employee insights that provoke new views on things and role-modelling excellent communication from our side, which may also trigger some healthy competition in others – Vija Valentukonyte-Urbanaviciene, Acting head of Communications, @vijaval

We’re still working on that! – Becky Wren, Marketing Manager, Screwfix.

Four ways to help them

Sia Papageorgiou, Director, Strategic Internal Communication & Digital Media, @avantiscomms has shared four ways you can help your managers become better communicators:

1. Develop a manager communication strategy: A manager communication strategy clearly defines the role of managers in the communication process, and prepares and equips them to be true communicators in a reliable and cohesive way across the organisation. Make sure you include an arsenal of tools and practices for listening, receiving, communicating and responding to a message, and that the initiative is actively championed by senior management.

2. Prepare a communication toolkit: Identify your organisation’s key business priorities and prepare a communication toolkit (key messages, conversation starters, FAQs etc.) that managers can use to communicate relevant and meaningful information to their employees. Keep an archive of communication material in one location so managers can self-serve when they need to.

3. Help managers identify with their communication role: Determine the communication skills of managers in your organisation and provide training as needed. Not all managers understand or believe that ongoing communication and sharing information with their staff is an important or essential part of their job.

4. Ensure the cascade process includes follow-up: Always check to make sure that messages are being delivered and understood. Use employee research to benchmark the quality and effectiveness of communication delivered throughout your organisation and measure improvements during and after implementation – Sia Papageorgiou, Director, Strategic Internal Communication & Digital Media, @avantiscomms

Recommended read: Three tools and an essential skill to help managers communicate better – by Jonathan Champ, Chief Communicator, @meaningbusiness.

Jonathan has included this helpful reminder in his article:

  • Context
  • Outcome
  • Message
  • Method
  • Support

(More information on applying the COMMS planning approach is available freely under a Creative Commons license.)

Wow, what an amazing collection of thoughts, ideas and experience. Thank you so much to all the professional communicators who generously shared their thoughts on this topic to help benefit the global comms community, you’re all stars.

What do you think of what you’ve read? What’s your top tip? As ever, you’re welcome to comment below or Tweet me @AllthingsIC to join the conversation.

Don’t forget to download your badge if you’ve been featured on my blog over the years. You can add it to your own website or social profiles.

Further reading via the All Things IC blog: Free toolkit to help team leaders be better communicators.

Want to learn about internal communication?

If you’d like to learn more about internal communication, come and join me at one of my monthly Masterclasses here in London. See my Masterclasses website to find out more and save your place.

Your investment is £599 +VAT and CIPR and IoIC members can earn CPD and save 20% off my courses. See the website for full information.

You can also book me for a half-day or whole day desk review, where I can analyse your IC strategy and give you my feedback and suggested input.

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First published on the All Things IC blog 8 June 2018.


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