Podcast: How to help leaders communicate

What is the best way to help leaders communicate?

What do internal communicators need to be mindful of?

Today’s episode of the Candid Comms podcast is focused on how to help leaders communicate.

I’ve shared advice and guidance based on my experience. Through this episode I’ll help you think about leadership communication in your organisation, so you can make some informed decisions.

Further reading: Get help with line manager communication.

Candid Comms how to help leaders communicate

About Candid Comms

The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.

You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean or listen via the Podbean website.

Do let me know what you think of this episode and don’t forget to rate, review and follow, so other Comms pros can benefit too.

Transcript of this week’s episode

You’re listening to the Candid Comms Podcast with Rachel Miller. Tune in for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on All Things Internal Communication related.

Hello, and welcome to the show. On today’s episode, we are focusing on how to help leaders communicate. And as ever, you will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do and one thing to think about. Are you ready? Let’s get started.

Let’s begin by focusing on what we need to know. And what I want you to know is who your leaders are. So when we are thinking about this episode, and we are thinking about the advice and guidance that you are going to hear, who is top of mind for you? Your leaders could refer to anybody inside your organisation. It could be your CEO, your MD, your country president, your board, your senior managers, your exec team, your local line managers. The list is endless. So you may decide that you just want to focus on one person or group of people inside your organisation. Perhaps you organise yourselves by having a top 50 or top 100 or top 300 leaders, or maybe by grades, or maybe by bands. There’s many different ways that you can slice and dice an organisation. So whatever makes the most sense for you, bear those people in mind, as you are listening to this episode.

You also need to actually practically know who they are. So if you are not sure how you refer to different levels in your organisation, whether you have a top 50 or top 100, or how many people are in the exec team, then I believe, as professional communicators, it is our business to know our business. And that means you need to not only know who they are, but develop active relationships with them, particularly if you are the most senior internal communicator inside your organisation.

So have a think about who we mean when we are talking about leaders and how we need them to communicate. Critically for me, when I’m thinking about leadership communication, and I’m looking perhaps at a group of execs or maybe a CEO or maybe local line managers, we need to bear in mind that they are a group of individuals. So everybody has their individual styles and their individual communication styles. There is rarely a one size fits all approach in the world of Internal Communication. And when it comes to leaders, my goodness me, that’s certainly true. So when you’re thinking perhaps about your exec leadership team, say you have a group of 10 exec leaders, however you refer to them. Whether they’re your senior leadership team, et cetera, whatever you may refer to them as. We’ll perhaps call them an exec leadership team today.

Learn about internal communication with All Things IC Online Masterclasses

But when we are thinking about that group of individuals, because they are individuals, how can we help them be brilliant communicators? Internal Communication is too important to left down to one team, one department or one person. It’s everybody’s responsibility. And when it comes to being a leader inside an organisation, you have a role to be visible. Often I find the work that I do with leaders, they often feel quite vulnerable, because they are in such a visible position where in the same way, for us as internal communicators, everything they say, everything they write, everything they perhaps present, can be scrutinised and often is. I believe therefore part of our role has been good effective internal communicators, is really getting to know our leaders on an individual level, as much as we possibly can, where we are planning and we are adapting and being flexible to their preferred communication styles. Let me give you an example.

Many years ago, I was auditing an organisation and they had a brand new CEO in place and she was doing a video and I watched this video and it wasn’t great. She didn’t come across very well at all. And it really jarred with me and I thought, “Oh, maybe that’s just her. Maybe that is how she communicates.” And I spent some time talking with the director of communications and I said, “Tell me about this video. What’s going on here?” And she said, “Oh, our previous CEO did a video. So we decided for the new CEO that she should do a video too.” And I thought, “Oh.” And I said, “Okay, tell me more about your CEO.” I hadn’t had a chance to meet her yet. I said, “Tell me more about her. How does she talk? How does she come across? What do employees think of her?”

And through conversation with the director of comms, it became increasingly evident that their CEO thrived in in-person situations and in written communication. So she did a weekly blog that was very, very popular. And the comms team had prioritised doing the video because that was what the old CEO did. And actually the blog was far more effective and better suited to the style and comfort, frankly, of the CEO. She came across a lot better. On video, she looked really awkward. She looked uncomfortable. And if people feel awkward and uncomfortable, you can see it when you watch TV, when you have spokespeople and they clearly are in a really panicked situation and they’re having to perform, they’re having to be on point, having to be on message.

If you are trying to build trust in your leaders, which is often what we are doing as internal communicators, we are trying to help our people get to know our leaders as human beings. Then if we put them in situations where they’re not thriving, where they’re not comfortable, they’re not going to come across great. So my recommendation to my client, to the director of comms was, “You need to can the video. Focus all in on the blog. She’s doing a great job on the blog and get her comfortable using video and then slowly reintroduce it back in.”

So think about that for your own organisation. Do you know what the communication preferences are for your leaders? Where do they thrive? What does good look like for those leaders? If you are not sure, I encourage you to ask the people around you. Ask the comms team, ask your colleagues, ask employees, “What do you remember about our leadership communication? How would you describe the way our CEO communicates?” And you can even go down the route of, “How do you prefer to hear from our exec team or board.” Whoever it might be. And just gauge some reaction, get some insights in terms of how do people currently feel and what do they think when they see our leaders communicate in certain ways?

The second thing I want us to focus on today is, think about what you need to do. Now, bearing in mind, if we’ve got to know our leaders, if we’re developing active relationships with them, if we’re helping them understand that we can help them to improve their skills, their knowledge, their confidence, when it comes to showing up and being visible as a leader, then what we need to do is plan around that. I like to develop leadership communication plans inside organisations. I did this when I was in-house and I do it now as a consultant. And this is so helpful for us as internal communicators, because I find it helps us focus on the right things.

So you are looking at your leaders and the key things for me to include in a leadership communication plan is being certain that I understand their personal style. I understand whether they’re a reflector, for example. If you have a leader who is a natural reflector, then when you put them in situations where they’re unscripted and when they suddenly have to be on the hoof, they suddenly have to answer questions, then that can be quite uncomfortable. Because if their natural communication state and preferred communication style is to think and reflect after a situation, you need to make sure they’ve got coping strategies in place from a comms perspective to deal with that.

You could say, “Well, we just won’t ever put them in a situation where they’d have to answer questions face-to-face and not have a script.” Ideally in an ideal world, great. But when you’re in a crisis situation or whether you are communicating something quite sensitive, like organisational change, then it’ll be entirely appropriate for your leaders to be visible and therefore they’ll probably have questions that they don’t know how to answer. So a good tactic that I like to use is get my leaders comfortable being uncomfortable. I like to help them have coping mechanisms and strategies and key phrases. So in that scenario, for example, if somebody asked a question, I would encourage my leaders to say, “That’s a really good question. I don’t have all the details right now to be able to answer that in the way that I would like to. Let me take it away and think about it. And we’ll come back to you.”

And you often see that in organisations where you may have a town hall or a webinar or all employee call, something like that and something will come up that does put your leaders in the spotlight and they don’t know the answer to something. It is far better to get your leaders comfortable, acknowledging the fact that they don’t have all the answers, but committing to come back. So you’re creating certainty of the communication even if you can’t give certainty of the content, because they need to do their thinking first. Need to do some research first. I would prefer that to a leader, trying to come up with an answer on the spot that isn’t well thought through, that doesn’t give the level of detail that your employees need. I think it’s far better to get leaders into a position where they feel very comfortable saying, “That’s such a great question. I don’t have all the information to hand, but I will commit to finding out and I’ll come back to you.”

And what that does, is it shows that you’re taking it seriously, but it also, particularly if they’re a reflector, buys them time. Then they can do their thinking and they can check their facts and then they can come back. And perhaps you put it on the intranet, for example, where you’ll do a follow-up where you’ll say, “We had a town hall, this is what was discussed. This question was raised and here is the answer from the leader.” There is nothing wrong in doing that at all.

Something I like to do when I’m creating a leadership communication plan is I like to gauge perceptions. And that’s both from the individual leader themselves or group of leaders themselves and from your employees. So let’s take a CEO. How well does your CEO think they communicate? And where’s their evidence? So do they have a preferred style? Do they have a mechanism that actually they think their perception is that employees react really well to them? And test that with your employees. So if your CEO says, for example, “Oh, I think I’m really good, walking the floors, face-to-face, getting to know people, being out and about. I think people respond to me really well. I feel really confident.” Great. Okay, we’re going to capture that and then we’re going to test it. We’re going to ask our employees, “How do you feel when you see the CEO walking around? What’s your perception of them? What do you think about them? Why do you think they’re there? What is it you think that they’re expecting to get from you in that situation?”

And I’ve had this a number of times where CEOs or leaders think that they’re doing a really, really good job because they’re being visible and they’re walking the floor, as we call it, and they’re being out and about. And for employees, it’s really awkward, because they feel like the red carpet’s being rolled out. It isn’t just a drop in, unannounced visit. It’s planned and therefore everyone’s on their best behaviour and we’ve cleared away all the clutter and we’ve made everything look great. So there’s often a disconnect, I find in organisations between how leaders think they come across and how other people think that they come across. I’ve written quite a bit on this in terms of personal branding. So your reputation and your promise, or in the words of Jeff Bezos, from Amazon, “What people say about you when you are not in the room.” So I’ll link to some articles on my blog about personal brand, via the show notes.

Further reading via the All Things IC blog:

How to build a strong personal brand inside your company

Four ways to build your personal brand

Personal branding checklist

But it’s important to know perceptions. So what do people think? What do people think about our leaders currently? And that’s important, I find when planning, because if they think about them in a certain way now, how do we need them to be? Where’s that gap between what people are saying about them now and where they need to be in future? That helps me consolidate and plan effectively, because I’ve got clarity in terms of perception. It’s really, really important. We often find feedback from our CEO in all kinds of places from Glassdoor, externally, or maybe people are posting on LinkedIn, or maybe there’s some comments that have come through from questions and answers from your town hall. There’s regularly feedback, or perhaps in your employee survey, where you regularly get feedback and insights about leadership behaviours and leadership visibility and leadership communication. Gather all of that in. All of that insight is absolute gold dust to help you gauge perceptions and then be able to plan.

Measurement Masterclass with Dan Holden

So what I want you to do is think about creating a leadership communication plan. One of the other things I like to do when I’m looking ahead for a leader, is look what’s coming up in the next 3, 6, 9, 12 months and beyond. And the reason for that is if one of the intentions of creating a leadership visibility plan or communication plan is because perhaps our CEO is leaving, and perhaps we know this ahead of time, and maybe our Chief Financial Officer, our CFO is going to be stepping up into the CEO role. Now, if I know this ahead of time that I’m going to be planning for this. This is how I’m going to help my leaders communicate, is by having a really clear plan where I’m going to dial down the CEO and dial up the CFO if you like. I’m doing that with my hands. You can’t see me Comm’s friends. But the levels there are going to change.

So what are we trying to do, is trying to shift the balance and the share of voice, where if you’re trying to wean people off the current CEO, if you like, and you’re trying to make sure that people know, like, and trust, I’ll put a link in the show notes actually to a book by Mark Schaefer called Known, which is all about the likability factor. And I apply this to leadership communication, particularly and leadership trust. So you’re looking at, for in order to people have really good quality relationships and good perceptions, we need to know, like and trust them. I apply that to leaders. So I would be looking at, how can I make sure that our CFO is known, liked and trusted in the same way that our CEO is, for example. Now you might not have all three ingredients in place. It’s possible for people to be known and trusted without liked or any one of those combinations. But that’s what I will be doing and that’s what I’ll be planning for.

Further reading: Mark Schaefer’s book Known (affiliate link).

So I’ll be looking at opportunities in the next 3, 6, 9, 12 months to say, “Where would our CEO normally be super visible? And where can we perhaps swap in our CFO to start just changing that share of voice or start to get them more known inside the organisation?” So it’s using things like that. It’s looking ahead and thinking, “Does it always have to be our CEO doing certain things, or can we tip it into our CFO? Like, can we tip the balance and redress the balance slightly?” And I find this helpful because it means that our CFO is already in the cadence, the rhythm, of our Internal Communication. So there’s not such a harsh cutoff between one CEO and another, for example. Hope you found that useful. There was a lot in there. We are going to take a short break. And when we come back, I will leave you with one thing to think about.

Welcome back in the final part of today’s episode. We are going to be focusing on what we need to think about to help our leaders communicate. One of the biggest gaps that I find in organisation when it comes to leadership communication is the lack of practise. We rely so much on our leaders to be good, effective communicators, but we don’t often plan and practise, so they get comfortable being uncomfortable as I talked about earlier. In situations like change communication, for example, we rely on our leaders. They need to show up and they need to be good. They need to be listening. They need to be helping our organisation understand the changes that are happening, for example, or maybe have difficult conversations, sensitive conversations about organisational restructures, and perhaps job losses. If our leaders aren’t great at communicating, then that experience does not go well.

So what I try and look for as much as I possibly can and what I try and introduce as much as I can, is practise sessions. So I like to get leaders together as peers, and I’ve done this for years inside organisations, and I advise our clients now to do the same. What does this look like? Well, very simply, imagine if we were working through an organisational redesign and we knew that people would be unfortunately losing their jobs, then we would rely on our line managers in that situation to communicate that news. Ideally face-to-face with the people who are impacted with their teams. So what I try and do is get the people together as peers, who will be having to have those difficult conversations and make sure that they feel equipped and empowered to have everything they need to hand, to have those quality conversations with their people.

So often that looks like practice sessions. So I like to get peers together to practise having those difficult discussions. It may be that they’ve never had to make somebody redundant in their life. It may be they’ve never had to give very difficult news to somebody. And that’s a big ask. So part of our role as internal communicators is making sure that we are setting those line managers up for success, helping them be the best communicators they can possibly be. So having peer to peer sessions is really helpful. Sometimes they go really well, being really candid with you. And other times they don’t go quite so well. And the reason being is it can feel really awkward for people.

And often I find that’s because they haven’t been in these situations before, but you know what? That’s okay. I’d far rather that they felt awkward and it was strained and a bit strange in that environment. This is the safe space. It’s a practise session. I find once I’ve had that safe space, once they’ve had the opportunity to work through whatever they need to work through, whether there’s nervous laughter or whether they’re crying, whether they’re emotional about what they’re trying to communicate, I’d far rather that happens in that confidential, safe and nurturing space. Then we can put them back together again, they can be everything they need to be. They feel more comfortable with the messaging. They’ve had a chance to say it out loud, particularly if they’ve never made someone redundant before. I don’t know if that word redundant, but it’s the word we use, but we’ll stick with it for the purposes of this episode. We’re communicating the fact that their job is no longer going to exist. That’s a tough thing to say.

So getting our leaders comfortable, being uncomfortable, giving them that practise space, pays dividends. This is an ideal situation for me. This is how to set your leaders up for success and how to help them communicate. Now, when is the right time to do this? Ideally, Comms friends, is when you’re not up against it. If you are in a crisis comms situation and you need to get information and communication happening and flowing inside your organisation, you’ll rarely have the opportunity to have practise sessions. It can feel like we don’t have time to do this. We just need to get the information out. I hear you. I’ve been there.

So the ideal scenario for me is that you build this into your leadership development and your leadership behaviours. So you are investing in your leaders constantly. So maybe you do every six months or every 12 months, you’ll do some leadership development workshops or communication training that your leaders are very welcome to come along to. Or perhaps when people get promoted to be leaders, they have a day where they are immersed in leadership communication training, for example. You know better than I do, what will work best for your group of employees, your group of leaders, inside your organisation.

Ideally you need to have this continual conversation about their professional development and particularly giving opportunity for leaders to work well collectively as a group of peers. That’s so valuable. When you can get constructive feedback from a group of peers, with each other, that’s super valuable for them. And it also means that they can help each other improve. If I reflect on some of the conversations that I’ve had, when I’ve done leadership development training, what I love seeing is mastermind style scenarios, where people are sitting around a table and their problem solving together. But part of the beauty of that is when you have a group of leaders who know each other, they can be honest with each other and also they can give really constructive feedback, whether they have worked together for a long time or just through the course of that session. It’s really helpful, I find, to get other leaders to demonstrate how they think their colleagues are coming across.

All Things IC notebooks

I hope you found this episode useful. I hope you’ve taken away some nuggets of things to try. If you are thinking about creating either a leadership development plan, or maybe you are thinking about your leaders’ individual styles, or you are thinking about doing practise sessions, I encourage you to look at what you have in your organisation already. Do you have toolkits and templates and advice and guidance?

And the final thing to add there, is have a conversation with HR. Do your HR colleagues have access to advice and guidance, toolkits, templates, training, video about leadership communication? You may be surprised how much is around inside your organisation already. You may not need to reinvent the wheel, Comms friends. I encourage you to have a conversation with your HR colleagues to see what exists inside the organisation. What’s been done before? What could you tap into? What resources are at hand that you can benefit from to inform how you help your leaders communicate?

I’d love to know what you are taking away from this episode. As ever, I love hearing from you. You are very welcome to get in touch with me. You can find me on Twitter @AllThingsIC. I’m rachelallthingsic on Instagram. I’m Rachel Miller over on LinkedIn, or why not send me a message via our website, allthingsic.com/contact. And as ever, remember what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.

Post author: Rachel Miller.

First published on the All Things IC blog 7 October 2022.

 

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  1. […] a range of topics from helping leaders communicate and creating measurement reports through to working with Comms Champions, you can log two or three […]

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