How do you make internal communications strategic – and achieve business results?
Last month I delivered a course for the CIPR on strategic internal communications – it is clearly a hot topic at the moment: I was brought in at the last minute as the course was over-booked and even my back-up course was full on the day!
There were a number of themes from the delegates and I thought I would share here what people struggle with – and what were the eye-openers.
1. Why are you doing internal communications?
It was clear that a lot of people get bogged down with evaluating newsletters – as an example – rather than the purpose and impact of internal communications.
I remember pitching to help a large corporate with their internal comms a few years ago and the first stage was a telephone call to discuss our approach. I started asking about what their strategic plan was, what business goals were proving the biggest challenge and what did people need to understand more about, or work together better on, to deliver success.
The client became really animated in the call and said ‘this is now beginning to make sense. I’ve been worrying about our intranet, a healthy canteen and getting better cross-company working and didn’t know where to start.’ We agreed these are all important – or probably will be – but only when you know what the issues are that you are sorting and how this will contribute to business success.
A lot of people on the course agreed they were probably evaluating the wrong things in the wrong way and that once you get back to the business focus, it gives you a new perspective. And actually simplifies the whole process.
2. How do you influence senior people?
Those on the course were an interesting mix of people in quite junior roles and new to comms, to some very experienced communicators in relatively senior positions. But the one thing most had in common was experiencing blocks from middle managers.
These were expressed in different ways
- I am not allowed access to senior people, but my middle manager doesn’t really understand the business
- I don’t seem able to get new ideas through – my manager listens and then does nothing about them
- My manager doesn’t understand communications and sees this job as being about newsletters
We spent some time discussing these and sharing experiences and tips to solve them. After all, if you are working to ‘the wrong’ brief, you won’t have any impact on the business.
The thing about middle managers is that they can be in an awkward place. They may feel threatened by new ideas or people who are better than them but junior – so try and block their access to more senior people so they don’t get spotted and promoted above them. It’s a position that can get ‘dumped on’ by incompetent senior people who put the problem to the middle manager without authority. And more. So we spent time looking at why middle managers can be difficult and trying to empathise from their perspective and how to get them on side.
There is a rather good Guardian piece on why middle managers and finance block sustainability – this is rather specific but the principles and thinking are the same.
But in all this, these communicators were wanting access to senior people and to influence them.
So I shared my own tip from my Ernst & Young days. On my part it was instinctive rather than planned but worked brilliantly! I used to go and find senior people down the corridor at 6pm or 7pm when the daily pressures had gone, but a lot of people were still around. And then I used to ask them to explain a technical issue or help me understand business issues better.
With hindsight I realise I was positioning myself as passionate about the business, focused on key goals, prepared to get technical, understand our clients – and be noticed by senior people. At the age of 32 I was offered a director’s position on the London management team with a division of 100 people. I reckon this ‘networking’ with senior people helped me to stand out.
3. Making internal communications holistic, business-wide
Inevitably there was a lot of discussion about some parts of the business working in silos – how do you connect them across the organisation? Well of course, you need to go back to why you need to connect them so you are focused on solving the right problem. If you just try and get teams bonding without a reason, it will probably fail.
I remember years ago we were trying to get professionals to cross-refer business to other teams – a common problem in organisations! One partner or director has access to a multi-million pound client that has the potential of work for 20 areas of your business – but the director insists no-one else can go into that client.
This is often down to reasons such as
- The partner or director doesn’t trust the quality of work of other teams and thinks they will not only mess up the new work but, more importantly, lose their existing work
- The partner/director doesn’t understand what others are doing (often this happens if the other area is very technical/technology) and doesn’t want to look stupid introducing something they can’t explain themselves
- They don’t believe in the benefits of the other services or products and don’t think they will add value to their client
So once you are really clear about the barriers and blocks you can start tackling these. In my case, I set up a 4pm meeting once a quarter based on a particular industry sector. I then got managers and directors from other areas to give a 10-minute presentation on a client problem that they had solved. Problem, action, tangible benefit – eg the client increased profit by x%. We then had drinks and partners/directors would then go and seek each other out to find out more – and so began the trust and relationship.
We increased business by £1m in one year – just by getting teams to know and trust each other and then refer in.
So if you are going to make your internal communications strategic, you have to start with the business goal, understand what is stopping you from achieving that internally and then focus communications on specific areas to get people across the business delivering success.
Of course, it is not quite that simple – you still need the tools and techniques of intranets and newsletters; decide where should internal communications sit; manage internal comms in a crisis; and evaluate it all. But to find out more about these, join us on the next CIPR course!!