Fairly often in an organisation the strength of your communications will be defined by your leaders. Ultimate accountability for communications is the responsibility of the CEO. There are some leaders that are natural communicators; and are at ease working with a communications function to drive good organisational communications. But, there are also leaders that are either uncomfortable or sceptical communicators; it is that group that pose the biggest barrier to engagement.

I have written before how entrepreneurial leaders tend to be good communicators. Whilst this is a sweeping statement and too broad to quantify – if you look at the type of organisations that have high engagement and employee loyalty such as Virgin, Apple and Innocent for example – each of those brands have been built upon dynamic, innovative and inspirational leaders.

The fundamental communications philosophy for leaders should be built upon organisational storytelling. It is critical for employee engagement that they feel part of the organisational journey. Whilst all leaders will excel at strategic thinking: translating that into digestible communications for your stakeholders (including employees) is the mechanism for driving engagement and obtaining ‘buy in’ to your organisational journey.

Communications counsel

An essential skill for the modern communications professional is the ability to influence and advise senior leaders. Those leaders that are not natural communicators require expert opinion and advice on how to translate strategy and direction into communications outputs. A strong relationship between the communications function and leadership team creates a foundation for driving engagement.

The critical word is relationship. Leaders that use the communications function as a delivery mechanism without seeking counsel are missing a major trick. Seeking a communicator’s perspective on an issue helps leaders ‘pitch’ the message. Mapping out how a message will be perceived by stakeholders is an important part of the process. Applying communications methodology helps leaders to get the tone, channel and message on point

Leadership ‘storytelling’

Essentially leaders have a role within an organisation as a ‘storyteller’. It is critical that leaders who are defining strategy and direction communicate the thought process and add context if they want employees to engage.

An organisational journey will always experience highs and lows. During the ‘high’ times, communications are much easier. It is during the ‘low’ times where they can become challenging and negatively influence engagement. Providing a consistent narrative and building conversation into your communications will give leaders more ‘credit in the bank’ when communicating negative or bad news.

Good leadership communications is all about trust. Communicating openly is critical – and rather than hiding behind ‘spin’ it is more about how you pitch ‘the truth’. Leaders shouldn’t be afraid of communicating the truth and context behind unpopular decisions: employees will appreciate honesty and openness – and whilst they may not agree with a decision, they may then begin to understand it.

It is also about building a conversation. One way communications will only get you so far – the real holy-grail to high engagement is to translate your communications into a conversation, giving employees a voice and the opportunity to feed back on decisions and contribute to the direction of a business.

Channels

Leadership channels are evolving all of the time. The explosion of social media has opened up new opportunities to make messaging more credible, relevant and engaging. The email announcement is gradually being replaced by blogs, webcasts or films.

This is how internal communications is progressing. Leaders now have more tools to build profile and manage perception. Regular blogs are a great way of engaging employees on strategy – ‘storytelling’. Comments functionality also allows those blogs and messages to become a ‘conversation’ in a digital environment.

Films and webcasts are an excellent way to deliver a message face2face – and are a powerful channel if you are communicating a negative message. A global webcast to announce organisational changes enables leaders to deliver a message with a sincerity lacking in an email for example.

Leaders shouldn’t underestimate the power of face2face communications. Regular road shows and employee events are also an effective channel to deliver messages. These forums provide opportunity for dialogue and conversation, and are again a powerful tool in driving engagement.

Summary

Every leader’s communications style will differ – and some will require more communications support and guidance than others. Those organisations that have a natural communicator at the helm will be in a great place to drive high levels of engagement.

For those organisations where leaders need to be guided: there are a number of tools and prompts communicators can use to build strong and effective leadership communications.

The key is to influence leaders that communications and high engagement are mutually exclusive. Translating both into a bottom line output is a good starting point – this article on 5 reasons why high engagement = bottom line profit gives some examples.

Related blogs: Leadership perception of Internal Communications

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