“So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.”Peter Drucker
I spend a lot of time talking about leadership and management with clients who are looking to transition their business from good to great. We get into the weeds of the organisation, discuss everything from strategy to tactics and yet there’s one element that always comes out as the make-or-break factor: communication.
Communication should be the simplest element of leading, and is considerably more important than many skills, but is often the weakest or least demonstrated capability.
Perhaps because we are usually engaged to transform performance, people expect major change, great revelations and yet, the devil is, as always, in the detail. It’s the small, seemingly insignificant things that can undermine the effectiveness of an organisation; can drive a wedge between its leaders and its people; can mean they fail to bring out the best in their greatest asset.
Truth versus vision
At a senior leadership level there needs to be strategic thinking, focused planning and effective doing (or tasking of others to deliver). In the early years of my working life I worked in the NHS, and it was there that I first became aware of something glaringly obvious that was being missed by the leadership teams.
There were many high level strategic initiatives, at that time focused on Trusts gaining more autonomy, in order to serve their local community better. It was a positive and valid approach, a good strategy for building services that met local needs.
The only trouble was, they didn’t tell anyone this was their strategy, or what the benefits of it would be at the level of the individual. In fact, they didn’t really tell anyone anything. Top down communication in my part of this immense organisation was non-existent, everything was need to know, and it would appear that I didn’t.
So, what happened?
Well, lots of leaders reported that they had a great strategy for success when it came to the change. They discussed what it meant and how they would implement it. They even worked out how it would make people feel, having the freedom to serve patients according to need, rather than by policy.
At the same time, front line staff struggled with long hours, a lack of face to face time with their leaders, unclear communication channels, a poor working environment and faced the risk of burnout.
Our leadership simply didn’t cascade the strategy into the patient-facing “business”. They didn’t communicate it, they didn’t live it through their behaviours or their decisions, and they didn’t take the time to find out how their people were feeling. They trained the senior leaders in what was needed for change, but there was no communication strategy, engagement or support to get frontline staff committed to the change…
It’s highly likely, with hindsight, that they themselves weren’t being measured on the right things. Had they been asked to report on more than just financial measures, things may have been different.
Investing in transformational change
There will be many, many similar stories across organisations large and small. And when we hear talk of ‘initiative overload’ or ‘change fatigue’, these are largely borne from a failure to properly implement and communicate a strategy and its resulting benefits.
When an organisation wants to drive true change – the sort of change that will enable them to get head and shoulders above their competitors, become respected market leaders, or make a step change in their profits – they need to look at the whole organisation and what skills are needed across the board to ensure their programme is effectively embedded and measured.
- Creating a clear, achievable strategy with inputs from across the organisation
- Setting up a measure/review/refine process that means feedback is considered and operational stumbling blocks are addressed
- Helping middle management (who often hold the key to delivering a successful change programme) to develop mentoring, coaching and communication skills to deliver what they need to and support their people
- Investing in regular communication that translates the strategic requirements of the business into meaningful milestones or goals for the workforce, giving everyone a sense of purpose that aligns with the overall mission
Ultimately, delivering change is about putting something unquantifiable on the agenda and helping people to realise it is worth investing time, money and energy in. This approach will change outcomes.
A few tips to take away
Communication is something we all take for granted. We miss it when it is absent but we underinvest when we have the opportunity to really make things work. Here are a few pointers to consider:
- Always translate the top-level strategy into something meaningful for each level of the organisation. True buy-in to change comes from seeing the bigger picture but also from recognising your personal role in achieving it and more importantly what it means to you as an individual. The connection between what the organisation wants to achieve, and how it benefits the individual is the real key to getting buy-in for any initiative.
- Expect challenge. We are not wired for change so spending some time working on objection handling can pay dividends in the long run. Avoid defensive responses. Instead, look for the link that makes the change real for the people who are worried.
- Train as many people as possible in how to communicate effectively. This will help mangers and leaders to interpret the change and translate something meaningful for participants. It will also help them adjust their language to meet their teams. This skillset is at the heart of business and there are very few roles who would not benefit from developing it as a skill. It’s also highly transferrable and will show your investment in the individual rather than what’s only needed for their current role.
I’ll leave you with another quote, this time from the great George Bernard Shaw, who said
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”George Bernard Shaw
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