How to improve the relationship between leaders and the communication function

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Improving relationship leaders comms team

Getting the relationship right between leadership teams and the communication function is critical. When cracks start to appear and communication lacks clarity and focus, chaos quickly ensues. Earlier this year, we conducted some research into what was causing chaos in organisations and published the findings (check out our Reality Check research for more information). Respondents had the opportunity to ask us a question, which we answered individually. Many of the questions related to leadership, and this is also a topic that came up at Comms Reboot, so we wanted to share some of the key questions and answers here to help solve pressing issues.

My leadership team thinks comms owns the message despite me telling them I facilitate the conversation in the organisation. How do you get leaders to take ownership of what they want to say? 

This comes down to accountability. It comes down to a leadership team understanding their responsibilities. If you are a director of a company or in a position of authority, then your responsibility and accountability is huge. We need to make sure that they understand that.

When leaders say, “comms owns the message”, I would question what the end goal is. If it’s about communicating a strategy or if it’s about communicating a change in the business, ultimately leaders want people to follow them. You’re not a leader unless people are following you. If you’re making a change, or you’re doing something new and want the workforce behind you, you must be engaged with that and be part of it. You don’t want people to engage with the communications team because that’s nonsense and not helping anybody. It’s about following a leader.

Do leaders feel you own it in terms of crafting that message? Or do they feel that you own it in terms of the outcome? With the former, to some degree that’s not untrue. There is an element of us taking messages from the leadership team and creating engaging content from that. With the latter, it’s important to understand what that looks and feels like and maybe address the language you use to match the language of the leaders.

The purpose of the communications function is to facilitate the conversation in the organisation. Comms owns the channels. Leaders own the content. That was always my message to teams that I was working with when I was in-house.

That said, I think it’s more than just “facilitation” – you’re there to provide advice about messaging to get the desired result. But you’re also there to coach, guide and support leaders with that messaging. Communicators mustn’t sell themselves short. 

What is the most effective way to help employees understand roles and responsibilities of various teams, and how to work with them?

This might not sound specifically related to leadership, but it’s really important that everyone understands the reach of different roles and that no one is overloaded. I always come back to the RASCI model: the best tool to use whatever team you are leading. Use it to figure out how you collaborate with other departments. For each project you can determine who is Responsible, who is Accountable, who is there to Support the project, who you need to Consult and who you need to Inform.

When organisational chaos (caused by poor decisions/indecision from senior management) enables a bully culture, what can we do to challenge the situation, preferably without becoming the target of said bullying?

Anywhere that’s got a “bullying culture” is going to have to get HR involved because a formal route is required. We like to think we can fix things ourselves – but when it’s shifted into a toxic culture it’s so much harder to resolve.

If you’ve recognised this as a leader, or as a communicator, it’s useful to look at the values, behaviours, and purpose of the organisation. This gives us an anchor point we can come back to. If that isn’t clear or that hasn’t been articulated, then that’s possibly one of the root causes leading to poor decisions or indecision. To go one level deeper in terms of what’s causing the poor decision making. Is it that people don’t know the roles and responsibilities? Is it that they don’t feel empowered or able to make decisions? Is there a blurred hierarchy and therefore people aren’t very clear on things? What’s going on that’s creating this indecision and poor decisions? There’s RASCI again!

There’s a great book called The fish rots from the head by Bob Garratt. Essentially, it’s saying that if there is a bullying culture that’s being led by the top, we need to understand what’s going on in a bit more detail. It may be that a coaching approach is required to challenge the situation and enable more respectful conversations and better boundary-setting. You might have some toxic people that just need to leave the organisation; that’s quite uncomfortable, but that’s where we need to get HR involved.

We also need to be very clear about the impact of any bullying on retention, profitability, efficiency, and whatever the core KPIs of the organisation are. The Field Model is a great framework to help you understand the root cause of issues like bullying.

How can we bring the board and exec team to work as one?

Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is based around a board and exec team and is a great quick read or listen. What we need to start with is understanding why they’re not working together as one in the first place. One-to-one interviews with each of the executive team, with the same set of questions for each of them is a great way to understand their agenda, the dynamics of the team, how they feel about the team in a very trusted capacity. These confidential conversations are a good way to identify if there are any patterns or any issues with any individuals.

Do leaders believe in the strategy? If not, do they feel safe in sharing why? Are they disengaged? Or not the right fit for the organisation anymore?

Once you’ve got that information you can diagnose why they’re not working as one, then you can start to fix that. It might be through executive coaching, it might be through facilitated conversations, it might be through making sure that the chair of the board is actually the right person to be chairing it.

Having an independent chair can often be quite helpful, whether that’s a non-executive director or whether it’s somebody that’s just appointed to that role as chair of the board. The thing to remember, which we often forget, is that in a board environment everyone is equal, there’s no hierarchy there, and sometimes that’s forgotten, and the power play continues.

How do you ensure a small leadership team is setting clear directions and priorities in a complex setting working across multiple systems?

First, be clear on the organisation’s purpose. Second, complexity requires drilling down into the organisation itself; complete a stakeholder mapping exercise to be clear on who these stakeholders are. Third, start to build out priorities linked to those stakeholders and their strategies. And, finally, use the RASCI model to aid collaboration across multiple departments.

Never forget that everything centres on the organisational purpose!

What are some of the key hooks that shift the mindset of leaders to accept chaos exists?

In Influential Internal Communication I talk about what chaos is: inability to get work done, people off with stress or on sick leave, recovering from a global crisis – it all can contribute to chaos.

The key benefit of focusing on communication to bring calm are productivity, increased profitability, growth of the team, employee satisfaction, business longevity and agility. For more on this, read Chapter 2 – Without communication there is chaos!

Ultimately, it’s about understanding what’s on the leadership team’s agenda. If they don’t accept chaos exists, focus on what they’re measuring and what’s strategically important to them and how chaos is impacting that success. If operational efficiencies are a strategic pillar, look at how people are communicating to make sure things are efficient, how efficiencies are measured and how communication fits into that measure. Then you can identify issues contributing to that measure not moving.

I hope this advice is helpful in tackling any issues you’re seeing in your leadership team – or between the leadership team and the communications function. Getting things right can make a huge difference, so it’s worth taking the time to understand, diagnose and fix any chaos you’re experiencing. If you’d like to know more or have a specific issue you’d like to chat through, please get in touch.

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Join our community

Subscribe to join our community and we’ll be in touch with helpful advice and updates about how we can take your organisation from chaos to calm. Our community gets invited to a quarterly 90-minute Ask Me Anything online session with Jenni Field, as well as early access to events, discounts and research.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.