We've always known that communication is a core skill for successful leaders, so it's hardly surprising that this is being severely tested in this challenging market. What's more surprising is that many leaders still lack confidence in this area: they still find it hard to work out what to do and how to do it. As one senior HR director said to me recently: ‘Don't assume that leaders know how to handle difficult news'.
In more stable environments, leaders have learned how to master a core script, and have become adept at sticking to it, diligently following a plan that was probably developed by someone else with professional communications experience. Leaders knew they had to keep people regularly involved, using simple messages and fairly traditional channels such as newsletters and emails (quarterly updates were sometimes all that was needed). All that worked pretty well, but when the world is in a state of upheaval, it's time for a radical overhaul of the way you communicate with your people.
In times of rapid change, people are searching daily for clues about the state of the business. So they'll magnify every small bit of leadership behaviour; interpreting it, looking for hidden meaning and signals. They need to see the whites of your eyes so they can be reassured about the authenticity of what you are saying. All too often, in times of crisis the response from senior directors is to cut themselves off from the day-to-day business, while they go into a huddle to work out the new crisis strategy or plan. At that moment, invisible leaders are causing the most damage to the business. At times like this, you need to be on the front foot with your own highly visible, personal and consistent communication campaign, so you can manage the moods of the moment.
From experience, we have to turn communication on its head: to see it as listening and learning, rather than informing and involving. As soon as leaders realise the value of the information they can acquire by being out there talking to people about their concerns, their customers and their business, they see it as a sophisticated form of radar communication, or as a valuable data gathering activity - not a chore. It's a win-win; people feel reassured to see their leader face-to-face, and leaders feel reassured by picking up signals about the environment without any forms of interference.
So what can you be doing to improve your communications skills? Here are a few obvious and simple actions that will form the basis of a personal communications plan:
Give weekly updates, ideally via an informal channel such as a personal blog or email - and (most importantly) in your own words
Make regular visits to all sites and offices; have informal lunches with small groups of employees, listen to what's going on and how they are feeling
Share the key challenges - ask people what they think should be done, e.g. ‘How can we maintain our margins in these highly competitive times?' You'll be surprised at the ideas that come in.
Communicate immediately when you take a decision - don't leave people in the dark, second-guessing what's happening
Celebrate an early success that shows the new strategy or plan is working - help people to believe it's the right thing to do.
People know things are changing; they want to see that their leaders are keeping pace with those changes. So avoid telling them what you think they want to hear. Instead, focus on being with them, being honest and being alert to the signals that will tell you when it's time to change tack.
Virginia Merritt is managing partner at Stanton Marris, a consultancy that specialises in working with leaders at all levels to bridge the gap between strategy and execution, focusing on leadership development, culture and values and employee engagement. For more information visit www.stantonmarris.com