Listening – a strategic communication capability

 

“Good communication is not just data transfer. You need to show people something that addresses their anxieties, that accepts their anger, that is credible in a very gut-level sense, and that evokes faith in the vision.” John P. Kotter

 

I have just been listening to Thomas Bjørn the captain of the victorious European Ryder Cup team.  He said a similar thing to John Kotter when talking about the secret of his team’s success.  He emphasised that success lay in really understanding the motivations and desires of members of the team.  I’m paraphrasing, but he said of his team that: “They are all professionals at the top of their game so winning is not about telling them what to do but listening to understand what matters to them.”

It strikes me that these examples from John Kotter (a change leadership guru) and Thomas Bjørn (a contemporary leader in a highly competitive field) are relevant in this age of rapid digital transformation.

We need leadership communication that inspires, provides clarity of mission and purpose, and that enables people to operate with autonomy.  This is a style of leadership communication that is less about transmission and broadcasting and more about listening, and which places a premium on understanding the perspectives of others and building empathy.

 

The listening leader

Right at the heart of this discussion about change, Kotter’s quote above conveys the essential need to communicate at a personal, emotive level in order to stand a chance of getting people to buy-into new directions and ways of working.  It also captures the insight that inspiring people begins not with broadcasting but with listening.  To “address anxieties” and to “accept anger” requires an ability to be sensitive to, empathise with and tune into the concerns and emotions of the group leaders aim to influence.

 

This implies that the inspirational leader is not the stereotype of the extreme personality or the ego-centric CEO leading the charge.  Rather, the inspirational leader begins not with talking but with listening to what people think and feel.

 

Reflecting on personal experience

Bringing this down to the personal level, consider when you last felt completely engaged and committed to the goals of an organisation that you worked for, or with.  Take a minute to reflect on what drove that engagement.

Based on numerous conversations over the years I have found that a number of themes recur which emphasise how important “local” conversations and empathetic listening are compared to “inspirational” communications from a remote leader.

 

The role of listening and empathy in communicating strategy

In reflecting therefore on the need to develop more conversational approaches to change, and the 10 characteristics of effective strategic conversations, it strikes me that listening and empathy run through all the things that leaders need to do to communicate their strategy.   But how do you make this happen?

 

  1. Provide clarity of purpose and vision
    This is focused on making meaning for people. Leaders need to give people clarity about what the organisation stands for, who it aims to serve and what things should look like in the future when it is successful. The purpose piece requires a deep commitment to understand what connects customers, stakeholders and employees to an organisation, listening to the difference that it makes to others and what value that difference delivers to them.
  2. Develop shared goals at top
    Ironically often the piece that is missing and that is obvious if it is absent to others. The CEO or leader needs to get the top team to listen to each other and sets the example by ensuing he or she can advocate others points of view as well as his or her own on the way to defining shared goals
  3. Encourage a focus on strengths and celebrate what you do well
    Great leaders are sensitive to the things that matter to their employees and will recognise the talismanic quality of old brands or legacy organisations. Rather than dismiss these as outdated they will honour heritage and recognise the skills that went into building these. This is a true test of empathy as one of the common problems is that new CEOs, merged organisations or leadership teams building new brands often discount history and miss the emotional impact old symbols, brands and companies have for people.
  4. Build conversational skills and curiosity
    Genuine conversations involve being present and paying attention to the views of others. If we are waiting to talk we are not really listening and others will spot that lack of authenticity quickly. Effective strategic communication today needs to be cantered around high-quality conversations that allow people to explore the implications of strategy for them. Leaders at all levels need to pay close attention and be curious about the needs of others to earn their right to explain their vision and strategy
  5. Focus on the future
    Strategic conversations focus on how teams can influence events and take more control of their environment. Given the pace of change teams need to be responsive and fast which can only be achieved with leaders who are willing to listen to their teams and empower colleagues to take decisions
  6. Adopt an external perspective
    Strategy and its implementation do not occur in a vacuum. Listening to the needs of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders and paying attention to the actions of competitors and new market entrants ensures relevance and responsiveness
  7. Tolerate ambiguity and build resilience
    We live in uncertain times, yet we all crave more certainty and knowledge of what may happen in future. Great leaders can invite their people to discuss the implications of future uncertain events and lead conversations on what we can control and what we cannot control. Their ability to listen, empathise and focus on what we can influence helps build capacity for change.
  8. Be clear on outcomes and share responsibility
    Effective communication and implementation of strategy involves distributing intelligence around a business so that at each point there is a degree of clarity about our role in supporting the bigger picture. By understanding the essentials, we know what to do when we make local decisions, allocate resources or serve customers. This degree of flexibility and responsiveness is achieved not by telling people what to do but by listening, planning and working together to share responsibility
  9. Encourage discovery and emergent thinking
    The leader in the modern day is not an expert orator but an expert facilitator. He or she is good at asking questions and exploring options to help people figure new ways of delivering – letting go but in the context of a clear framework
  10. Build relationships
    People want to connect with colleagues. Leaders and managers need to help people feel part of their “in-group” and help their teams build great relationships by listening and empathising with each other.

 

In summary, empathetic listening is critical to effective strategic communication.  It is the skill that must come first, and it is a skill that needs to permeate throughout the organisation to support engagement at all levels.

It may sound counter-intuitive to start with listening but the evidence from leadership researchers, neuroscientists, behavioural economists – and our own experience – tells us it holds the key to engagement.

 

By Mike Pounsford

Founder, Couravel

[email protected]

Mike works with leadership and with specialists in communication to clarify and communicate purpose, vision and strategy.   He founded his own business, Couravel, in 2001 and works to help define and share common meaning.  Clients have included global and smaller UK based businesses and organisations in the private, public and third sectors.

Mike is currently the Past President of IABC UK.

I knew this day was coming

As soon as I said yes, well over a year ago, to become Mike’s number two I knew that the day when I would have to step up as President of IABC UK would come round soon enough. And on Wednesday evening, with brilliant blue skies and the beautiful London skyline providing a wonderful backdrop for our AGM, I became President of the UK chapter of the IABC (International Association of Business Communicators).

The beauty of getting involved with a professional association such as IABC is that there is built in continuity. You sign up for a three year term, a year as President-elect, a year as President and then a year as Past President. The continuity has come from a succession of great teams. For the year just finished it is right to pay tribute to Kira Scharwey who has completed her three year term and to Mike Pounsford, who has been an inspirational president, leading from the front and giving me a great base to build on.

And we have an exciting year ahead. We have a great Board (names below). Several new faces adding to the majority of last year’s team. These are people who come from a range of roles across the communications sector, and who are passionate about communications and how we can help improve the profession.

I want us to continue focusing on delivering value to our members, something we’ve tried hard to do over the past year, for example not charging members to attend events. We need to keep challenging ourselves to improve our offering thereby encouraging comms professionals to take out a membership because they value what they get for it. That doesn’t just mean the events we run either, but access to so much more, including mentoring (either providing or receiving), recognised certification, a new corporate membership offer, a fantastic wealth of resources and seminars, as well as the Gold Quill awards process and probably a bunch of other things I’ve not mentioned.

This year I judged for Gold Quill for the first time. If you don’t know about them then I can only recommend you find out. I was so impressed by the way Gold Quill sets out what excellence looks like in communications, not just as an award but simply for structuring a communications project.

What really differentiates IABC is the global nature of the organisation. Whether through the connections you make, the events you can attend such as Euro Comm, this year an excellent experience in Copenhagen or World Conference, where just a couple of weeks ago over 1,300 communicators from 30 countries met in Montreal. All reports were it was a great event and next year I want to join them in Vancouver.

Another way we can display our international credentials is through our own activities. Earlier this year we worked with the IABC San Francisco chapter to hold a live ‘Conversation Across the Ocean’ where we had a panel eight hours apart but chatting as if we were in the same room; examining the cultural differences that communicators face. Feedback from the event was brilliant and we know there is interest from other US and Canada chapters to follow up.

Events are our ‘bread and butter’. Over the past year we have run a range of different events targeting and attracting people from across the communications spectrum. We ran one event, a hugely interactive opportunity to learn about improvisation in storytelling, in London and also in Leeds, with the latter attracting over 150 people.

Our relationships with Leeds University, and the London Communications College are flourishing. This year we will think about how we can do more for students, not just so they get a good experience this year, but also to provide skills students can take with them in their careers. We have two student board members this year. One of them Alexa Cifre has already blogged about how she has developed her networking skills at last night’s AGM.

Another key area of focus for this year will be our own communications (which may either be a strange or obvious thing to say for a comms sector organisation). We need to improve our proactivity around social media and website particularly and have plans in place to do that.

One other really important thing that I’m keen we focus on is listening. It’s a subject that I am very passionate about. My belief is listening forms a key part of the communicators’ armoury. As someone said to me recently, for communicators the output of listening is getting and sharing valuable insights, but the outcome is increased influence. Yet I believe, that in many big companies especially, listening is under threat. This may be because teams, shrinking in size but expected to do more are focused on huge tasked-based in trays, or the difficulties of getting around an organisation in an era of strict travel policies or maybe simply a lack of confidence or capability.

I think this is important and we need to do something about it. I want IABC to be involved in this, but it is probably bigger than something we can do ourselves and I’ve had conversations with colleagues from across the industry including some of the other sector groups, such as IOIC and CIPR Inside, to see where we can work together for the benefit of the profession as a whole.

Sometimes we do need to temper our enthusiasm and ambitions though and remember that everyone involved on the Board of IABC UK is a volunteer. For me personally, I’ve just started an exciting new job at Johnson Matthey. Leading a volunteer board means you won’t always get to deliver all the exciting things you might like to. Sometimes real life will get in the way. All the best laid plans etc. I say this because whilst our ambition is big, it is important to have a degree of pragmatism. Hopefully both the quality, and quantity of people we’ve got this year will mean we can cover when someone has to deal with other priorities.

Ultimately though it comes down to what members (and non-members) think. Are we offering value, are we providing something that helps them develop or do their job better? I hope so!

My ask of communication professionals reading this is please get involved, come to an event, tell us what you want and where we can provide you with something that is worthwhile. IABC (and the other comms organisations) can only prosper if you help us provide what you need.

If I’ve learnt anything this year it is the truth of the old saying “the more you put into something, the more you get out”. I’ve had a great year getting more involved with IABC, you can too and I’m excited about 2018/19, which looks set to be a memorable year for IABC UK.

I look forward to seeing you at an event soon.

IABC UK Board 2018/19

Howard Krais (President). Sarah Parker (President-elect), Mike Pounsford (Past President), Ann-Marie Blake, Suzanne Brooks, Claudia Damato, Gay Flashman, Georgia Halston, Sarah Harrison, Lauren MacDonald, Casilda Malagon, Una O’Sullivan, Alexandra Cifre, Kira Scharwey, Mathilde Schneider and Daniel Schraibman

IABC UK and Leeds Business School Improvisational Storytelling Event- April 25

Storytelling is one of the most effective ways companies share compelling messages which help drive home specific agendas.

Join us on the 25th of April as the University of Leeds Business School and the IABC UK present an hold a thought-provoking improvisational storytelling workshop, featuring renowned coach and trainer, Paul Z. Jackson!

Here’s Matt from the University of Leeds Business school with a brief message on the event.

 

To register, click here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/improvisational-storytelling-leeds-tickets-44200353447?aff=es2

Video for IABC’s “Communications Across the Ocean” Dialogue

On 27th March 2018, the London and San Francisco chapters of the IABC engaged in the first “Communications Across the Ocean” webinar. The event allowed industry trailblazers from the UK and US to share their insights on how communicators can help optimise the potential of their respective organisations while bearing in mind the cross-cultural impact of their work.

See the full video of the discussion here:

IABC UK takes pride in its commitment to spotlight the vital role of communications in aiding in stakeholder engagement and overall organisational success. Stay tuned to this website and IABC UK’s social media channels for updates on other exciting events!

Future Fit Communications 2018 – integrating technology, people and organisations

In its fourth annual edition, IABC UK’s Future Fit Communications 2018 will focus on the impact and implications for people of rapidly evolving technologies and organisation. Is technology helping us improve engagement with stakeholders, or are we in danger of running ahead of our ability to use it well? Are we losing sight of the human touch in our eagerness to embrace technology, or will cognitive technologies, augmented reality, and new organisational structures liberate people to engage and perform more effectively than ever before?

Sessions will focus on:

  • New organisational forms and the shift from hierarchy to networks; the implications for autonomy, self-responsibility and decision-making.
  • How augmented reality will transform interfaces and the risks and opportunities that creates.
  • What can we learn from each other from our personal responses to change and new ways of interaction, and how can we become better leaders and communicators.

Our Speakers:

Katherine Woods, Meeting Magic. “Technology and new organisational forms: why companies need a clear objective more than ever”

Victoria Lewis-Stephens, Managing Partner – Engagement, and Sarah Harrison, Instinctif Partners. “Creating and nurturing an influencer network: a new application of McKinsey snowball model”

Matt O’Neill, Futurist. “Computerisation and humanisation model”

Andy Gibson, Mindapples. “Managing change and health in rapidly changing environment”

TICKETS

  • IABC member £50
  • IABC non-member £100
  • IABC member + non-member (booked together) £100
  • Partner organisation member £50

Book at https://futurefitcommunications2018.eventbrite.co.uk 

Keeping ahead of the extraordinary pace of change, we have no time to lose and this event will provide you with a unique opportunity to hear from our excellent speakers and discuss your practical questions and experiences with your fellow seasoned communication professionals.