A balancing act

And you thought leading one department was tough? Some organisations combine responsibility for several different functions under one job title. But what kind of demands does this multiple responsibility place on the leader?

For the past 15 years, I have lead communications and brand development at Atea. A year and a half ago, I also accepted the position as human relations director. It is possible to combine three leadership roles when you take advantage of all available synergies, surround yourself with competent colleagues and focus on your goals.

At the end of the day, leadership is about succeeding in the improvement of organisational culture. Here, I record my own story as well as observations made and tips gathered along the journey.

(Photo by Mauricio Santanna on Unsplash)

In 2011, at the beginning of our current strategy period, we switched it up a gear with the entire management team and set out to create an agile model for strategic planning and regular updating, where the strategy would be flexible enough to yield to the needs of everyday actions and to be implemented in our daily work.

We realised that if we wanted the strategy to be implemented, it could not be in conflict with organisational culture. After all, they say that culture will eat strategy for breakfast, and if culture and strategy are in conflict, culture will always prevail.

For me, culture, at its simplest level, is the way things get done around here. We must improve both the strategic planning of business operations as well as our mutual culture at the same time and in the same direction. This work requires the commitment of the entire management, a strong energy charge, and the seamless and tight co-operation of communications and human relations.

Putting strategy into practice

In implementing our strategy, we engaged in close co-operation with human relations and communications since 2011, when we began to put the strategy into practice through as many channels as possible. Our range of methods included interactive communication channels and we used methods familiar from social media, implementing them in corporate use. We also used a large number of videos, strategy visualisations, storytelling and various other materials.

When putting the strategy into practice, highlights of the process were the internal coaches who were assigned to a specific team in order to transform the strategy to action. More than 20 voluntary developers from within various parts of our organisation were selected as coaches and we trained them to work as facilitators and coaches. We also invested a great deal in improving the communication skills of our management and supervisors. We were trained in “speaking strategy” naturally, understandably and fluently. “Walk the talk” was our leading thought.

Synergies matter

At the end of 2013 I was offered the role of human relations director, in which I could combine communications, human relations and marketing in one single team. Even though the combination of these three areas of responsibility is not very common (at least not in Finnish organisations) I did not need to think about it for long. The combination allowed me to see huge opportunities for synergy and a new way of doing things. Also, as I had been actively involved for the previous four years in the implementation of our strategy with our former human relations director, my threshold for accepting the tasks of personnel development was fairly low.

The modern human relations department has many roles. One of the most central roles is as the business partner, where human relations can truly bring added value by acting as a fixed part of operative functions and strategic planning. The type of work undertaken at Atea is mainly highly-demanding information work and working roles are independent and specialised by their nature. Ensuring common knowledge and competence is of crucial importance in order for us to be able to come up with solutions to support our clients’ business operations.

Another role is one that includes traditional operational and daily guidance, manager support, payroll issues, rewarding and other operational tasks. Human resources also needs in-depth competence and conversancy in, for example, tasks related to occupational wellbeing and labour legislation.

Good communications create job satisfaction

Communications and human relations should always work in close cooperation and I would like to see more of the methods familiar from marketing being used in human relations and internal communications. All operations share the fact that we are functioning on the terms of our own organisational culture. First and foremost, however, the important cornerstone in personnel development is the management of our common culture and the implementation of our common story. Modern human relations is about coaching, leading energy and building a common culture. We must find a reason for people to get excited over and over again about striving for shared goals.

In Finnish job satisfaction surveys, internal communications usually have a significant effect on occupational wellbeing, so in this respect the cooperation of communications and human relations should be visible, whether in the same unit or not.

Take our personnel survey as an example. During the past few years, Atea has had excellent response rates and in the latest survey in March the response rate was 99.1 per cent. Although there might be as many reasons for responding as there are respondents, I believe that one good reason is that people feel that their feedback truly matters. Communication plays a great role in this, not just in conveying the results but also in presenting the actions taken. Internal, manager and change communication all receive excellent marks from our staff. This is a source of pride for our entire organisation.

The home of marketing

What is the right “home” for marketing? The role and significance of marketing communication in an organisation varies a great deal and there are many viewpoints regarding its rightful place. Is it side by side with sales in generating leads, or in product development building new launches and go-to-market models? Our thinking stems from content and content production. In today’s digital environment, content that is relevant to the customer is crucial. More and more customers are searching for information in various digital sources and channels. This is why more communication-related insight and a multi-channel approach for content is called for.

Communications and marketing should always be viewed as a holistic unity, where the parts complement and support one another. These two functions should always be in close cooperation together, even if they do not operate in the same unit. In the new digital operating environment, marketing and communications are intertwined, as it is a question of creating relevant content for the customer, and this makes the drawing of the line between these two functions sometimes very artificial.

Digital enables the participation of the entire personnel in content creation. At its best, the company’s dedicated marketing campaign raises a feeling of unity and pride in the staff, and also the desire to spread the same message in, for example, one’s own social networks. When we are able to engage the personnel in functioning as our brand ambassadors, we will be able to multiply the opportunities for our message to reach the target groups important to us. In this regard, the importance of the content’s meaningfulness is also emphasised, since brand ambassadorship is based on voluntarism and the will to be part of the company’s shared story.

Brand and image come from within the company, from a common culture. It cannot be faked or simply glued on top. What we do and what we say cannot be in conflict with one another. The personnel implement the brand promise every day, in every meeting at both the customer interface and their contact network.

Overcoming boundaries

So there is an abundance of synergy and possibilities for a leader of joint departments, but one must also take the characteristics, rules and limitations of each sub-area into consideration. For example, human relations must consider legal requirements, the privacy of the personnel and the confidentiality of matters. In communications, prerequisites are set by the legislation regarding communication in a public company. Work is perhaps slightly more creative and free in the marketing department. This must be considered when constructing the management system. The agenda of team meetings will be constructed around common issues, and special meetings focused on each sub-area will also be held.

Of course, challenges are encountered in a multi-department leadership role on a daily basis. It is impossible to have in-depth expertise in all fields and, therefore, a team needs to have competent people in all its relevant positions. In order to be a good leader of several departments, I must have the skills to delegate. On the other hand one must not lose touch with the grassroots level and the daily basic functions. Adequate time must always be granted to one’s team. The team has been trying to rediscover its place and identity. Team spirit comes from working together as trust grows and this cannot be forced or rushed.

So that the leader does not spread him or herself too thinly in all directions, it is also important to define the essential tasks of the team and to draw a line in regard to which tasks belong to the team’s core responsibilities. In addition to delegation, tough prioritisation is called for at times and one must also live with the fact that you cannot please everyone.

People matter the most

My new triple leadership role included much to learn, such as a more in-depth studying of labour legislation and so on. I received excellent orientation from my predecessor and from my new employees. I studied independently by reading up on professional literature. I immediately began to network with the field’s communities and I was lucky to be accepted into an informal community of human relations directors that meets regularly to share best practices and to learn from one another.

I feel that the key to success in such a triple role is not only to acquire the necessary information but also to have a good organisational culture and the right kind of attitude toward the support functions. Atea is built through the development of culture, and for us, people are everything. This is just not a florid sentence or a director’s mantra that keeps being repeated. We want to be ‘The Place to Be’, where people feel good about themselves, whether we are talking about our customers, personnel or partners.

We believe that a healthy organisational culture is reflected on the outside, thereby making us a partner that people want to work with. Communications, marketing and human relations have a significant role in building such a culture.

Be interested, not interesting

When you embark on a multi-leadership path, it pays to ensure that the company’s organisational culture provides all possible support to personnel development, to influencing via communication and to the construction of culture. If there is a constant battle about the reason for being, it might turn out to be too hard and stressful to have three roles that provide support for business operations. I only recommend such a task for organisations where these issues are in order and taken into consideration.

In addition to delimitation and delegation, discipline is also important for the multi-department leader. One must be able to focus on tasks that provide added value for our business operations and take our culture in the desired direction. But one must also be constantly prepared for change and consistently inquisitive with regard to developing new things. “Be interested, not interesting” is a sentence of which I remind myself from time to time. 


Sarita Laras

Sarita Laras is director, human resources, communications and marketing in Atea Finland Oy, where she is also a member of the management group. Atea is the leading IT infrastructure provider in the Nordic and the Baltic countries. Sarita has nearly 20 years of experience in internal and external communications, marketing, brand management and culture development.