A seat at the table

The secret to how communicators can win a seat on the board room table


Ever since I became an internal communicator, way back in 1997, the profession has been asking itself the same question, ‘How do we get our seat at the board room table?’ I am convinced that  the answer lies in delivering a stellar performance during substantial change or crisis. But, in order to do so, certain conditions must prevail. In this article I examine those conditions and then go on to identify the critical factors for successfull communication during a crisis or change. On the way, I will be dipping into some of my experience of leading or being involved with teams that have communicated redundancies, restructuring, acquisitions, integration and changes in strategy.

It seems to me that irrespective of what the crisis or change is, successful communication requires three things to be present: executive buy-in, appropriate resources and an effective face-to-face channel

Executive buy-in

It is obvious, really, that if the executive team does not fully support the communication team, it is pretty impossible to be effective. In my experience, executives tend to fall into one of the following categories:

  • The dream executive: this person understands the potential of communication and values its contribution. They will spend time communicating and are keen to do it well
  • The dark horse: this executive is not very interested in communication, only doing the minimum, some of the time. But they have potential. Find the right button and this executive will, over time, become as ardent towards the function as their colleague, the dream executive
  • The lost cause: we have all probably worked for one of these. No time for communication, not clear what they want, why they should do it or what the communication team can offer. If you work for one of these, you’ve got a problem. A problem that a crisis will only exacerbate. I’d recommend looking for another job

So let’s think about how to handle the different executive types. What do you need to do as that crisis/change starts to surface? With the dream executive, it is quite simple: prepare your plan and budget, get their agreement and start delivering. Easy. If it is clear you are not dealing with a dream executive, the first task is to identify whether the executives is in fact a dark horse or a lost cause. I have two tests that usually confirm which type of executive I am dealing with: competition and shared interests.

At the beginning of an acquisition, I worked for the dream executive who agreed to my communication plan and was keen we started to deliver it. Two of the board members were unengaged and I needed to unmask them: were they dark horses or were they lost causes? I arranged a meeting with each of them. One of them cancelled – not a good sign. The other one, Peter, did see me but could only spare a few minutes because he was so busy. We quickly dealt with the communication matters with little genuine interest shown on his part. Then I asked him about his team, his business and the weeks ahead. As he replied, I quickly realised that my team could help him re-engage his demotivated team. I proposed that he hold an offsite, and that began a productive relationship. It resulted in the best offsite he had ever hosted and a leap in his engagement scores. I had found our shared interest and the communication team proved its value to the executive, thereby moving him towards becoming a dream executive.

Thomas, who had cancelled our meeting, was harder work. In fact he continued to cancel them until I had the results of the first pulse survey we ran through the acquisition process. His scores were as dismal as may be expected. In the survey, I had asked some very pointed questions about how confident colleagues felt about their particular leaders and whether staff felt that their leaders were doing the most for their teams during the acquisition process.

The objective of our communication plan during this acquisition was to motivate and retain our staff. So I prepared a short presentation for Thomas in which I compared his scores to higher scoring members of the executive team. Thomas did not like being bottom of this particular league table and he kept our next meeting. We identified specific communication activities for him, designed to increase his scores. He did these diligently and was rewarded with an improvement in his scores the next month. Being last had spurred him into action and he became more supportive as he saw that we could help him. What I hope both of these examples show is that a communication team must be astute and flexible. We must be able to identify how to help an executive communicate better and to find ways of enabling the executive to understand how we can help. But without executive engagement, communication during times of change will never achieve attitudinal or behavioural shifts.

Sufficient resources

Communicating during periods of change is expensive and almost impossible to accurately budget for. I have probably underestimated my likely spend in every such budget I have submitted, so I will not spend too much time sharing tips on the budgeting process! However, I do suggest two things. Firstly, a crisis with a supportive executive team is a chance to be creative and try out some new things. Pull out of storage all the great ideas you have had to do things differently and incorporate them into your communication proposal. 

Prior to the acquisition I mentioned earlier, my team had been keen to develop text alerts to clients – it seems old hat now – but before the acquisition there had been no appetite for it. Repositioned and suggested as a pilot with clear business benefits, one of the executives adopted it and when another one of his peers saw that it was working, asked for it too. The second point about adequate resourcing is to make sure that you have the rights skills and knowledge within the communication team. Sometimes this means bringing people into the team from different parts of the business. A change programme that I am working on at the moment has required us to form a team with members from the human resources, business development and retail branch teams. These subject matter experts have been essential in ensuring that our communication is correct. So don’t be afraid to ask for experts and to ensure that these people have ring-fenced some of their time to work with you.

Effective face-to-face

We all know the power of great face to face events, whether large or small. And we all know that in actual fact, many of our line managers are not great communicators. Every single change or crisis communication activity I have worked on has included a line managers’ tool kit. In each case it was a critical ingredient of my communications plan. Sometimes it was little more than a folder of information: key messages, Q&As, facts and figures etc. And I have to admit that in these cases I do not know that it was actually used very effectively.

In the most successful change programmes that I have been a part of, we have gone much further than developing a tool kit alone.  One of my first change communication experiences was delivering a substantial redundancy programme for one of the UK’s high street banks. We brought the line managers together for a day’s training two days before the announcement. Managers were taken through what was happening, given copies of all the communications and had Q&A sessions with their leaders to really understand what they were delivering, how they would do it and the answers to likely questions. Then they practised delivering their messages. Feedback from the managers was positive, and the staff impacted by the changes praised their empathetic managers and the relevance and clarity of the message.

I have never been disappointed by the way in which line managers rise to the occasion and deliver difficult and sometimes painful messages. What does surprise me is how difficult it is to harness this potential and roll it out for business-as-usual communication. At Lloyds TSB where I currently work, I am running a project to improve the effectiveness of line manager communication. It involves training for line managers, training for all parts of the organisation that use line managers as a channel and common templates for all face-to-face communication. As we roll this out later this year, I am hoping that it will be transformational. There is already an extremely high commitment to communication amongst our managers and a very well established team talk process.

By the end of roll out, we should have over 2,500 people well trained in communicating and we will have boosted our most effective communication channel. The combination of executive buy-in, appropriate resources and strong effective face-to-face communication are my ingredients of successful change. I’ll focus now on two of the pitfalls of communicating change: day one obsession, and planning mania

Day one obsession

When IBM acquired the Price Waterhouse Coopers consulting business in 2002, I led the communication for the sales team. People were seconded to work with me and we designed and delivered a face-to-face event extraordinaire for day one. At eight locations across Europe, the Middle East and Africa there were consecutive face-to-face events for the sales teams of the two organisations. Each event started with a large plenary session in which the acquisition goals were shared. During the day there were breakout groups sharing more detailed information until the last session which was for the two client teams working on the same account to start their account planning work. The client teams were tasked with sharing facts and opportunities and agreeing a 100 day plan for their joint client. It was an incredibly successful event; participants were revved up and raring to go. The next day the communication team was disbanded, each of us returning to our day jobs and communication became business as usual. Of course the momentum that we had created quickly disappeared.

In order to effect lasting and meaningful change, the announcement day must be seen as the beginning of the change process. There needs to be robust, regular and creative communication in order to share progress, maintain momentum and be a catalyst for the change itself.  Despite so many management books being written on the importance of reinforcing the change, this frequently fails to happen. One of the reasons I think is that leadership teams have worked on these projects for such a long time. They are therefore so far ahead of their own staff on the change curve that they almost seem unable to understand why anyone would question a decision or need to be convinced of the reason to change. In such a situation, we need to be very careful about the questions we ask as part of our feedback mechanisms. Polling participants about how effective the one-off communication was can be a pat on the back for the communication team but does little to help an executive understand the need for ongoing communication.

Planning mania

Every communicator seems to love a plan. It is our starting point for nearly everything, and that is probably the way it should be. However, there is a danger in spending too much time planning, considering every scenario and plotting out what the response might be. I have shifted my thinking quite a lot on this point and in no area is it more relevant than change or crisis plans. By their very nature, the unexpected happens and there is a real danger that the communication team spends far too much time planning and not delivering. Then the executives start to lose confidence.

It is important to have a communication approach or framework and a leak strategy. The framework needs to convey a number of things: the objective of the communication activities, what you’ll deliver and how, but I think it starts to be counter effective when it becomes very detailed. It needs to be flexible so that it still holds true when the unexpected happens. It needs to give the executives a sense of comfort and confidence. A leak strategy is very important and needs to be ready at the earliest opportunity.

As change and crisis present themselves, communication teams should rise to the challenge. They offer us an opportunity to prove our value and move us irrevocably from the authors of newsletters to the catalysts of behavioural change.  

Louise Wadman

Together with Louise Wadman, Claire Hyde led Lloyds Banking Group’s Internal Creative Communications team of 24 people, with responsibility for design, film, photography and events. Claire and Louise have over 45 years of communication experience. Experts at internal communication, cultural change and engagement, they are innovative, engaging and results-driven. They advise and influence executives and have worked in the financial services, technology, motor and fashion industries, with responsibilities for internal and external communication and public affairs.