Putting internal comms challenges on the leadership agenda

Despite the many advances made in internal communications, a lack of communications leadership ensures several key challenges remain

With advanced people analytics, digitalisation and personalised storytelling, today’s internal communicator is able to be much more effective.

For instance, the company Innovisor has developed algorithms that can identify the silent influencers in an organisation - the colleagues we trust and go to for information and support. These influencers are key to making changes stick, so getting them engaged is the new black.

(Photo by Marcos Luiz on Unsplash)

Moreover, internal comms specialist Mike Klein has developed a set of definitions for the key influence groups in organisations: ambassadors, advocates, influencers and followers that enable internal communicators to be much more targeted and impactful in their work. 

Yet despite these developments in the field of internal communications, transformations and organisational changes often  fail. There are plenty of reasons for this, but from a communication perspective I see three main reasons. If internal communication addresses these, I'm confident that the internal communicators will become the CEO's most valuable colleague.

Reason 1: Your communications solutions must match people's personality traits

Using advanced people analytics to identify the influencers is fantastic, as it gives you an overview of the organisation´s secret networks and lets you know who you need to engage with in order to transform an organization successfully. However, what these new methods do not take into account is the individual influencer´s personality trait. For example, the fact that most influencers are introverts should be borne in mind when including the influencers in your communication.

After all, if an influencer is an introvert it´s unlikely that he or she will agree to stand in front of crowds and talk about the new company strategy. You have to develop communication solutions that bridge the influencers’ personalities and the organisation´s communications needs.

Reason 2: Most companies have an information culture

Sustainable and lasting change only happens if a company has a communication culture. This means a culture based on dialogue, feedback and exchange of opinions with a balanced mix of top-down and bottom-up communication, all driven by leaders.

Having worked with change communications in various industries for the past 15+ years, I have not yet experienced a company with a true communication culture. Most companies claim they have one, but when you look closely, you will experience that the majority of the communication is delivered top-down through an intranet, or via direct mails from top management, and information is cascaded to managers in the hope they will share it with their teams.

Many companies will claim they have an internal social media platform where employees exchange ideas: true in principle, but leaders, in my experience, are not generally active - it´s mostly “nice” stories that are shared, and you see the 90-9-1 rule, where one per cent produces content, nine per cent comments and 90 per cent only listen or are disconnected.

All this communication - or more accurately ‘information’ - can't tell you if people understand what you are saying, or that they support it. You can only find out about this through dialogue and listening, which must be driven by leaders working with influencers. Changing a culture is largely, about the stories you tell, the symbols you show and the rituals and routines you use. Leadership actively listening and giving trustworthy feedback is therefore paramount for a communication culture.

Reason 3: Communication is leadership and leadership is communication

The ability to communicate is a leader´s most important tool, but leaders seldom spend as much time on communication as they do on, for instance, finance, strategy or customers. That´s a huge risk, but also the reason why companies often fail to change. How do you ensure staff understands the strategy, goals and vision if you only inform, and don´t have any real discussions with people?

The other challenge is the frequent mismatch between what leaders say and what they do. At this year´s World Economic Forum in Davos, 1500 private jets flew in world leaders to talk about climate change. Not walking the talk erodes credibility and symbolises the opposite of whatever the leader is advocating. The result is lack of trust in the leader, and we all know that trust is the currency of communication. If we don´t trust a leader, we won´t be positively influenced.

The third and, in my view, largest issue is that most leaders just manage. Their focus is on solving the task, filling the gap and delivering on time and budget. Don´t get me wrong; focus needs to be on these matters, too. However, I have rarely experienced leaders who ask ‘what can we learn from this?’ or  ‘how can we do better, how can we experiment with a new idea?’ And when you have a manager - because that´s what most of us have - you don’t have a dialogue, you exchange information. You don´t dare bring forward new ideas, as there is no appetite to be bold.

What needs to be done?

Communicators cannot fix this alone. What we can do is to put these challenges on our leaders’ agenda, and work closely together with HR to ensure communications training becomes a core element in leadership development and KPIs. In my experience, you can only make lasting changes if there is a benefit that your target group really wants.

Thomas Grondorf

Thomas Grondorf is executive communications Advisor at FLSmidth. Previously, he was head of marketing and communications at international software development and engineering consultant firm DHI. Throughout his career, he has helped companies like Maersk, LafargeHolcim and Zurich Insurance transform and embed new structures, processes and ways of working.