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Comms Principle #5: Engaging Senior Management

Having not blogged since early March (well over 4 months ago), I’d like to start by saying that this next post has been several months in the making.  That would imply that there’s going to be lots of good stuff in it.

Unfortunately, though I’d like to say it, I can’t.  I just got real busy starting a new job and the blog slipped off the radar for a few months.  Last week however, a colleague whose opinions I value said she’d enjoyed reading this and that I really should find time to continue.  She was right and so here I am, back at the keyboard on a Sunday morning.  (You know who you are – thank you).

So while I clearly haven’t been researching and writing this next post for months, I can however say that it has been many years in the making.  In fact, this particular post was prompted by a message I received from Project Management Hut in response to Principle #2, where I alluded to a previous experience that I will now describe in detail.

In the nearly two decades that I’ve been creating and giving communications and presentations to and for senior management, I’ve tried a few things that have failed, and a few that worked, and I like to think that the more I do it the better I know how to do it.

So let me say, first of all, that this post is not about how to engage properly with a group of senior stakeholders that your project needs to convince to follow a management-instituted program of change.  It is about engaging with the senior executive within your project, and allowing him or her to engage in a meaningful way with those whose permission he or she needs to run the project.  I feel that I’ve covered the former group in an earlier post.  The latter group are different beasts.

A number of years ago, I got the chance to work for a man who went on to become my personal business hero.  I’m not going to mention his name since that would be indiscreet, so for now let’s just call him Bob (and before anyone goes running to LinkedIn, he’s not one of my contacts).

Bob took over a project that had cost a small fortune to run, had produced next to nothing of value, and whose executive level sponsors were growing impatient.

One of his first tasks – we all knew this – was going to be to trim the project team.  I was absolutely certain that I would be in the firing line since Comms is always an easy sacrificial lamb and, if I’m honest, I had achieved nothing of value either.

However, as I went through the first couple of weeks and he pulled his plans together (barely speaking to me at all), I became impressed with his clarity of vision, his no bullshit attitude and his absolute focus on coming up with a recommendation that made sense, irrespective of who it annoyed, or indeed whose career it impacted.

Finally, he gathered his extended senior team (about 15 of us) together.  That team nominally included me, but ironically I’m damn certain he didn’t know my name.

He presented his goals, objectives and plans, with such simplicity of thought that the conclusion he led us all to was inescapable.  Then he went round the table, asking everyone in turn if they were happy.  Yes, yes, yes came the replies, one after another.

Knowing that the plan of the previous project leader had bogged down due to a lack of air-cover from senior management, I still had doubts.  But I’d heard good things about him, and I liked his vision so (figuring that I was going to be fired anyway), when he turned to me and said “Are you happy?”, I decided to simply put my cards on the table.

I told him that I wasn’t happy.  I said that I’d seen a lot of plans which made sense and that failed to deliver.  I informed him that even if this plan turned out to be better, the road ahead would still be long and hard, and the challenges were no less real with his leadership that they had been before.  The room went very quiet.

Your country needs you!

Your country needs you!

Then I added that I had asked colleagues whose opinions I respected for their views of him, and had heard that he never set an objective that he didn’t truly believe he could deliver and that his focus once an objective was established was intense.  I concluded that, while still being unable to proclaim myself happy, I was perhaps somewhat more optimistic.  I was painfully aware that I was the only person who had said they were not happy but, as my father used to say, faint heart never won fair lady.

Bob pointed his finger at me, and fired me.

Just kidding.  He banged his fist on the table and (literally) shouted “You are on my team”.

Four weeks later, the project team of nearly 100 had been cut to about 15 and over the next two years, this man became an inspiration to me.

Our first six months were essentially spent pulling together a recommendation for the Corporate Executive Board.  With so much money spent already, it was hard to do anything other than continue, rework the strategy, bring in fresh thinking/energy and charge at the brick wall again.

Bob had different ideas.  And as I spent hour after hour, week after week, working with him and pulling the essence of his proposal into a presentation (or in reality a series of them), I grew to understand the importance of engagement and syndication.

He took his ideas to each board member individually, and listened to their responses.  He edited the proposal.  He engaged with other key stakeholders, and edited it again (or rather I did).  He crunched masses of data, but only with a view of reducing everything to a simple expression.  He syndicated with the board again.

The proposal, in essence, was to kill the project.  And this proposal was going to be a shock since the amount spent was already – well – think of a really huge number and then double it.

Not only did the proposal recommend killing the project, it clearly articulated the reasons.

The reasons were varied and complex, but were expressed as simple, direct sentences.  And much as they pointed the finger at the project team, they were also very clearly about the failings of the senior executives, many of whom sat in that room.

I’m paraphrasing, but basically the recommendation ran as follows.

Protect your ground troops

Protect your ground troops

You guys keep asking us to spin gold out of straw.  While this is difficult, we all know that it is also possible.  Others know it’s possible too.  But it’s going to require a lot of change and a lot of people don’t like that.  The key issue is that you tell us to deliver it but you don’t share your direction with the rest of the organization, you don’t take ownership of the outcome, and you don’t stake your credibility on its success.  I therefore recommend we kill this right now, write the money off and let everyone go because until you are prepared to show commitment, your approval has no value.

He then went on to reveal that the pre-syndication of the presentation showed that half the board agreed with this position, and supported the recommendation, a fact that surprised the board but was entirely accurate.

The presentation was, of course, a double-bluff.  He knew they could not be seen to just chalk this up to experience and close it down, but he equally knew that without air cover the project was doomed to failure.  The repeated requests from some board members to “prove it” (as opposed to approve it or kill it) were a smokescreen for a lack of either understanding or courage.  He even produced an airline ticket, dated for the next day, to demonstrate that he fully expected to be fired as a result of having the temerity to point this out and was ready to fly home into retirement.

As he had hoped, the board than asked what he would ask of them.  What was the level of commitment needed?

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

He shared details of what would be required, what the benefits were, and what the huge challenges would be that needed to be addressed.  And then he told them the story of Alexander and the Gordian Knot, and said that great leaders with true sense of purpose will not shrink from enforcing the difficult decisions.

I’m sure you’ve found this little story fascinating.  Or maybe you haven’t.  But it was a story I thought was worth telling because I personally learned so much from it.  The lessons, which I find hold true to this day, break down into four simple but powerful requirements:

Air Cover – Your executive sponsors must be made to understand that if they make a decision, they have to stand by it, display visible commitment to it, and put their own credibility on the line.  Approving something and then abdicating responsibility for delivery is a copout and your change program is likely to crumble at the first sign of resistance because it has no foundation.

Enforcement – Every now and again you will meet a naysayer who is very senior, maybe even a board member.  Do what you can to find out their views, why they dispute your strategy, and try to convince them.  However, if it proves impossible, that is the time the head honchos earn their salaries.  Are the objections reasonable?  If so they must be considered carefully.  If not, the principals of the company need to be prepared to use Alexander’s solution to sever that which cannot be unravelled.

Incentives – There is no clearer way of displaying commitment to something than by tying your bonus to its delivery.  It takes a very brave person to suggest this to a senior executive team (as Bob did) and it takes an even braver executive to agree, but no signal can be sent that is more impactful.

Syndication – Until I met Bob, I had always believed that keeping your powder dry was the best way to ensure maximum effect.  And it is.  But it is not a way of ensuring maximum consensus.  By soliciting responses, you not only understand what the objections are,  you also develop a map of who supports you and why.  This knowledge is invaluable if you know you are going to need to make some direct comments.

Bob has been retired for several years now.  I still hear from him every couple of years.  But I will never forget the 24 months I worked for him.  He taught me more about listening than anyone I have ever known.

Listening is the key to any successful change program.  Many people think that listening is an entirely passive activity, but they couldn’t be more wrong.  Listening is the single most proactive step you can take towards understanding.  It is therefore a particular shame that so many senior managers mistake listening for inactivity.  In my entire career, I have never been busier than the first six months Bob and I spent listening, adjusting, and listening again.

Sometime in hopefully the near future, I will get around to the next post, which will be the last in this series about Communications Principles.

 

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Comms Principle #1: If it Ain’t Broke…

The world is overloaded with information

Information overload and channel multiplicity – how do you get your message heard through the background noise?

How do you consume information?  And why?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you used to read a lot of newspapers, a few magazines. You watched the TV news and perhaps listened to the radio.  And when you found something that was of particular interest, maybe you bought a book. And why? Because you had an interest in the subjects being discussed.  And of course in the modern world a plethora of other ways exist to receive, retrieve and consume information, with more seemingly added every month.

In business communications however, and particularly as it relates to Change Management, there are a host of other, more specific reasons.  Some people want to develop professionally and are actively looking to be educated about a particular subject.  Others may be developing a new strategy and are looking for examples, precedents and case histories.  While still others are quite happy with the status quo, but are faced with a need to change ways of working or learn new skills because of a new strategic business imperative.

As a Communications Manager, you have to cater to all the requirements of this diverse audience.  And when I say cater to them, I do not mean send them a few emails, the occasional powerpoint slide and a couple of spreadsheets.  If it were that easy I wouldn’t be writing this, but unfortunately that’s often exactly how easy people think it is, and what some people consider to be a perfectly reasonable Comms approach.

Interconnected people, different requirements

Interconnected people, different requirements

But let’s consider a worst case scenario.  Let’s imagine you have to provide compelling and accessible communications about a new change project to an audience of 500 people – people in different roles, in different offices and maybe even in different countries.  The change in question has been tried before in a previous project, and failed.  Everyone spent a lot of time on it, and the months of effort delivered nothing.  In fact, those that worked on the project – and that includes you – are considered to have failed, and everyone has a view on why.  There is now an atmosphere of mistrust about the new project.  Your audience is at best ambivalent and, even worse, there are 30 or 40 people in your key stakeholder group who are actively hostile to any further innovation or change activity in this area.  Many of these doubters have the expertise, the influence, the seniority to derail the project.

Now let’s throw out the term “worst case scenario”, because that’s the way most business change projects begin.  So, you need to write and run a Comms strategy that takes account of all these complicating factors.

Before you even begin getting your head around the information that needs to be communicated, the best way to move forward is to step back.

Step back and think about a handful of Comms principles that will not only make writing the strategy easier, but will also improve the likelihood of success, the retention of the messages and the engagement level of your stakeholders.

It is these key principles that I will be blogging about over the next several posts, taking a single facet at a time.  I’ll be talking about stakeholder mapping, the importance of dialogue, developing a multi-faceted comms approach, engaging senior management, and translating strategy into execution.  But I’m going to start with what I consider to be the most important enabler of all – that of channel selection.

Channel selection - likely the most critical part of a communications strategy

Channel selection – likely the most critical enabler of a sound communications strategy

When I started this post, I asked how you consumed information.  It was not an idle or rhetorical question.  Every project will be different, and the selection of the appropriate comms channels will be one of the most important decisions you will be faced with.

I have seen, on numerous occasions, communications activities fail because a comms strategy tried to force a method of communication down the throats of stakeholders.  Expensive new brochures have been produced, databases set up, swathes of email sent out with slides, spreadsheets, gantt charts attached.  Then three months later the Project Board members scratch their collective heads as the Comms Manager is forced to admit that despite all this activity, many stakeholders don’t know what the objectives are, don’t know where to get more information, don’t agree with the information they have received, and do not support the project.

And the simple reason for this is that the Comms Strategy never took account of the relationships that exist, the venues that were already available.  Instead, the strategy drove activity in a manner that required stakeholders to learn the methods of communicating before learning about the project.  In effect, it treated stakeholders like sheep, requiring them to consume information when and where they were supposed to, not when they wanted to, not when they needed it.

You will never engage stakeholders
by herding them

This group of stakeholders, many of whom started off as suspicious or hostile, now have

  • A beautifully printed brochure gathering dust in a drawer
  • A dozen emails with huge attachments that are somewhere among the thousands of emails received over those 3 months
  • Access to a database that contains all the relevant information – but they don’t know where the database is located, or how to access it.  Even if they do, the database contains so many documents that finding the pieces relevant to their questions is a nightmare

Most worryingly of all, because they are not engaged and do not know who to talk to or where to go to get themselves up to speed, their first reaction is to complain about a lack of communication.  Because they don’t know where to go to get the facts, this complaint gains traction. And the moment it reaches that point, your job becomes twice as hard.

So, how do you avoid getting into this position?

To answer that, we need to go back to the original question “How do you consume information” and remember that the “you” is not you the Comms Manager, it is you the stakeholders – how do they consume information.

What relationships exist around the enterprise?  Are reporting lines (hard or dotted line) affecting resistance? Who shares information naturally with whom? What existing platforms are in place with which your stakeholders are already familiar?  Are there any conferences or events planned that your stakeholders are likely to attend or follow?  Equally importantly, assuming your stakeholders don’t always avidly read the communications you transmit the second you send them, how can they go back to them and access them hours, days or even weeks later?  Where do they find them?  If they have questions, who do they talk to?

Stop.jpgDon’t try and reinvent the comms wheel by developing new channels – first use the ones that are already known, then think about whether these channels need to be augmented.

By using new channels, you may engage early adopters (those who actively seek new information channels) but you are unlikely to reach traditionalists, and traditionalists are likely to be the majority.  This isn’t about impressing people with your knowledge of social media, or database management, or intranet development.  It’s not about you at all.  It’s about the stakeholders.

Don’t think that if someone has questions about what comms materials exist that they will come to you and ask.  Some people may not even know you exist.  They may not really like you, or may be worried that if they approach you they’ll be told “I already sent it to you 3 times”.  This is not about making them feel stupid. It’s about making them feel engaged.

Don’t brush aside feedback that indicates people aren’t getting it.  It may well be their fault, but it’s your problem.  Abdicating responsibility for ensuring that stakeholders have the facts, or know where to get them, or know who to talk to, is the best way to ensure hostility from the very people on whose positive engagement the success of the project relies.

Most importantly of all, do everything you can to ensure that if your stakeholders are determined to be critical of the timeline, budget assumptions or deliverables of a project that their criticism is related to the facts rather than to incorrect assumptions.  A quick review of Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’ is an excellent example of how a half-truth or an outright lie can derail debate of the facts to the point where further discussion is pointless, even after the truth has been made known.

Politifact's 'Truth-o-Meter'

Politifact’s ‘Truth-o-Meter’

Churchill once said “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”. Never was this more apt than where change is concerned.  There is no such thing as a communications vacuum, since rumor, supposition and in some cases deliberate misinformation will always breed in any gaps left by factual communication. Once the rumors gain traction, the requirement to disprove them is time consuming and frustrating. Most importantly, it does not move the project forwards – it merely stops it going backwards.

Don’t give troublesome stakeholders the opportunity to attack the project by attacking the communications. Make it as difficult as possible for them to avoid the real issues by saying “I didn’t know that, nobody told me”. If you can achieve that, you are more than halfway to winning the battle.

In post #2, I’ll be looking at another critical comms principle – that of Stakeholder Segmentation.

 
 

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If You Build It, Will They Come?

If you build it, he will come.

If you build it, he will come. Photo: Universal Pictures

For many guys of a certain age, the line “If you build it, he will come” is instantly recognizable.

A seminal moment from the 1989 Kevin Costner film ‘Field of Dreams’, it turns out to mean that if Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, builds a baseball field in his corn he will have the opportunity to rebuild his relationship with his father.  And while it’s memorable for women too, this is principally a father / son / sports thing that transcends any rational explanation.

This instant familiarity is one of the reasons that the line has been paraphrased (sometimes simply as a joke, but also sometimes in earnest) into a management ‘axiom’ that if you set a strategic objective with clear goals and attainable benefits that people understand, then they will naturally gravitate towards it.  “If you build it, they will come”.

Clearly not only is this simplistic view of Change Management wrong, it is positively dangerous.  So much for life imitating art.

Miss Boo - poster girl for DotCom excess

Miss Boo – A salutary lesson in thinking a good idea is all it takes

That is not to say that people will naturally shy away from a good idea.  Venture capitalists will frequently consider first mover advantage as a key factor in making the decision to invest in a completely new business.  Indeed, early this century the emerging DotCom economy provided multiple examples of how first mover advantage was considered to be of primary importance – that having a good idea for filling a gap in the market was almost a guarantee of success if only a company could “get big fast“.

Of course, this was never really the only requirement and when the DotCom bubble burst and investment decisions matured, the tried and tested measurements once again reestablished their importance.  The objective has to be clear, the product or service benefits inescapable, the gap in the market obvious, the customer need well documented, the management skills and experience proven and – most importantly – the financial modeling sound and the ROI expectations reasonable.  If those requirements are met, then and only then does first mover advantage start to carry some weight.

But what about when the case for change, for establishing a new strategic goal, is one that relates to an existing business?  A business that has scale, history, embedded culture but that nonetheless needs to adapt to meet the emerging challenges or capitalize on new opportunities within a particular business sector.

A new competitor, the emergence of new technology, changing consumer preferences or legislation, to name but a few, can all throw a wrench into the workings of an existing, profitable and successful organization, or provide it with ways to enhance its ability to compete.

And of course in many cases, forward-looking organizations will be actively seeking ways to improve their performance, to increase their market penetration or to lower their costs before being faced with a business imperative to do so.  In such ways are great companies built – the ideal time to consider how the business can be improved is not when change is forced on it by external pressures, but proactively, while there is time for maneuver, time to model the options and measure their potential.

Good to Great, by Jim Collins

Good to Great – sound strategic decisions, equally sound implementation

In his excellent 2001 book ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Other Don’t‘, Jim Collins took a group of companies that, for one reason or another, were able to take advantage of a business opportunity or new way of thinking to deliver financial results that saw them outperform a control group of direct comparison companies.

Moreover, they were able to sustain that performance for at least 15 years, a time period that transcends a single new product, or a single visionary CEO, or an extended period of sector-wide growth.

But whether one is facing an immediate external pressure to change or seeking to further improve an already healthy position in order that a business will be better able to meet any potential future challenges, the key hurdle to overcome is that of thinking that recognizing the opportunity and establishing a roadmap and timeline to deliver the benefits is the main challenge.   This is the key pitfall of the “If you build it, they will come” mentality.

Up to 75% of change projects fail

Up to 75% of change projects fail

Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging about some of the key challenges of organizational change, and how communications is a critical enabler that will frequently make the difference between failure and success.

Wherever you look for information about the success rate of business change projects, the figures you will normally see quoted are that between two-thirds and three-quarters of all projects fail.  And with at least two-thirds of competitors failing, consider for a moment the vast opportunities available to those organizations that do it right.

There are a number of communications rules that need to be considered when enabling change within an organization.  They’re not concepts that are hard to understand, and in fact the vast majority can be seen as good old fashioned common sense, but they are nonetheless concepts that are frequently overlooked.

In the blog posts that follow, I’ll be listing what I consider some of these key rules to be.  In doing so, I’ll describe why I consider them important, provide examples and observations, and where possible I’ll also include comments or advice from third parties that I consider to be particularly useful.

Throughout them all please remember that this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, merely a number of key principles that I personally have found to be useful in running communications within change programs over a number of years for both new companies and established multinationals.

Communications is often the last thing to be recognized as having had a positive impact when a change program is successful.  Conversely, it is one of the first to be blamed when the change fails.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

 
 

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