In a little more than 35 years, I’ve learned a thing or two about what makes communication practitioners successful. It’s clear to me that four competencies underlie their success. I’ll share my experience with each one of them.
Business and Financial Acumen
Understanding how organizations run is critical. If you want to build trust and take performance to new heights you need to open the books. Share information that matters to improving operating and financial results. Celebrate people when they score big.
Open book management is the purest communication philosophy I’ve worked with. It’s grounded in the notion of creating businesses of people who think and act like business owners. People in open book companies are steeped in business literacy, work daily to improve the financials and have huge amounts of financial information available to them.
Yet many communication practitioners I talk to aren’t familiar with open book management. They should learn the powerful impact open book management can have on their organizations and how that impact enables them to add measurable value.
I taught a young communication professional about open book management a few years ago. We built a new communication system in an important part of her company and taught employees how to manage the numbers. In a couple of months, on-time delivery went up 50%. Sales increased by 30%. Productivity increased 7.1%. Safety went from 13 to zero accidents.
Strategic Adviser Skills
Increasingly, communication professionals are adopting a strategic adviser role that improves business results at a cost that’s less than the gains that are made. They’re removing communication breakdowns that impede organizational performance. They’re shifting from a role that focuses on distribution and activity to one that focuses on results and value.
Another communication practitioner shifted her role from a news and information distributor — the traditional role — to a strategic adviser role — one that counseled her leaders on issues related to improving business results. In her first engagement she helped the leadership team increase productivity by 8.5% and increased savings by more than $700,000. The ROI was 700%.
Strategic adviser skills help communication professionals in many ways:
- They’re able to bring a logical, fact-based set of options to their leaders.
- They can better anticipate outcomes.
- It builds business partner ownership in the problems and the solutions.
- Solutions can remove root causes that make improvements sustainable.
- It makes selling ideas better and easier.
Broad change management typically requires knowledge and skills that cross organizational boundaries. Executed well, change management is a systematic approach to transitioning people, teams and organizations from where they are now to where they need to be. It includes tools, techniques, processes and time-tested theories.
The traditional role of the communication practitioner has been to communicate about change. That is still needed.
However, the new role is to communicate to change.
Communicating about change focuses on explaining why the organization needs to change, what’s been done to change and what people need to do to make the effort a success. It’s a reactive approach to communication management.
Managing communication to change is a proactive approach. It correctly assumes that communication breakdowns can cause underperformance. Eliminating those communication breakdowns improves performance.
It also is likely to address multiple communication sources — what leaders say and do. It includes organizational processes and systems including work processes, measurement, rewards, recognition and learning processes — all of which communicate loudly.
The director of internal communication at a large distribution company used change management processes to reduce damage in a distribution center by 65% while increasing productivity by 16%. Turnover declined by 27%. Accidents also went down 35%.
Change management skills are a huge help in improving performance. They include involving people in the decision-making process, diffusing resistance to change, creating pilots that help people see what is doable and conducting root cause analyses that eliminates core barriers to improving performance. These help communication professionals in many ways: .
- The communication role becomes more proactive.
- Problem solving is guided by known processes, tools and techniques that foster short- and long-term sustainable change.
- More employees are involved in the process, which can mean better solutions and more people committed to making solutions work.
- Words are aligned with action. What we say and what we do are consistent.
- It reduces resistance to implementing changes.
- Change is built into “how we do work” vs. an added-on program.
I’ve consulted many of the so-called leadership engines, companies that focus hard on building strong systems that churn out great leaders. They include IBM, 3M, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Mayo Clinic, FedEx and Hallmark, among others.
These companies nurture their leadership development system. The system includes the formal and informal communication that tells leaders what’s expected of them, how they’re doing and what they need to start, stop and/or continue doing to succeed. It includes their goals, incentives and the feedback they receive or don’t receive.
There’s a consistent way these companies and their communication professionals build and sustain their leadership engines.
They often begin by explaining to senior leaders what impact they have on the communication system so they understand how to use it, as well as explaining the three communication sources (leaders, systems and processes and formal channels).
They then create clear communication expectations among the leadership team. They translate words into actions using a process I refer to as: “When we say this, it means we will do this.”
We then conduct a 360-degree leadership assessment to establish a baseline to create and implement leadership development plans. Then they align the reward system to expectations and connect rewards and incentives to leadership performance.
This leadership development process enables communication professionals to improve leadership skills, improve team and individual focus on organizational results, and transfer ownership to people doing the work every day. It also enables communication professionals to expand their competencies and increase their opportunities to affect organizational performance.
When Terry Simpson headed internal communication at FedEx Express, we began by working closely with the company’s Los Angeles operation. Our objective was to help the Los Angeles leadership team improve sales. By focusing intensely on communication management, we helped FedEx Express leaders improve revenues by 23% in 90 days. The ROI was 1,447%. We shifted the same communication improvement process to five more FedEx Express locations and generated a $6.1 million increase in revenues and a 1,660% ROI.
So, you may be asking, “How do I get started on this results and value-adding approach?”
The best way is to start with small wins. Attack a small part of your organization, get results fast and prove that taking the business to the next level is, indeed, doable.
Jim Shaffer is a leadership coach, business adviser, author and speaker. As leader of the Jim Shaffer Group, he helps organizations accelerate results through superior strategy execution. The firm creates hard business results by translating the business strategy to the people who need to implement it and aligning systems, processes and culture to make the gains sustainable. The firm has improved quality, service, sales, safety, turnover, productivity, speed and costs with some returns exceeding more than 1,600%. He designed and produced the IABC Academy courses, “Managing Communication to Drive Results and Value” and “How to Add Value as a Strategic Adviser.” Some of his clients have included: Hallmark, FedEx, IBM, Marriott, Mayo Clinic, Verizon, Pfizer, Honeywell, ITT Corporation and Toyota.