It’s 2020. Every day is full of surprises. As internal communication professionals, we’ve been thrust into the spotlight and our journey to executive adviser is now set to warp speed. We’re being called on to strategically manage reputational risks, organizational change, pandemic responses, employee engagement, virtual workplaces, mental health initiatives and more. Of course, this is on top of the day-to-day communications and new crises and issues that seem to emerge with each passing week.
The world is changing on a daily basis, and this means organizations must, too. We, as communicators, need to react in real time while balancing the increasing ask of becoming more strategic, proactive, coordinated and organized.
Where do you find the time to hone your skills, elevate your strategic capability and build trust with executives while still getting the (ever-increasing) work done?
What Executives Are Looking for in 2020
From my years working with executives, there’s one thing I’ve learned that will catapult you on the road to trust and a more permanent seat at the table. It’s perfectly summed up by psychologist Karl Jung: “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”
During COVID-19, I’ve found that executives are looking to be informed of our approach and how we’re going to make it happen. They want us to think big picture while also attending to the fine details. They’re counting on us to be the ones who proactively think through scenarios, risks, impacts and outcomes and advise on how to handle them. They want us to act — we have to have a plan.
The run sheet is one planning method that has helped me show up as a more strategic, proactive, coordinated and organized communicator, and it has facilitated my seat at executive tables.
The Run Sheet
The run sheet is a spreadsheet in its simplest form, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s different from a list of tactics and timing found in a more traditional communication plan, because it crosses into the world of change management and encourages you to think outside of the typical communication function. It encourages you to think through scenarios, approaches, impacts, dependencies, risks, responsibilities, tactics and timing. To build a solid and strategic run sheet, you must tap into your effective listening, transparency and confidentiality skills.
Run Sheet Foundation
The run sheet I use has the following column headings: status, date, time, activity, channel, responsible, audience, connection to communication strategy, expected outcome, notes, risks, outstanding questions and links to key documents.
The run sheet is developed by the lead communicator and shared with key stakeholders and all C-suite executives to increase coordination and consistency. I suggest including a filter, allowing executives to quickly find their name and easily see exactly what they have to do.
Click here to review an example of the run sheet.
Honing Your Skills With the Run Sheet
Building and adding details to the run sheet allows communicators to practice three skills.
1. Effective Listening
Effective listening is the foundation of how to provide strategic advice. In my experience, this is three-fold: listening to executives, stakeholders and employees. Remember, listening is more than a conversation; it’s also about making keen observations and interpreting data and insights.
With executives, have a high-level conversation around the change or situation and their involvement. Ask what they are most concerned about, what they need the communication team to share with them and what they want their role to be. If you’re at the executive table, you have a chance to listen to the higher-level “why” behind a situation and different executive interpretations, which will help connect the dots for employees down the road.
Dig a little deeper with stakeholders, as they are usually closer to an issue and are frequently the subject matter experts. They are great at helping identify the audience and how any concurrent changes may impact employees. They can also help you better understand risks, sequences of events and customer impacts. Keep stakeholders close throughout any change — there’s no overcommunication with this group.
To be an effective communicator, stay close to employees. Build personal and professional relationships with them, especially during COVID-19. Executives want to know how they are really feeling and how the approach will land. Keep a pulse on employees, and advise the executives of their reality. In times of change, employees want to hear from executives more than ever, so be mindful of opportunities.
Read comments on articles or internal and external posts (ex. Glassdoor), and pay attention to sentiments and questions in livestreams, watching for employee reactions about organizational changes. Also, review the results from the latest engagement surveys and read the verbatim comments.
Although you may think of transparency in relation to top-down communication, it also plays a role in planning. When presenting a plan to executives, be honest about what is known and any concerns. Think about the impacts to other areas. It’s a chain reaction. If there is a change in one area of the business, it will have an effect on another area. Ensure that you are transparent in how you think that will play out, and don’t sugar coat it. Your key audiences want the truth.
Always plan for multiple scenarios. Shifts and changes happen minute by minute, and plans have to be stopped and reversed in a moment’s notice. Showing your executives that you are prepared to pivot and have considered various scenarios and outcomes will gain you a lot of trust.
Finally, by sharing the run sheet with the executives and stakeholders involved, everyone knows their role. They can see the dependencies and better understand the holistic sequence of events and any risks or sensitivities they may need to proactively manage.
This brings me to the final piece: confidentiality. Many decisions or planned changes are confidential. Capturing confidential information means you have to keep it confidential. Here are a few tips to demonstrate that what’s said at the table won’t leave the table:
- At the beginning of the conversation, say that you will keep it confidential.
- Lock down documents and ensure that only those who need to see them have access.
- If there is an NDA or a situation is highly confidential, confirm who is in the know before you speak up in meetings. Always ask if you are unsure.
How does a run sheet help with confidentiality? It makes you ready to move on short notice. For confidential changes, and depending on the relationship with your executive, they may bring you in days or hours before the change. Be ready to advise on short notice. Sometimes, they haven’t thought through every possible outcome. Get in the habit of thinking and planning ahead. They will thank you, and you’ll be thankful you’re ready.
It’s All in the Details
Many of today’s communication challenges boil down to planning, and planning is a great way to build your skill set. A run sheet doesn’t have to be complex, but the more you work on seeing the larger picture, connecting the dots between people and events, and planning for the most likely scenarios, you’ll hone your skills, build trust with your executives and earn your seat at the table.
Nicole Shokoples is a strategic communications and marketing professional with extensive experience in finance, technology, retail, digital, engineering and real estate industries. Currently, as the director of communications at ATB Financial, she leads a team of strategic communicators and her focus is on crafting metrics-based executive, change management and internal communications strategies that drive behavioral outcomes and deliver results. In 2020, her internal communications team was named IABC Gold Quill Corporate Communication Department of the Year. Prior to ATB, she spent a decade consulting on and leading high-profile, high-impact initiatives in communication, marketing, project and strategic capacities for startups, agencies and corporations.