May 24, 2023

TPL Insights #172 – Apply a Communications Methodology to Get Folks Out of the Stands and Into the Game

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews

It has been my observation that the absence of an effective communications methodology lies at the heart of many a dysfunction and missed opportunity. This is no big surprise given the lack of attention communication receives in leadership literature. Thirty years ago, when the first wave of business re-engineering books called for a top to bottom re-think of every aspect of business, communication consistently showed up as an afterthought, if at all.

Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation, the top change management reference of its day, devoted barely a paragraph to leadership communication. This is a stunning omission when you think about it. What chance of success does any large-scale initiative or organizational transformation have without leaders who communicate a vision for their organization in a way that moves others to action? Even today, leadership communication is largely ignored or left to chance in large-scale business initiatives.

If communication is addressed at all, it usually appears as a calendar of data dumps, lengthy employee surveys, or “town hall” Q&A sessions where managers gamely try to “have all the answers” but avoid the tough, probing questions at all costs. There are two main reasons for this. First, there exists the astonishingly persistent fantasy that leadership communication just happens as a natural consequence of good strategic planning and that all it takes is a reminder to leaders to “communicate, communicate, communicate.” Second, even where leaders clearly understand their role as communicators for action, very few understand what to say and how to say it.

So, in the end, managers tend to default to what they know: bullying or scaring employees into action, inundating people with information in the hope that good will come of it, or creating finely crafted speeches and PowerPoints from the mistaken assumption that a good performance equals effective leadership communication. These approaches are time-honored and perhaps even logical, but they inevitably fail to achieve genuine buy-in from the rank and file.

This leads to the leadership methodology we recommend today.  As we wondered back in 1991, what do successful leaders say and do that inspire people to extraordinary performance? Can it be learned? Can it be taught?  Can anybody deliver an effective leadership message, or only a gifted few such as Jack Welch or Gordon Bethune? Consider these two real mini case studies:

The successful CEO of a boutique investment firm shared that he had been frustrated with his partner for twenty years. He purported that his partner was disengaged and no longer carrying his weight. The partner constantly complained about corporate expenses, refused to pursue new business, acted combative in meetings, and had not made any meaningful contribution to the firm in years. Seeing no hope for positive change, the CEO’s instincts were leading him to hire an attorney to unravel the relationship. Fast forward to today – The CEO and his partner are now on great terms. The partner is reengaged, bringing in new business, supporting all corporate initiatives, and generating ideas completely aligned with the CEO’s new strategy. Both parties are experiencing big wins.

The successful CEO of a private equity portfolio company told me that, while he was pleased with the progress he was making at his company, he was ultimately tired of running portfolio companies. He was frustrated he didn’t have a seat at the table and kept seeing the same mistake made repeatedly. He was seriously considering leaving the PE firm. He had run 7 different companies for four different PE firms and been successful in each one. He had already scheduled a conference with the principals of his firm to resign. Fast forward to today – He has now been promoted to senior operating partner with the PE firm. He is on the investment committee and has equity participation in roughly one third of the firm’s investments.

Both CEOs are coaching clients of my firm (the particulars have been altered to protect anonymity) who disclosed their dilemmas during weekly sessions. I asked both if they were happy with the course of action on which they were about to embark. Both said that they were not, but they saw no alternative. I asked them if they had clearly communicated their thoughts to their colleagues. Both said that they were sure their constituents were already aware of how they felt. They believed that if they were going to do something about it, they already would have. Clearly, that was not the case, and these two near disasters were averted with the use of a straightforward methodology.

Consider following this proven leadership communications methodology when trying to get people out of the stands and into the game. This powerful approach was developed over 17 years ago by my late best friend and business colleague Bob Knowlton. Bob died of pancreatic cancer in 2009 and bequeathed “his baby” to Allen Austin. As a former broadcaster and crisis management consultant, he conducted tireless qualitative and quantitative research to determine the right formula for engaging constituents and driving lasting change. Consider following it the next time you try to influence anyone to do anything.

Working with business leaders around the world for 26 years, Bob confirmed that virtually everyone has the capacity to move, touch, and inspire others to act for the common good. What most leaders are missing is a genuine, personal commitment to a bold vision, a willingness to take a risk and declare that commitment publicly, and a real interest in and connection with those they lead. Leaders who have successfully guided large-scale organizational change tend to show remarkable consistency in three areas:

  • They know exactly where they’re going.
  • They passionately believe what they’re saying and have “skin in the game.”
  • They connect with the needs and interests of the people with whom they are speaking.

Along the way, these leaders show other characteristics that make them stand out:

  • They are not afraid to say “I don’t know” and can trust others to come up with answers.
  • Their language consistently emphasizes possibility over need and can over must.
  • Instead of pontificating, they say only what’s necessary to generate the desired result.
  • They make clear, specific action requests that leave no doubt as to the next steps.
  • They intentionally bring up the toughest questions and issues and expect others to do the same.

They are disciplined in their approach and careful to include:

  1. Establishing the Relationship: What is your connection with this constituency? Your first task is to shift from “you and me” to “us”. You do this by establishing a background connection with the people in the room.
  2. Laying Out a Clear Vision: Where are you going? What is the “future state” you are creating? This is the leader’s vision. What kind of organization could this be in five years? How do we want to be seen by the rest of the world? How do we want to feel about the work we do?
  3. Communicating a General Strategy: At the outset, constituents care less about details than they do about the existence of a plan. They just want to know the leader has thought things through. This makes the change more tangible and concrete.
  4. Making the Case for Urgency: People are quite willing to cling to a flawed, broken system rather than venture into the unknown. Any change initiative should include a credible case for urgency. Moving quickly to capitalize on a short window of opportunity is a powerful motivator.
  5. Addressing the Implications: What impact will the impending change have on your constituents? At this point in your message, people are listening to how your initiative will affect them directly. Be clear and concise about the overall implications for the company and the individual employees.
  6. Making Specific Requests: What do you expect of your constituent(s)? Be very specific in your language when you lay out your requests. Include your request for support, input, and communications, as well as any adjustments to their routine over the short and long term.
  7. Addressing the Hardball Issues: Everyone will have questions and concerns. Some may be universal across all constituencies; others may be specific to groups or individuals. All constituents will be listening closely for evidence that you know what the issues are.
  8. Communicating the Rewards: Will rewards be shared among all who make the effort, or do the benefits flow only to a few? A leader acknowledges the contributions of all groups and works to generate outcomes where everyone wins. Rewards usually tie back closely to vision.

Be on the lookout for an upcoming webinar we are constructing for the express purpose of teaching the basics of this powerful methodology. I sincerely hope this material has been helpful.

Warmest Regards,

Rob