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#BetterNormal: Leadership communications

Lucy Adams on June 8, 2020

#BetterNormal: Leadership communications


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In HR we’ve been banging on about the importance of leadership communications for decades. But pre-crisis, much of that communication was still quite sterile – logical and informative – but without the humanity and empathy to make it meaningful. One of the upsides of the current crisis has been a shift in the way that leaders are communicating with their teams. Now great leaders were already doing it well – but over the last few months we have seen and heard other leaders who were previously resistant, or who had struggled, now seemingly doing it automatically, instinctively.

When we think about returning to normal, it is vital that we don’t lose some of these new leadership communication trends. As you articulate and create the ‘better normal’ for your organisation, I believe there are four key leadership communication trends that we want to take forward. I want to take you through each of these, with examples of how leaders have been demonstrating them through the crisis.

Human

Remember how we agonised about how to transform our intellectual, overly formal, remote and analytical leaders into warm human beings who showed they cared? Despite the empathy training modules that they seemed to pass through untouched, our leaders appear to have somehow suddenly got it!

I hear regular stories from HR about how the crisis has turned our slightly robotic leaders into more human and empathetic ones, capable of compassion and genuine warmth. They’ve let down their guard and let their vulnerability show. When they ask the question, ‘how are you?’ they actually want to know the answer, rather than ticking it off their list before diving into task allocation. We see them with their kids, their pets, in real-life environments as they struggle to look professional on Zoom – just like the rest of us.

At Expedia, they have really encouraged their leaders to share their experiences of working from home and say this has helped encourage much more human leadership comms such as a ‘senior executive who home-schools five kids who blogged about his experience and has become a wonderful resource for really honest interactions.’ They even have a specific Slack channel that celebrates through photos, when their pets invade their video conference!

Amy Brand from Swiss Re told me on our recent podcast interview that their leaders have always had incredibly high IQ, but that now their EQ is much more evident and is going down really well with their people.

Of course, not every leadership communication right now is about the joys of working from home. Many companies are having to give their people really bad news around job losses. Sustaining that empathy and compassion into this kind of comms is even more important. Back in the financial crisis of 2008, Garry Ridge the CEO of the company WD-40, took an approach that we can usefully adopt for all of our difficult leadership comms. He put in place a policy of “No lying, no faking, no hiding conversations.” This, amongst other aspects of strong leadership led to them not only getting through the crisis, but reporting its best financials in its fifty-seven-year history.

And finally we can learn a lot from the style and approach taken by Airbnb CEOBrian Chesky in his recent letter to employees announcing redundancy. It’s worth reading the letter in full, but here are a couple of paragraphs:

Our mission is not merely about travel. When we started Airbnb, our original tagline was, “Travel like a human.” The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love. 

I am truly sorry. Please know this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb…that helped make Airbnb. I want to thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing them with us.’

Powerful and heartfelt. Great leadership communications.

Listening

When we think about leadership comms, we tend to think about how we will tell people stuff, we think about broadcasting our messages, but of course, listening has always been one of the strongest assets of our best leaders. And active listening, where we don’t just take it in, but we then do something about it. During the crisis, Telefonica wanted listening and taking action to be at the forefront of their communications. Specifically, they wanted to understand:

  • The different situations its people were dealing with
  • Whether Telefónica’s initiatives were known and valued
  • That their people had the necessary support

At the outset of the crisis Telefonica launched its first ever pulse survey, meaning they were able to listen frequently – and more importantly, act fast on the information. As a result of the pulse surveys they responded quickly to what they were being told, including:

  • Providing support around maintaining a work/life balance
  • Making it possible for their people to continue to learn and grow even whilst at home
  • Helping employees with their at-home IT so they could maintain productivity

As their Head of Engagement, Sergio De La Calle Asensio says,

“In the last few years, we’ve switched from thinking about a one-size-fits-all engagement program, to thinking about more personalized employee experience. This crisis has not only validated that decision. It’s made it clear we actually need to be listening more in order to take fast, meaningful actions to better serve employees.”

Little and often

The usual cadence of leadership comms – typically once a month or quarter – has been replaced with ‘little and often’. A whacking 63% of employees want to hear from their leaders daily during the crisis according to the PR giant Edelman. And hopefully this more frequent, light touch trend won’t disappear once we get back to normal. At DentaQuest, they say they are communicating more, but only the important things, not ‘everything and the kitchen sink’. They send a bite-sized daily email that contains the key pieces of information employees need each day. It’s short, relevant, and valuable because it makes it easy for everyone to stay up-to-date and on the same page. While at Legacy Global Sports, they’re doing less of the big set communications pieces with more emphasis on one-on-one interactions. For the up-to-date information employees may need, they put it all in one place on a COVID-19 page online that’s updated regularly and, in the meantime, they’re focusing on more personal communications. Reward Gateway wanted to focus on frequent and regular comms to their people but to make it a bit more interesting, so they developed a themed calendar, which was focused on Mission Monday, Tech Tuesday, Wow Wednesday, Thank You Thursday and Feel Good Friday. Reward Gateway have also adapted their recognition methods to ensure that the ‘little and often’ philosophy extends into the way they celebrate and reward their people. They encouraged their employees to send out lots of WFH eCards to their colleagues – equating to nearly 2,000 moments of recognition during the crisis.

Trust

And finally, the BIG ONE; leaders showing that they trust their people – to behave well, use their judgement and do the right thing. With the absence of physical supervision, even the most die-hard of presenteeism leaders have had to trust their people during lockdown. And unsurprisingly, productivity hasn’t suffered and in many cases, morale has actually gone up!

I love the approach taken by Sprinklr’s CEO/Founder Ragy Thomas when he told his employees recently, “We have one, integrated life. Your children are a part of it. Your dog is a part of it. Your friends are a part of it. I want you to give yourself permission to be you. If you need to take care of your child, do it. If you need to walk your dog, do it. Give yourself permission to take the artificial boundary of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. away.”

During the crisis, we have witnessed what can happen when people are trusted to use their judgement or to behave like decent human beings. We’ve seen greater creativity, greater capacity to achieve much with very little, their ability to not just cope with change but to embrace it and make it work for them.

It would be tragic if the autonomy and the freedom to work in ways that suit us and enable us to perform at our best was lost when leaders return to the new normal. A better normal would be for leaders to continue to communicate that trust in their people.

So, let’s not lose the four key trends in leadership comms that we’ve seen during the crisis. Let’s ensure that whatever better normal you’re creating in your organisation has at its heart leadership communications that is human, done frequently and in bite-sized chunks, is based around listening and taking action quickly and is all designed to make your people that they are trusted.

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