The inside guide to organisational engagement

Notes to the ‘me’ of 1989

In engagement, IC, lessons, note to younger self on August 19, 2015 at 8:40 am

In a little over a week, I start a new chapter in my working life. It follows 26 years of working as a business communicator. Over the years I’ve worked in-house, in agencies, as a contractor and as a micro-business. Back in 1989 I arrived at Nationwide Anglia Building Society, at their London HQ on New Oxford Street,  as a young tyro with a few years of magazine journalism behind me. Next week as I dial down Leapfrog to the lowest of low heats and head into academia, one of my final pieces of work will be for Bupa, who now occupy that same building where I got my start in corporate communications. I really have come full circle. So, what would the 51 year old me say to the 25 year old just starting out? It’s the advice I’d give to any new communicator today.

  1. Be generous. Whether it’s with time, knowledge or just goodwill. You’ll carve a far better career if you’re not attempting to get to the top by walking over the backs of others.
  2. Be humble. Every new generation entering the workforce thinks they know it all – and are far better placed than anyone has ever been before to change the world. My 25 year old self, even after four years in the workplace, did not know it all, and still doesn’t today.
  3. Be prepared to learn. Learn not just the immediate skills you need for the job, but also get under the skin of your business. Understand how it works, what makes it tick and how your skills can bring improvement.
  4. Don’t stop learning. There’s always something more that you should know about.
  5. Become indispensable. That means working hard, saying ‘yes’ when your head shouts ‘no’ – and probably learning the skills of your colleagues around you.
  6. Take risks. Not stupid ones, but don’t be satisfied with the status quo.
  7. Be prepared to fail. We all fail. What matters is learning from your failure – so there’s a rider: don’t make the same mistake twice.
  8. Be confident. Don’t be arrogant, but if you are confident that the blend of your knowledge, skills and understanding has led you to the right answer, back yourself.
  9. Be proud of what you do, but leave your ego at the door. IC in particular is an area where your name won’t be in lights – so much is about applying your skills to make others look great
  10. Don’t worry. My 25 year-old self was a worrier – and that continued well into my 30s. Worry leads to procrastination and/or bad judgement – and can have a horrible effect in the rest of your life. If you’re constantly worrying, you’re in the wrong job. You want a job that makes you smile. and if you make others smile too, then it’s working out well.

10 Lessons I’ve Learned

In internal communication on August 18, 2015 at 11:10 am

As I prepare to move on from organisational communication to the world of academia, I’ve been reflecting on all I’ve learned over the past 26 years. I’ve learned so much – far more than I can get across here – but there are a number of points I’d like to share. Some relate directly to the work I’ve done, and others to the business cultures I’ve inhabited. Here, in no particular order, is a starter list of 10.

  1. Internal communication is not engagement – IC is an enabler for engagement but it is simply one of a number of tools to create an engaged workforce. Others range from pay and rations, through the physical environment to cultural aspects such as respect and support. All are bound together by great leadership. Time and again I come across organisations where the IC person is responsible for ‘engagement’ – as if it’s an output separate from the mix of business strategy, culture and operation. Amost guaranteed, those organisations won’t be engaged.
  2. Fashions change, but the fundamentals stay the same – communication in business is about making that business better – generally about improving profitability. Fundamentally that’s about helping people understand their job and how that job contributes to the overall success of the business. The way we do that changes. The reason why does not.
  3. If it’s not delivering the business strategy, don’t do it – the key here is to have the right business strategy. Then, if what you’re doing doesn’t directly track to enabling some element of the business strategy, you should stop doing it. ‘Nice to haves’ have no business foundation.
  4. There’s no such thing as a communication strategy – there’s a business strategy, and a communications plan that helps enable the delivery of that strategy. Set up something separate from the business strategy and you create a means of sabotaging business objectives.
  5. The prime job of leaders at all levels is communication – how often have any of us heard: “I’m not here to communicate, I’m here to manage.” The best leaders I’ve met are storytellers who inspire.
  6. Communication is all about listening – too often we act without listening. But if we don’t listen, how can we understand. And if we don’t understand, how do we know that what we’re doing is right?
  7. It’s not enough to ‘manage’ communication – I have the pleasure of working with many great communicators, but I have also worked on many occasions over the years with the ‘communication manager’. This person gets an agency to develop a strategy and then has lots of meetings with other agencies about implementing that strategy. When the work comes in, the person passes it off as their own, while making a succession of non-sensical changes that dilute or undermine the effectiveness of the work. And when it goes wrong, they blame the agency and move on to another one. It’s surprising how many of these destructive forces exist, especially in large organisations. And it disappoints me how many move from company to company before their failings can be exposed. Partly, this is a failing in the Boardroom to understand the difference between the communication expert, and the functionary-as-packager. It is far more pleasing to note that there are many more excellent communicators emerging who understand both the intricacies of their business, and how bringing in additional expertise can make communication a much more effective enabler of business success. Management becomes blending the right internal skills and external expertise in the right way to achieve the right result – not about getting agencies to deliver shiny outputs.
  8. Whatever the question, digital (or should that be ‘social’?) is not always the answer – we had it when communication first went electronic in the early 90s. We had it will bells on at the end of the 90s when intranets were going to take over the world, and we’ve had it in shovel loads as life has moved from human engagement to a representation on a tablet screen. The digital world is fantastic and opens up so many opportunities in business communication. But it is not the answer to everything. We have four generations currently in the UK workforce and the communications needs vary as far across the spectrum as they did when I first became a business communicator in 1989. The social snake oil merchants aren’t there to meet those needs but to shift their product. So, while ‘new’ may look much more shiny and fun than old approaches to business communication, they may not actually fulfill the need. Understand the need first and find the right way to fulfill it. Imposing the wrong fit is often worse than not having anything at all.
  9. Not every message can be captured in 140 characters, 110 words or a single screen – apparently we’re all time poor. Is that true, or have we just become lazy? Are we more time-poor than a decade ago? We seem to have lost the art of long-form communication. Sometimes it actually does take 2,000 words to get a good story across. Sometimes the video has to be longer than five minutes and an infographic just won’t do. We seem to be adopting a common wisdom that no-one has any attention span any more. Frankly, that’s rubbish – but we’re too easily sucked in.
  10. PowerPoint is evil – it was, is and will remain a useless communication tool – but, along with e-mail, is the IC default. Break away; do something different.

Change is good – and I’m being inspired by the unexpected

In engagement on August 13, 2015 at 2:35 pm

I’ve sent a series of emails this week to clients from my past 15 years as ‘Leapfrog’ telling them about my plans for moving on. Most have been very supportive and quite a few have sent me lovely notes wishing me well. But it seems a passion for changing their own working lives lurks in some of my connections, while others have a balance between the day job and something completely outside their normal working life that absolutely knocks my shift into the HE sector into a cocked hat. Perhaps the most inspirational message I received came from Amy Firth, a rather excellent communications manager by day, and outside working hours? Well, Amy tells a good tale.