How to reach the land of opportunity

They don’t teach business in communications programs and they don’t teach communications in business schools. So where do we find business-savvy communicators? Relevant communicators in today’s environment use their skills to support business outcomes differently. They need commercial acumen, consultative and diagnostic skills and the ability to increase their value to partners in real business terms. So how did I do this in a cost-cutting, high-communications-demand environment with a team that also needed to shift focus?

Mighty quest

During a time of great change, I was asked to integrate two communications teams (global sites, matrix relations) cut staff and review how the new team could improve business outcomes.

Words of wisdom

Regardless of organisation, sector or country, I invariably inherit a scenario of varied stakeholder experiences, assumptions, expectations and grasp (if any!) of communications. With initial discussions, I learn if stakeholders fit these common cries:

  • I know what communications do, and you can’t help me!
  • I can’t tell you I need something that I don’t know exists!
  • I can’t ask you for what I don’t know I need!
  • If you’re not going do to it all for me, what use are you?

I then:

  • Focus all parties on goals (the what) not means (the how). I discover the top three business priorities, their value drivers and the business plan.
  • Engage from the start with critical questioning or a business needs analysis (the five whys). For instance, before leaping to meet a ‘desperate’ client demand for promotional materials, I see if the initiative has actually been thought through, matches strategy and even has content. Too often, the ‘cart’ is way before a ‘horse’ that doesn’t yet exist!
  • Ask leadership questions like: Are you confident? Do you feel accountable and responsible as the communicator here? I do this subtly, as I don’t want to alarm the very people I must collaborate with. Rather, I make them realise we’re moving to a new service proposition in partnership – with better outcomes for all.
  • Focus on problems not solutions. Eager to be seen as helpful and relevant, many communications professionals jump into ‘solution mode’ for outputs that are tangible but flawed – and ultimately worthless.
  • Observe interactions between stakeholders, colleagues and business partners. This reveals the drivers behind the demands. For example, I may hear: ‘Nobody understands our new campaign; we need more communications fast!’ My reply: ‘Less is more, content is king and remember what we’re trying to achieve.’
  • Get familiar with the broader business, company strategy and external environment. This ‘helicopter’ view helps optimise strategy, prioritisation and resourcing.

At least 70% of this consultation stage is conversation. I shift partner expectations; elevate requests from low-value activities and commit to serve, be available and bring everyone along for the ride.

A new world

After consulting, I built a service proposition that redefined the communications team’s activities. It focused on stakeholder value drivers, aligned to the business plans, and provided the right mix of core, flexible and tailored communication services to those drivers. It also introduced services tiered by project:

  • Risk.
  • Audience.
  • Reputation impact.
  • Size and complexity.
  • Stakeholder seniority.

My approach enabled the team to:

  • Focus on priorities.
  • Run a demand management model to suit varying work levels (rather than allocate fixed resources to leaders or business units).
  • Realign support to high-value work while providing advice, reviews, tools and training for business-led tasks.
  • Provide more services, with fewer staff, for less.

Finally, I coached current team members and hired new expertise to meet previously unaddressed client needs.

Shared spoils

In three months, the new team with new skills was effectively using the new method. Reviews over the next quarter brought positive feedback on the communications team’s approach, alignment with business goals and high-value output focus. This in turn created widespread satisfaction with the process. Stakeholders and their teams now felt empowered. By helping devise and execute communications (and with guidance from me and the team) they’d gained understanding, confidence and new skills. And the icing on the cake? Senior leaders felt they owned it all!