CEOs and senior leaders are navigating increased complexity, disorder, and dissenting views in the world around them. They must think more actively about how their organizations are engaging with certain social and political topics, especially as organizations are now “The New Town Hall.” Leaders must find ways to make space for a spectrum of diverse voices and perspectives to be heard within their organizations without undermining the values and principles that are essential to the organizational values and culture.
In a series of discussions with senior global communications leaders over the past six months, we explored the role they are playing in helping CEOs and leaders evolve their approaches and grow more comfortable with the friction between different internal audiences. Adding to the complexity is that they are engaging with remote and disparate teams through new and different channels and exposing a level of personal vulnerability not seen before in the corporate world.
The Company as “The New Town Hall”
As the facts about COVID-19 and its potential lingering effects as well as the economic hardship it has inflicted on the world becomes clearer, governments have relied upon companies around the world to reassure and help their people. While central governments have often lacked the facts, individuals have turned to their employers for guidance. Magnifying this is the seismic shift to remote working, which has driven unprecedented uptake and demand for online, real-time dialogue – something to replace the “water cooler” and “corridor chat.” CEOs have been meeting this demand and filling these gaps with personality – messages exposing their own vulnerability and lack of certainty. Communications leaders have noticed that CEOs have had to become more comfortable in not knowing and talking about their lack of knowledge in large, online forums from their own private spaces.
A Place for Many Voices
As well as adjusting to a new level of ambiguity, business leaders have found themselves increasingly hosting sometimes fraught internal debates and discussions. At a macro-level, the COVID-19 impact is not being felt uniformly by all communities – both externally and within organizations – creating new tensions between office workers and those in front-line positions or those in locked-down communities experiencing hardship and those living more freely. Another lightning rod was the discussion around Black Lives Matter, which in the corporate world, has moved into a live conversation about inclusive recruitment, talent development, policies around racism, and treatment of people in the workplace. Across the world, corporations have seen a rise in the desire for employees to make their views known in the workplace, with a level of openness previously unseen. With internal social communications tools now commonplace (e.g., Workplace and Teams), and debate shifting fluidly across functions and geographies, the CEO as a single voice of authority is a thing of the past. Employees are now expecting their leaders to create space for debate and challenge, so providing clear boundaries around what is acceptable versus counterproductive is fundamental.
Supporting Local Leadership
This two-way dialogue has seen the pressure mount on leaders outside of the CEO’s office – often in local rather than global leadership positions. While the top job has the support of advisors and dedicated functions to craft and hone messages, those in other leadership positions can feel out on a limb. They, too, are expected to be comfortable with ambiguity and debate, perhaps on topics they have no experience in (or opinions on) and without the professional backing of HR and Communications. Some communications leaders we spoke to have started rolling out training sessions to local leaders, as these are the people who have more of an immediate influence on employee engagement and satisfaction.
Getting the Balance Right: The Role of the Chief Communications Officer
Employee engagement has become a focal point for all leaders in 2020 – and internal communications is at the core. Senior communications leaders must help organizations and their leadership teams adapt to the new world of open, transparent, and two-way interaction, encouraging and coaching CEOs to see their world from a different angle. From a mind-set perspective, senior communication leaders are getting CEOs and business leaders to think about this changed internal communications dynamic in the same way they had to make the shift in their external communications approach to embrace social media over the last decade. The shift in internal communications is very similar; it is less about broadcasting a single, leadership voice and more about using the leadership voice to set context, democratize the conversation, and create space for others. At a practical level, it involves working closely with legal and HR teams and providing guidance to leaders to ensure that a robust approach is taken in letting dialogues flow and setting appropriate boundaries. (Cutting conversations off prematurely to avoid discomfort can be deeply counterproductive.) A key role of the Chief Communications Officer is also ensuring they are connected with local teams and communities so that communication from “the center” or global leadership is sensitive, relevant, and resonant. Communication leaders have noted the acute challenge is getting the balance right this year— whether that be hitting the right tone on COVID-19 issues, addressing issues such as BLM, geopolitical tension, or broader diversity and inclusion, which have global significance but higher levels of focus in some areas. Organizations are required to take a stand globally; however, if the conversation no longer feels relevant to teams in different parts of the world, there is a risk that people will switch off completely.
Letting conversation run and diverse views be heard is not about giving people free reign to share every personal view they have at work. Diverse views need to be heard by business leaders, supported by their corporate affairs and communications teams, and a stand taken on the values and principles that are key to the culture, including respecting different voices and attitudes. After setting the tone, CEO and business leader focus should then be about engaging as just one of many voices in the conversation.
Perhaps this new perspective has turned employee engagement on its head; the conversation is less about how to keep employees engaged positively with their employers, and more about how engaged employers are in the personal and professional lives of their people.