Every good communication manager has a vision for how the organization should run—what sorts of values it should demonstrate, what kind of culture it should have, what social rules it should live by. How does that ideal vision become reality? That's a question that can't be answered by a book, let alone an essay. But it's clear why many managers' visions don't become reality: The manager is unable to create the ideal organization inside his or her own department.
A communication staff whose manager does not embody the values and agenda of the organization's leadership will not be successful in communicating them. Many management initiatives like valuing diversity and providing extraordinary customer service are emotionally charged or difficult for many employees to put into operation across functions and circumstances. Other objectives, like helping to improve morale or empowering employees, are near impossible for a communication staff to champion without firsthand experience or guidance from a manager who knows what these concepts mean and how to bring them to life. In these cases, it is necessary for the head of the communication unit or department to have a level of insight, emotional maturity and judgment that transcends the norm.
What is it that leaders do to achieve these results when their equally dedicated managerial colleagues do not? In the course of working with many communicators I've observed certain qualities that distinguish communication leaders from mere communication managers. They are: integrity, vision, business acumen, judgment, concern for others, passion for the work and a thirst for feedback.
Integrity is first and foremost of these qualities because people absolutely will not trust or be inspired by someone they cannot respect or believe in. Leaders value and are fiercely protective of their personal honor. They are human and may stumble on rare occasions, but they strive to be honest and ethical at all times and in all circumstances. They tell the truth to their people, their internal clients and to their audiences. Sometimes this is a very tall order.
When a staff member must be reprimanded a leader finds a way to do this with constructive candor. Sometimes senior management suggests that the communicator manipulate the facts because they are not sure employees can handle the entire truth. When asked to do this, leaders counsel their management on the inadvisability of that idea and find ways to tell the story honestly with minimal if any negative fallout.
Leaders are very protective and respectful of the employees in their department. They are unwilling to ask them to do things they would not do themselves and they do not keep the spotlight for themselves. Gerri Warren Merrick, vice president of public affairs for Time Warner Cable New York says it this way, "You must be fair, you must recognize your people for the work they do and make sure others outside the department do also—you don't stick your name on their work."
Leaders have a vision—a destination—and they make sure everyone in the department understands it and can participate in the process of achieving it. A vision is more than informative, it is challenging and motivating because it encompasses high standards and milestones that are a stretch, but within the grasp of the unit given its resources. The best visions are not esoteric they are clear, concise and measurable.
Most staffers, if not everyone, can embrace this vision because it incorporates the ideas and suggestions shared in informal discussions and staff meetings. According to Pat Rock, vice president of employee communications at American Express, employees in a department embrace a vision because "it connects with the people in a real way—appealing to them in a way that recognizes their unique qualities, that conveys that you've been paying attention to them and that you respect them."
The third quality is business literacy. A communication leader and his or her staff must have a thorough working knowledge of all aspects of the business. This doesn't mean that you must be as knowledgeable as a pharmacist if you work for a pharmaceutical company, but you must know and understand the fundamentals of the industry, company and products. This is one of the hallmarks of leadership, according to Alan Marks, vice president of corporate communications at Gap Inc., "Leadership is everybody's responsibility; leaders cultivate leaders. To do this you've got to make sure the people who report to you understand the business and how the company does business. This is empowering; it helps them contribute and add value."
Organizational communication, in contrast with reporting, involves strategies that use the communication products and processes to achieve targeted performance outcomes. If, for example, the company is launching a new diversity initiative, the communication leader strives to understand the meaning of diversity and is practicing it as a department head. If the communicator doesn't "get" diversity or is uncomfortable with its aims, she or he will be able to develop the type of campaign that can effectively communicate it. Consequently, the larger organization will not get insight or accurate examples from their news and information channels.
Unfortunately, it is still true that many employee communicators are not very knowledgeable about the fundamentals of finance. Leaders recognize that the financial picture is often the most difficult to paint and frequently subject to the most skepticism. The credibility of a communication department can be severely damaged by weak reporting of "the numbers." Employees assume the communicator knows when the numbers do not add up so if they don't in the story, they assume the worst.
Intelligence is not at issue here; the fact of the matter is that most communicators do not have training in finance or, for that matter, any other business processes. So it is incumbent upon internal communication management to take classes or seminars in finance and other subjects that are crucial to understanding the state of an enterprise.
There are many times when an internal client asks a communicator for advice on what to say or how to say something to employees. This is not a difficult assignment when the information is not controversial or the news is good or employees are easy to reach. What about when the news is not rosy or the situation is very complex or the workforce is so spread out that the nuances of communication must be considered very carefully?
On these occasions it takes knowledge and confidence to guide senior management. Pat Rock, whose department is responsible for reaching over 80,000 employees around the world responds this way, "My managers have no qualms about making suggestions to the top company officials. And, because they know the business and the profession, their judgment is sought and respected."
There are times when the nerve to disagree with senior management is the order of the day. Most communicators of any tenure remember at least one occasion when senior management's plans for telling employees something were, in their opinion, ill considered. In this situation, some communicators keep silent and go along. Leaders, however, trust their own judgment, constructively push back and help their clients devise better alternatives.
Leaders are also very good judges of character and talent. They identify and nurture very talented people. Realizing that all the good intentions in the world cannot materialize without people who know and love what they are doing, leaders make top priorities of selecting, training and retaining staff.
Concern for others
Leaders genuinely care about the people in their department and employees in general. This concern ranges from taking into consideration familial and lifestyle characteristics, career aspirations, gender, physical requirements, ethnic background and so forth. Leaders value diversity because they know it's the only way to really connect with and get the most from people.
Their concern for the well being of others is what also enables leaders to want to understand the individual needs and strengths of the people who report to them. "The other thing about leadership that I think is really important is that you have to connect with your staff in a real way—appealing to them in a way that recognizes their unique qualities, conveys respect, and that pays attention to them. Sometimes this means you must deliver bad news, but you are not brutal. When some people need direction, you give it to them. When some people bristle under direction, you may need to give them more room," explains Rock.
However, respect for diversity doesn't mean anything goes. As Alan Marks of Gap puts it, "I try to encourage a diversity of styles among my managers, but it's important that we all share the values we are expected to communicate."
Communication leaders "walk the talk" when it comes to their own departments or divisions. They try to communicate constantly and cultivate a work environment that embodies the values they espouse in their communications. They lead by example. "You have to demonstrate a commitment to goals and a personal belief in the values you are trying to communicate and, nothing beats face-to-face communication when it comes to making sure that your people feel valued and respected." Alan Marks of Gap adds.
Recognizing that the products and processes they control can have a major impact on how employees feel about the company and themselves, leaders take care with what is said, and how. This is not to say that they are overly sentimental or paternalistic and side with those who are inclined to vagueness and clichÃ©s.
Leaders have a very strong affinity for the company or institution for which they work as well as the communication practice. Their desire to excel is relentless. Leaders are competitors; they keep an edge—they set their expectations extremely high and are passionate about achieving their objectives without lowering standards or abandoning their values. As Pat Rock sees it, "Everything isn't perfect here, but for the last few years we've experienced tremendous satisfaction as a group. To win we can't be satisfied with last year's performance."
In Gerry Warren Merrick's department at Time Warner, the saying is, "Good is not good when better is expected." She adds, "The leader must convince people to adopt that attitude."
Thirst for feedback
Although extremely busy, communication leaders do not assume that if there are no complaints that they are doing fine. They continually seek and use objective feedback. They routinely find ways to obtain evaluations of their leadership style as well as the effectiveness of their department's communication products and processes. The range of evaluation tools is large. They ask internal clients to evaluate the department's work. They get help from other departments like human resources and research to develop custom assessment tools. Some send a confidential form to everyone in their department to find out how they are doing. They gauge the department's overall effectiveness from the responses to the annual companywide employee survey. The methods are endless—the goal is the same—valid, reliable feedback.
The impact of leadership on organizational performance
Communication managers have a unique opportunity to influence the efficacy of their company or institution and, at the same time, that of their department. As with advertising, it's hard to measure directly the contribution effective communication makes to an organization's success. The impact must be inferred from the opinions, behaviors and accomplishments of employees and the performance of the company over time.
Communication managers can feel their leadership and that of their department is an asset by looking at indices that gauge employee attitudes. Departmental measures include low employee turnover, willingness on the part of communication associates to generate ideas and collaborate with each other; a desire on their parts to do their best and to surpass previous achievements; the degree to which people in other departments ask for advice; and ratings on organizationwide employee surveys.
Concerning the business or institution, if its objectives are consistently being met it's because the employees are meeting them. Assessment tools can be designed to measure the relationship between employee behavior and communication—this is the best way to postulate efficacy. However, if this is not possible, it is a fair statement to say that the communicators can take some of the credit for this outcome because communication is the key to human learning and the implementation of new ideas. While the latter inference is not direct proof of efficacy, it is close enough.
Donna Blackwell is president of Human Works, a communication consultancy based in New York City.