During my time on LEAD and GOLD, we had many discussions about values, culture and behaviour, with the leader as ‘actor’ (unconsciously casting their own shadow of influence through their actions) as well as ‘director’ (consciously determining the ‘way we do things around here’). I’ve had the privilege of seeing behind the scenes of other businesses; some making exceptional, confident, root and branch changes to their systems and strategies, others carefully and quietly adjusting the way they do things and experiencing a ripple effect of positive change.
Having worked in the field of PR and communications for more than 20 years, it’s no surprise that I see communications at the heart of, well, pretty much everything. But the truth is, I’ve been ‘evangelised’ by leaders outside of my industry. I have never felt more certain that effective and considered communication matters to business, that it has the power to change behaviours (and therefore outcomes), and when we get it right, so much else slots into place.
As a self-confessed communications evangelist I recently spoke on the subject of ‘Communication, Leadership and the Bottom Line’ at the Growing Gloucestershire Conference, and I’m pleased to share the content in this post, which first appeared on our Target blog.
Everyone communicates, but some are more effective than others at being heard. In a leadership context, this might also mean some are more effective than others at creating ‘followership’; at bringing people along on a vision, at inspiring advocacy and, yes, at making profit.
So, here’s my three-step argument for why the boardroom should view excellent communications as a mechanism to accelerate growth.
1. Values-based leadership is a lever of business success
Values-based leadership has a consequential bearing on the bottom line; externally in buying behaviour and investor confidence, and internally in relation to employee engagement and productivity.
Our values shape the way we behave and what we expect from others, but when it comes to business, they often go unarticulated. Boards set goals for growth in business plans, but may give scant attention to how they want the business to be run.
Some start the process by listing the company’s values, maybe asking staff for their views and sharing them on word-clouds and websites. But how are the values lived day to day, in every part of the business? How present are they in the way the staff are appraised and rewarded? How consistently are those values displayed by managers, by the boss, by the frontline staff or the backroom support team?
Values are only worth anything if they are lived in daily behaviours. When they are evident, they will feel authentic; authenticity is a key attribute of leadership.
But what about the impact on the bottom line?
Research by Ketchum in 2014 provides powerful insight into the public’s perceptions of leadership and their purchasing decisions. In a survey of 6,500 people around the world, just 35% of corporate leaders were judged to communicate effectively, 33% had clear values, and 29% were seen to demonstrate effective leadership. Half of respondents said they had purchased less due to poor leadership communications, and 45% had stopped purchasing from a company entirely. Conversely, 44% had purchased for the first time and 37% had purchased more where they considered companies to have shown positive leadership communications.
The leadership attributes the public most commonly sought (and found lacking) were transparency, collaboration, genuine dialogue, clear values and the alignment of words and deeds.
And of course, we’ve seen the impact on share value when investor confidence wains or corporate reputation takes a tumble.
The effect within an organisation can be powerful too. When we experience values-based leadership, we trust the person we are following; we feel motivated and engaged and performance lifts. It’s well documented that employee engagement impacts positively on productivity. One of the most authoritative studies is the MacLeod Report, which found an 18% increase in productivity among those businesses with high employee engagement.
So, it matters. But how can we make values-based leadership evident?
2. It is impossible to deliver values-based leadership without effective and considered communication.
It’s easy for communications to go unrecognised as a leadership responsibility, and as a consequence it may be undervalued by the board, or neatly delegated to a departmental level (marketing, PR or HR).
Such skilled teams (whether in-house, agency, or both) provide a fantastic resource for advice and delivery, but their work can be undone if values’ messaging appears to be inconsistent with the culture (as experienced by staff) or the brand (perceived by external stakeholders). So how can we be truly effective and authentic in our communications?
As a rule of thumb, communications that are ‘involving’ achieve longer lasting resonance. So don’t just ask “who can we tell?”; ask “who can we involve?” In recent board-level strategic comms workshops we’ve run in both private and public sector organisations, the insight and reflections shared between a leadership team that’s comfortable to question, challenge assumptions and look at the world from a different stakeholder perspective, has been invaluable. Every aspect of business performance stems from the leaders, so it’s a great place to start when refreshing a company’s communications strategy.
From there, the opportunity to involve other roles beyond the marketing and comms team can be a win-win; a sense of ownership seeded around the organisation, plus insights from those in close contact with external stakeholders.
3. Most businesses don’t do this, so grab your opportunity to gain competitive advantage.
Learning and changing more quickly than your competitors is a sure-fire way to create competitive advantage. Take a moment to consider:
• Do your company values reflect the behaviours of a growing and productive business?
• How can you involve staff in interpreting the values for their own roles?
• How many of your internal comms practices are two-way and involving?
• Do your external comms reflect ‘how and why’ not just ‘what’ you do?
• Do you see the world through the eyes of your customer and share what’s important to them?
So, if you think there’s room for improvement, jump into this gap ahead of other players in the field and make values-led communications a boardroom priority.
This posting was written by LEAD and GOLD Alumna Sarah Bryars, CEO of Target PR. Sarah is a great example of a LEAD/GOLD graduate who has transformed her leadership, approach and her business by applying her learning. She has also had her learning accredited and has now attained a Postgraduate Diploma in Leading Business and is two-thirds of the way to becoming amongst the first in the world to gain a practical Master’s Degree for SME – an MBA (Leading Business).