Sticking to your guns: The power of leadership communication in challenging times

by Janet Houen, Group Manager Organisational and Change Communication

Published on
October 8, 2018

The barrage of bluster, blame, bullying and betrayal dominating our newsfeeds and our politics has me hankering for a more civil, reasoned time. A time of a ‘respect your opponent’ ethos, when the principles of conducting rational debate to put forward a viewpoint, of agreeing to disagree while still remaining  committed to a cause, could generally be relied upon. Remember Debating Club at school, where you stuck to the rules or got pinged? More like that.

In that gentler, kinder, bygone day, trust and authenticity were critical success factors. We did not have to deal with the constant open-source bonfire of the vanities that is social media backlash, or try to work out what’s fake news and what’s real, who might be the Prime Minister by morning tea time, or whether White House staff really have given Donald the wrong codes for the Batphone. In short, it was not all so overwhelming.

All this churn and shoutiness has sparked some thinking about the implications for organisations while the old certainties and mores are being washed away — and in particular, for leaders trying to lead.

You might think corporate life is unaffected, but your team at all levels is adapting to and dealing with external forces and events in their daily world, and inevitably bringing some of that uncertainty and worry with them when they clock on, regardless of the sector or the job. Undoubtedly they also see public figures behaving and communicating badly, and views on what constitutes acceptable behaviour will start to morph too.

But from adversity comes opportunity, right?

Smart leaders and communicators in the corporate world should be seizing the day, making sure there’s a steady hand on the tiller, and being crystal-clear about what their organisation stands for. Reputation must be nurtured, and employees are a key component — people need to understand what is expected of them as brand ambassadors.

The bottom line is that resilient, vibrant organisations which live up to brand promises will be better equipped to navigate and adapt to whatever craziness the future holds, and will continue to create value over the long term.

Communication plays an unequivocal role in fostering great culture and engagement, which in turn link directly to the rosiness (or otherwise) of corporate reputation. Leaders are the lynchpin.

With that in mind, here are some timely tips for today’s leaders seeking cut-through, credibility and results in a noisy, often challenging communication environment.

  • Speak clearly and often, with conviction: The occasional ‘all staff’ email doesn’t cut it any more. Time to get out and about, hearing from and talking with your people to know what’s really going on and how to respond in simple, straightforward terms.
  • Values must be front and centre, not just words on a poster: It’s old-school but it’s about walking the talk, having the courage of your convictions. Support and reward behaviours that reflect the values, take action on the ones that don’t, recruit to a values-based brief.
  • Refresh and review: If you don’t have company values, or the old ones are a bit crusty, invest some time in a make-over that is future-fit. Start a conversation with your people, get them involved, shape up what it means to be part of this team now and for what’s next.
  • Mobilise: Communicating is a team effort — ‘it takes a village’. Solid, visible, engaged leaders who understand what’s expected of them as communicators are gold. Collaborate on and spotlight communication at leader level, align and agree priorities, make it easy for them to succeed with good tools and support, seek input and feedback.
  • Pick your priority targets: If you identify risks, think about how communication can help to mitigate them. Understand the hot topics for your team, what your customers are on about or where your company is vulnerable, and deal with these potential time-bombs before they explode.