By Jeremy Morgan
In-house communications executives are too often at the periphery of corporate strategy.
We may be invited to the CEO’s annual off-site in Sonoma or the Berkshires. We will likely attend the Top 300 Leadership Conference in Vegas.
But we will rarely do more than look on as the really big decisions are made by our peers in R&D, finance, legal, operations, HR, sales and marketing.
Communications, after all, is perceived as something that happens downstream. We message and we engage. Or so goes a narrative that has prevailed for decades.
Enough is enough. It’s time for corporate communications to take its rightful place at the strategy table. With an eye for the right opening and a willingness to build a few new skills, we can play a pivotal role at the heart of corporate decision-making.
The Right to Intervene
Every day, corporate communications teams make promises to customers, investors and employees about vision, values, strategy, operational priorities, products, the customer experience and more.
Our credibility rests on the extent to which our organizations live up to those promises.
This gives us every right in the world to facilitate cross-functional conversations about our internal reality – making sure that if we claim to be fast, creative, simple, connected or efficient, we’re delivering against those commitments.
Communication Drives Strategy Implementation
Strategy implementation is terrible in most organizations. Millions of dollars are wasted when new systems aren’t adopted, work is duplicated, development milestones are missed, and customers are disappointed.
A frequent culprit? Poor employee communications.
Leaders spend a lot of time devising brilliant strategies to drive revenue or transform operations – but then fail to think in granular terms about what their teams actually have to do differently in order to bring those strategies to life.
Successful strategy implementation is about behavior change, so we have to visualize what we want to see happen at people’s desks, in meeting rooms, along the corridors. Clear and compelling calls to action are non-negotiable if you want people to execute strategy.
Communicators even have the opportunity to invite employees to participate in strategy conversations. We can ask them to identify the biggest execution barriers and unlocks – using crowdsourcing techniques and other inclusive approaches to harness collective intelligence and build shared ownership of success. Strategy owners will thank us.
The Collaboration Opportunity
You may or may not have noticed, but right now Corporate America has woken up to the power of knowledge sharing and collaboration.
These two intertwined disciplines are being recognized as being the key to great everything – innovation, efficiency, customer experiences, and a dozen other sources of competitive advantage.
Conversely, the silo – which keeps smart people from talking to other smart people in other teams, functions or locations – is Corporate Enemy Number One, to be Busted Dead or Alive.
And this makes sense, because we’ve known for a long time that new ideas aren’t strictly speaking new – they’re synthesis, the result of two or more existing ideas coming together to create something we haven’t seen before.
And this is where communications can play a powerful role.
To solve shared challenges, our people need a common, inspiring vision of what success looks like. They have to be driven by an authentic sense of purpose. They need knowledge and information to make great decisions. Their leaders have to give them time and permission to reach out to their colleagues.
And they have to have space to work together, either online – on collaborative technology platforms – in their workplace, or at events.
So if you want to gain a competitive advantage by improving the productivity of your R&D effort, speed time to market or cut costs, the best thing you can do is open up your organization to promote the cross-fertilization of ideas.
None of this can happen without great communications. How and what leaders communicate, the content of internal campaigns, the tools and processes put in place to drive effective collaboration – all are legitimately and ideally within the purview of communications. This is how communicators can drive real business value.
Putting it into practice
So we have a mandate and the means to become deeply embedded in company strategy. How do we put it into action?
First, let’s use our deep understanding of our audiences’ hopes and concerns to ensure that leaders are grounding strategic decisions in reality – remind decision-makers that we have to connect with employees, customers and investors and other audiences on their terms, not ours.
Second, get the right players in the game. It’s incredible how few companies are able to have one conversation about corporate direction or strategy implementation.
As communicators, we are perfectly placed to facilitate strategic conversations, bringing representatives from across the business into a room to surface insights and align on key decisions.
No professional discipline is more suited to this task of alignment. We can stand above the fray, using our innate diplomatic skills to direct key discussions about objectives, strategic priorities, and behavioral calls to action.
This is our big strategic opportunity as a profession.
Jeremy Morgan is director of content & strategy for Bonfire Communications.