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Up for the challenge?

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Up for the challenge?

Sweaty palms. Pounding heart. An inability to remember your own name. These are all common signs that you’re about to challenge a senior leader. But it doesn’t have to be this way…

We all know that we should be able to challenge senior leaders as and when required. However, in practice it’s quite a tricky thing to do. What if they publicly shoot you down in flames? What if it damages the relationship you spent ages building with them? What if you pick the wrong moment? What if they agree with you…?

So often we think about what could go wrong that we lose sight of the fact that we’re professionals who know what we’re doing and who wouldn’t be challenging without very good reason. So, focus on how you can make your argument stronger and build your reputation as a credible internal communicator that brings insight and understanding to every situation.

Here’s some ways you can do that…

Get to know the person

Senior leaders are human too and the more senior you are, often the more vulnerable you are. It can be lonely at the top when everyone looks to you for direction. We have an important role to play in helping them make informed decisions and good leaders will be grateful for our input – at the right time and in the right way.

Try to understand who they are as an individual and tailor your approach accordingly. If they are an extrovert, they may want quick facts and examples to encourage them to think differently, whereas an introverted leader may want to see more in-depth analysis.

Consider what is important to them and ensure that you always keep that in mind and pick your battles accordingly. If they’re deep in merger negotiations, they’re unlikely to welcome a discussion about a different approach to comms for the next engagement survey.

Facilitate discussion

When approached about communicating in a way you feel isn’t right, try to facilitate a discussion where you ask questions that help people think through some of the ‘W’ questions in a way that makes it OK to consider other options (or even decide that it doesn’t warrant communication at all).

For example:

  • Who is your target audience for this?
  • Why is it important for people to know this?
  • What do you want people to think, feel and do as a result of this communication?
  • What does success look like for you?

Once armed with the answers to these types of questions, you can frame the conversation around how you can best help them to make this work, drawing on your experience (see the next point about measurement) and making other suggestions.

By taking this approach, you’ve created a safe space for everyone to acknowledge a different approach is needed. As mentioned before, senior leaders are human too, so ensure they leave the room feeling they have received credible advice from an expert rather than embarrassed or undermined.

Provide measurement

If you’re going to challenge a senior leader’s decision, ensure you can back up your argument. How do you know what they’re suggesting won’t work and that what you’re suggesting will? Being able to point to measurement that demonstrates why you approach internal communication in a certain way will help to influence them.

For example, your CEO is keen to start a video blog and wants to communicate some upcoming changes via it. You know from experience that your employees prefer to hear messages like this face to face from their line manager. But telling your CEO that isn’t enough, refer to data from recent surveys or focus groups, share your audience insight, or be able to give examples of when line manager communications have previously achieved the desired outcome.

Ensure that objective setting and measurement are part and parcel of what you do so that you can be confident in the advice you give and support the business and senior leaders in the right way.

Do what you say you will, when you say you will

To be able to challenge effectively, you need to have built a trusted relationship with your senior leader. This means ensuring they can rely on the internal communications team to do what they say they will, when they say they will to the highest standard.

Your reputation as a team will be in part built on your ability to get the basics right. If communications go out with typos or a day later than promised, colleagues may wonder what else you might not get right.

This isn’t fair, especially when many internal comms teams are being pulled in multiple directions and sometimes not everything will be absolutely perfect. But we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve delivered a campaign that we’re proud of only to have a colleague point out the one error that slipped through the net, taking the shine off everything.

Prioritise and have clear processes in place as a team to minimise the risk of situations like these. Trust takes a long time to build up and just seconds to lose.

It takes time to build relationships and to change the way people perceive internal communication, especially senior leaders. There will be a period where you’re laying the groundwork and demonstrating the impact you can have.

That can be frustrating, but it will be worth it in the end when your senior leader calls on you for your judgement and input rather than you having to take the challenge to them (along with your sweaty palms and pounding heart).


By Helen Deverell for Alive with Ideas!

“The guys at Alive understand the complexities of our business which means we don’t need to explain the detail of every project or design piece – they’re already on it, which keeps things moving and delivers the results we need.”

Emily Stoten — Head of Marketing, Selecta

“I feel like they own and care for the project as much as we do! I would not use anyone else for my creative work and think Alive is ahead of the game.”

Jo Hobbs — Communications Manager

“Thanks for all your help. We are delighted with the campaign, both in terms of the creativity and messaging but also the thought taken over the rollout of the materials. All looks absolutely fabulous!”

Sarah Crowdy — Campaign and Media Officer Communications, South East Water

“We went to ‘Alive’ for ideas on how to run a specific employee program in Europe. Alan and his team were brilliant in coming up with fresh, creative and practical approaches. The team took charge and executed brilliantly. We are pleased with the progress made so far and hope to have the same level of partnership and commitment going forward.”

Sobha — Tata Consultancy Services

“So glad that we chose Alive to create our new website. As well as taking the time to get the visual side of our requirement right, they worked with us to understand us, our business and our clients and reflect this across the site. We loved their flexible approach, which, coupled with the right level of challenge has replaced our old, clunky site with one we can be proud of. ”

Victoria Ford — Perago

“Alive were there to help when we were working every hour to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. They gave us the creativity, ideas and support we needed to deliver campaigns which empowered our residents in the most difficult time most of us have ever seen, personally and professionally. The team understood what we needed, worked closely with us and delivered fast without any compromise on quality. Working with Alive has been a joy in the darkest of times and I have no doubt will have helped to save lives. Thanks team x”

Julie Odams, Assistant Director of Communications & Customers — Derbyshire County Council

Thank you so much. Incredible work done at incredible speed by incredible people.
Outstanding work as ever and what a turnaround. As for the concepts – wow. These are that good it would be an insult to describe them as just good. It’s a joke, quite frankly. This is exactly the Alive effect I was after. Right now I feel like I am living in an Alive With Ideas wonderland. Thank you!”

Jack Grasby, Campaigns Manager — SYFR

“Our company is fun, we have great brands, but most importantly we’re all about our people – and I wanted an agency who would understand that and help us bring it to life through our website and other comms. Straight away I felt that Alive ‘got’ us and provided the creative inspiration exactly where we needed it, as well as the technical expertise to deliver a well-functioning website.”

Keren McCarron — KP Snacks

“We got 'Alive' involved to help us shift mindsets across our organisation and they delivered! Using simple, clear and creative ideas the team have delivered us a campaign which has seen a dramatic increase in idea sharing and development. They’ve also played a significant role in creating a culture of shared success. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with again, in fact, we already are!”

Gavin Buckle — B&Q