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.
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).
- 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.
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!