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How to build credibility with senior management.

How to Build Credibility with Senior Management

While giving me many rewarding moments as a professional in human resources, public affairs, and employee communication strategy development during the past three decades, my workplaces also provided their share of just-as-soon-forget experiences.

Example: Managing the process of starting up a monthly publication; mailing it to the homes of 100,000 employees; and having it jerked out of existence 10 months later because a handful of laid-off salaried employees wrote letters to a financial wizard saying the publication appeared to be more important than they were. One credibility lesson was learned by senior management via feedback from employees still working. It was very specific: "You only communicate with us at your discretion--forget about ever trying to force more quality messages down our throats." The credibility lesson for communicators was clear inasmuch as they were not even consulted before the directive was issued.

Example: Being "tuned out" of meetings with senior managers--for trying (a) to focus on the need for proactive communication strategy, (b) to get them involved in developing their own staff communication sub-plans, or (c) to discuss some basic ways to help them build employee trust.

Professional fulfillment is pretty much a matter of personal expectations and score-keeping. Based on continuing interface with large numbers of professional communicators, it is clear that credibility with senior management is a major concern. It goes beyond hopes for recognition and career development--to the issue of significance of personal roles in helping move their organizations forward.

Their introspection is characterized by these questions:

"Would senior management trust my judgment in a crisis?" "Can I risk pushing my senior executives into more employee question and answer forums?" ?Am I really in the proper loop of our firm's business strategy?" "Will they act on our employee research outcomes?" "Am I getting lip service or do we have a worthwhile listening and response process?"

When reminded of the multitude of CEO survey results endorsing the growing importance of communication in business, one veteran communicator asked, "What do we really expect them to say, they oppose it? The question should be, 'What are you doing personally, and how are you supporting your communication professionals?'"

Another top notch peer observed, "I guess I'm a mover, but I'm not sure I am a shaker. Over the year-end holidays, I asked myself what I had done in the past 12 months to help myself, my company, and my profession. On the first score, I was pleased, but on the last two, I didn't feel particularly fulfilled."

Our informal phone questioning of seven perennial IABC award winners on the credibility issue found them hoping to walk away with more honors this year, but realistic about the difference between receiving praise from senior management and successfully getting them personally involved in effective communication process.

Across a broad spectrum of IABC member-employing organizations, regardless of industry size of enterprise, or even individual levels or titles, communicators involved in influencing employee understanding and commitment are concerned about how their senior managements perceive their expertise and professionalism.

Based on these and other individually reported roots of frustration, we put together the accompanying "Personal Reality Check"--a pop quiz intended to make you step back from the flow, and think about your own credibility with senior management--and your professional fulfillment. No big deal. No prizes. But, I hope you will give it a go.

How to Get Top Management's Attention

Because of lessons learned, and insights gained over the past three dozen years, much has been clarified for me relative to senior management's perceptions of communication professionals. In our most recent poll of some 70 senior management executives with whom we frequently are in touch--director level or above, representing all the basic professional disciplines--we asked, "What would be the most important factors in your choice of a communication professional who would work with you day-to-day?"

Top three responses: * Professionalism * Perspective about the business * Good judgment

In my view, the responses reflect great progress in their perceptions of what communication specialists are prepared to do for them. But, they are not big surprises in view of senior executive concentration on bottom line results. They routinely live with business systems and research findings. Perhaps they are coming to the realization, "Why not in communication as well?"

Before they will embrace our data, or champion an information sharing "system," most have a way of making their own Reality Checks on communicator credibility. Many times, they focus on factors like the three named in our informal poll. Other CEOs have a much longer list of variables.

There are several ways to gain day-to-day credibility with your senior management--while tending to your own needs for professional fulfillment. Here are three you might consider:

Help Them Understand Employee Mind-Set

How many times do we sit down with a senior executive--about to do a print piece column, a video hihglight, or the outline of content for an employee meeting--and have the person ask, "What should I tell them?" And, we guess wrong? Or, maybe worse, the executive has an agenda set in concrete, and we know it is not going to interest employees. But, we back off, failing to provide high-risk counsel.

Communicators need to develop an awareness of the major issues and concerns on the minds of employees at all levels of their organization, at headquarters and at outlying locations. That is: all employees from whom senior management seeks excellence in product quality, customer service, innovation and achievement of the strategic plan.

The content of business information shared with employees faces competition from their own workplace concerns and issues. It has to be responsive to the tough questions employees will not permit to "just go away." It is up to communicators to teach CEOs about these employee "prerequisites" that information shared will find its way through the maze of communication barriers. So, the have to be convincing and sufficiently credible to influence their leaders to be credible.

Lesson learned: References to individuals are omitted, but the scenario is still classic. A senior corporate executive agreed to hold his initial get-acquainted forum with several hundred recently merged employees. He wanted this sampling of his new work force to share his enthusiasm for new products and planned organizational innovations--hoping they would spread the word to their peers.

He had an impressive array of remarks and visuals put together by marketing veterans. When he started his rehearsal, he didn't appreciate last minute warnings from communicators about getting too far out in front of his people. He resented the advice about dealing solely with employee questions, in order to do some initial trust building with people who had never seen him before.

Only the best of excellent senior executives choose to adjust to such counsel as he did, displaying a special sort of vulnerability that says, "Okay, let's have your shoot-out, let's vent the issues that must be on their minds." Proceeding then to stand up front for a couple of hours, taking all the tough shots; soon regognizing that the employee agenda can, indeed, be fear and uncertainty; saying later, "Nine out of 10 questions dealth with personal concerns, they wouldn't even have heard my new product and new culture pitches, would they?"

Credibility sometimes does come in scary packages for communicators. Even senior executives who do listen, and budge, say up front, "You'd better be right!" That's the "growth experience" way to gain credibility for a communication staff. As more and more senior executives seem willing to respond to solid information about employee mind-set, communicators have to be there for them... with professionalism, business perspective, and judgment.

Show Them How to Help Employees Understand

the Business

Communicators have to:

* Make senior managers aware of wins for them personally if employees understand where the business is headed and why.

* Help their executives think in terms of the Communication Implications of Goals and Issues, with research, if that's what it takes, to make them see the linkages.

* Make them recognize the sorts of hindrances that prevent key business information from reaching or being understood by significant percentages of employees.

* Get their CEOs and all direct reports to personally "see" the realities of downward, upward and lateral communication through the eyes of employees.

Communicators have many opportunities to gain stature from their personal knowledge of the firm's strategic plan and operating goals. But, sometimes they need to know a lot more about the hot-button programs of individual senior executives, especially the people-related issues which prevent the pet projects from working properly. Communication specialists often can design special events which involve employees in ways that uplift the energies of an entire organization, helping the senior executives achieve success with their strategic plan "must" endeavors.

Lesson learned: Based on an upcoming company milestone--initially judged worthy of traditional involvements with key external audiences--a communication staff saw a special opportunity. They recommended asking employees throughout the organization to play key roles in hosting the normal supplier, shareholder, media, government agency, elected official constituencies for a series of anniversary events. Highly non-traditional stuff. Selling the concept to senior executives whose special product quality "programs" were in trouble, and selling the budget to a skeptical CEO, both focused on their language--bottom line results. There also was some criticism of traditional communication staff credibility.

Because senior management took the gamble and elected to participate fully, and because employees at all levels got excited about their personal involvement opportunities, and became instant ambassadors, the series of special anniversary events ultimately were credited with creating a positive culture change throughout the entire organization. The final jury included many early-on key senior management detractors, and hundreds of long-term employees who initially had promised to derail all plans. The consensus reasons given by management and employees for successfully creating extensive excitement and commitment was: "The opportunities to understand what we can do together in this business when we just listen and talk to each other." Communicator credibility and fulfillment are not without their risks.

Convince Them that Tracking Employee

Agendas Must Be a Continual Process

One-time research studies, or a one-time analysis of employee feedback from openness forums can be helpful in shaping communication content. However, senior managers have to be reminded that "snapshots" of employee information needs will change, paralleling the dynamics of the business. Creating that awareness, and being ready to deal with it are opportunities for communicator credibility.

They must consider the longer term, and think as senior managements do about basic elements of the business, such as financial forecasting, or three-year marketing strategies. The truth is, most senior executives do not believe communicators think strategically. Just ask a few. It is a major credibility issue. Consider how CEOs track trends, the dynamics of the business. As markets shift, as world events take shape, as disasters occur, as technology breakthroughs are announced, and as companies are bought and sold senior executives prepare for the shifting reality.

Communicators have to sort out the changing employee agendas which ebb and flow with major circumstances of a business. Senior executives are too busy to worry about it. Just when they should be listening to, and sharing information with their employees, they tend to spend all their time together in meetings--formulating strategy, and trying to accommodate the information needs of their bosses, attorneys, shareholders, financial specialists, and an ever-inquiring media corps.

Communicators who fail to have a flexible framework for communication strategy, which is capable of "listening" on behalf of senior management during major change, will find themselves caught in a credibility crunch. If the strategy is not sufficiently credible to generate senior management's response to employees, they will be the last to know what's going on and communicators will end up taking the heat.

Lesson learned: The new partners of five merging law firms worked out every conceivable detail for future financial and operational management, save one. Nobody was accountable for the communication implications of the merger.

The opportunity to deal with those concerns meant adjusting communication strategies frequently throughout a six-month period. Outstanding lawyers--busy litigating--sometimes forget to anticipate issues relevant to cultural values, norms, and assumptions in five merging entities, many of which require radical changes in listening and information sharing. What is done to help employees vent during a preannouncement rumor stage of merger may be quite different from upward communication techniques used as the reshaped organization struggles to get back to business as usual.

Because of the way questions were handled when fear was at its peak, a managing partner of successfully merged firms was able to speak of (a) retaining attorney associates who would have left had the implications of the merger not been fully communicated, and (b) creating synergies within a support staff which accepted physical moves to a new central location.

The "So What?"

Reality Checks are a bit of a nuisance, and hardly magical, but sometimes they help refocus energy, faith, commitment, and understated results. Our discussions with excellent communication specialists who say they feel stalled in achieving their current goals and wildest dreams, admit they somehow have forgotten about the importance of their personal credibility. The basic excuse: "Too busy for introspection."

The truth is, more than ever before, senior managers are looking for bottom line values in communication strategy. Certainly there are too many who do not, and who probably never will understand the advantages of listening and sharing information. But many are just terrific! They are willing to take the measured risks of personal involvement in print, video, and face-to-face communication. When they finally get involved in the listening process, they say they get hooked on it. They feel better about themselves. They refer to it as (of all things) professional fulfillment.

Communicators working toward higher plateaus of proactive and responsive employee information sharing fit into a wide spectrum of workplace obstacles and support systems. They are situated at so many different points in cycles of personal fulfillment, it simply is not possible to answer to obvious question--"When will it all come together for me?"

The interim answer seems to be that a formidable transition of senior management personal involvement in the communication process is underway, and the growth of this movement is contingent in large measure on the actual and perceived credibility of communicators. They will have to stretch themselves to ensure credibility, and continually evaluate the realities of their professional hindrances and potentials. Those who use a self-constructed, totally honest Reality Check will see more clearly the gap between where they are now, and where they want to be, which is an excellent way to evaluate professional fulfillment.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
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Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on becoming a vice president in the field of communications
Author:Wilmot, Richard E.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1989
Words:2430
Previous Article:Back to school.
Next Article:Crisis communication: if it had a precedent, it wouldn't be a crisis.
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