Are your communication people stuck in their ways, or measurably contributing to the health of your business?
More and more communication professionals are getting the point where they need to shift their roles from tactical doers to strategic advisers; those who add value to their organizations by removing communication breakdowns impeding organizational performance. Communication professionals are moving from an activity focus to a results focus.
Several presentations at an international communication conference I addressed recently centered on helping communication departments shift from cost centers to departments that add real value. But actually, much of the conference buzz focused on the hottest new social media platforms, which promise soft and fluffy “employee engagement,” but little in terms of results that matter to business leaders back at the office.
Here’s a truncated version of what I passed along to those conference attendees in three separate presentations.
What clients want from a strategic adviser
First and foremost, they want someone to make a positive impact on their business. The gain needs to be greater than the cost of creating the gain or you’ve likely drained value. As an example, one communication department we worked with improved sales by 23 percent while generating a 1,440 percent ROI. In other words, what they spent to increase sales was considerably less than the gain in sales. That’s what I mean by adding value.
Clients want to work with people who understand their business. Pharmaceutical companies have different needs than consumer packaged goods companies. Manufacturers experience different challenges than retail companies.
They want help developing strategies, leading their thinking about the future, joining them for brainstorming sessions and helping them understand how they compare to others within and outside their industries.
That’s a tall but realistic order.
Whether it’s an internal or external client, the strategic adviser-client relationship must be based on trust. I believe there are specific characteristics that are critical to gaining and retaining trust.
• Listen! You and I may know we’re smart, have been around the block a few times and probably have amassed a pile of opinions about and answers to questions clients have asked us a thousand times. That doesn’t matter one twit. Listen! It will make you smarter. It will make you look and sound smarter.
• Listening helps you empathize—for real. Empathize with your client’s plight, frustrations, fears and anxieties. Figuratively climb into the chair they’re sitting in and feel what they’re feeling so you can understand how you can help your client.
• Build a shared agenda. If you create the agenda, it’s your agenda. If the client creates the agenda, it’s his or her agenda. Joint agendas lead to joint ownership which leads to joint decision making, which in most cases leads to more positive results.
• Ask great questions. I often tell young people I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few good questions. Meaning, I ask questions that help my clients discover answers that help them better understand the business problem, its root cause and the best way to implement the solution.
• Take a point of view. Don’t be wishy-washy. If you know what you’re talking about and have a point of view, share it with your client. If you’re just starting out, adopt an intelligent and substantiated point of view about issues that are important to you and your clients.
• Give away ideas. I suggest solutions to a lot of business leaders who have performance problems and don’t expect to be paid for them. My mission is “to enable people to use their chosen careers to realize their dreams and discover their greater purpose.” Achieving that end is worth giving away a few ideas.
• Ask for feedback regularly. The best strategic advisers understand the importance of continuous improvement. You can’t keep up with others unless you’re continuously improving. No one knows how you’re doing better than your client. Ask. Listen. Improve. Ask again.
When clients trust you, they will continue to want your advice, act on your recommendations, involve you on more strategic issues, respect you and refer you. They’ll also give you the benefit of the doubt and forgive you when you make a mistake.
How do you elevate your role?
If you’re a traditional communication practitioner, your business is focused on distributing news and information—sending stuff out. If you want to become a strategic adviser, your business needs to focus on improving results.
People at the conference repeatedly wanted to talk about activities—communicating through social media, intranets, town hall meetings, newsletters or other formal channels. Strategic advisers don’t do this. They start with the results that need to change. Product quality. Service delivery. Revenues. Safety. Cycle time. Costs. Productivity.
Forget about employee engagement that doesn’t focus on improving results. Forget about tweets, retweets, click-throughs, opens, mentions, share of this or that. Those process measures aren’t good enough. Did you improve results?
Here’s a guideline. Just before you’re about to do something ask: “Will this help us make money or save money?” If the answer is no, don’t do it. Doing it will only create waste. That’s not what adding value is about.
Key Takeaway: Communication professionals can become valuable strategic advisers to their leaders if they shift focus away from activity based goals towards results oriented activities. Let your communication people know you expect them to measurably contribute to the health of your business. For starters, forward them this article.