Reframing Internal Communications
A recent Korn Ferry report suggests that by 2030 there will be a global talent shortage of 85 million people. So if ever focusing on employee engagement and retention was necessary, that time is now.
A key tool in supporting efforts in the area of retention and engagement is that of Internal Communications. Yet, communication is still given as the number one problem in many businesses. So what needs to change?
Done well, excellent internal communications can form part of the cultural glue that holds an organisation together, helps it retain its people and connect them to the bigger mission. But that needs moving from a broadcast and cascade of information mentality, to an intentional and genuine conversational approach, where the focus of the content is on the audience, not the person who will approve the communications. Whilst this may sound like an obvious statement, it's not exactly common practise in many organisations.
In an episode of the popular employee engagement and culture podcast, Sticky From The Inside, your host, Andy Goram talks to Katie Macaulay, Managing Director of AB Comms, the world’s longest-established internal communication agency, founded in 1964, about how internal communications needs reframing and refocusing to help with this challenge. Below is a full transcript of that conversation, but you can also listen to the episode here.
Podcast Episode Introduction
Andy Goram (00:10):
Hello, and welcome to Sticky From the Inside, the employee engagement podcast that looks at how to build stickier competition-smashing, consistently successful organisations from the inside out. I'm your host, Andy Goram, and I'm on a mission to help more businesses turn the lights on behind the eyes of their employees, light the fires within them, and create tons more success for everyone. This podcast is for all those who believe that's something worth going after and would like a little help and guidance in achieving that. Each episode, we dive into the topics that can help create what I call stickier businesses, the sort of businesses where people thrive and love to work, and where more customers stay with you and recommend you to others because they love what you do and why you do it. So, if you want to take the tricky out of being sticky, listen on.
A Global Talent Shortfall of 85 Million People Is Coming
Okay. I heard a terrifying stat the other day, and no, it's not that robots are already here to take your job. In fact, it's quite the opposite. I read a study by Korn Ferry that formed part of their multi-year Future of Work series. It said that by 2030, that's less than seven years away as I sit here recording this episode, there won't be enough humans to take up the jobs that are available. This study suggests that there will be a global talent shortage of around 85 million people. As they put it, that is roughly the population of Germany, folks. They surmise this is going to result in missed revenues of around an incredible $8.5 trillion. Now just let that number sink in for a second. Even if you heavily de-risk those numbers, that's still one hell of a gap to contend with.
I'll stick the link to the report in the show notes so you can take a look yourselves, but the low birth rates in some countries, the exodus of baby boomers from the workforce and a lack of time to develop the necessary skills for the younger, emerging working generations are all causal factors we're going to have to contend with according to the report. Now, surely, surely, folks, this must bring even greater focus on retention, development, and engagement of your people. Look, I've banged on about the importance of engagement and retention in pretty much every episode I bring you, inviting guests to share their perspectives, advice, tips, and experiences because we have a real job to do in this area, people. At the heart of that job is clear effective communication that helps employees see where the organisation is going, gives them hope, certainty, and realism, helps them see and recognise the part they all play in that journey and helps to keep them informed and engaged.
But how often do we hear that communication is the biggest problem in many businesses? Get it right and good internal communications connect as a special culture glue. It's not the be all and end all of engagement, but without it, you are going to struggle. But is the current approach to internal comms fit for the job we have ahead of us? Does it need an update, a refocus, or a reframing to cope with the challenges we face? Well, with me today is Katie Macaulay. She's the MD of AB Communications and also hosted the very popular Internal Comms Podcast, which I was lucky enough to appear on a short while ago. She's also the author of the book from Cascade to Conversation, which was published back in 2017, but at that time talked about moving internal comms on. I thought if we're going to have a conversation about potentially moving on again, who better to talk to than Katie? So, welcome to the show, Katie!
An Introduction to Katie Macaulay
Katie Macaulay (04:21):
Andy, thank you. It is a real pleasure to be here, although I am slightly nervous because I'm not normally this side of the mic. But even so, it's a joy to be here. Thank you for inviting me on.
Andy Goram (04:31):
I'm sure I said something similar when I came on your podcast. It does feel a bit weird, but at the end of the day, we're just here to have a chat, right? Have a chat about this stuff. Before we get stuck into that, do me a favour, Katie, will you? Just give me a bit of a fuller background to you, who you are, what you do, and what you're currently focused on, please.
Katie Macaulay (04:50):
Yes, absolutely. I would do a very brief overview. I was always going to work with words that was never in doubt. I can't remember a time when I wasn't writing something, whether that was a newsletter for my school friends or plays and poetry later in life. There are many unfinished novels in the backs of cupboards in this house, for example. Then after university, I did a weird thing. I was working nights at a national newspaper and during the day in a comms agency that specialised in internal communications, which I knew nothing about, I have to say many people who say they fell into this profession. I think I did that slightly, but very quickly I thought to myself, "This is fascinating."
I think I was fascinated by a couple of things. One was the dynamics of businesses, and I thought that was really interesting how they made money, how they brought people together in a collective endeavor, but then also by communications. I got to speak to people at all roles from CEOs to those on the front line. I thought,
"Oh, I feel that this discipline is about making the collective experience of work more engaging, more meaningful, more worthwhile."
That felt like such an exciting field to be in. I have my dream job today, I can honestly say, running AB. Its kind of, unique characteristic is that it's the world's oldest internal comms agency. It's been going longer than I have. It's-
Andy Goram (06:23):
Really? I didn't know that.
Katie Macaulay (06:24):
Yes. Started in 1964, which is incredible. It gets its weird name from a guy who sadly is no longer with us, called an Anthony Buckley that was printing the Financial Times on Fleet Street. He wondered watching everyone go backwards and forwards to work, where managing directors and chief executives would like the professional communication skills, journalism skills that he had at his fingertips every day at the Financial Times inside their organisations to help them communicate with their employees. That's how it all started.
Andy Goram (07:03):
Well, isn't that interesting? I didn't know that at all. That's brilliant. Thank you for sharing that.
Katie Macaulay (07:05):
Yeah. Yes, we work with usually fairly large complex organisations, and we help across a range of different issues and challenges, whether that's an acquisition or a merger or a new strategy through to very specific challenges around D, E and I, it might be health and safety, it might be protecting the brand, some area of compliance. From very large cultural issues through to very specific challenges, that's our bread and butter. I can honestly say I love it, and I think one of the reasons I love it is because I seem to learn something new every day, because there isn't an organisation in the world that doesn't show up and present a fresh challenge.
I know we're supposed to say every client is unique, and that's a little bit of a, is it really true? It genuinely is true. It genuinely is true. I remember once flying over to Switzerland, working with two pharmaceutical companies roughly the same size, roughly the same history and heritage in terms of what you could see from their website, step through the front door, culture, values, the way they behave, totally different. That's what I love about it, is that diversity and that challenge, I think.
Andy Goram (08:24):
I think that comes part and parcel with this tie-up between internal comms and culture and all this stuff. I mean, many businesses face the same problems, but how they attack it, how they're equipped to attack it, it's always different, which can cause a problem when people are asking you to quote for stuff, because they want a silver bullet answer, which is rarely there. It's rarely there.
Katie Macaulay (08:49):
The Definition of Internal Communications
Andy Goram (08:50):
Katie, we're going to talk about this stuff that I mentioned in the intro, I hope, and get your view on that. But can we just rewind a sec? Because in trying to be a good boy, in trying to research this topic, I really struggled. I struggled to find what I would call really useful resources or pieces talking about internal comms and challenges and all that stuff. I kept on finding the same stuff. A lot of it was, I don't know, it sometimes it felt a bit siloed and a bit out of date and sometimes very, very blended with other things about management, leadership, business. Can we start off with what's your definition of internal comms? How do you frame it?
Katie Macaulay (09:33):
That is such a good question, because actually I do a internal comms masterclass for people that join AB. The first question I ask is, how do you define internal communications? I went online and yeah, there's 150 different definitions. I think internal communications is about creating clarity, connection around the things that really matter to both the people that work the organisation and the organisation itself and why do we need to create that bond and connection and clarity. I think there's now decades of research that show that people who are more engaged, and I have a slight problem with that term, but people that feel a certain connection and have a shared vision, if you like, know where the organisation is going and how they contribute to that, they are therefore more productive. The organisation is more likely to tap into their skills, their resources, their discretionary effort, which is what the engagement surveys are always trying to get for organisations by raising engagement.
For me, it's that I also have in my mind a divide, if you like, between need-to-know and nice-to-know. I always think about that slightly when I'm having conversations with clients. There are certain messages and information if you like, you need to know to do your job, what time does your shift start? Who's your line manager? What are today's product services you need to know more about, versus the nice-to-know stuff, which is why does the organisation exist in the first place? How is it different from its competitors? What are its values? What's its culture? How does it want to show up in the world? I think what's interesting is we live in a world now where all the research and studies I'm seeing is that nice-to-know stuff is becoming more and more important to people.
They actually want to do work and work for an organisation that has meaning, that means something, that matters. There's even studies out in the US to show people would trade a reduction in their pay to do more meaningful work. I think it's a very exciting time to work in internal communications. I would agree with you, though, and I get a bit frustrated about this. There are lots of "thought leaders" in this space, but when you actually look into it, they're not particularly coherent thoughts and they're not particularly leading thoughts. I get slightly frustrated. We do seem to regurgitate the same stuff. Actually on my show, it's been very interesting to bring in behavioral scientists, neuroscientists out-and-out marketers, people specialising in social media, in influencer marketing and actually hear from them, because I think it's the intersection between other disciplines that is going to propel internal communications forward actually. We have a lot we can borrow from other disciplines and learn from them rather than play back, if you like, what we already know, if that makes sense.
Andy Goram (12:57):
Oh, gosh. Yeah, 100%. You're ticking a lot of my boxes, Katie. I think it's fascinating as what you say there, because a couple of things that spring out to me is when you said clarity and connection to what matters, my first question is, "Yes. As to what matters to who?" I'm sure we'll dig into that later on, because I think there's a lot of what we think is important, is not necessarily what employees think is important. That's worth absolutely digging into. I think this nice-to-know phrase, what's nice to know, I think that helps people commit more and allows them to be more effective in their work. Even the phrases like things nice to know, I think that why thing, and maybe it's a generational shift, I think that's becoming more and more important for people to get it. We're not all like me, Generation X's who are pretty much brought up as to just tell me what to do and I'll do it and I'll ask how much you want of it done. That'll be my only questions. It doesn't happen like that anymore.
Katie Macaulay (14:13):
No. Just going back to your intro, absolutely right. I saw that Korn Ferry report as well. But digging into that a little bit more, if you take the UK alone, the studies I'm seeing is by the same date. Well, certainly within the decade in a way, 2.6 million unfilled vacancies in the UK. Again, through the reasons you're saying that aging population, Brexit's not helping potentially, other things that shift hyper labor mobility, people taking themselves out of the labor market altogether, which I think is really interesting.
There's been a power shift. You are absolutely right. It used to be about, "Well, we are going to broadcast messages at people. We hold the power, we control the message." What we're actually seeing now is executive teams worrying much more about talent attraction and talent retention and having to think about it through their eyes and the lens of the employees, which is why you get them waking up to the fact that they need to work on their EVPs, apologies for the acronym, employee value propositions, which it makes me smile, because whether you are working on your EVP or not, you've got one. It's a bit like a brand, isn't it? You've got a brand, whether you're investing or thinking about it or not. Yeah, I think you're absolutely right with your intro, there's been a massive power shift, and there will be for some time, I think.
The Future of Internal Communications
Andy Goram (15:36):
Let's start by maybe painting a positive picture of the future. If we think ahead, bearing in mind the challenges that we've just talked about, and as is in the news constantly at the moment, this skill gap, which obviously brings into more focus, retention and development. But in the world of internal communications, what's this opportunity that internal communications has to meet or can meet? What does that look like in the future? What is the ideal landscape or setup for IC from your perspective, Katie?
Katie Macaulay (16:13):
Wow, what a question. The book, I'll come back to the book, because that was a manifesto for the future of internal communications. That was a reaction to the fact that I had spent at that stage over two decades working either inside organisations for large corporate organisations or from the outside in as a consultant, largely broadcasting messages at people. If I'm being really, really honest, taking silence as a sign of success. In other words, no one has complained, fantastic, let's carry on the monologue.
Andy Goram (16:52):
Katie Macaulay (16:53):
As someone said in a focus group the other day to me, operational colleagues on the frontline of a large organisation,
"Two monologues doesn't make a dialogue."
I thought that out of the mouth of people that really know what's going on in an organisation, the frontline as ever. Yeah, from Cascade Conversation was all about saying, you've got to step back for a minute and think about the world we live in and operate in at the moment.
It's even more true now than it was when I wrote it back in whenever it was 2017 because of things like AI, generative AI. If I'm a chief executive waking up this morning, there's not any chance that I'm thinking the future of my organisation relies in some feature of my product or service, because quite frankly, that can be copied, replicated tomorrow by a competitor. Actually, the future of my organisation rests in people that are leaving the factory floor tonight or closing their laptops tonight and hopefully are coming back in and working for me tomorrow, because what I need to succeed in the future is their ingenuity. I need them to collaborate across silos, across functions. I need them to tell me what it's really like at the frontline dealing with customers and what those customer issues are. I need their commitment. I need them to share a common cause to form bonds with each other.
That's a totally different role for communications. One of the big things and the strategic shifts is not broadcasting messages at people doing the absolute opposite. That's listening. That's asking really, really smart questions and listening really hard to the answers you get back. This idea that what internal comms could be doing more of is capturing the collective wisdom of an organisation. There's that phrase, isn't there, the smartest person in the room is the room. This whole idea that we should ask before we tell. Quite honestly, you are an IC person today, you are worried about some transformation program, some new strategy that you've got to roll out. That idea of asking before you tell, of pausing for a moment to actually ask questions and understand what it's like from an audience's perspective, what's on their minds, and asking for their ideas and opinions, I just think is such a worthy cause.
The other thing is that employees love giving you their ideas and their opinions, as long as you demonstrate you really are listening and doing something as a result, they give up pretty quickly if they're just faced with a wall of silence. But other than that, all my experience is if you sit people down and really have a conversation with them, they open up. As we often say, when we do focus groups, people need a good listening to often just to feel better, just to feel more that's alone. It can be very powerful. That's the big strategic shift, I think, from broadcasting messages to actually fostering a meaningful conversation and dialogue, which is a totally different endeavor.
Transparency: Blurring The Internal & External Truths
Andy Goram (20:20):
No, it really is. I mean, really good internal communications, of which I've either seen or been part of or heard about, let's be fair, are very much about the alignment of employee truth, employer truth, and customer truth. This world of you tell one story to the customer or one story to the employee and another to the board, absolute rubbish in my book. Look, I'll probably get slated for that. I think there is much more than a blurring now. I think we need to get behind one truth, right? And we need to tell that story and align it throughout the business. I think there's a big job to do when it comes to internal comms, if you like, to echo that soul and voice of the brand.
Katie Macaulay (21:18):
Andy Goram (21:19):
Right throughout. It can act as an absolute fulcrum for it, I think. Well, look, as a professional in this sphere, am I an idiot, or is that in line?
Katie Macaulay (21:30):
I'm smiling because you're preaching to the choir or the converted. I totally agree with you. Transparency, which is really what you're talking about. This idea that you, you're blurring the edges, you're blurring the line between internal, external, I saw that shift years ago and was really, really excited by it. We see it in things like the Edelman Trust Barometer. When we realize, I think that's 33,000 people they interview for that survey across the world who I'm most likely to trust and really want to hear from are my peers. In fact my employer over other sources of information. We have this really interesting world which we live in, is if you really want to market your services and products to the outside world, using your employees to do that, probably got a lot more traction than anything else. That's one element of this. The other thing is that so many, if I think about quite a few of my clients, is very likely that an employee is going to be both an employee, a shareholder, and a customer for a start, so there's no rigid boundaries between individuals.
The other thing is that we live in an age now where it's so easy to find out what's really going on. I mean, it started with Glassdoor. There are now so many other discussion forums out there where employees are sharing what they think, what they know. So I say to all of my clients, the wars of your organisations, your organisations now made of glass bricks. Don't think you can hide anything in your basement. Everyone can see straight down into your basement. You've got to be honest and truthful because basically you don't really have any alternative. But why not use that to your advantage? Can you make your culture, your values actually something not just that works brilliantly and beautifully internally, but your consumers, your customers, your investors are going to love too?
That's what you are talking about. That's that transparency piece. Hey, the extra benefit is that it's real, it's authentic. You're actually living it. It's much easier. This is why the truth works, because it's much easier to remember what's truthful than try to construct a lie. Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more on that point. Sorry, I got very carried away.
Reframing Communications: Broadcast Vs. Involvement
Andy Goram (24:03):
No, no. Look, listen, I love it. We love a bit of passion on the podcast. What's the point of sitting here and just going through the motions? No, I think it's wonderful to hear that. I want to ask you a quick question. You've mentioned broadcast a number of times. When we've spoken in the past, you shared what I thought was a really interesting perspective from someone you've spoken to before, and I think that sums up the whole broadcast versus involvement versus who cares piece around internal comms. Would you mind just sharing that Jason Anthoine stat with the listeners? I think it's incredible. It's fantastic.
Katie Macaulay (24:45):
Jason Anthoine, bit of a fairly well known figure in the field of internal comm, certainly in the US he's got about 30 years experience, runs an agency called Audacity. He came on the show, I'd been wanting to get him on for some time. Now he runs, it's actually an ongoing survey and I'll make sure you have a link so your listeners can take a look. He runs an ongoing survey called the "What Employees Want Survey". This is quite a nifty idea. Rather than asking communication professionals how internal comms should be, it's actually a series of questions for employees. His thinking is, employees are going to be more honest in this survey because it's not run by their employer, which I can see where he's coming from in that regard.
What he's discovered through that survey is that employees, tell us they will give us roughly five minutes a day for the kinds of communication we produce as internal comms teams.
Now, you can think of that for a moment and really start to panic, because you're thinking about the volume of content that's being uploaded to your intranet alone, let alone the emails that are going out, all the content on Yammer, whatever it is you've got, and you're thinking, "Goodness me, five minutes a day!" When I think about that five minutes, I'm thinking of the FMCG marketing manager that's got a brand to look after, and I've just gifted that manager five minutes, every working day with a customer segment, with a customer persona, and he or she is going to think, "Oh great, five minutes with Michelle. She's married, she's got two kids in a Labrador, she works part-time at a local school, she's really into podcasts. I know exactly how I'm going to capture attention. I know exactly what to talk to her about, because I know what's on her mind at the moment. I know how my brand is going to connect to the issues that matter to her."
Really, you're giving me five minutes? So for me, I think it's reframing the challenge. If we knew, if we chose to know our employees, as well as we try to get to know our customers, we would think so differently about how we connect with them. This has always been the big conundrum and the irony is that, our organisations is spending a lot of money on customer and consumer insight. Doesn't matter if you're B2B or B2C, there are people spending a lot of money on customer insight, but for free, we can get off out of our seats in the old days at least when we were on site, walk down the corridor, walk over to the factory on the site next door and ask a ton of questions to get to know our audiences better.
So, for me, I think it's about better segmentation, better understanding of the audience, and a way of actually, you said it straight up, what matters to the audience and thinking about the challenge from their perspective. If I'm being really honest and as another guest on my show, Steve Crescenzo, brilliant, brilliant guy. Again, I'll send you the link, but he made the point. He's trained, I think, thousands of internal comms people to write better over the years.
He said to me on the show,
"Katie, at the end of the day, too often we are writing for the approver, not the recipient of our communication. We are writing to try and get things through this tortuous approval process, or we are drafting by committee, when if only would stop for a moment and think, let's look at it totally from the perspective of our employees, how are we going to surprise them, delight them, make them laugh, whatever it is, and write from that perspective."
It does mean being a bit bolder. It probably means more things are going to get the red line through, but I think occasionally that's what frustrates me, is we play too small and we play too safe.
Where is Internal Communications Falling Short?
Andy Goram (29:00):
Well, that's a lovely link. That's a lovely link to where I'd like to go next. If we've painted this picture of a world that is, from a communications perspective, a world that is now more inclusive, involving and, I guess, an informed dialogue about the things that matter, that's carried out in five minutes a day, if that's the landscape we're working to it, and based on what you've just said about maybe focusing on the person on the exec who's going to approve the words and feels comfortable with versus really connecting with and engaging with the recipients, how far away are we from that state?
Katie Macaulay (29:43):
Oh my goodness, me. The trouble is I think we get hung up too much by perhaps potentially our report lines. That's one issue that keeps coming up, and I think we need to completely forget about the organogram and work out who we need to collaborate with and align with and share the challenge with. It's not just HR. We've got to go and find the strategy team and make friends with them. We've probably got to go and find the R&D people. Whatever it is, I think it's got to be more of a collective endeavor than it is today. I think our tools and our platforms and channels have got a lot better and they certainly have become more conversational and two-way, so there's no real excuse anymore for just broadcasting messages at people. But I think what do I think the big challenge is? I think it can come down simply to that bravery piece. I think back to early times in my career, and I suppose there's a difference isn't there between being naive and being brave.
Andy Goram (30:58):
Katie Macaulay (30:58):
I was reflecting on this Jerry Maguire moment I had very early on in my career working for a very large British bank. When I even tell you this story, it was the Jerry Maguire moment. I'm thinking, well, that film was from 1996, I believe.
Andy Goram (31:13):
Still one of my faves. Still one of my faves.
Katie Macaulay (31:16):
There's going to be many listeners that are saying, "Well, I wasn't even born until 2000." But anyway, it hopefully transcends the time period that we're talking about. But just that moment of being at that stage in my career in internal communications looking about me and being with the grownups, I was not the grownup at that point. I was still very early on my career learning through watching, learning through just literally observing what was going on around me, how my senior stakeholders leaders behaved with each other, the issues they talked about, what mattered to them, what they were focusing on. I had this moment in the middle of the night where I thought there was an answer that came to me a bit like the Jerry McGuire thing that the bank needed to completely redefine itself in the eyes, particularly of customers.
No one really loved banking back then, and we are going... Well, maybe they still don't, but we are going back quite a few years. Anyway, I came up with a 10-point charter, wrote it all out, and they were mad things in this charter that this bank was going to do to force this totally new reinvention of what the bank and the role it was going to play in people's lives. I gave it to my boss, even though the next morning I thought to myself, "Really, should I be doing this?" But what I didn't know is that she then gave it to the chief executive who called me up to his office on the top floor of this big block in the square mile where we were working in at the time. He sat me down and he long-silenced and he said,
"Do you know how much these things are going to cost me?"
I was like, "No, of course, I don't," because it was three in the morning and I thought these were just good ideas. One of them, I remember we had a pound-for-pound fundraising scheme. If you were an employee and you were raising money for charity, the bank would match it up to a certain amount. I said that we would extend this scheme to customers.
Andy Goram (33:13):
Katie Macaulay (33:13):
It's a lovely idea, a lovely idea. It didn't go well, this meeting. As I turned to leave, I put my hand on the door and he called me back and he said, "Oh, Katie. I'm so sorry. That wasn't the conversation I was meant to have with you." He was actually a really lovely leader, I just caught him at a bad time." He said, "What I really meant to do was say, 'Look, these ideas aren't going quite fly, but please keep it up. Please keep up that bold thinking, that out-of-the-box thinking. Maybe we'll only have 2.5% of it, but at least somebody is doing that.'"
I think that's the position as internal comms to people. Sometimes you've just got to step out of the budget, step out of the constraints of the brief and think a little bit more ambitiously and boldly. Maybe there'll be a stakeholder that raises their eyes to heaven and thinks, "Goodness, me," they've got no idea. But if you ground it in the reality of what your organisation is trying to achieve, and at that time the bank was working on its brand and wanted to strengthen its brand, as long as you ground it in the reality and in the business reality of what it's trying to achieve, then just kick out the safe option and then kick out the bold, ambitious, this may sound nuts but, option.
I interviewed Sally Susman, who is the Executive Vice President for Corporate Communications at Pfizer. She sat on the Pfizer development task force. She was in the room when the FDA approved Pfizer's vaccine. Very amazing woman, amazing story she told on the podcast. But through the development of the vaccine, she was ringing her CEO saying,
"Look, I know we've got to work on the vaccine, we've got to get a successful vaccine. I also know that we've got to convince people to have the shots in their arms, and there's going to be a lot of people who are vaccine hesitant, shall we say, but I've got a secret mission that I'm not going to commit to strategically on paper, but I'm going to use this opportunity to reframe how the public thinks of big pharma. I am going to try to make people think differently about the pharmaceutical industry and particularly about Pfizer," which is what she's done.
She's written a brilliant book on it since then that's just come out. That was a and real great example of someone thinking just a little bit more boldly and a bit more ambitiously, half keeping it to herself, but working out through what mattered to the organisation and its strategy, how she could do something even more powerful that's going to shape not just the future of that organisation, but potentially the sector as well. Yeah, it comes down to bravery and ambition, I guess, as well.
Communications Failure: A Combination of Fear, Complexity and a Lack of Connection
Andy Goram (36:05):
Well, these things all link, don't they? This is the thing, and I'm sitting here listening, sucking it all up as always. But I guess, there are three things that have come to me when we think about how far away we are from the picture that you painted earlier on. It's come down to these three things of fear for some reason. There's always a fear behind what we communicate, how much we communicate, what we tell people, what we don't tell people. Then there's a thing around complexity, which can be down to many, many, many voices. I mean, you work with some very, very big organisations. Everybody, every department's got lots of things they want to say. People within those departments have got loads of things to say. Then there's, I guess, a lack of connection with the actual audience that we're trying to get to do stuff.
For me, if we can solve those three issues, to your point, if we can think about bravery instead of fear, if we can simplify instead of making things more complex, and I think that comes from what you talked about before around alignment. I think this is where we cross the streams again, because I think this is where businesses really cause themselves problems, because there's so much to do. There's always so much to do, and there are myriad projects that need doing. We built this thing of we must do loads and loads of different things. That just adds to even more complexity. Actually, a lot of those projects either then don't certainly see the light of day, or they don't ever become part of the fabric of an organisation. They don't have a higher success rate, they get delivered. They maybe last a fleeting moment and then slip back and muscle memory comes back in and takes over.
Then I think this lack of connection, and I love the fact that you talk about writing for the approver and not the recipient. If we really understand who we're trying to motivate, inform, engage, and we can make things more simple, and we actually do fewer things, we make progress with them. To me, this is where it all starts to make sense. But that's a challenge for lots of businesses to cut all the complexity, to be brave and to really think about the audience and what they, to your word, need to know to function at their best. This is what we're talking about. We've done what we'd like to see happen. We've talked about how far we are from that state. How do we go to the third place? How do we begin to start changing it, Katie?
How To Improve Internal Communications
Katie Macaulay (38:52):
A few things come to mind from what you're saying. The fear thing is real and we mustn't discount it because I'm interesting, isn't it? Because there are people that say that fear is a sign you're onto something. Nothing good happens basically within your comfort zone, so feeling that fear is possibly a sign you're onto something. I would say one thing that's going to help you enormously is data and research. You either come into a room with an idea, or you come into the room with some evidence, and the two things are really, really different, or have an idea that's backed by evidence.
Andy Goram (39:26):
Katie Macaulay (39:26):
I would say that there will be a way of absolutely categorically proving that a certain employee mindset is driving better productivity, for example, or more organisational success. That link is somewhere made in your organisation. There's always pockets of fantastic performance, okay? There's always a branch or whatever it is. There's a site, a factory somewhere that's doing something no one else is. If you look under the bonnet, you'll find that connection and you'll be able to play that back. Go into the room with data, and that will help hopefully suppress some of your fear. The complexity bit is really important. I think what's happened through COVID is a lot of leadership teams have got quite excited about the power of internal communications. Actually, we are in an interesting time. Now when I speak to internal comms teams, they feel overwhelmed, overwhelmed with a number of new demands, the list of priorities, inverted commas.
Is it Jim Collins that says, "If you've got more than three priorities, you don't have any."?
I encourage teams to step back as often as they can from the day-to-day, potentially use that Eisenhower, urgent versus important matrix, because what's so interesting about that exercise when you look at what's urgent versus important is that the important things, the things that really move an organisation forward and to be fair, what moves an individual forward, because it's things like learning and development and those kinds of things never have a deadline attached to them, or certainly never have an urgent deadline attached to them. The things that crop up in your inbox, which is always somebody else's to-do list, but in your inbox will have the urgent thing, rarely really important and moving your agenda forward. You've got to play games with that and work out where you're going to put your energy. I would say every single day we set and focus on can you decouple the urgent from the important and at least do some important things. Your thing about complexity, it's a very noisy environment inside most organisations.
You only have to ask people about how they feel about email, for example, just that alone. You'll get this slightly stressed look of people not being able to keep on top of the stuff, the flood of stuff that's coming to them every day. So, I think there's two things there. I think it's very interesting how in certain organisations, and I'm thinking of IKEA here for example, the central team there think it's strategically important simply to, if you like, simplify the message and make sure that the frontline are given the time and the space to do their job. They deliberately act as gatekeepers. I've known many organisations do this, they deliberately say, "No, we are going to decide what the frontline gets, how often it gets it, so that they have the time to do what they need to serve the customer really well."
I think that's an interesting space for us to play in. It doesn't feel terribly strategic to be that gatekeeper of deciding what goes out and what doesn't, but actually I think that's quite interesting, and there's loads of ways we can reduce the noise inside organisations. But above that, the stories we tell, they can't be complex. They can't be about leveraging our synergies and about maximizing returns. They really can't. This is why we come back to stories, don't we? And we come back to storytelling or story sharing. I'm trying to avoid using the term corporate narrative, but my goodness me,. Can we, because I think we should be able to, tell a simple, compelling, credible story about why our organisation exists, what it's there to do, how it serves the world? That should be, as I say, emotive, compelling, straightforward, and a story that other people can share with their friends, with their family, that helps them understand why working for that organisation is important and meaningful.
Sticky Notes: The Take-outs
Andy Goram (43:52):
I totally agree. This is where you can really, I think, align culture, values and communications right across the organisation. What a surprise, Katie, that we've been chatting and I've looked at my timer and it's gone. God, you're nearing the end of time and we have not even done sticky notes yet, so let's do that, Katie, right? We're at the part of the show I like to call sticky notes and I'm looking for you to try and consolidate all the things that are buzzing around in your head right now into three simple takeaways that the listeners can take away on three little sticky notes. If we are thinking about helping people really reframe internal comms, what's going to go on your three sticky notes?
Katie Macaulay (44:35):
Okay, I'm going to summarize. I'm going to try and summarize our entire conversation. The first, see how well I do, mark's out of 10. First of all, ask before you tell. I don't care what communications challenge you've got in front of you today, there are some smart questions you should be asking both of your stakeholders, but particularly your audience before you start designing, writing, planning, any kind of communication. Have you asked those smart open questions? Go out and ask them. You will gather intelligence that makes your solution so much better. So do that. The second question, and this comes back to Steve Crescenzo, the sticky note should read, would you read it? Would you read it? If you're bored by the second paragraph, your audience is bored by the second word, so just put yourself in the audience's shoes, would you read it?
The third one comes down to that prioritisation, the demands on us every day. It's a quote from Seth Godin, who I absolutely love,
"You don't need more time in your day. You need to decide."
That's about stepping back and deciding how am I going to spend my energy, my time, my finite resources today on what's really going to make a difference? Actually, maybe it's just one conversation that you need to have with a senior stakeholder that's come to you with an opportunity that you said, "We'll roll out the usual campaign," and now you're going to go back and think, "it's not the usual campaign. I'm going to do something bigger, braver, even if I'm just going to test a bigger braver idea," yeah, that's what I would recommend.
Andy Goram (46:22):
Oh, Katie! Three lovely, wonderful sticky notes there. Great job at summarizing sort of what we've talked about in this conversation, and yet I know we could have talked about a whole lot more and we will continue outside of the recording to talk about this a whole lot more. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you on the show today, Katie. Thank you so much.
Katie Macaulay (46:45):
It's been a wonderful experience, Andy. Thank you for inviting me.
Andy Goram (46:49):
I hope it's not been too scary on the other side of the mic. I thought you were fabulous. Thank you so much.
Katie Macaulay (46:53):
Andy Goram (46:55):
Okay, everyone. That was Katie Macaulay. If you'd like to find out a bit more about her or any of the topics that we've talked about today, please check out the show notes.
So, that concludes today's episode. I hope you've enjoyed it, found it interesting and heard something maybe that will help you become a stickier, more successful business from the inside going forward. If you have, please like, comment, and subscribe. It really helps. I'm Andy Goram, and you've been listening to The Sticky From The Inside Podcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.
Andy Goram is the owner of Bizjuicer, an employee engagement and workplace culture consultancy that's on a mission to help people have more fulfilling work lives. He's also the host of the Sticky From The Inside Podcast, which talks to experts on these topics from around the world.