2018 World Conference recap, day three: Making leaders great communicators

Photo credit: Sabrina Belzil

by Charmane Russell

On day three of the 2018 IABC World Conference, the theme of the communication crossroads continued to dominate presentations and conversations, particularly as this applies at a leadership level.

General session: CEO panel

The opening general session, a panel moderated by Hugues Mousseau, vice president and partner with Syrus Reputation, introduced three CEOs: Luc Sabbatini, of PBSC Urban Solutions; Eugène Lapierre, of the Rogers Cup; and Ralph Hosker, of Belron Canada. Central to the discussion was whether and how communication can make a demonstrable contribution to business success and whether business communicators are positioned to be the next chief strategy officers.

On whether there has been an evolution in the role of communicators in business, the panelists agreed that there has been a rapid transformation, rather than a slow evolution. Lapierre cited an example: The discourse related to narrative did not exist 10 years ago—today it is central to the C-suite.

What can communicators do more of to become more relevent? “We want advice,” said Lapierre, “so we are a couple of steps ahead of the game.” Said Sabbatini, “Communication is a long-term investment. We need to be innovative—find new ways of doing things.”

“Employee engagement is a company’s best defense [in reputation management],” said Hosker. “Be connected to the organization you are working with,” he added. “Give me feedback on what people are thinking and feeling, honestly and clearly, and in a constructive way, with ideas of how to take things forward.”

As part of the discussion, Moisseau released initial results of the Syrus’ 2018 CEO Reputation survey, which included:

  • 84% of CEOs surveyed said they couldn’t do without their business communicators.
  • 92% felt that communications is ROI-positive, rather than a cost center.
  • The main obstacles to good communication were: (1) budget/financial resources; (2) team expertise and experience, (3) organizational culture, (4) business acumen and (5) understanding company objectives.
  • Most valuable areas of contribution: (1) generating goodwill (reputation); (2) protecting reputation; and (3) employee engagement.
  • 77% of CEOs felt that communication has become more important over the past five years.

And, will communicators shape strategy in the future? According to Sabbatini, it’s team work, and part of the ethos and culture of the company, so not down to one role. Yes, said Hosker, you could. But, you need to be good at strategy, because communication and strategy are not one and the same thing.

Making leaders great communicators

Colin Hatfield’s afternoon breakout session was a really useful follow-up to the CEO session: He pointed out that while communication lies at the heart of leadership, leaders are often ill-prepared for specific communication challenges. What’s more, they are often under-served by the communication professionals who support them.

He asked the question: “Do businesses tolerate financially illiterate leaders?” By extension then, why would we accept mediocrity in leadership communication? He notes that we have the opportunity to amplify leadership through communication, and presented a three-part manifesto for leadership communication.

Practical communication

A presentation by Lisa Hartenberger, director of global communications at Tenneco, and Kate Bushnell, president of the Grossman Group, in a presentation on a best-in-class plant communication, demonstrated in very practical terms the role of communication in improving engagement and, as a consequence, improving production and safety.

An interesting part of their approach was to ensure focus, adopting a process of triage, so that the most effort went into addressing the plants that had the poorest engagement scores. There were two other determinants of the selection process—critical mass and a readiness for change.

They spoke about the need to “speak the language of leaders,” the need to adopt a servant-leadership approach, and the need to get early wins to ensure that the plant leaders themselves bought into the process—all themes that recurred throughout the day.

Unconference

As a post-script, the organizers of this year’s conference added some innovative engagement processes under the banner of Unconference. These included game changer sessions, an Open Space session to explore those topics that had not been covered elsewhere, group mentoring for newcomers to the profession, as well as off-site experiences. And, of course, the evening closed with the annual Excellence Gala honoring the winners of the 2018 Gold Quill Awards for communication excellence.

About the author

Charmane Russell founded R&A Strategic Communications in 1999. The agency offers strategic counsel and implementation support on reputation management, communication and reporting strategies and human rights. R&A is niched in the natural resources sector with more than 35 clients in South Africa and abroad. Russell is the spokesperson for the South Africa Chamber of Mines. Previously, she headed up corporate communication for Anglo American, before she moved to AngloGold Limited when that company listed as a separate entity.

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