leadership

How To Communicate Yet Another Bloody Departmental Merger

An open letter to leaders and communicators in the Australian Public Service and Government Agencies impacted by the announcement to super-merge departments.

Dear government communications leaders, middle managers, department heads, branch heads

Another change with no notice. Another significant change that will have a significant degree of attention and negative press.

The MoG* guidelines don’t prioritise effective communication, so what do you do?

TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ

Following the announcement of merging 18 Federal Government departments into 14, the Machinery of Government process kicks in. For employees and line managers, the communication process as recommended in the MoG is too late in the change process and under-developed in terms of how to immediately communicate with those affected. Mid-tier roles and positions with direct reports will need ways to communicate through the uncertainty of the weeks until 1 February. 

1. Make real communication a priority now

2. Listen

3. Stop waiting to communicate until there is more information

4. Be real

These are explained in detail below after the next three sections that provide some context.

Why *Machinery of Government guidelines aren’t enough for effective communication

The Australian Public Service employes around 150,000 people and other public sector organisations, around 90000 more. 

Which means around a quarter of a million Australian employees found out about significant transformation to their workplace via the media yesterday when the Prime Minister announced the merger of 18 departments into 14. In his announcement, he did state there would not be job losses (aside from the five departmental secretaries) and that “those who were previously performing functions in the areas that I have talked about in other departments will now perform those functions in new departments.” That sounds simple. 

This type of change, in corporate life known as a restructure and in the public service as a  “Machinery of Government (MOG) change” are frequent enough to have a set of guidelines for managing the changes.  

Interestingly, one of the first items is “hire people to help manage the change.”

Points 6 and 7 of the executive summary recognise that this might need some help…

6. Agencies are encouraged to appoint an independent advisor to manage the MoG process, facilitate negotiations and to help resolve contested issues. An independent advisor must be appointed if milestones are not being met.

7. It is good practice to complete a thorough due diligence exercise within the first five to ten days to identify complex or contested issues early. As soon as it is apparent that a MoG is complex or contested, an independent advisor should be appointed to identify potentially contentious issues and mediate a resolution.

Interestingly, the communication processes for the change are listed not anywhere under People Management, but as the last point under Planning And Due Diligence:

Communication strategy

  1. Section 47 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 requires that a business consults—so far as is reasonably practicable—with workers who are (or are likely to be) directly affected by health and safety matters.
  2. During a MoG change, agencies are encouraged to conduct ongoing communication and consultation with workers about their transition to new work arrangements. It is important to communicate with affected staff early in the process to explain:
    • why—the reasons and objectives for change
    • what—the impact of change
    • what next—the timetable for specific activity relating to the change
    • how—the mechanism for providing the input on the implementation.
  3. The steering committee may decide to appoint a Communications Manager in each affected agency.
This is not comprehensive and appears WAY TOO LATE in the change plan (and that’s not communication practitioner bias, it’s based on human response to change)

Every time an employee hears something fundamental about their role from outside their organisation, trust is destroyed. For workers in the public service or other agencies, where the debate about functions, roles and efficiencies is played out in public, this is a difficult time. One that happens a lot.

Disruption disrupts – so denial and ‘business as usual’ is not an option

Major change – transformational change such as redefining the scope and remit of an agency, or bringing together separate departments – in the short term creates a range of predictable human responses and an accompanying downturn in productivity.

Study after study about the negative impacts demonstrate that a number of conditions are a guarantee of reduced trust and disengagement:

  • Creating a high level of ambiguity by referencing major change without specific details
  • Publishing information externally on change that impacts individuals publicly before communicating directly with them
  • Providing no opportunities for input to change or its implementation
  • Not gathering feedback
  • Gathering feedback or research and not acknowledging the findings (even if the findings cannot be acted on it is key to be transparent)
  • Making ‘big bang’ announcements that are not supported with ongoing change and communication initiatives.
But there IS a process to get there. It’s the Machinery of Goverment Guide!

A significant change is an opportunity to do things better. The approaches to implementing major changes can provide a catalyst for the kinds of departmental and team leadership and communication that build trust and strengthen the capacity for change. Organisations that get this right see benefits in productivity, trust and capability.

HOWEVER…THIS IS AN OPPORTUNITY

It is possible to communicate in a way that is humanistic and respects employees. A leaner public service will require higher levels of engagement to deliver ‘more with less.’ Yet, unless these changes are led effectively with meaningful employee communication, the support of the employees required to do the work will be eroded at exactly the time they will be needed the most. It’s a perfect time to do things better, because there is literally nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Four things public sector leaders can do now to make this not so shit for people impacted by the changes

1. Make real communication a priority now

Ministerial releases and intranet posts will not actually address the communication need at the heart of this challenge.

During uncertainty people need more real communication, and they need it from their immediate managers and supervisors fast. The majority of trust and engagement is attributable to the actions of leaders and supervisors, not memos.

Real means two-way face-to-face communication. Dialogue, listening, and discussion are part of the sense-making process for major change.  This requires planning, commitment, time and skills – at a time when costs are being scrutinised. But the cost of not adopting real communication is another workplace-generation of low engagement and mistrust.

2. Listen

This is what it says on the tin. There are two levels of listening that are key. The first is as a leader, genuinely listen; take time to hear and acknowledge the experience of people facing change. The second is institutional listening; ensure that there are ways of capturing the attitudes, questions and concerns of employees. In environments where listening has not been high on the agenda this is a big – but symbolically priceless – change if it is done effectively. This doesn’t mean ‘just another survey’ or feedback box. It does mean engaging in dialogue about the reality of the changes.

3. Stop waiting to communicate until there is more information

There will always be an information gap. That doesn’t mean there should be a communication gap.  Realise that not communicating is not an option. Talk about possible scenarios, and talk to facts. Talk about process in the absence of details of the change. When there is nothing to update, tell people there is nothing to update. Ask questions.  Or listen.

When employees are reading and hearing something outside the organisation – whether in the news or on twitter – be prepared for some form of communication inside. 

Making an announcement then asking employees to ‘discuss this with their manager’ without equipping managers and supervisors to have next-level conversations about change sets them up to fail. Even in organisations with healthy levels of engagement, it is not uncommon for there to be a pain point at the mid-level manager. They are expected to be the local face of change, yet are also typically facing the impact of changes themselves.  If it’s important to increase the focus on communication during uncertainty for employees, it is twice as essential for managers.

4. Be real

Communication is never a substitute for strategy. If the strategy is going to be challenging, saying otherwise is not going to make it better. Although the public is accustomed to spin being part of the political discourse, spin has no place in employee communication.

Discuss what the future requires, what the current situation looks like, and what needs to happen to bridge that divide. For managers and supervisors, this means taking the time to be able to understand change and discuss it.

If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Establish links to the policy and strategic priorities you do have greater certainty about.

I’ve previously prepared some resources for leaders and people managers to help them – you – do this.

The seven things to do next

There are protocols in the Machinery of Government change approach, but they are not really going to create positive change.

You need to be managing communication effectively now.

  1. Have a plan
  2. Understand the context
  3. Put it in real language – no spin.
  4. Prioritise face to face and dialogue
  5. Listen
  6. Support managers in their role
  7. Communicate some more.

As change and uncertainty is a feature of every industry and sector and part of the landscape of business – the new normal – rather than accepting the negative consequences, leaders have the opportunity to face into the change and use the change as a catalyst for open, constructive communication.

But most of all, as managers you can try to make the change not feel like an episode of Utopia. Not communicating isn’t an option. Don’t be Rhonda.

Disclosure: I have provided advisory counsel, change and communication training to a number of Federal and State Government departments, agencies and directorates, both as Meaning Business and in my former role as Research & Content Director, Melcrum Asia Pacific.

An earlier version of this article was published prior to the 2014 Federal Budget when the Liberal Government announced it would cut over 10000 positions.

How CEOs can update their approach to communication

“Communications is an undervalued, lightly regarded discipline in the theory and practice of corporate leadership” writes Walter G. Montgomery in an excellent piece in Knowledge@Wharton, How CEOs Can Adopt a 21st-century Approach to Communication.

Montgomery, Organizational Communication

Walter G Montgomery on CEO communication

He provides six requirements for CEOs needing to increase the strategic focus for communication as a business differentiator:

  • Clearly and repeatedly send the message that communication is valued and essential – including as a requirement for career advancement.
  • Be scientific about effective communication – new advances in data science and cognitive studies should form a part of effective communication design.
  • View the communication environment holistically and assess it as such – it isn’t outsourced to a comms team.
  • Skill build for all with a communication responsibility.
  • Make the top communication job a strategic one.
  •  Focus tightly on values through communication activity.

Read the full article.

Communicate with…

COmm

A crisis of trust threatens innovation

Edelman have released the 2015 Trust Barometer, subtitled Trust and Innovation.

One of the most significant long-term research projects for communication is the annual Edelman Trust survey. Its past findings have had profound influences on the way organisations communicate:

  • the rise of peer-based communication based on declining trust in institutions
  • changes to native advertising and trusted storytellers
  • the decline of the authority of government as a voice
  • the failure of leadership in building and maintaining trust

The theme of the 2015 study is Trust and Innovation, drawing the links between current levels of trust, rapid change, and the challenges presented by low trust and rapid innovation.

Edelman’s Ben Boyd says of this:

We live in an era where trust must be earned and not managed, where the microscope for transparency is constant and where business must listen and measure the interactions, intentions and sentiments of shareholders. At the same time, the need and capacity for innovation that solves and disrupts has never been greater.

Some standout messages from this year include:

  • An expert and person like you is now twice as credible as the CEO
  • 51% believe the pace of business innovation is too fast
  • innovation is perceived as being driven by technology and greed, but not by improvement to people’s lives of improving the world
  • higher trust creates the opportunity for faster innovation
  • engagement and integrity are areas for focus to increase trust in business

Read more about the trust survey at the Edelman Trust information centre.

Leaders, before you communicate, ask yourself…

Leadership Communication: It's not what you want to say, it's what you want to happen

Leadership Communication: It’s not what you want to say, it’s what you want to happen

Communication isn’t just a step in a process

This is an excerpt from a post on 3 things to remember in LEAN and process communication published on LinkedIn Pulse.

Information is the content. Communication is how we make sense of the content.

Information is the content. Communication is how we make sense of the content.

1. Information is not the same thing as communication

Data about production metrics, safety instructions, operating standards: these are kinds of information. Information needs to be available at the right time to be useful to employees and managers.

However, there is a difference between making information available and communicating. Information is the content. Communication is the way we make sense of the content.

Communication is a human act. It is a two-way cycle. It involves listening. Communicating involves providing explanations about why something is important, and how it is relevant to the employee. Sending an instruction about safety on a poster or email is not the same as talking about why safety is important and listening to employee’s views and ideas.

Read the whole post on LinkedIn.

What leaders should expect from their communication counsel

As a leader, what should you expect from a communication strategist?

What a great question, and the subject of a recent post on the LinkedIn CommsScrum Group (requires membership). Having worked with C-suite, executive and Board-level leaders across a range of industries, here are some things I think leaders should expect from their comms strategists.

They will treat you as a person. Trust is a process of reciprocity, but it pays dividends. Experienced comms strategists will understand that leaders are human. They will recognise that in business, an executive can seldom get to where they are without some communication strengths, but that their current positions may mean that constructive feedback about areas for improvement isn’t always forthcoming. A good strategist will seek to understand the executive’s business goals and personal context in order to develop programs that help to achieve both.

They will listen. And they might ask more questions than you may be used to from anyone except the CEO or Board. As an executive, you have so many aspects of the business in your head that making connections, judgements and evaluations about your operation is instinctive. Experienced comms strategists will seek to understand your business priorites from your perspective. And in the process, they will (depending on their approach) seek to understand the ‘why’ before helping you with the ‘what’.

They will build on your strengths. An experienced communication strategist understands that protecting the authentic strengths of a leader is a key priority. They will take time to understand what you are best at. This isn’t the same as never asking you to do something you aren’t comfortable with; strengths are sometimes underplayed.

They will talk to you about the business, not just about communication. Experienced comms strategists are business people using communication as a driver for business results. They will ask about goals, about performance, about metrics, about culture, about competition, about risks and issues. And then they will start talking about communication. If they jump straight to the comms stuff, beware.

With that in mind:

  • Be clear about your expectations and in describing what a successful engagement will look like from your perspective.
  • Be open to professional counsel with a view to building trust.
  • Be prepared to contribute time, opinions and knowledge in the development of strategy.

 

Not the zombie apocalypse

Preparing to work with a communication advisor doesn’t need to be scary

Leading the first 100 days

Listening is one of the most important tasks for any leader in the first 100 days.

Today marks 100 days since NSW’s Premier Barry O’Farrell took office, and everyone is talking 100 day plans.  In politics, the term ‘first 100 days’ was used by US President Teddy Roosevelt on entering office in 1933. It is a symbolic period: three months; a season.

For leaders, listening is key to the first 100 days

For leaders, listening is key to the first 100 days

In business and organisations, the concept of the first 100 days was popularised over the last decade following the success of Michael Watkins’ 2003 book The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels

Watkins outlines a number of areas of focus for leaders for leaders following transition – taking up a new role. These include:

  • Self promotion
  • Learning the new environment
  • Adapting your strategy to the new situation
  • Achieving some early successes – and establishing a vision
  • Negotiating agreement with the boss
  • Aligning the organisation
  • Building the team
  • Establishing a stakeholder and supporter base
  • Keeping focused on the right things
  • Using change to maintain momentum

Many new leaders in organisations struggle with the balance of delivering quick wins that are based on the current organisation, not only on what has worked for them elsewhere. During these changes, one of the most important actions in listening. The challenge is for leaders to be honest enough to say ‘I don’t know yet’. The 90 day planning process is valuable because it builds in a period of information gathering and planning based on a diligent approach.

Organisational listening
In addition to being a key leadership skill, there are many ways to listen to an organisation.

While a leader does not need to go to the lengths of Shakespeare’ Henry V or Undercover Boss, there are some ways to listen effectively to the people in the organisation:

  • Visit the places where work is done – don’t summon people to head office.
  • Small groups allow for people to be heard. Don’t gather 100 people and ask them a question.
  • Ask open questions – “What are you working on at the moment?” “What would make that easier?”
  • Be authentic from the outset.
  • Where there may be concerns about an open culture, supplement dialogue with formal research such as independent focus groups or interviews, being open about the purpose and intent.

Pause for progress

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” Ferris Beuller

I recently ran a planning session with a group of senior communicators. Working in a challenging environment, they have a great record for delivering innovative solutions that meet their client’s needs. The list of team achievements over the past few years was impressive. They do this in a complex, time-poor environment that has undergone major change over recent months.

The middle of the calendar year is filled with symbolism. The half way point between the aspirations of January and the crunch of Christmas. It is the heart of the story – the ‘middle’ where the most ‘stuff’ is happening. It is a credit to this group that they were prepared to stop for a day to look at where they have come from and what is ahead.

Mid-year ‘planning’ is a way of gathering the collective intention, resources and capacity of a team to ensure that progress is recognised and priorities are clear. As almost every workplace has discovered over the past few years – things change. Whether through global, economic, political or natural forces, change happens. By ‘regrouping’ mid plan, leadership teams are able to confirm the priorities, agree the messages and stay agile for the months ahead.

Have you planned your mid-year strategy conversations?

Whatever size your business, this is an essential process to ensure your direction is consistent with changes in your business environment and to make sure the story ‘makes sense’ of what needs to be done for the remainder of the year.

Authentic leadership when it counts

In her final show as guest host of Radio Nation Life Matters, Angela Catterns convenes an excellent program about leadership.

Using the recent example of Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s performance during the Queensland catastrophes as a springboard for discussion, Angela is joined by studio guests Rosemary Howard Director of AGSM Executive Programs and  Catherine Harris from UNSW.  The session includes an interview with former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, and thoughful talkback comments. Covering social, political and business leadership, the discussion summarises a number of the themes and challenges for authentic leadership. Definitely worth a listen.

Podcast and transcript
http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2011/3146774.htm
Facebook
http://www.facebook.com/RNLifeMatters?ref=ts&v=wall#!/RNLifeMatters

Anna Bligh’s authentic leadership during the January crises set a benchmark for authentic communication. IABCNSW is hosting a professional development lunch  on Crisis Communication with guest speaker Brisbane City Councillor David McLachlan on 30 March.  Details here: http://www.iabcnsw.com/calendar/15/41-Crisis-Communication-in-the-digital-age.html