Leading by example

In today's business world, a company's success depends on the ability of its senior executives to communicate with various audiences.

As is often the case in business, the ability of a company's senior leadership team to connect with its key stakeholders can depend largely on the effectiveness of its communications strategy.

With a nod to the trend toward greater transparency and interaction within corporate hierarchies, companies like Johnson & Johnson and McDonald's have taken proactive steps in helping their communication channels evolve.

One of the challenges company leaders face is knowing when and how often to communicate with employees, says Maril MacDonald, CEO of Gagen MacDonald. The firm has worked with both companies, assisting them with leadership alignment, business strategy communications, and employee engagement.

“What often happens is leaders will make a commitment to employees that [they're] going to do four things. And, from the leaders' point of view, they did them,” she says. “It's often a surprise to leaders that you have to go back and show people, ‘Here's what we did.'”

In addition to top-down communications, employee engagement is necessary in creating the right dynamic, says Matt Gonring, a partner at Gagen.

“It's important to facilitate two-way communications,” he adds, “because there's [not only] the opportunity to talk to employees, but to hear from them, which enables better collaboration.”

Craig Rothenberg, VP of corporate communications at J&J agrees.

“We are listening much more than we ever have,” he says. “And not just listening, but integrating the actions and recommendations that are brought forward by employees, and putting them into practice where they make sense.”

Rothenberg's position includes the duty of developing innovations in employee engagement, in addition to organizational and executive communications.

“My role is [to] engage our employees across the enterprise of Johnson & Johnson at a much more fundamental level so that they can understand... what the key business priorities and the key business strategies [are], and what the long-term plans are,” he says.

To foster better communications, J&J has used such tactics as creating more town-hall meetings with senior management, and placing greater emphasis on employee feedback.

For example, during a recent business update – when Rothenberg led communications within the global pharmaceutical business unit – he noted that only 12 minutes of a 90-minute meeting were actually spent on presentations, with the rest taken up by employee questions.

When time ran out, the team posted employee questions that could not be answered on the intranet and answered them online, Rothenberg says. This created “more engagement and discretionary effort, and [assisted] leaders to greater progress in business.”

“That's a real change from 10 years ago,” says Rothenberg, “Then, it was very proscriptive.”

An increasing role

As executive leadership progresses toward creating more employee-facing initiatives, the role of the corporate communications department is now more clearly aligned with such key components as performance management, says Gonring.

“We've now found that over the years one of the difficulties with leadership communications has been that it was deemed to be the accountability of the communications department, [not leadership]” MacDonald adds.

Jason Greenspan, director of strategic communications at McDonald's, notes the evolution of this strategy for the global internal communications function, which changed from basically just providing leadership with talking points to an increasingly vital role in developing business strategy.

“We went from being a service provider to actually being at the table and helping [leadership] execute their particular plans,” he says.

Gagen assisted McDonald's with its leadership 360-degree review for its Restaurant Solutions Group (RSG), and continues to work on various initiatives for the company.

During the review, the team mapped and analyzed leadership and communications behaviors integral to the business to identify how the organization could work more efficiently and better influence field plans in different areas of the world, like Asia-Pacific or Europe.

In the past, Greenspan says, the business unit operated in a “tell and sell mode,” meaning a member of corporate headquarters would expect an area of the world to enact the request.

“Now, it's much more about co-creation,” he says. “If I want this area of the world to do something, it [becomes] about having a conversation and understanding the reality [that the area] is operating in.”

Greenspan says he's currently working worldwide on drive-thru solutions – which is a large part of McDonald's business in many parts of the world. This communications focus has “helped expedite things, such as operations and productivity enhancements,” he notes.

He adds that the 360-degree review has provided the group with the ability to focus on longer-term strategy, and has become ingrained in the way members of the group interact.

These kinds of solutions have enabled corporate communications professionals to be more resourceful, due to their alignment with leadership and the ability to be involved in the ongoing business plans, MacDonald says.
“That is because we've become more sophisticated at solving that problem [from back] when we thought our job was disseminating information,” she adds. “If you believe your job is facilitating leadership, that's a different job.”

Ways to empower leadership
  • Accept leaders' comms abilities. The most effective leaders tell a story or explain a methodology in their own authentic way. The focus is on developing leaders' ability to communicate, beyond superficial criticisms
  • Subvert symbols of power. By changing policy on office issues ranging from formal dress code to preferential parking, leaders can put an end to behavioral symbols and enhance the believability of changes in leadership
  • Close the comms gap. Leadership should focus on apprising employees of messaging that might trickle down naturally. It's important to effectively close the loop

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