Behind every great leader, you’ll probably find a trusted advisor – an individual who can act as a sage counsellor and discreet sounding board. With their candour and expertise, the trusted advisor is a pivotal player in the exploration of new ideas, discovering solutions to critical problems, illuminating organizational blind spots and navigating the road ahead.
It’s easy to see why becoming a trusted advisor to the CEO and/or senior leaders is akin to the Holy Grail for many internal communicators. After all, the benefits from a development perspective are clear: the professional who is the first port of call for the solution to a business problem is in a tremendous position to help shape the thinking, build a deeper understanding of the situation, and to establish strong credibility through the discussions. In other words, they will be in pole position to not only influence what is done, but what is communicated and how it is said.
But becoming a trusted advisor doesn’t happen overnight. The position must be earned – and this takes time and investment of effort. So, how do you build this type of relationship and become a trusted advisor to the CEO? And how do you go beyond your “comms expert” label and become viewed by top management as a critical partner in making the organization’s most important decisions?
A businessperson who talks communication
We’ve all seen them, the communicator that delivers internal messages, and the communicator that helps shape the business. But what differentiates the two? Quite simply it’s having knowledge of your business, and the ability to be proactive, says Sue Dewhurst, managing director of the SD Group, and a Melcrum UK Black Belt trainer.
Demonstrating an understanding of where your internal customers are coming from, what their problems are and conducting conversations from that perspective is a fundamental part of being a trusted advisor. How a communicator is viewed varies depending on the type of conversations the internal customers are used to having with them. A leader is undoubtedly going to find greater value in the communicator who speaks the language of the business and tries to achieve the business objectives first and foremost. “Quite often what happens is communicators go in and have ‘communication conversations’, and I think it doesn’t quite match,” says Dewhurst, on identifying blocks to achieving trusted advisor status.
It’s surprising then that many let keeping abreast of the business strategy fall by the wayside. Yes, internal communicators may feel like they already have hundreds of things on their to do list, but could failing in getting to know the business be the reason why they often find themselves as the deliverer of organizational messages, rather than cultivating them? “Although internal communicators want to do this, I think they quite often place the blame at the foot of their internal customers,” says Dewhurst. She often hears communicators complain that they’re not involved in decisions until it’s too late, or that their advice isn’t being listened to, but, she adds: “There’s no smoke without fire, and if they’re not being treated as advisors, it’s because they’ve not achieved the right to be there yet.”
From reactive to proactive
Equipping yourself with knowledge of your business means you can take a proactive stance in helping meet its objectives. Those who are usually sought out tend to have proved their worth and built a reputation on looking for opportunities to achieve business goals, regularly talking to internal customers and understanding what’s going on in their remit. “It’s not about sitting there and waiting for the customers to come out and ask you to do something,” says Dewhurst. “If you know your business, you can see where there’s potential for an issue or something that needs support, and you proactively go out and offer your help with solving that issue.”
For Kelly Vandrine, head of communication at healthcare company Bupa Australia, knowing her business and using her specialist skill has seen the function transform from one that simply sent out company announcements, to one that today works with people across the business to develop comms strategies. In practice, this means that when someone submits a project for review or sign-off, they have to state early on what internal communication support they need.
“It means we have a view of what’s coming up the rest of the year, that we wouldn’t otherwise know about,” says Vandrine. She regularly works with the CEO and directors to provide advice and consultation on projects and helping them achieve their objectives.
Transforming the role and function
Vandrine emphasizes that the need to demonstrate value – and how you can support the business – is essential in positioning oneself as a trusted advisor. She agrees that brushing up on business knowledge and being proactive is key to paving the way to doing this. “You can only be a trusted advisor if you have any idea of what you’re talking about, because otherwise [senior leaders] will completely dismiss you, even if your idea is sound, because they won’t think you understand their challenges,” she says.
To widen your knowledge of the business, Kim Beddard-Fontaine, vice president, internal communications at Schneider Electric, asserts the importance of getting involved in management meetings, as well as asking for time with different members of the leadership to get input on what their needs are. “You have to start opening the door yourself,” she says.
This was one of the first things Vandrine did when she first moved into her role, setting up one-to-one meetings with each of the directors at Bupa Australia, to gauge their views on what they saw the role of IC being, their top five priorities for the next year, as well as her views on the function’s role in the business.
“I didn’t position it as being about me, I tried to position it to what I could do for them and support their teams,” she says.
“The first time I asked, ‘how do you think internal comms can support the business in meeting its objectives’ some of them looked at me blankly, as if to say ‘internal comms can support the business? What are you talking about, don’t you just send emails?’” A common reaction, no doubt, for many communicators.
Aside from moving from tactical to strategic and reactive to proactive, what competencies are needed in order to become a trusted advisor? One characteristic that defines the trusted advisor is having the guile to push back, disagree, and tell leaders what they might not want to hear when required. “You gain credibility by creating that dialogue,” says Beddard-Fontaine. “Sometimes what they want, is not necessarily what they need, so you need to dig deeper with them to understand their situation,” she says.
Courage and confidence is key in doing this, as Dewhurst says: “As much as they want to be a trusted advisor, many communicators don’t want to question a senior leader because they don’t want to question the decision. They don’t want to make themselves unpopular or put themselves in a position where there might be potential conflict.”
Vandrine says building this confidence is all in the “how”: “Whether I’m going to my CEO or a director, I try and understand each person individually. I tailor each situation to recognize what it is they need. Some leaders can be ego driven, so I think it’s important to really know your stakeholders and know about the subject.”
A key competency in becoming a trusted advisor is listening. “Listen to what people are and aren’t saying so you can start to identify some of those triggers for them. If you can start to understand where they’re coming from, it means you can understand their priorities and some of their concerns, and can therefore identify some of the opportunities where you can support them,” Vandrine says.
Stephen Pain, acting vice president, corporate communications at Unilever, agrees. He emphasizes that listening to not just what the client is saying but the organization in its entirety – from the bottom up, top down and externally – is effective in helping senior managers understand the context in which the business is operating.
The CEO and senior leaders are expected to be the decision makers, they’re meant to make sense of all this complexity, and the role of the trusted advisor is to help them through that. “That’s part of what you’re there to do. Management is about making good judgments, and trusted advisors support management in making those judgments,” says Pain.
Building partnerships with other functions also facilitates this, he says, demonstrating you have a multi-dimensional view of the business. A part of the communication challenge is to synthesize these different points of view and develop a narrative out of it, so when feeding back into top management, you’re able to talk to senior leaders about the business in its entirety, as opposed to from one particular view.
He adds that having this holistic view provides an opportunity to engage in quality, value-adding conversations, both for yourself and leaders. “If you can speak the boardroom language, then you’ll find yourself a credible contributor to the boardroom debate,” adds Pain.
Having that in-depth knowledge of the business is fundamental to becoming a good coach and consultant, assisting in identifying deeper issues through asking questions, says Beddard-Fontaine. “If your boss isn’t doing it, it might be because he hasn’t thought about it,” she says. By asking challenging and thought-provoking questions you can help leaders understand their business problem, which is crucial in earning respect and building rapport, she adds.
So, what are the lasting benefits to both the business and for communicators professionally in this role? For Beddard-Fontaine, it means you’re not the last person to know – you’re one of the first – and you have influence. These days she increasingly sees top managers asking for time on her agenda. “When you start showing your added value, they start coming to you rather then you having to go to them, and rather than telling me what to do, people ask me,” she says.
It also means communication is an important component of supporting leadership in achieving business goals. “When the function is positioned as trusted advisors, at the source of information, we become a management tool to help drive the business, which in turn helps drive employee engagement,” she adds.
Pain says: “In a sense you’re in a position to pull together and work cross-functionally, cross-culturally and really at the center of the organization. Being able to tell that story or put together the narrative of what needs to get done means you’re in a very important position in pulling it all together. Professionally it’s a very satisfying role to be performing.”
So when you are aligning yourself with your leadership, leading the comms function and ensuring communication is firmly on the business agenda, it’s no wonder the trusted advisor role remains so coveted.
Relentlessly over-scripting leaders can pose at least two significant problems for Internal Communication (IC). First, it limits leaders from authentically speaking to the bigger strategic picture. Secondly, it overburdens IC with the responsibility to create all leadership communication for disbursement to the organization. And while this is not particularly troublesome at companies with a robust, abundantly staffed function, it could be quite the challenge for IC departments that have limited resources.
IC spread too thin
This latter scenario was the case at CNO Financial Group, a financial services holding organization for a group of insurance companies, which operates in the United States and employs around 4,200 people. In 2013, CNO’s annual communications survey revealed that employees were craving more frequent interactions directly with leaders. For instance, they preferred leaders to personally deliver at least some of the updates on new campaigns.
This request for more frequent, authentic communication prompted Internal Communication to brainstorm new ways to increase the visibility of its Top 300 seniormost. The small size of the company’s Internal Communication team, however, greatly limited its ability to scale equal support to all 300 leaders. Most resources were already assigned to C-suite executives and the IC team couldn’t expand its bandwidth. This is a universal pain point for the IC function: without a way to scale IC’s resources, the Top 300 are often in danger of being poorly connected to their peers and other employees.
Doing more with less
To address the demand for more communication from leaders, IC at CNO launched various new platforms designed to prompt leaders from across the organization to contribute content more actively. To solve the issue of scalability, IC designed a tiered support mechanism, which gradually enhances contributors’ ability to produce authentic, compelling content more independently with each subsequent submission.
- Tier One: One-on-one coaching. IC provides intense, personalized, face-to-face support to leaders the first time they write a communication.
- Tier Two: Guidelines. IC provides a set of pointers and reminders to supplement the one-on-one advisory leaders have already received. These serve as a reminder to leaders writing on their own in the future.
- Tier Three: Performance metrics and feedback. IC provides detailed reports on individual contributions that help leaders benchmark against peers, gauge their content’s pertinence, and fine-tune their approach.
Personalized first steps build a foundation of capabilities
One of CNO’s most successful initiatives is a blog, called Leader Talk, where Top 300 leaders from across the organization contribute posts on topics relevant to the company at large. In order to ease leaders into writing, IC crafted a multi-step coaching process intended to build a foundation of core skills for first-time bloggers. These included:
- Making the business case: At the outset, the communicator drives a sense of urgency about why authentic communication is an area leaders need to spend time and effort on.
- Keeping everyone on track: IC project manages recruiting writers, mapping out contributions, and ensuring everyone adheres to deadlines.
- Assisting with the nuts and bolts: Once leaders are on-board to write, communicators provide different types of context about the organization to help them pick a relevant topic and draft the blog content in an appropriate voice. IC remains involved throughout the drafting and polishing process, frequently going back and forth with leaders on edits and ideas.
- Providing constructive feedback and support: A trusting relationship between IC and leaders is key, especially when it comes to less experienced writers. During this initial coaching process, IC becomes leaders’ closest champion and supporter, providing guidance and encouragement, but also validating the sizable impact of their contribution.
Traditionally, IC tends to script leader communications heavily to make sure the intended message is accurately delivered to the right audience. Furthermore, most leaders do not have the time or desire to draft content themselves because they don’t see the value in adding a more personal touch. And even if leaders do want to reach out to peers and employees directly, they often do not have the skills that would help their messages appear relevant and sincere. All this usually results in predictable communication that employees receive with indifference and a dose of cynicism.
The coaching process IC has introduced at CNO solves these challenges by helping leaders build the skills necessary to unlock their authentic voice as organization-wide experts.
Consistently looping back to the basics
After leaders have contributed to Leader Talk at least once, IC provides a set of comprehensive guidelines as the next level of support to help them do it again in the future, but with less one-on-one interaction.
These guidelines include tips and reminders of what leaders should keep in mind when picking a topic and addressing employees, so that their message comes off as clear, appealing, and authentic. As leaders have already covered the basics during the more in-depth coaching phase, they are now encouraged to think about content more creatively and independently.
The guidelines serve as a reference point when leaders set out to apply the skills they have started developing. They also prompt leaders to actively seek more context on what is top-of-mind across the organization, rather than rely on IC for this.
Benchmarking keeps leaders on track
As a third step of its tiered coaching, IC created various mechanisms to track performance metrics and employee feedback, which is a powerful way to boost leaders’ confidence in their skills and help them better tailor their messages according to what resonates with the audience. For instance, CNO has adapted Shell’s Message Engagement Index to measure the impact of individual posts. Based on the number of visits and comments blogs receive, IC prepares a report that is available to all leaders and shows how engagement with their contributions compares to that of others’.
Not only can this mechanism ignite friendly competition among contributors regarding who produces more powerful content, it also helps them see how their own thinking has evolved over time. If a leader notices a difference in how their second or third post has fared relative to earlier ones, they are prompted to consider what they have done differently to achieve that higher or lower score.
Diving deeper into the performance of each individual post, IC produces another set of statistics that show leaders exactly how many visits, views, and comments their piece has scored. Leaders are encouraged to monitor comments and engage in online discussions with employees personally, which further boosts their visibility and accessibility.
IC also compiles a word cloud from all the comments posts receive, which is a creative and visually appealing way to quickly reveal messages and themes that employees attach to the most. This qualitative feedback is essential to guide leaders in choosing topics and issues to address in the future.
Building confidence and transferable skills
The tiered support leaders receive at CNO has been instrumental in gradually scaling the work IC does around facilitating authentic leader communication.
Even more importantly, the set of skills the Top 300 cultivate through continuously contributing to Leader Talk, such as sensitivity to context, a sharpened insight into employee concerns, and the ability to address a diverse audience simply and earnestly, sets them up for success regardless of the communication channel they use. The confidence and expertise this process gives leaders increases their visibility and assists them in the challenging task of connecting employees to strategic priorities.
Benefits to the workforce of this approach to leadership communication include higher employee engagement with corporate strategy and access to information on key corporate topics, and an increased satisfaction with the level of interaction with leaders. Comments on Leader Talk consistently indicate employees’ appreciation of seeing a more “human” side to their leaders and receiving more relatable, authentic messages that show them the work they do has a tangible impact.