By Mike Klein
One of the things that drives my passion for communication in general, and internal communication in particular, is that it offers a unique opportunity to lead. Coming from a definition of leadership as “presenting an alternative future for a community,” communicators have a unique leadership role to play by framing such alternative futures with words, imagery, tone, and making them more and more real by enrolling other leaders and participants in shaping, advocating and articulating them.
While many communicators are competent and capable of seizing the leadership aspects of their role, many others remain restrained and inhibited — and in so being, fail to get the full potential out of their opportunities, and, worse, fail to demonstrate to their bosses and colleagues what we as a “species” can offer in this area.
The Two Killers: Too Much Deference, Too Little Confidence
Many communicators I’ve known have downplayed their (and our) real and potential leadership roles. This hesitancy belies two causes: an excess of deference and a lack of confidence.
• Deference – the sense of obligation to avoid pre-empting or embarrassing a senior figure – is understandable, but communicators often default to “my boss won’t like this” without proposing or suggesting an idea or some potentially memorable or resonant text. Rather than proposing “what we would say” if we were in a senior person’s position, we default to “what we think she would say,” or, worse, “what we think he would approve.”
At an individual level, this works as something of a survival strategy. But survival comes at a cost—a loss of influence over one’s professional agenda, and, quite possibly, a loss of respect from a client or boss from whom you withhold your best, most innovative and most powerful ideas, who perhaps doesn’t even see you as having the capability to deliver such things.
Even though we as communicators have the ability to define new futures and create new contexts, we are too-often seen as copywriters, event planners and producers of “stuff.” Some would argue that this is all that clients and bosses want from us, but given the pressure they are constantly faced with to increase the impact of their activities while reducing their cost, we do them no favors by holding back from offering ideas and help that can transform their effectiveness as well as accelerating our own. And we do each other no favors when we don’t present ourselves as an alternative source of viable and credible solutions.
• Confidence – At this point, the idea that we aren’t capable of pulling off significant initiatives and injecting sufficiently powerful content and contexts adds to the problem. Even if some practitioners come up with a great idea, they lack the confidence to figure out how to deliver it or formulate it so that it comes off as a winner. Unlike the accountants and engineers who many of us work for, it is true that professional communication has softer measures and metrics that don’t give practitioners a comparable sense of certainty about the worth of their contributions.
The IABC Certification initiative will go a long way to create a common sense of shared competence across the profession when it is fully implemented in a few years’ time. But the lack of shared confidence is a major issue now, one which diminishes the perception of our profession as a serious, strategic, value-generating activity dependent on the skills and passion of professionals.
Taking the Lead
If we want to regain our natural leadership role in our organizations and communities, there are a number of things we can do – as individuals – that will move things in a positive direction:
- Step up: recognize that you have skills and abilities to frame a compelling future and point out the pathways in which ideas and projects and initiatives will become tangible and successful, and start doing it.
- Speak up: if you work for a senior person, share your understanding of his or her needs, and take the initiative to develop messages and tools that move his or her agenda forward. Draft bravely, challenge respectfully, accept setbacks, lather, rinse, repeat.
- Join up: you are not alone. You are a member of an important profession with thousands of practitioners around the world. Whether it is IABC, PRSA, CIPR, IOIC or any other professional organization for communicators, there is strength in numbers and the possibility of continuous support from colleagues who have been there.
- Build up: don’t just develop skills — confidence is a learned trait. Coaching and personal development courses have had a powerful impact on many communicators and can be worth the time and energy.
As business communicators, we live in a world dominated by processes, targets and numbers. As leaders, we can transform this world by adding purpose, context and clarity to those processes, targets and numbers. Will we be brave enough to do so?
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ABOUT OUR GUEST BLOGGER
Mike Klein is the Principal and Owner of Changing The Terms, an internal communication practice and blog based in the Netherlands. Mike’s 15-year career working on internal and change communication on multinationals and other large organizations followed nearly 10 years as a political campaign consultant in the U.S. This combination of experience sparked a passion for transferring strategies and techniques between the disciplines, leading to the publication of a book, From Lincoln to LinkedIn – the 55 minute guide to social communication. Mike is an MBA graduate of London Business School and a longtime regional and chapter officer of IABC.
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