Why should internal communications get a seat at top table?

07 April 2021

After the global crisis of 2020, internal communications (IC) has a more visible role than ever with organisations and leaders. We are being asked to deliver more with less – money, time and people. But does IC operate as the “internal post office”, or could be we being more strategic? Are we focusing on outputs rather than outcomes? How do we move from delivering strategy to influencing it so we get that seat at the top table?

Ranjeet Kaile, Executive Director of Communications, Stakeholder Engagement and Public Affairs at South London and the Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust; and Susan Mays, Vice President, Marketing & Communications Director, Arcadis US recently shared their thoughts with us. Here’s an edited excerpt.

106 Communications: Research has suggested that IC practitioners are not yet sufficiently business focused and their activities are not yet linked to or measured against specific business outcomes…therefore there is still a lack of evidence, acceptable to the leadership, that demonstrates the impact of internal communication on business performance.” (Watson Helsby) Do you agree?

Ranjeet Kaile: This definitely rings true. In the NHS, if you are arguing for communications resources, people often say, “We can get X number of nurses of nurses for that,” so the challenge is a big one. But evidence shows that a happy and engaged staff workforce has positive business outcomes. So IC needs to demonstrate the link between the strategic direction of the organisation and the outcomes it will have. It’s certainly not easy!

106 Communications: How does IC add value in your organisation?

Ranjeet Kaile: IC adds value by conveying the message “from board to ward”, trying to keep it simple and not lose its meaning. Organisations can get carried away with grand statements, but you need to think about the granularity for somebody working on a ward looking after a patient. Communications must relate to what it means to that individual. When you’re communicating with senior managers you must demonstrate the impact it will have on their projects or programmes. That way, people will come to you and say they want your support.

Susan Mays: Crisis often creates opportunity for us to prove our worth. Our team has really stepped up because we had to get 27,000 people from working in offices to working at home. We were right at the table for that. It’s also about partnerships within the organisation, not necessarily the top seat. While working for a competitor of Arcadis, we saw the health and safety numbers creeping up. I told the health and safety director to trust me and we put the team through a rigorous health and safety communications exercise. We saw a direct correlation between the volume of our communication and the health and safety numbers. This was because we created relationships not just with the C-suite but with other leaders in the organisation. Of course, they were very happy to present those outcomes to their leadership!

106 Communications: How connected are your senior team to the IC function and do they really believe in the value it adds?

Ranjeet Kaile: More mature organisations definitely see the value of IC. I’ve seen it work really well when IC is at the top table and able to really shape discussions and plans. I’ve seen it work not so well when IC is used as a post box, “Send something over, can you email this out to all staff? Can you send out this poster I made at home?” But I’m really glad to see more organisations, especially in the NHS, are starting to take IC more seriously. There’s more to be done and having that continuity across all NHS organisations would really help.

Susan Mays: I’ve seen pockets of success. I’ve worked in engineering and consulting for about 30 years and engineers aren’t the best role models as communicators. So my team and I have tried to move to a consultative approach. I’m famous for telling the engineers “I don’t tell you how to design the bridges, so maybe you could let me do my work!” Where I’ve seen success is with an opportunity or a challenge for an executive. A peer of mine was on his way to the C-suite but quite introverted and not the most confident speaker, so I asked him to facilitate a client panel. He asked me to help him with it, and I don’t know how many times we practised! But he did get the job, became my boss and then I got a seat at the table. You have to take responsibility for getting your leadership to think of you more strategically.

106 Communications: How can we better ensure cross-functional alignment?

Ranjeet: A joined up approach is easier when you have a voice at the top table because they can take a holistic view. I’ve been in the position when you are not quite at that senior level working for someone who doesn’t understand communications, so you have to constantly fight to get people to see the bigger picture.

Susan: At Arcadis, the IC function recently shifted from being located within the HR function to being in the Marketing function which actually reports up through sales. We’ve found that those who have a seat at top table have a streamlined path to effectiveness. Regardless of where you sit in the organisation, our responsibility as IC is making sure everything we do is strongly connected to the strategy. Collaboration and relationships are key, but always come back to the strategy. I have a two-boss situation CMO and the Sales Director for North America, so I make sure I’m managing what they are trying to achieve.

106 Communications: Let’s go back to the research. These are the most frequently mentioned core management and behavioural competencies internal communicators need at Head of IC level:

  • Influencing skills
  • Ability to think strategically about communications
  • Business awareness/literacy
  • Writing and presentation skills
  • An understanding of the principles of organisational development
  • Branding
  • Communications psychology
  • Intranet and e-communication development
  • Creative communication skills
  • Facilitation skills
  • Consultancy skills
  • Resilience, courage and self-belief

Do you agree?:

Ranjeet Kaile: There is something about hard skills and soft skills. Having conversations with the right people at the right time has a big impact and you do that by building relationships. If we want to be viewed more strategically, we have to take much more interest in the strategy, not just tinkering round the edges. I often say to people, we’re all competing for the same space and need to show that we can deliver something better than another department. Resilience, courage and self-belief is important, particularly in a virtual working environment.

Susan Mays: IC sits in different parts of the organisation and if we want to move to that seat at the top table, upward influence is a really important skill. We can’t be afraid to put ourselves and our professional expertise out there. Business awareness and literacy is also important. It’s incumbent upon us to understand the business strategy and goals. This can really boost our conversation in having conversations with people at the top of the table.

106 Communications: What does a great IC team look like?

Susan Mays: I look for folks who are strong generalists and can be flexible in a small team, are strong collaborators and contribute different skills. Take the opportunity to get with someone who has a different skill set to yourselves and develop those mentoring relationships.

Ranjeet Kaile: People who have vision and can connect the dots from multiple pieces of work from different parts of the organisation. We need to always show people the direction we’re heading in and have them read for the next chapter. We’re not always going to get it right, but you’ve got to be brave and take some risks.

106 Communications: How can we become a strategic operator in an organisation?

 Susan Mays: My favourite one of Arcadis behaviours is “dare to shape the future” and it’s become the charter for our team. Be brave about bringing your ideas within the team and challenging the way you’ve always done things.

Ranjeet Kaile: I genuinely believe that the next CEOs could come from communicators, who are the people with the holistic view of the organisation. We’ve got a bright future and it’s only the horizons we set ourselves that will shape the future of internal communications.

106 Communications: Thank you very much Susan and Ranjeet!

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