Leading Communications, Leading Change: Do’s and Don’ts
23 Sep

Leading Communications, Leading Change: Do’s and Don’ts

A lot has been written on how important communications is, and how to coordinate and manage communications. But what if you are a Project Manager or leader in an organization undergoing change? What’s your role in leading communications? What should you be doing, and what should you be delegating to others?

In my years leading change for organizations, from medium sized to global, this is the one area I find that I am asked most about.

Leaders understand they have to lead. But when it comes to communicating, sometimes they delegate this too much. Then they get blamed for being too out of touch, or worse, trying to hide something. They begin to be seen as being deceitful or untrustworthy, and that often hurts.

Others get involved in every aspect of communications. They want to review every draft and spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing and revising. Because nothing can go out until they are fully satisfied, the communications flow bogs down. The result is that messages don’t get sent, or get sent late. Eventually people get increasingly frustrated and upset because they are not getting enough information, or at least not when it matters.

It’s important that as a leader you strike a balance. Leading communications means you have to get deeply involved in some aspects of communications, and delegate the rest.

What you have to do

Help develop a clear message and reinforce it

Many projects have a detailed project charter, presentations and other documents explaining what the project is all about. Often these run into dozens or hundreds of pages. However, unless you can articulate the essence of what it is you are trying to do in just a few sentences, you will struggle to communicate.

Going through the process of creating an ‘Elevator Speech’ is a good discipline to get to the essence of your project. Here is a link to a tipsheet you can use. If you have not done this before, be prepared to spend a lot of time and hard work. As Mark Twain wrote to one of his friends, “If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter.” It takes time, sweat and tears to be brief and concise.

Reinforcing the message means you have to put yourself out there. That is your job, delivering the message. Being the prophet, the motivator, the visionary. It’s not writing the messages. And, by the way, “delivering the message” means delivering the same message repeatedly. I always have to tell my clients prepare yourself to repeat the same message over and over.

Basically, repetition sells. If you want to sell people on supporting your project, you have to repeat the same message over and over again. And then again and again. This is where having an elevator speech is also useful. Once you have it, you don’t have to keep trying to remember what you should say.

Repetition in everyday life

Just think of how many beer commercials there are during a sports game, for example. There is never just one. It’s usually one per break! No marketer ever thinks, “Well, we’ve told them once, why do we have to spend more money on advertising during the game?” Right? As a leader you have to stop thinking like that as well, and start thinking more like a marketer.

And you should make sure that other leaders also have the elevator speech and have internalized the key messages. Leading communications by reinforcing the message also means having others deliver the message for you as well. These leaders have more credibility in areas you may not. And, they may deliver the same message in their way, a different way, which helps other understand it better.

Ask for engagement

This is so important. On most projects leaders are so focused on making sure they say everything they have in their heads, that they forget the reason why they are saying these things in the first place: to get others to buy in. They overlook to get “the sale”.

That’s the other key point I make with my clients: as leader, your job is to sell the vision, or the objective of whatever initiative you are leading. The more people you can convince that what you are doing is important, the more likely it is going to succeed. Right or wrong?

And how do you know someone has bought in? Easy. Ask them to do something straight-forward. If they do that, they’re in. If they don’t, you may have reason to worry.

So you have to end every interaction regarding your project with some kind of request. We call this the “Ask”. The last point on your Elevator Speech has to be the Ask. Your response to every time someone asks you how your project is going, has to end with an Ask. Every presentation you deliver, closes with an Ask. And so on. You get the picture.

There is a side benefit to always doing the Ask as well. Remember earlier on I said you have to repeat yourself a lot? That’s because initially you’ll get a lot of questions regarding your project. Well, if every time someone asks you questions about your project they end up with having work to do, because you ask them to, eventually they will stop asking all but the most relevant questions. Try it as an experiment and just watch what happens over time.

Review communications to key influencers

There is a lot of communications that come out of a project, so where do you draw the line on what to review closely, and what to scan rapidly or even ignore. One easy way is to review in detail only those communications that are going to a few key influencers (or key influencer groups).

Who’s a key influencer? That varies from organization to organization and project to project. But if you ask yourself, of all the people in your company, who are the handful that you must absolutely have on board? Whose support will make your life much easier, and whose objections will cause you sleepless nights? Those are your key influencers. There won’t be that many.

These individuals, if they like what you are doing, will make your project successful. If they don’t, they can sink it. Therefore you must make absolutely sure the messages they get are perfect. Leading communications means you want to review and revise these until you are as happy as can be.

Once you are happy with these messages, your communications person should be using them as a template for all other communications. After all, you don’t want your key influencers to get different messages from everyone else. That will cause confusion and distrust.

So then you just have to scan any messages going to other stakeholders that you are keeping your eye on to make sure the messages are consistent and have been modified appropriately. And then you can safely ignore the rest. Frankly, they better be based on the messages you approved, right?

Ensure your communication plan has the right timing and cascade

Lastly, when your communications lead has developed the communication plan and schedule, you want to check for timing and cascade. When leading communications you don’t really need to go into great detail. A good communication schedule often runs into hundreds of lines on an Excel spreadsheet (if that’s what they use) and as leader you should not be sifting through it in that level of detail.

You know what the key milestones and key activities are on your project. You want to know what communications are going out around those times that support these milestones and activities. Make sure you’re happy with the variety and amount of communications supporting these.

Then check to make sure that the right people are getting it in the right order. That is really all that a cascade means. You want your key influencers to get the message first. Then whoever is next in terms of influence. Then everybody else. You also want to make sure that the order of the hierarchy is respected. You want the managers to get the message before their direct reports do.

Usually getting the cascade right is not completely straight forward, so it merits a discussion. But once you have thought it through and discussed it with your key project people, you just want to make sure it’s reflected in the communications schedule.

What you should NOT do

Write any communications yourself

Leading communications means you should definitely never be writing any initial drafts, or even any drafts. This excludes, of course, sending your communications lead key bullet points that you want them to include. That is reasonable for them to expect from you. Or, you may have an in-depth conversations where you are telling them what you want in your messages. But other than that, you need to be hands off.

Review any draft that is not the final

You should only review drafts that have been reviewed and revised by those below you. Depending on your position, this could mean that someone above you also needs to review the communication. For example, if you are the PM, your sponsor needs to review it after you. But still, you want to make sure the communications lead has reviewed the communications with all the contributors and subject matter experts, and has edited a far as they can.

Review the communications plan in detail

As I mentioned above, you should only check for timing and the right cascade. Avoid getting drawn into detailed reviews of the communications plan.

One caveat here is if you are working with your communications lead for the first time, the lead may want to get to know you and your likes/dislikes. Having a detailed review of the communication plan in the beginning is a good way of doing it.

But if you find yourself being drawn into a detailed review for the third or fourth week in a row, you have an issue. Unless it’s your own bad habit of wanting to get into the weeds, you likely have a communications lead who is too junior, or is not up to the task. Then, of course, you have a different problem.

Final words

Leading is hard, and nowhere else more so then when it comes to leading communications. Sometimes it’s difficult because we don’t know what to do exactly, at other times our own bad habits can get in the way. But if you stick to this list of do’s and don’ts, it should get easier and easier with practice.


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