Leadership took on a very different role in 2020 as employees looked to those at the top for assurance. So, what have leaders learned this past year about how to communicate with employees? And how can internal communicators support them to take this approach into the future?


17th December 2020

Talking to Greg Reed, it’s easy to understand why he ranked highly in a survey of the best leaders during the pandemic.

He’s instantly likeable, with an easy-going manner, and listens intently before answering with unassuming honesty, peppered with interesting anecdotes. He gives the impression that no subject is off limits – talking unprompted about aspects of his personal life, his family and how he’s coped being at home. He pulls you into the conversation and our 45 minutes flies by.

Readers, he’s a dream interview.

As CEO of HomeServe, which he left in October, Greg was number four in Glassdoor’s list of “highest-rated CEOs during the Covid-19 crisis”, based on employee reviews. The top 10 stood out due to high levels of communication and staff engagement.

When asked about this, Greg says he’s always been a CEO who works with communicators. Pre-Covid-19, the comms team was part of his office, “sitting literally feet away” and an integral part of the way he operates.

He’s a natural communicator – open, transparent and he clearly connects. In a word, he’s authentic – which brings us to one of the most interesting things he says in his interview: “If a leader’s authenticity is being done by your comms team, then people will see straight through it.”

So where does that leave the role of communicators?

Care, compassion and communication

Authenticity has been a leadership buzzword for years. “9 steps to authenticity!”, “Grow an authentic mindset!”, “Maximise the authentic YOU!” However well-meaning, it had a whiff of, well, inauthenticity about it.

Then came Covid-19. Overnight, chief execs were forced to adapt their communication styles, as employees sought confidence, clarity and compassion. They became chief empathy officers.

For execs like Greg, it was an easier transition, an extension of who they were before. But, for others, it proved more of a challenge.

Chaya Mistry, communication coach and consultant and director of Humanly, says that while organisations were prepared for many of the challenges thrown at them by a pandemic, their plans didn’t extend to the emotional side of things.

“Before Covid-19 hit, leaders had been working on changes needed to take their business forward into the future – things like virtual working, digitisation, flexible hours,” she says. “But interestingly, no one had anticipated the importance of wellbeing.

“So many leaders that I’ve been speaking to have realised what their employees really mean to them. Care and compassion is driving leaders to think differently about the people who work for them.

“Asking ‘how are you?’ has taken on its real meaning, not just some well-practised socially conditioned response.”

Say it like you mean it

At the same time as Covid-19, across the globe the social agenda – things like climate change and inclusion – have risen too.

“Organisations that have diversity agendas are now being questioned: ‘Do you really mean it?’” considers Chaya.

“We have channels such as Yammer where employees can raise their voice unedited. But when they do, what happens next? They want to hear from leaders: ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

Indeed. The C-suite is experiencing an increasing pressure to respond to these emotionally charged topics – but also simply to interact one-to-one with colleagues at all levels. Covid-19 has given us a glimpse of the positive effects of this brave new future of leadership, and communicators need to support this evolution.

“Employees, particularly Generation Z, are looking for leaders with emotional intelligence. Increasingly, the role of leaders and communicators is to look at emotional impact. Organisations with a strong sense of value and purpose, and with really human leaders, will do better here.

“IC has a huge part to play as we can be more in touch with our people than the exec team – we’re the ‘people’ people! When we regularly temperature check the organisation, we know what’s going on and how people are feeling – we can bring these insights to the business to guide decision-making.”

Human side of the C-suite

Sinéad Meckin, head of internal communications at agency Hanover Communications, says this new leader persona must remain after the pandemic.

“In the past, the C-suite’s primary role was providing clarity on business purpose and strategic direction – rather a clinical role. But now, they are being looked to for reassurance and emotional support.

“They are having to be empathetic and vulnerable. We’re seeing inside their homes, and seeing their kids, their pets – we’re seeing a human side.

“Previously, leadership – and CEOs in particular – could be distant, seen only at events like townhalls or through blogs, where the messages and content are all very controlled. But recent developments have meant the void between CEOs and staff is rapidly diminishing.”

Employees want open and honest leadership, but internal communicators need to ensure messages remain true to the style of that particular leader.

“Don’t push authenticity,” advises Sinéad. “Messages need to come from leaders – a face employees feel they can connect with. I have a strong dislike for the phrase ‘the new normal’ because it implies moving into a new static state – but in reality, normal is not static. Normal is constantly evolving, so a communications plan needs to be flexible.

“Continual feedback from employees and leaders is going to be essential in ensuring you are able to respond to changing conditions. Research shows face-to-face feedback such as focus groups – albeit virtually – gives you a better feel for what people really think than just pinging out a survey.”

As well as feedback, there is a big culture piece, reflects Sinéad.

“Previously, people joined organisations for the role and the people they’d be working with – now you are the culture, on your own at home. So employees will increasingly turn to leaders for a sense of purpose and to help them feel part of the organisation. They won’t respond well if leaders retreat to their old roles.

“People need reassurance about what’s coming next and what’s being done to address it.

“The old style of the C-suite was about guiding the business – now it’s about guiding people and uniting the business.”

Emotion: the currency of change

In the memorably titled report Shift Happens, a group of change consultants looked at what lessons could be learned from Covid-19 when it comes to change, highlighting the unprecedented pace and intensity. In it, one senior executive is noted as saying “we’re seeing 10 years change in 10 months”.

One of the authors is Darren Briggs, a consultant with over 30 years’ experience in leadership and change communications. “We started working on the report in January with the idea that things needed to be done differently. Within six weeks of our initial meeting, the pandemic hit us. So, over the summer, we started to explore what happened to allow organisations to change so rapidly in ways that would otherwise have taken years to achieve.

“Take digitisation – something that’s been talked about for years. By the summer, there was a brilliant meme doing the rounds: what’s driven your digitisation – a) your CEO, b) your CTO or c) Covid?”

For the first time, organisations have put people before profit, says Darren. But, he says, the pendulum is swinging back…

“Emotion is the currency of change. Organisations need to think about emotional arguments rather than rational. Leaders, therefore, will need higher levels of emotional intelligence – and IC teams will need to support them to have a greater impact.

“Change is a deeply personal thing – you need to think far more about what it means for your audience than simply what leaders want to say.”

New ways to connect

Greg Reed thinks we are going to see leaders communicate more than ever before.

“It’s a learned behaviour and we’re at a point where people want authenticity,” he reflects.

“At work, we have an opportunity to create a sense of purpose. In our most recent engagement survey at HomeServe, we could see that people understood how and where they fit into the corporate strategy. If they are proud of where they work and are doing good stuff, they’ll tell people about it – share their stories, talk about their jobs.

“When I became CEO, I talked to my internal comms team about how I wanted to work with them, not become part of what they may have thought a CEO should be or do.

“During Covid, I was concerned that those informal interactions you get in an office environment wouldn’t happen, so any interactions would be more managed, more controlled. So I decided I would speak to as many engineers as I could, every week.

“I’ve consistently said I don’t understand the models for levels of management communications – people should be able to speak to every level. The virus has accelerated this thinking, to find ways to be connected.”

The frequency of comms is important now more than ever, Greg adds. “If employees don’t hear it from you, they will find a way to hear it from someone else. But it can’t be down to the IC team managing it all – someone in the C-suite needs to own it, so that we’re all going in the same direction.” 


How can leaders prepare for 2021?

Communications consultant Darren Briggs offers five tips for how internal comms and leaders can meet the challenges that lie ahead.

1. Shift your attention away from crisis comms mode. Give the longer-term view. Consider how you will effectively communicate sustained change.

2. Equip leaders with the right tools and skills to communicate change effectively in a remote world. Leaders have learned most of what they know in a physical environment, but now you need to find sustained methods to manage people remotely.

3. Ensure leaders’ messages around strategy resonate in an emotive way. Challenge what’s behind the purpose, vision and values – push leaders to make points that are really meaningful and where you have actual employee activism.

4. Leaders need to listen and IC needs to involve people more. Move towards an almost customer-centric process for the employee experience. When you talk to leaders, be the voice of the employee – drive conversations from the employee experience point of view.

5. Move from collecting data to gaining audience insight. Surveys tell us what people think, but never why they think that. Leaders and communicators should identify and get to know the informal networks and influencers in the organisation – those who really control the communication.

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