Leading through a screen: part two

Controversial opinion alert: in some ways, this is a great time to be a communicator. As the tectonic plates of the working world shift around us, our role is changing too, and we’re facing a whole new set of challenges to tackle – which is huge fun for creative problem-solvers, as many of us are.

But some of our most critical stakeholders are finding it a whole lot less enjoyable. As remote and hybrid-working becomes the norm, senior execs are increasingly forced towards digital channels to engage their workforce, or risk loss of focus and performance drift from their teams – and it’s our job to help them to do that.

Last week we explored the big picture; how to understand the digital context to create the right objectives and plan. This week we address the micro level – how to support individual leaders to develop the skills to engage with their workforce through the medium of a screen. But before we even get to capability, we need to tackle attitude. If you can get leaders’ mindset right, so they’re open to the opportunities, success is but a mouse-click away…

Overcoming the fear factor
Much as some might hate to admit it, C-suite leaders are only human – and there’s nothing more human than fear of the unknown. A quick glance at the analytics will show you that there are some at the top who avoid enterprise social networks (ESNs) such as Workplace or Yammer like the plague – and the first step in overcoming this is understanding why. Some will equate ESNs with external platforms like Twitter and feel using it will leave them exposed to questions they may not have answers to. Others may shun social media in the outside world, and feel unequipped to engage with it at work – and many think they simply don’t have the time.

Mark Allotey, Channels Manager at insurance giant RSA, is back to give us his take. According to Allotey, the first step is to get past uncertainty about an unmoderated and self-managed platform. “Your social media or ESN terms of use policy should clear a lot of this up, so walk them through it; showing that what rules there are, are guided by common-sense. They need to know it’s not the Wild West out there, so find a few examples that demonstrate how the community has managed itself and be ready to share them.”

A better incentive
So now we come to the crunch – What’s in it for me? The better you know your leaders and understand their business objectives and the employees they need to engage with, the better you can answer this question. What are they looking for from their people to deliver their goals – for example, is greater collaboration needed? Do they need to reduce costs? Are they trying to create a space for innovation? Or is it a case of rallying the troops in the face of dropping engagement scores?

The answer to this question will guide both the choice of platform and how it’s used. Come prepared with a range of ideas and some hard metrics to build their belief that time invested online will get them what they want.

Make it personal
So, you’ve agreed their objectives, and have some insight into the kind of engagement they need. Now the big question – what should they actually do?

Allotey comments: “It’s important to help your leaders to understand that ESNs aren’t just an alternative to traditional ‘push’ channels like the intranet, and shouldn’t be used as such. A platform like Yammer is specifically designed for conversations – where people go to ask questions and share insights. So leaders will get much better traction if they understand that and use it to ask questions they’d like opinions on, or to shine a light on behaviour they want to see more of. And the great thing is, it cuts both ways – ESNs are a valuable tool to keep themselves informed on what employees think about key issues or hot topics.”

As with any leadership communication, being authentic means playing on their strengths. Give them your ideas on how to do this, whether that’s encouraging someone with strong screen presence to share short, informal videos on their smartphone, or planning a Yamjam for that leader who enjoys stimulating discussion. You can inspire and motivate them by coming prepared with evidence of how other leaders are successfully engaging across the network. Again, be pragmatic and make sure they know it doesn’t have to take lots of time and effort – people often underestimate how much impact simply liking, commenting on and sharing their teams’ posts can have.

Take off the training wheels
So, you’re standing like a proud parent as your exec takes their first tentative steps into the virtual world. But the journey doesn’t end there. Consistency is key – get them to put a regular reminder in their diary to spend twenty minutes on their ESN every couple of days, and make sure they stick to it. Once they’re in, encourage them to balance their engagement by following the ‘1-2-3’ rule – for every 1 post, also make 2 replies and 3 likes.

If you monitor progress and celebrate engagement breakthroughs together, their enthusiasm will grow and before you know it, they’ll be advocating ESNs to other senior leaders – and you’ll have yet more ammo to encourage even more leaders to join the party. This blogpost by Pete Johns of the NRMA beautifully illustrates how important this can be. His senior leader, Emma Harrington, the company’s Chief Customer Officer can vouch for that: “One of the keys to success was having support on hand to coach me through those early stages. A friendly guide to say it’s okay if it’s not perfect; it’s okay if you don’t get any responses immediately. Simple tips helped enormously, such as the advice to get the app on my phone and check it while in the coffee line. Now it feels totally normal. I actually enjoy using Yammer and that’s something I’d never say about email! When you write an email, you often stress about typos, structure etc. whereas in Yammer you can just have an honest rapid exchange – it’s liberating.”

In our experience, once leaders see their peers having success with this approach, they tend to jump on board sooner rather than later. From there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to a fully digitally savvy senior team with all the opportunities that offers to build an engaged and high-performing workforce.

As communicators, we’re well-used to playing the role of agony aunt/uncle, coach and cheerleader to our senior stakeholders – and this really is no different. Identifying the barriers, arming ourselves with data, and tailoring the creative approach to match our leaders’ personal style will pay dividends. And putting the power to lead through a screen in the hands of the C-suite means you’re one step closer to a mature organisation where virtual debate, challenge and innovation can flourish.

If you’re struggling to evolve your digital internal communications, the-thread offers support to develop channel and content strategy as well as leader communications training. Get in touch with us by emailing hello@the-thread.com

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