Valued Communicators Understand the Business

James SpanglerAre you engaging employees? Is your function driving internal understanding, alignment and action?

Organizational change is constant, which makes employee communications more important than ever in driving business results. That’s the good news—there’s a real need for your services.

Here’s the tough part, though: To gain permission to do the work, you need to first prove to the CEO and other senior leaders that you understand the business.

Practitioners of course need to be good communicators—strong writers and presenters, with a clear understanding of people’s motivations and how they absorb information. And, executing well on tactics is a must in our field. But to gain “permission to operate” as employee communicators and to really be effective, practitioners first and foremost need to be good business people. They need to understand the organization’s business— its revenue, earnings and cash flow drivers; its core and expansion markets; its competitive landscape; and its strategy for winning.

Understanding these factors gives you a seat at the table—the credibility to advise the C-suite. You can then help leadership define what winning looks like and how best to get employees aligned with that vision. And you can then work with the larger organization to help employees understand their specific roles in achieving results. That, to me, is the ultimate value of what we do.

I’ve seen the significance of being very clear with employees about the organization’s goals and strategy. With my previous company, our most important tool was a simple wall chart that showed the company’s four key objectives. Senior management articulated these objectives and our strategy for achieving them. My team and I helped business unit and functional leaders drive alignment around their parts in the plan—and then, in turn, the people on the front lines, including the folks at our manufacturing plants. Our goal was that every time our CEO visited a plant, any operator could tell him what he was doing that day, and how it was helping the company win.

My current company is undertaking one of the most ambitious turnarounds in recent history. It’s a truck manufacturer, and we’ve created a graphic “dashboard” with gauges showing our key metrics for the year. Every quarter we prepare an update for employees, with the gauges moving up or down based on recent results. And we use every communications channel, from CEO videos to small-group dialogue, to put our goals, strategies and progress front and center.

Based on my experience, there is no such thing as over-communicating on goals. Employees have a tremendous hunger to know where the organization is headed, what is needed to get there and how they can help. Communications plays a key role in corralling the power of the workforce and pointing everyone in the same direction.

But it all comes back to having a clear understanding of the business. Only by showing you have that knowledge will you gain management’s permission to provide your counsel and launch a communications process that drives winning results.

Jim Spangler is VP, Corporate Affairs, and CCO at Navistar, Inc. He also is a Trustee of the Institute for Public Relations.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you, Jim, for underscoring the fundamental importance of knowing the business – whatever it may be – and applying that knowledge to every communication decision we make. How can we possibly help an organization fulfill its objectives if we don’t have a firm grasp of what they are, and, most importantly, the role that communication plays in each? It’s great to hear about your experience from the front lines.

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