Communicating from the C-Suite | S1 E23

First published: 10 November, 2020

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Communicating from the C-Suite | S1 E23

Communicating from the C-Suite

In this episode of Engaging Internal Comms, The Big Picture People’s Craig Smith talks to Hillary U, who is Executive Internal Communications Leader for the Salesforce security team. Hillary is currently based in Washington, Seattle.

Salesforce is the world’s number one customer relationship management platform, with a focus on bringing customers and companies together. Salesforce has almost 50,000 employees around the world, with an ever-expanding global footprint.

Prior to this role, Hillary was involved in a senior internal comms role at Amazon Web Services, and before that held posts at Deloitte Digital Alaska Group, PACCAR Inc., and the University of Washington.

Time is the ultimate challenge of communicating from the C-Suite

Good internal communication is imperative within a company to ensure that changes, messages, and transformations are effectively and accurately communicated throughout an organisation. The source of the communication begins in the C-Suite.

However, with the C-suite housing a corporation’s most senior executives, there’s a risk to overall trust and clarity if this level within the organisation does not communicate effectively.

With decision making and technical issues requiring prioritisation, communication beyond the C-Suite can often become jarred, preventing the seamless flow of communication that is required throughout the organisation.

Hillary explains that while many leaders want to communicate their message, time is the ultimate challenge to communicating effectively. Communication blocks are commonly found at the following points:

  • Finding time for the change or message to be thoroughly understood by management and internal comms executives
  • Finding time to distribute and communicate that message throughout the organisation

With time constraints, Hillary also explains how the C-Suite can often simply assume that communication has occurred, with no time to manage how the message has been portrayed and received.

I think it’s easy for leaders to think that employees understand either their goals, their vision, their values, because as senior leaders, they’re getting that every day from their own manager, whether that be the board or stakeholders,” Hillary explains. “But for the everyday employee, that message tends to get watered down as it makes its way through the organisation.

Two-way channels give communication real power

The C-Suite may not necessarily be equipped with natural communication skills. It’s important to find a way for every leader to ensure change and message are transparent and understood, and that employees feel like they are a part of their organisation’s decisions and future.

Hillary explains that while many leaders are good at pitching – to stakeholders, board members and other C-Suite officers – employees require a very different tone.

Employees don’t want business speak. They want to hear something authentic. They want to see vulnerability. They want to feel like it’s a real person they’re speaking to, and they really want a two-way channel,” says Hillary.

To prevent a decision being made by C-Suite and simply ‘paper-aeroplaned’ to employees, communicating change management must allow two-way communications. This enables employees to better understand the information and be able to ask how it may impact their role within the organisation. This can be accomplished in various ways, such as:

  • On a small-scale level: small groups, or lunch-and-learn gatherings for a more casual environment
  • On a large-scale level: a large meeting, but crucially where not only the leader is talking

However executed, Q&A time must be accommodated to provide a clear two-way channel for discussion. While leaders are tuned to discussing the finances, business metrics and HR, employees will open discussions about what it means to them.

Consistently providing Q&A sessions provides reassurance to the employee that they will always be given time to be heard, and in an authentic way.

Empathy empowers understanding

To allow a two-way channel between C-Suite and the rest of the organisation, senior executives can feel vulnerable when in the hot seat of a Q&A session directly with employees.

However, a feeling of trust is gained when a senior executive shows empathy towards the employee’s situation. “Helping executives get into the mindset of what employees are going through, helps them answer those tough questions when the time comes,” explains Hillary.

To gain this empathy and understanding of an employee’s perspective from their position, Hillary says the best way is for leaders to experience employees’ roles for themselves. Thus, should an unfavourable answer be given, empathy from the senior executive, supported with the experience gained from insight into the employees’ perspective, will provide substance.

With the C-Suite effectively joining forces with employees, and vice versa, the borders between levels are smudged and communication runs freely and effectively.

Barriers to communication must be dismantled

Having Q&A time and two-way channels, and having senior executives putting themselves into employees’ shoes, are effective ways to break down the barriers between the top level of the company and the rest of the workforce.

But additionally, there are other ways to increase the circulation of the business’s communication channels.

The importance of internal comms people is that they act as a bridge for any gaps in communication between senior level and employees, so that, should connection between the two become hindered, at least the communication channels remain accessible.

While C-Suite may have advanced their openness to employees to allow discussion, Hillary explains that internal comms people can provide the anonymity for those who don’t feel comfortable asking questions at executive level.

I think they [C-Suite] forget that sometimes it’s not that easy – employees are worried about how it will look: ‘If I ask a question, what if it’s not an intelligent question? What if it’s something that I should already know?’ And so, a lot of times, questions don’t get asked, because the employee just doesn’t feel comfortable asking it directly,” says Hillary.

With the gaps filled by internal comms people, Hillary also states how important it is for internal comms people to understand their field, and how the business works, in order to understand themselves what the teams are doing, and to present feedback and issues effectively to C-Suite.

With knowledge in how employees are working on the ground, internal comms people can determine how best communication can occur between levels.

Collaboration is key to long-term solutions

With every business across the globe having to adapt at rapid speed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, executives must continue to communicate effectively with employees, despite the challenges of working remotely.

As Hillary mentions, at the beginning of the pandemic, many organisations thrown into the sudden depths of operating remotely were so panic-stricken into the fear of a lack of communication, that effectively they were overcommunicating.

Ironically, this may have resulted in none of the biggest negative impacts on effective communication. “I think the largest reality is that we’re facing an increased amount of information overload,” explains Hillary. “Employees are getting more information than ever before, from so many different sources, and at rapid speeds. And it’s really hard for them to kind of tune out the noise and tune into what really matters.

Hillary discusses how everybody has had personal challenges in coping with working remotely in conjunction with their personal live, including senior executives. It’s crucial that the C-Suite model a healthy work-life balance that they preach to their employees and express empathy for each other, regardless of level, all of which will help to prevent burnout.

With teams remotely operating together across the board, the obstacle of communication still presents itself within organisations. Collaboration must occur to find a solution for the long term.

We really need to take a step back and figure out, what does that strategy look like? What is just the right amount of information so that employees don’t feel overwhelmed, but they still feel like they have access to the information they need?” says Hilary. “And I don’t know if we have the answer to that yet.

The post-Covid future of communicating from C-Suite is conscious effort

For communication to remain effective while businesses continue to strive for a perfect balance, it’s crucial that communication lines remain open. A positive effect of the pandemic is that executives have been forced to break boundaries and put trust in employees to work remotely, autonomously, and productively.

In response to the trust that has been afforded, C-Suite executives will have to make a conscious effort to provide two-way channels and allow feedback to flow between levels. “If we don’t continue to keep those lines open, it’s going to be very easy for employees to not feel connected to the business – and that is where things get very murky,” warns Hillary.

With no more visibility of open office doors and desks that could once welcome spontaneous and informal questions and feedback, employees must now be kept easily connected with C-Suite and internal comms people. To do so, such channels must be within easy reach and with clear availability throughout the organisation.

In summary

2020 has certainly been a year of drastic and rapid change for every individual, every C-Suite, every business. But with open communication, empathy, and support for each other with the same views of the business’s destination, a successful organisation will enjoy a thriving team of people at all levels.

As Hillary concludes, “True success is not only a happy workplace. We want people to be happy. We want them to be excited to come to their jobs. But we also want them to feel like they’re a part of where the organisation is going. And that’s really the true charge of any leader – to bring their teams along.

Useful links:

Hillary’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hillaryu/

Website: www.hillarysarau.com

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