The comms role of a line manager | S1 E22

First published: 3 November, 2020

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Series 1
The comms role of a line manager | S1 E22

The Comms Role of a Line Manager

In this episode of Engaging Internal Comms, The Big Picture People’s Craig Smith talks to Chris Coburn, Global Head of Internal Comms at XE. XE has nearly 500 employees worldwide, with global offices from Australia to California. Chris is accountable for internal comms across the entire organisation with a remarkably diverse workforce.

Previously Board Director and Communications and Engagement Lead at John Lewis, Chris has a master’s in Internal Comms Management. He is also a certified member of the IoIC, and a member of the CIPO.

In this podcast, Craig talks to Chris about the overlooked topic of the comms role of a line manager. They discuss the importance of line managers, and the relationships they must build to create internal communications of engagement within an organisation.

Why line managers are key for effective internal comms

Chris explains that while we live in a healthy world of diversity that drives business value, it means that with so many different variations of understanding, translation of communications can be perceived very differently.

It is crucial that the purpose of an organisation’s message is heard with the intentional meaning and understood by its people. The line manager can play a pivotal role to ensure that each employee interprets such communications in an effective way.

If they’re effective line managers, they’re the ones who should have the strongest, most frequent, and local relationship with the employees. So, I believe they can help bring that meaning to life in an accurate way through conversation” Chris clarifies.

With line managers acting as referees to Chinese Whispers, employees can understand the message on a personal level, and raise any questions or concerns with a two-way dialogue with their line manager. Highlighting the importance of the comms role of a line manager and the part they play in employee engagement with internal communications.

The rust in a poorly lubricated communication cycle

Chris talks about how one business will have quite a different communication strategy to another, yet they all need line managers to identify any issues within their teams. But with large organisations, it is imperative that the line managers themselves also fully understand what is being communicated before representing their company’s message.

If you look within the Partnership [John Lewis and Waitrose], we had about 14/15,000 line managers. Now, that then becomes exceedingly difficult to upskill and support all of those line managers – and when I say ‘support’, I don’t mean sending them a briefing. I mean inviting them in, giving them space to make sense of things, getting them closer to your most senior team.

Particularly in times of business change, line managers – once fully knowledgeable and onboard with the information themselves – are the people on the ground, amongst the employees, putting meaning into the message and discussing them together, and extinguishing any untruths or toxic rumours. And while Chris believes incorrect information is rarely shared maliciously, it is important to ensure the correct message is not derailed through miscommunication. Reinforcing the comms role of a line manager is the lynchpin.

With line managers being the ‘eyes and ears’ amongst an organisation’s people, a feedback loop is created. Senior management are then able to gain insight into how their workforce has reacted and responded to change.

Line managers can identify change in people’s behaviours and can ask them how they’re feeling, and expose potential issues that need to be communicated back to senior management. Without such a process, communication is severely hindered.

Skills of an effective line manager

Craig identifies how recruitment for new line managers often outlines criteria of technical skills and years of experience, while comms skills tend to be simply a desired, yet not essential, attribute.

Chris confirms that punctuality, experience in your field, and progression within your current role used to lead you to promotion as a reward, and that the necessary skills required to become an effective line manager were not often considered as crucial as they should have been.

However, an employee must first and foremost want to hold the level of responsibility required to fulfil the role of a line manager. Simply promoted to the role through default will not be beneficial to the individual or the organisation.

The communication skills of an effective line manager include:

  • Conversational skills – how do you start that conversation?
  • Knowing your people – understanding cultural differences and discovering how individuals may feel
  • Listening ability – it’s not just about presenting a message; it’s a two-way dialogue
  • Facilitation skills – being able to draw out contributions from people
  • Coaching skills – getting people to think for themselves and asking them the right questions
  • Ability to deliver difficult messages – with understanding, empathy, and support

These skills are vital in what is essentially a leadership role. With highly turbulent times for most businesses in this current economic climate, there are going to be many changes made. An effective line manager must be prepared to face the importance of their role and responsibilities head on, and react to opposition in an effective way.

The importance of discussion in conversation and communications today

Unfortunately, it is human nature for people to draw conclusions and make judgements based simply on what they’ve seen or heard, and such conclusions are not always correct.

How is this dealt with within an organisation? “For me, the only way you can uncover and unpick the meaning they’ve made is through a conversation,” says Chris.

Through such conversations, the line manager can decipher if the meaning was interpreted as intended, or misinterpretations will be discovered. “This is where, as a communicator you know that the comms going out, so to speak, isn’t the end of it,” says Chris. “It’s much closer to the beginning.

Chris explains an analogy of how a leadership team or organisation can be imagined as a person, or a body. As a part of this body:

  • The executive team is the head – where the thinking happens
  • The employees are the hands and feet – the ones that are doing
  • The leadership team are the spine – they convey messages between the two

As a line manager in the leadership team, “you’re not just sending messages down to the fingers and toes,Chris says. You’re actually sending messages back up. If you touch that oven door and it’s hot, we want to know about it.

Working like this as an organisation, the understood and agreed message of the CEO will cascade throughout the company’s people. That’s a great sign that the communication cycle is functioning seamlessly throughout the business.

Developing the role of the line manager as a conduit for communications

Chris strongly emphasises the importance of starting the conversation at senior level and obtaining the support needed from the CEO or HR Director, with clear intent.

Organisations should ask line managers what it is they need to support them, and define what role they want them to play. “Start by saying we want our line managers to be the sort of narrators, these people that bring it all to life,” Chris explains.

Chris offers one final key tip to summarise this podcast:

Raise the standard of communication, but not just from line managers. It takes two to have a conversation. What learning intervention can you do that helps all your employees get more comfortable with conversations and sharing their opinion, asking questions?

Once the right people have been targeted to effectively communicate the right messages and feedback, “All of sudden you’ve created this movement where your entire business is becoming more effective at communicating.

With the right skills and support, line managers can play a hugely crucial part as the nerve endings within the organisation’s physiology. And if they’re utilised correctly, and appreciated from both ends, the typical corporate pyramid becomes a circle – and that is how an organisation communicates effectively and reacts positively in times of change.

Useful Links:

Chris’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chris-coburn/

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