Recently I met with a couple of my peers and friends – we were talking about communication (as usual). When we get together it always leads to a conversation about putting the world to rights and how we plan to make an impact as we run our businesses. If someone were to listen in we would sound like idealists, wanting to create a better world as we fix leaders, organisations, communication professionals, our peers and improve ourselves.
As the discussion continued we moved on to how we lead as communicators and the way we need to be to deliver great work. For a long time, we have heard the term ‘trusted advisor’ and although it is talked about less nowadays, it is still a relevant description of who we need to be. Like so many things, it’s easy to say the words and to include them on job descriptions, but what does it really mean? What does it look like in practice and how do we really become ‘trusted’?
To explore these themes, I thought I’d share some ideas for two main reasons. Firstly, to help us as communication professionals to gain clarity and direction. But also, for leaders -our clients, to raise their expectations and so they can see us as effective business partners they can trust.
To step into this place, I believe we need to be more confident and have a focused attitude. Confident of our skills and the advice we can offer to ensure that senior leaders can make the right decisions about pretty much everything; from how to communicate in a crisis to what new technology to sign off on. We also need to be unafraid to be challenging when necessary, but this comes from building relationships with leaders.
There has been a lot of talk about our value and effectiveness – our place in the boardroom. But we can ask ourselves, why would a leader invite us into the board room? What would we bring to add value? Would we have the gravitas and business acumen to hold our own and present a strong case for communication?
InVMA’s report ‘Beyond Communication’it states what business leaders expect from communication professionals today: “the modern CEO is looking for strong commercial understanding; a strategic business leader who sits at the inner core of the organisation and proactively connects, coordinates and facilitates the business to achieve its strategic objectives…This new breed of communications director must have new competencies for a new age – no longer simply a wise counsel or an interpreter of executive output…but drivers, strategic thinkers, and entrepreneurial leaders.”
One of the direct quotes went further: “I want my director of communications to challenge me; to teach me as well and help with my blind spots”.
So what does it mean to be a trusted advisor?
Being a trusted advisor is about having the experience, training, knowledge and expertise to be trusted, to advise your clients well. It indicates behaviours and that you are disciplined and professional. This general definition is well known, but what does it mean?
In reality becoming a ‘trusted’ advisor is all about having the confidence to ask the right questions and be challenging enough so that leadership sense a connection. That they listen and respond to your leadership and respect how you come alongside to support them to make the right decisions.
- Build relationships and become an influencer: Having the level of influence that attracts leaders to ask your advice is key. Also important is taking the time and initiative to build relationships with the leader to understand the business, how it works and what some of the constraints are. Demonstrate that you have business acumen and can talk in their language, it will convince them of your ability to be trusted.
- Be engaging and create dialogue with senior leadership – it’s not just about being in the boardroom, sometimes it’s about having access, being proactive to start conversations and confident to challenge.
- Be knowledgeable and decisive: Be creative and don’t be afraid to speak up based on your knowledge. We know what works and how good communication can impact and correct an organization that is going in the wrong direction. Be decisive when necessary, trust your instincts – it will help you gain respect.
- Be confident as a leader: You have the expertise to lead communication, you have to demonstrate that to leadership. The best way to do that is through dialogue – understanding leadership’s challenges and being assertive enough to recommend how communication can fix it.
- Use a coaching approach: Take time to listen to what leaders have to say. Then rather than immediately adding advice – ask a question that will get their attention and encourage them to think. This will help you to discover what’s really important and provide clarity on what they really want or need to communicate effectively.
- Connect with key internal stakeholders: Find out what their priorities are. Get them onside so they become advocates. Find out what they need and be available. Think about what will help them play back your advice when it matters.
- Be strategic: Create a clear central strategy for internal communication with objectives for engagement. Make sure it is aligned to the business and its priorities. Then find opportunities to share what internal communications can do for the business, how it can add value.
- Go with relevant data: Evidence of what IC and EE can do is powerful. Identify reports, research and case studies. Where possible share examples that show financial benefits and improvements to productivity.
- Place people / employees at the top of your agenda: Find ways to get employees involved, to give them a voice and engage. Get your leaders to understand how important this is and help them to connect with employees – let them lead the call for engagement. Include engagement as a strategic goal with a challenge to leadership based on the impact it can have on advocacy.
- Develop yourself as a leader and your teams: Get connected to an industry body for input on best practice like CIPR. Find ways to do more training and personal development.
I hope you find these thoughts and ideas helpful.