You know that thing you have in your bathroom? You know, you push down on the button and some silky soap comes out for you to wash your hands. It’s a great thing. Reliable. Sturdy. Does its job on time, every time. Will give you 20 years of dedicated service without wanting anything in return, except refills of course!
Yeah, let’s hear it for soap dispensers. Aren’t they great?
But the question for internal communication professionals to ask themselves is: are you a soap dispenser? And I ask that in both senses of the word:
1. Do you dispense corporate soap or “softsoap” as some kind of balmy goo that gets everywhere in organizations and is designed to persuade or cajole employees to perform better? Are you the equivalent of a snake oil salesman (but for soap), or the purveyor of patent medicine which, while probably not causing harm, doesn’t do much good either? Are you the solution when leaders need to wash their hands of a problem?
2. More allegorically, are you someone who when subjected to pressure from a higher level, someone pushing down on you, reliably produces output without complaint or imagination?
The corporate soap dispenser is a reliable, conscientious, diligent, trustworthy member of the team. He or she will always deliver exactly what is expected, and execute flawlessly every time. Every organization needs a few of these. But if your house was on fire, would you rush back into save your soap dispenser? Would you put a soap dispenser in charge of a department? Would you listen to its advice?
Is someone who acts like a corporate soap dispenser really adding value?
Yes, it is true. There are times when someone will come along, ask for and expect some soap. Someone will come along and push down from the top. And you will need to dispense some soap like the good corporate servant you are. In some jobs, in some situations, reliability and consistency is key. Wouldn’t it be a surprise if motor oil came of the soap dispenser? Predictability has its virtues.
But that is not leadership behaviour. That is not taking ownership of your career. That is not really adding value as a communication professional. I submit that if internal communication wants to be taken seriously in organizations, it needs to do more than just dispense soap at the push of a button. If you are happy sitting on the shelf for the next 20 years (or melting when the house burns down) there is really no need to read the rest of this chapter.
But if you want to grow and develop your career, and step up and become a leader, then the following tips might be useful.
Ask not what is for the soap but what the soap is for. The soap dispenser doesn’t ask what the soap is for. It measures its utility by output, not outcome. Success for the soap dispenser is pumping out product. Not the end result. Find out what job or outcome the customer requires and then adjust your solution accordingly.
Offer other solutions. Sometimes soap is just the thing. But other times antibacterial hand-wash or solvent is better. Just because the customer has asked for soap doesn’t mean soap is the answer. Have a conversation with your customer about what the job is and then discuss alternative products that you can offer.
You don’t just clean hands. Emergency bubble bath substitute? Emergency shampoo? Use your imagination and think about other problems your skills can solve. Coaching and advising? Event organizing? Marketing? Annual Report?
Become Passe-Partout. Don’t stay in the bathroom. Become portable and an essential travelling companion. The little mini-soap a leader can put in his pocket. Internal communicators shouldn’t stay in the office waiting for passing trade. Get out there. Travel round the business. Become an essential helper who can unlock doors and make things happen.
What can you do with clean hands? You aren’t dispensing soap. You are dispensing cleanliness and all the benefits that brings. You are selling the ability to cook a meal, to cuddle a baby, to be healthy. IC leaders talk about the benefits of their work, not just its features. Show how you will create value and help others succeed.
Be the boss of the bathroom. Laugh at the tiny toothbrush, the frivolous facecloth and the timid towel. Be confident and don’t let parochial rivals grind you down. Act like a leader and others will see you thus.
Be the boss of more than the bathroom. The tiny toothbrush and its ilk belong in only one place. You, my friend the soap, can bestride the whole house like a colossus. Yes, bathroom is your cradle, but you are equally at home in kitchen, workroom, laundry room, or even outside. IC leaders are equally at home in different environments, and can add value wherever they go. They are friends to all parts of the organization.
There’s a great opportunity for internal communication to be more than just a dispenser of corporate soap.
You have a choice in your career. There is nothing wrong in being a corporate soap dispenser and waiting for things to happen. There is nothing wrong with doing essentially the same thing for 20 years. But the alternative, at least in my opinion, is much more appealing. It takes courage, determination, confidence and the occasional failure. You are the entrepreneur of your own talent.
Because internal communication, like soap, has much higher potential.
Three Key Takeaways
Ask not what is for the soap but what the soap is for.
What is the benefit of your solution, not just its features?
Be the boss of more than just the bathroom.
This is an excerpt of our 222-page book 'Disrupting the Function of IC - A Global Perspective'. Click here to download .
More insights and resources on how to add value, and other topics, in our new global report 'The Next Level: The Business Value of Good Internal Communication' with the participation of in-house communication professionals, executives, educators and researchers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Welch, FRSA
Stephen Welch is a communication and HR professional, working in the UK. He splits his time between working at a semiconductor company and freelance opportunities and projects such as business partner training, leadership coaching and market research.
From 2002 – 2013 he was a global partner of Hay Group, a leading HR consultancy where he led the global Communication Media and Technology Consulting sector. He’s a certified member of the Market Research Society and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, and Fellow of the Royal Society of the Ar ts. He can be reached via Linkedin or Twitter at @StephenWelch11.