Asking Why: The Future-Proof Communications Skill
We communicate in turbulent times. We’re in the post-trust era and the age of instant workplace information. Many of the skills we needed yesterday will be redundant tomorrow, with one certain exception. Focusing on results rather than process will never go out of fashion.
My career started in an office where you had to ask if you wanted to use the telephone. Permission was rarely granted except in emergencies and only after 1 pm when cheap call rates applied.
Now, I hardly ever use my phone to make voice calls. I seem to learn a new tool or app every month or so. No sooner do I get to grips with a new way to communicate than I am told that the jungle of progress has overgrown it. Spending time mastering SharePoint or Snapchat seems futile when a replacement is probably waiting in the wings. But surely there must be some enduring communication capabilities?
Are there base competencies?
Some years back, with Sue Dewhurst, I developed a model of the base skills, knowledge and experience a communicator would need to do their job. Surveying several hundred colleagues around the world, we noticed a consensus that good practice needed competence in relationship building, networking, understanding the organisation, consultancy skills, developing others, innovation and creativity, listening and evaluation and the ability to make things happen.
I have seen other models in recent years but none are based on such extensive research and they tend to over-stress tactical abilities like working with social media or understanding digital tools. Interestingly, in our findings, craft skills such as writing or editing were overwhelmed by the list of softer attributes.
Whilst no one can deny the value of base skills such as writing or project management, it seems that these are taken for granted in a regular IC professional. Our study hit on an enduring message. Effective communication people need to understand their organisations, develop an intelligence- gathering mentality and be able to give advice.
Increasingly, the mark of success in our field is the ability to get business results. Once, IC was the domain of the harmless creative. No one had high expectations of what we did as long as it looked great or was fun! Now, we support leaders who know exactly what they want from internal communications and where it fits into business planning. Sure, our work has to be well produced and attractive, but it has to deliver results in the form of outcomes, not just outputs.
If we can’t make the link between the needs of the business and the communications we produce it becomes hard to justify budgets, resources or management attention. IC managers who enjoy access to senior colleagues get two things right. They make the connection between activity and impact and they bring data.And it all starts by constantly asking“why?”
“Why?” is the key whatever the technique
The only safe prediction that can be made about IC is that our tools and techniques are not going to stay the same. The speed of change in our practice is getting faster.
The change is being driven not just by technology but by factors such as globalisation. Once we said that face-to-face was the supreme channel; now Webex and Skype connect colleagues on the other side of the world. Once we focused on building trust in our leaders; now social change and better connectivity mean that people listen to their peers more readily than to their bosses.
Confronted by so many different ways to communicate and so many different pressures, communicators need to keep dragging plans back to the fundamental question of what are we trying to achieve. Tomorrow’s professionals, like their colleagues of the past, will not start with the tool.We’ll start with the end in mind.
Smart communicators will keep asking “why are we doing this?” or “what results do we want?”. Smarter ones will ask “what business need are we trying to meet?” or “what do we actually want people to do when they get our message?”
Dumber ones will keep looking for an excuse to use the latest tool or trick regardless of whether their organisation really needs it. While they get excited by the magic powers of a particular app or a new piece of software, the value they bring to their employers or clients is always going to be tenuous at best.
Whatever the future brings, the only skill we all need is the ability to keep linking great ideas to real results. That’s all there is to it, and all there ever was.
Skills take development
Few of us start out as rounded professionals. It’s one of the joys of our calling that we never stop learning and growing. There is always a new challenge to master. But when we need to grow a specific skill how do we set about the task?
Formal training is only part of the answer. Research suggests that, although important, education through courses and workshops has the least impact on our professional growth.
Our skills evolve most when we seek out opportunities to test ourselves; opportunities to rise to a fresh challenge. When we do the same things year in and year out we stagnate and fall behind our peers.
So what are the best ways to practice the skills needed to ask challenging questions and link programmes to results? The answer lies in finding fresh projects and situations in which to practice.
Communicators committed to professional growth should identify projects that need planning and shaping. Actively seeking out situations or programmes such as introducing new HR initiatives, supporting a transformation or helping remedy a quality problem will give ample occasion to ask the “why” question. Being seconded out of communications altogether will hone an instinct for the things that matter apart from well-crafted copy or emails that get a high open rate.
In future, the leaders of our profession will be marked by the same traits that define today’s leaders. There will always be demand for people who invest time in growing soft skills and are not afraid to keep asking “why?” It’s the question everyone else in leadership asks every day.
Three Key Takeaways
Stop worrying about the next big thing in IC. Whatever it is will come and go before you’ve got to grips with it.
Focus on making sure all your plans are based on a significant business result. When you are focused on outcomes rather than outputs everything becomes simpler.
Build your skills by restlessly searching for new projects and programmes. Foundational training is important but its experience and exposure that grows your career.
This is an excerpt of our 222-page book Disrupting the Function of IC - A Global Perspective. Click here to download.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Managing Partner Working
Liam FitzPatrick is a consultant who advises organisations going through change. He has worked around the world across aviation, government, higher education, manufacturing, NGO’s, pharmaceuticals, transport and infrastructure.
Liam is a well-known writer and the co-author of Internal Communications, a manual for practitioners. In partnership with Sue Dewhurst he wrote a definitive competency model for internal communicators. He was one of the founders of the Melcrum CEB Black Belt programme and is a strong advocate of learning and development in the profession.
When he is not working he is probably cycling and organising ultra-endurance events like London Wales London.