Written by: Anne Gregory, Professor of Corporate Communications, University of Huddersfield
Massive disruption is the term I hear most in conversations with organisational leaders. It’s happening now and in the next few years it will intensify.
The Ubers, AirB&Bs and Amazons of this world are profoundly challenging the way organisations are structured and operate, and this includes their physical presence too. These are some of the comments I hear: “we’ll have to seriously consider if we need offices and retail outlets and if we do, they will need to be different”; “I see a time when everyone works at home – even if they work in manufacturing they will operate machines remotely”; “we will have to re-engineer our business processes or we are dead”; “we are struggling to cope with the level of personalised contact people now demand”, and “I’m worried about how we can build a new corporate culture to deal with all this change”.
Disruption and especially the challenges of AI and the need to change ways of working as new demands are put on organisations, whether they be public, private or not for profit, are huge. Combine this with globalisation, the imperative to equip workforces for constant change and the pace of change means that the 4th industrial revolution is truly that – a revolution.
For me this means that two dimensions of organisational life come under the spotlight: leadership and communication. Leaders have to lead and they need to do that in a new way. The times of ‘command and control’ are over. Dialogue, collaboration and co-creation of the future is required. And this is not just because it is the right way to behave, but leaders need the knowledge and skills of their stakeholders and workforce to chart a way forwards.
Boards do not have the monopoly of knowledge and even if they did, they need to work in different ways if their organisations are going to be sustainable. For decades senior managers have said “our biggest asset is our employees”, but I’ve not been convinced they meant it. Now they do, because it is obviously true. Employees are the brand in person; their everyday actions are the brand and their ability to communicate what they think and feel to the world is incredibly powerful.
What is required is a new kind of leadership, where communication is at the heart. It involves an ability to share the purpose and vision of the organisation and allow others to feel that is real and relevant for them. This applies to employees, but also to the stakeholders that organisations wish to engage with to gain support. It is only with the support of these two constituents that organisations are sustainable and will maintain their ‘licence to operate’. This licence is granted when organisations behave well and contribute to the greater good.
This is why our communication profession is poised to take on new importance. Leaders do realise they need to learn how to be good communicators themselves, but they also know that they need professional communicators to help them. Communication professionals have the ‘contextual intelligence’ to help inform these leaders about what is really happening internally and externally, because they are the ‘connected ones’ who are prepared to tell the truth. Leaders also need professionals with ‘communicative intelligence’: those people who know what will resonate with stakeholders, what will generate challenge from them and to predict the issues that might arise. It is because organisations have choices in the decisions they make that they are held to account…and sometimes they have to make difficult and tough choices. Being able to tell the story of why and still maintain support is crucially important.
The challenge for communicators is not in mastering all the new communication opportunities, which is hard in itself, but its knowing how to be those respected and trusted advisors who understand how organisations work, who are knowledgeable and brave in advising leaders and who can lead themselves when all around is being disrupted.
That is exactly what we teach on the Communication Executives Program course and why so many "CEP alumni" now occupy the most senior positions on Boards in Sweden and in other parts of the world.
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