An open letter to Carmen Spinoza

Dear Carmen,

Being the director of communications, you’re undoubtedly interested in language, and I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that that might extend to semantics too.

That’s handy, because there are some practical insights to be had through looking at what lies underneath some of the terms used to define your job. Let’s start with what’s on your business card:

Director

The root of the word is ‘to guide’ – and that’s a key to how the world’s top directors operate.

Etymology of Director

Etymology of director

It might be tempting to think that it is all about calling the shots (or shouting ‘cut’ as the cliché goes for movie directors). In truth, directors are part of a team – and the best results come when you work with your colleagues to find a shared way forward.

How might you do that in practice? Well, as the origins of guide imply: a little bit of wit might not go amiss.

Etymology of Guide

Etymology of guide

In practice this doesn’t mean cracking jokes all the time. One definition of wit is: ‘the capacity for inventive thought and quick understanding; keen intelligence.’

So it is about staying level headed when the going gets tough – and recognising that there is strength in numbers. And with the strength, there should also be room to allow for a little humour along the way. It can help you and your colleagues break a deadlock – and look at a challenge in a new way.

Now I mentioned numbers. That’s because you’ll now be part of the senior management team / senior leadership team / the executive management team. There are lots of terms and these are often shortened down to SMT, SLT and EMT but that just makes it even more vague. What is it all about when it comes to purpose and behaviours in a group like this?

Is there perhaps a single short term that can help us inform some of the what, how and why of a group like this?

I propose we take a closer look at the word…

Board

When you look at the root it becomes obvious why so many people talk about getting ‘a seat at the table’. The good people over at Fidelio even have a programme you might want to look at – called exactly this.

Etymology of Board

Etymology of board

What else might we learn from the root? Well, that when a board operates in unison, it really can be like facing a broadside. And boards operate at the sharp edge: they’re there to resolve issues that can’t be solved at lower levels of the organisation.

Now Globocorp operates all over the world, so there are management boards, supervisory boards and subsidiary boards (and a few more in-between). We’ll look closer at these another time.

You might end up serving on more than one – directly, or perhaps as part of a committee – and while the legal framework and statutory requirements will vary, there are some shared principles. The Financial Reporting Council’s updated guidance on board effectiveness is not a bad place to start as you start thinking beyond the function you came up through (so to speak).

Here I’ve pulled a few quick principles to whet your appetite:

FRC Guidance on Board Effectiveness - cover
FRC Guidance on Board Effectiveness

“Effective directors will understand their duties both collectively and individually.”

“A sound understanding at board level of how value is created over time is key in steering strategies and business models towards a sustainable future.”

“The boardroom should be a place for robust debate where challenge, support, diversity of thought and teamwork are essential features.”

“Openness and accountability matter at every level.”

As you can see immediately, this calls for working well beyond the comms department. It requires for you to be a true guide when walking into the boardroom.

Now how might you practice some of these skills in a safe environment, exploring scenarios and testing out approaches?

Get a seat at the table. Help guide.

Play Snakes & Ladders…

Good luck!

Michael

Michael Ambjorn has led people for over 20 years. He has run organisations, chaired boards and developed changemakers. You can find him on LinkedIn or follow him @michaelambjorn

 

“Never assess the situation from your own lens…” – A Carmen Q&A

Hundreds have played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders around the world – and we like to check in with people. In this installment of our series of conversations, Carmen spoke to Colin Hatfield the founder and senior partner at Visible Leaders.

Carmen: Hello Colin; tell me a bit more about your work…

Colin: We help leaders to articulate a vision that inspires – at all levels. We help them develop the skills to engage their internal and external audiences, to drive performance and realise their organization’s ambitions.

We believe that at the heart of leadership lies great communication. Great leaders inspire change and motivate their teams through what they say, what they do and how they listen.

Carmen: You’ve played this game more than once…

Colin: Yes! And it has developed quite a bit. The first time I tried it was when it was in a very early version. And then I partook in a ‘proper’ session earlier this year at the Strategic Adviser Forum as part of IABC’s World Conference in Montreal.

I think it works on many many levels. It is an idea that we could build in with some of our clients, and some of the relationships we’ve got.

Carmen: What surprised you the most?

Colin: Perhaps not surprised, but what I liked the most is the discussion it generates. In some situations there is a right and wrong answer. but in many there aren’t. What is interesting is to see a bunch of professionals in the room come to different outcomes. Understanding the different factors that informed their decision-making process. Getting into that was enlightening.

Carmen: You’ve recently been writing and speaking about Adaptive Leadership. Is this something that is relevant here?

Colin: Adaptive leadership is about how leaders show up: reading a situation, understanding the context – and understanding how to have the best possible impact. It is a move on from the pure ‘authenticity’ discussion that has been going on for some time. I think the game could easily be used to explore some of these challenges and approaches in practice.

Carmen: Have you got a couple of top tips from Adaptive Leadership that could be used by others playing the game?

Colin: Sure!

  1. Never assess the situation from your own lens. What’s great about the Adaptive Leadership approach is that it helps you look at things from the point of view of your stakeholders.
  2. Experiment – try taking on the different ‘personas’ as you think through the challenge. That’s essential when you play this game – and in work in general. Explore what makes the various stakeholders you deal with tick.

Carmen: Big thanks Colin – and where can we find out more about your work?

Read our blog for more on Adaptive Leadership – and you may also find our recent white papers on Communication Across Cultures and A Practical Approach to Stakeholder Management useful.

Connect with Colin on LinkedIn if you want to learn more – and follow @VisibleLeaders

And if you’d like to try the game: see if it is right for you.

If you’re an alumni and you’d like to be interviewed by Carmen, let us know here.

The Claire Underwood school of leadership

Last Sunday, after a week putting out metaphorical fires in South East Asia, I managed to book myself a “me day”. I’m in Kuala Lumpur, in one of the suites of the Mandarin Hotel, enjoying the familiar smell of their newly pressed linen (as the ads say, “I’m a fan.”).  After a run through the Perdana Botanical Gardens and a long, long bath I powered my laptop up: Claire is President and I need a binge-watch.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you may be forgiven. The world’s realpolitik has become so ‘entertaining’ that it’s almost OK to forget the dark mischievous world of House of Cards, the Netflix series that used to belong to the maligned Kevin Spacey (still I believe one of the best actors of his generation). Season 6 was just released with Robin Wright in the role the first female president of the U.S.

Here is the thing, after the first episode, I got a text from Hugh Mann, our HR Director. He needed to confirm things were OK for next week’s Exec Team meeting. I said “Yes. Now I’m going to lose myself in House of Cards, have you seen it?” “Yes, but I quit watching after the first episode. Once I realised she was only playing her version of Kevin Spacey.”

This totally innocuous comment got me thinking about the topic of women in leadership. No matter how you play it, someone is probably trying to see if you measure up, especially if you’re playing it right. Because, given the limited examples we have of women in positions of power, I believe there is less understanding of diversity and different styles of leadership in women. It’s normal, we are only just beginning to experience what a female leader looks like, is, and how she acts and reacts. The trouble is, when it comes to men, we can see leaders of every shade and tend to judge the person and behaviour. When it comes to female leaders – trust me, I’m one – the starting point is always – consciously or unconsciously – gender.

How, you might ask, have I handled the obvious pressures of being a female leader? I’m still grappling with it, every day. But here are four things I use to guide me in my journey:

  • A mirror – It can be a mentor, a colleague or your right-hand person. It’s someone who can look at you and give you the encouragement and/or the reality check you need. It is someone who knows you from your pre-leader days and can cut through the trappings of power. See: IABC UK’s mentoring programme
  • Noise-cancelling headphones – I use Globocorp’s own “STFU” brand (available at all our stores), the best in the market (of course). You need them to mute and silence the critics. Particularly the ones within. I don’t get the impression that effective male leaders replay every meeting and pull apart every decision they make to imagine a better reaction. In my experience, women tend to do so, we ruminate. So brush off that voice and only listen to her when it’s time to reflect. Brené Brown has some very useful tips on how to silence the inner critic.
  • A compass Sometimes I get lost in the power-jostling, life-balancing, decision-making maze I call my job. Should I fight for that extra million for a new campaign? Should I get involved when I see Buck cutting the canteen budget in our operations? Should I push back when my CEO makes a ridiculous request? How to know? I consult my compass. My true north is the purpose we -as a company- are here to fulfill. My decisions should always align with it. Frankly, sometimes I go off-piste, but that’s OK. The compass is there to bring me back.
  • A skills lab – A safe space to flex your decision-making muscles.  Would you get on a plane with a pilot that hasn’t successfully landed lots and lots of planes in simulation? Would you let a surgeon who had never used a scalpel take out your appendix? Many of us have prepared organizations to respond to crisis through simulations, stress testing a team’s response to media and organizational pressures. It works. We know it. But why should ‘crisis’ have a monopoly on simulations? When was the last time you took your team on a simulation to build their skills in other areas?

I’m still watching the last few episodes House of Cards, so no spoilers, please. I think Robin Wright is delightful in her complex back and forth between total evil and vulnerability, but ask me again after I finish watching. In the meantime, let me know what you think.

And if you want to put your toe into the waters of leadership and learn in the process, I can be the head of your skills lab. Bring a session of Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders to your team.

Are you Beast or Beauty?

Many communication professionals I know seem besotted with the concept of becoming a ‘business partner’. They say things like: If only my CEO would listen to me … I’ve got lots of great ideas but senior executives just treat me like a copy editor … I can never get time in their diaries … they only think of communication after the fact and don’t involve me in decision-making … they seem to think my job is to ‘make things pretty’.

An 1875 illustration from "Beauty and the Beast" by Eleanor Vere Boyle, where Beast is depicted as a saber-toothed panther. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Reusing_content_outside_Wikimedia
An 1875 illustration from “Beauty and the Beast” by Eleanor Vere Boyle, where Beast is depicted as a saber-toothed panther. 

This is reminiscent of my niece’s favourite Fairy Tale “Beauty and the Beast”; where a lack of mutual understanding and tolerance initially gets in the way of a fruitful and successful relationship. The power of partnership overcomes initial antipathy. If this sounds like some of your internal relationships – with senior executives or other functions in your organizations, then read on.

For many people in our profession, creating a successful partnership with senior colleagues is a vexing challenge. The dilemma is about how to balance your professional expertise with the other skills require to create a great partnership. The problem is made more difficult by the professional curriculum of the profession.

By this I contend that companies, individuals, and organizations invest a lot of time and energy on the technical skills side of training. There are many conferences on skills and tools to become an ‘expert’, or about the last ‘shiny tools’ and techniques. But becoming a business partner is about more than just becoming a great technician. Playing in the professional sandbox is great fun but doesn’t add much value.

To help understand this, I spoke to my other functional colleagues – Buck Greenback, Lloyd Barr and Hugh Mann to get a different perspective. It seems that other functions, have also started to recognise this, invest in training and new approaches, and are therefore seen as more of a partner, whether they have the job title of ‘business partner’ or not.

Developing great partnerships and being taken seriously is more than just being a beautifully crafted expert. In the fable, Belle succeeds because she relies on more than just her looks; just as the true professional has to rely on more than just technical expertise. In fact, it is rare that your internal customers will judge you on your skills, they’ll focus instead on impact. In business – whether you are in HR, Communications, or IT – becoming a true partner is demonstrating business know-how and having great advisory/consulting behaviours.

Developing these requires investment. And sometimes training. But when was the last time you attended a training course that was about business know-how, operating models, value creation, advisory skills, consulting behaviours, or coaching?

If you want a seat at the table, for the CEO (in my case Isobel Ching) or other leaders to invest time in you, then you need to invest in them. Reciprocity: senior business people will only partner with those who understand their business, know how value is created, and demonstrate that they have done their homework. But it is surprising how few functional professionals know who their organization’s biggest customers are; who are the most important shareholders; what competitors are up to; the regulatory environment. Focusing on technical skills or new technologies is the sign of the technician, not the business partner. It’s also the sign of the vacuous beauty of Belle’s friends — the Bimbettes — who don’t have her emotional intelligence and charm.

This applies whether you are working with the senior executives, or even other functional heads. How can you help them if you don’t make an attempt to understand their world, their challenges, and their operating environment? The Beast is more than just a repellent monster. To create a partnership Belle has to understand his back-story and what drives his behaviour. Then work with him. He, in turn, invests (and overcomes his antipathy) also to discover she is more than just ‘belle’.

Once you have business knowledge, then you need to marry your experience with your business know-how with the help of the priest of consulting and advisory skills. These act as the bridge to get senior leaders to listen to your advice and guidance. These skills are about relationship building, audience analysis, creating trust, influencing skills, and being clear about what you do and how you make a difference. How you give advice is just as important as what the advice is.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast has moments of tragedy and it is also tragic that many professionals punch below their weight despite the fact that business and advisory skills are relatively easy to learn.

Advancing the profession – and advancing your own career – might be easier by focusing less on knowing the latest digital communication tools and focusing more on developing consulting tools.

If you would like to learn more about how to be a business partner, and practice your skills in a safe environment, please get in touch and we can play Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders with your team.

 

“A bit like taking part in … Moral Maze” – A Carmen Q&A

Hundreds have played Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders around the world – and we like to check in with people. In this instalment of our series of conversations, Carmen spoke to Steven Shepperson-Smith, a Chartered PR Practitioner and Chair of the Chartered Institute for Public Relations (CIPR) Greater London Group. 

Carmen: I noticed that you’re a chartered practitioner, can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Steven: I’ve been working in communications for about 20 years now. I’ve been in the CIPR for my whole career.

CIPR is the only chartered body for the PR industry in the UK, meaning it is responsible for maintaining high professional standards in the industry. It supports practitioners on two fronts: developing their skills and careers; and ensuring that they have a very clear ethical code to follow, enabling CIPR members to demonstrate strong judgment when making decisions.

Chartered status is the gold standard for practitioners in the UK. It is a peer based assessment of a person’s leadership qualities, strategic approach and ethical standards. I qualified a couple years ago and it’s a great club to be in. It tells employers and customers that you’ll do a job in a highly effective and professional manner.

Chartered Status also underpins the importance of continuous professional development (CPD). It’s really important that PR practitioners invest in their careers and keep learning, Committing to CPD is just a way of making sure you do that alongside all the other work priorities!

Carmen: How did you come across Corporate Snakes & Career Ladders?

Steven: I am chair of the CIPR Greater London Group. The last couple of years CIPR has run an ethics month (#EthicsFest) and we’ve used the game in that context. I’ve played it twice myself.

It’s quite a fun way for people to engage in ethics for their CPD points. There’s a compulsory requirement: you’ve got to do one ethics module – and quite a lot of the time it can feel a bit theoretical and dull.

Instead, playing a game and discussing scenarios and trying to win against other practitioners is great fun.

I talked before about using strong judgment, what was really helpful was sitting in a room just talking with other senior practitioners about ethical quandaries. There is no guarantee at all that any of the scenarios will occur for real in a person’s career but it helps to hear different approaches to a problem. With ethics, as you know, there’s not always a right or wrong – but a lot of grey in between. It was a bit like taking part in BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze from that perspective!

Carmen: Great. What’s next?

StevenCIPR Greater London Group holds a free Drink event on the second Monday of every month at the Merchant House in Fleet Street. It’s the biggest PR networking drinks in London and we’d love to see you there sometime. You can book for that and other events on our Eventbrite page.

If you would like to learn more about attaining and maintain Chartered Practitioner status, connect with Steven on LinkedIn. 

And if you’d like to try the game: see if it is right for you.

If you’re an alumni and you’d like to be interviewed by Carmen, let us know here.