It’s a tough time to be a business leader right now and dealing with the uncertainty of “what’s next?” and predicting when our economy will return to some form of normal is dominating the thoughts of the leaders I know. Over the last several weeks I have engaged with dozens of senior leaders from companies all over the country about how they are dealing with the immediate and long-term economic impact, leading remote teams and addressing the safety needs/concerns of their employees during the Covid-19 pandemic. The broad spectrum of conversations usually boil down to this simple question:
How do leaders authentically communicate the economic realities of what is going on right now to their team members while offering hope that there are better days ahead?
Looking for an expert’s perspective on communication advice I can share with the leaders in my network, I reached out to Lisa Tilt, CEO of Full Tilt Consulting. I have known and admired Lisa for over 15 years and consider her to be a leading expert in communications, executive reputation, and employee branding for organizations of nearly any size. I interviewed her a few days ago to get her take on how leaders should be thinking about internal communication with their teams in the age of Covid-19.
Lisa, thank you for taking a few minutes to speak with me. I wish we could meet in person, but Zoom will have to do! You and I have spoken at length over the years about the critical importance of leadership messaging and a leader’s overall approach to communications. In our current climate, this is more important than ever. How are your clients handling the current crisis? What are you seeing?
“Thank you for your time, Randy, it’s always great to speak with you. I’ve enjoyed our conversations over the years particularly because our work is so aligned. We certainly find ourselves in some interesting times, don’t we? Navigating truly uncharted waters of a “now” normal and continually trying to determine the way forward.
Every one of us is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in a different way, and while not all the news is bad, it’s only human to be worried about the unknown. As a result of this blunt force trauma to our psyches, we crave the stability that strong leaders can grant us. Business at its core is about the human element and the leaders who communicate with empathy first will do well by their employees and their organization over the long term. While this is simple in concept, successfully executing on it is fairly nuanced and layered, especially now.
Consider executive communications from two perspectives. First, big picture. There are some onerous societal trends that will have a long term effect on every business, therefore demanding our attention. The closing of schools and childcare facilities affecting working parents, the influence of prolonged stress and anxiety on workers’ mental health, and the escalating culture war over cities reopening, to name a few. These and other emerging macro issues are prompting leaders to stay informed and be prepared to address these head on as they play out in the workplace. Well-planned communication, particularly given the sensitive and personal nature of these trends, is required to achieve your desired outcome.
Second are the workplace related topics that are smaller in scale, but no less important to employees. Here’s one example that has emerged since Covid-19 with the potential to negatively affect workforce productivity and overall well being: video calls. Maybe you’re experiencing this too, but the volume of video conferences I am on every day has me pretty beat by the end of the day. I was hearing the same from other business leaders which led me to explore a bit further. I learned about “Zoom fatigue” and the reasons why this is occurring and think it’s something company leaders should put on their radar.
There are actually many factors at play here and I recommend a particularly great article published by the BBC. But, essentially as we’ve replaced in-person meetings with video conferencing, we are unconsciously trying to replicate the interpersonal vibe that ebbs and flows when we are physically together and it takes a lot more work. Video chat requires us to consume more energy to process non-verbal cues, tone of voice, and body language, and exposure to this prolonged fatigue could have lasting repercussions.
I mention this because it is the leader’s role to establish guideposts for communication and set the example for the organization’s culture. What parameters and allowances are we setting for employees to work within? As we shift focus on what the rest of 2020 will look like, possibly extending quarantine or going back into it, this is an important consideration.
Taking all this into account when coaching execs and leadership teams on employee communications strategies, I find it’s important to understand the state of mind of your workforce and inventory all the ways you interact with your teams. Together, we assess message tone and consistency, communications length and frequency, channels used to deliver, who is delivering the message and when, and ultimately how employees are engaging with leadership and each other. This discovery process is leading to honest conversations about best practices and opportunities for improvement to determine a path forward.”
I have made similar observations. How do leaders show the vulnerability of not having all the answers while inspiring their teams and giving them hope?
“Randy, you and I have always talked about bringing our authentic selves to work and how that ultimately impacts our own happiness and success. This is amplified for leaders particularly in times of crisis, and by being authentic, we build trust among those looking to us for direction.
I read a Harvard Business Review article that came out the same year I started my business 14 years ago and I pick it back up every now and then. There is a concept here I want to share as it relates to building trust. The writer talks about the many roles a CEO plays in the service of leadership, and that because we are surrounded by people who seek our feedback and approval, we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking it’s our responsibility to be the person who has all the answers. But, no one does, especially now. Our problems are too complex to solve on our own, so stating the contrary is actually disingenuous and employees see right through that.
People need to feel they can trust their leadership in order to take steps forward and that means having real, honest and transparent conversations. Remain optimistic, but don’t sugar coat the truth. Instead, share what you know now, the answers you have determined based on current information, near-term goals, and assurances that they will be informed of changes as soon as possible. Then be transparent when the need arises to recalibrate plans and deliver the news with confidence.
Effective leaders understand their role is to bring out the answers in others. This leads me to your question about hope, Randy. It’s a powerfully important feeling that gives us self-confidence and a sense of empowerment. How critical are these right now?
Hope is about what we believe to be possible and probable and leaders who can instill hope among their workforce will change its course for the better. It’s a substantial task, but one of the best ways I’ve heard this distilled down is this: communicate goals, energy, and ideas. Here’s what I mean. By regularly sharing company goals and what you specifically want to achieve, you give people a direction in which to head. Hope sometimes needs a little motivation, so share your messages with the energy and enthusiasm that made you a leader in the first place. And finally, empower everyone in the organization to contribute ideas and differing viewpoints to overcome your obstacles together.
Leading through adversity by building trust and offering hope is a game changer in the development of a leader. It is worth the work.”
Lisa, so many of the business leaders we know have had to lay off or furlough team members during the last several weeks and there are more cuts ahead. What is your advice to them for how to handle communicating this difficult message to employees? Is there a best approach for this incredibly difficult conversation?
“In actuality, how leaders communicate company news related to Covid-19 shouldn’t differ from the past IF – and it’s a big if – they already communicate to employees with empathy, transparency, and consistency. If before leaders were accessible and available and known to truly listen…that shouldn’t change. Those who cannot tick off these attributes will need to get there quickly because employees are looking to executive leadership right now to determine if they should panic.
This is the time like no other for business leaders to be compassionate humans first. Plan on increasing your overall cadence for communication to include more employee touch points, one-on-one outreach, messages of encouragement and recognition, and resources of support. Start conversations with a personal message from the heart that is not overly scripted, followed by an honest and steady delivery of the information currently available, leaving plenty of time for questions.
Organizations will have their own process for announcing organizational changes, but this is a good baseline: Lead with a message from the highest-level organizational leader in a way that is consistent with your culture and conveys emotional safety, optimism, and commitment. Schedule team meetings immediately after with direct managers to share more specifics and engage in active dialogue. Followed by one-on-one employee meetings to discuss personal impact and serve those employees who need time to process information or are not comfortable speaking in front of the group.
Operating as an employee-centric organization has to be a strategic decision at the highest levels. I recommend activating a cross-functional team with executive oversight to consult regularly with senior leadership on employee engagement strategies and communications initiatives. The ideal team is made up of in-house representatives from HR, internal comms, and marketing well as consultant or partner outside of the company. Each member of the team is chosen for their ability to bring different perspectives, ideas, and real-time data to the table to shape the strategy and oversee its execution.
When in crisis, leaders are operating in the past, present, and future all at once. We are busier than ever managing in a high-velocity business environment, but it’s important that we double down our attention to employee communications in order to take care of our people. It will have lasting effects on our business.”
Lisa, from your perspective, is there a practical best practices approach you can offer the readers of this post on a solid Covid-19 communications strategy? Four or five ideas they can easily implement to be more effective?
“Excellent question, Randy. I think it is important to note that a strong employee communications program in place before March 2020 will hold true during this crisis with some minor adjustments here and there. What Covid-19 has done is shine a light on the organizations that are doing it well and those that aren’t.
Employees are talking more than ever about their work experiences, how they are being treated, and how they are feeling. In the absence of information from company leaders, they will fill in the gaps with their own opinions and it’s not generally positive or altogether accurate. This is the time to shore things up if communications isn’t already a focus.
Here are a few simple tips and reminders of what we discussed today:
- Speak openly and communicate as a human with the capacity to emote. Lead with the personal message to comfort and invite people to listen, then present the professional message to inform and motivate to action. Don’t get mired in dry talking points.
- Deliver your message with calm confidence and avoid hyperbole. Be transparent that you don’t have all the answers, that things are continually changing, and the leadership team has a plan to move forward and will adjust as necessary.
- All of us are looking for hope and a sense of control. At our workplaces, that can manifest as employees contributing ideas that will help the organization survive and thrive. Invite input on ways to innovate your products or services, improve remote work culture, enhance customer service, and increase operational efficiencies.
- Decide how often your leadership team is going to communicate to employees then stick with it. Engage an accountability partner if you need to. Don’t overdo it, but provide value in what you say. There are always opportunities to share information that sets clear direction, educates on a concept, encourages and inspires, or gains buy-in.
- Remember 80-90% of communication is delivered non-verbally through tone and visual cues over the words we write or say. Seriously consider using video to deliver your message. A smartphone camera is perfectly fine as personality and authenticity beats out polish these days.”
Thank you for taking time out of your hectic day to speak with me. Is there anything else you would like to convey to leaders who will read this interview?
“Thank you, Randy. I so appreciate you. My parting thought is that as leaders we need to remember to take care of ourselves and each other. We are running an ultra-marathon right now and fatigue is setting in as this situation proves to be much more of a long haul.
When I sit down with executives for a coaching session, they share that our time together is cathartic as much as anything. Leaders need an outlet to be vulnerable and talk through ideas with someone who knows enough about their business but can be objective and candid. THis is something I know you’re passionate about as well.
My particular focus is to help leaders nail their executive brand and discover new ways to express it, but all of us who have the opportunity to serve in a consultative role to company leaders are just as important now as ever to help them weather this storm. You are one who serves in that role for me, Randy, and I attribute much of my sanity to having you in my life! I wish much success to everyone reading this, you can call me anytime, and offer my sincere gratitude for your time today.”
Information about Full Tilt Consulting:
Founded in 2006, Full Tilt Consulting is an Atlanta-based marketing communications firm. Our mission is to continually offer the highest level of client service and expertise in order to help companies that are planning for next-stage growth, ready to capitalize on trends, and wanting to leverage business opportunities to gain momentum. If you are interested in learning more, please visit fulltiltconsulting.com or any of our social media channels. Lisa may be reached at 404-388-7047 or firstname.lastname@example.org.