FROM THE COMMS CUPBOARD, Episode #18

The principles of communication, and leadership humility

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John and Shaun say it doesn’t matter whether you’re a large or small business, the basic principles of communication are universal.

It’s hard to put a number on how many employees indicate a tipping point for hiring a comms professional. If you’re a leader, how do you know when you need to step back and hire someone? Perhaps that’s a step too far for some, especially if they come from the school of Steve Jobs.

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Episode transcript

Shaun: Do you have to be a large organisation for internal comms to work?

John: No. That was very final. End of podcast.

Shaun: Well that’s it. Goodbye listeners, see you next week 👋

John: No, I don’t think you do. You probably have to be a larger organisation to have somebody whose job it is.

Shaun: Do you mean a prerequisite when you’re large, you probably need it?

John: Oh you definitely need it. It’s essential. But I suppose what’s the stage when you have someone whose job is just that – it’s their only job?

Shaun: That’s my question to you then. My question is: how many people do you have to have in your organisation before someone says, “I think we need an internal comms professional?”. Is there a number?

John: No, I don’t think there’s a number.

Shaun: Is it to do with how your business is structured?

John: I think, for me, it’s like anything I guess … when you’re a small company and you’ve got three people, you probably have roles anyway. You probably still have assigned roles. Somebody might look after the finances; I’ll do the planning; I’ll do the strategy; all that sort of stuff. I’ll do production; I’ll do operations. You’ll give up all those roles. As an organisation grows, you bring more people in and those roles will get assigned to people. I think my thing is more … to go back to your original question: “Do you have to be a large organisation?” … No. I think it’s more about your principles: How you want to be as a company and how you’re going to treat people. The big part is actually: What are your principles on communication? And thinking about that quite early on as an organisation.

Shaun: Is that to do with the difference between a comms professional and a HR professional?

John: No, not really. I think what I’m trying to get at is that when we set out, we want to be different. I think every company wants to be different. And you say, we want to be really open with everybody, we’re going to communicate regularly with people, and we’re going to speak to people. The big difference when you’re small to when you’re large is really just how you go about it. You’ve got your principles of communication; you want to be an open and transparent company; you want to be fair to everybody; you want to tell people quickly; you want them to have the information. When you’ve got five people, you can probably just go and chat to them. You’ll just do it face to face. When you’ve got 3,000 people, then your tactics change but your principles should be the same.

Shaun: I suppose out of curiosity and my needing to put a figure on this – and I know there’s no answer to it – but I was curious about [whether that’s] 10 people or 20 people, or 30 people? When does the boss sit down and go: “I think it’s getting harder to communicate. I don’t think that message got around to everybody. Do you remember when we only had 10 people, Bob, and we could just sit in the same room? Now we’ve got 30 people and I don’t think everyone got that message. I think we need to hire someone.” I think out of curiosity, I was wondering what level of size that is.

John: I would say the important thing to do when you’re a small organisation is give people ways to communicate with each other.

Shaun: You mean sow the seeds for when you are big?

John: Yeah. You should always have the intention of … I guess most companies, maybe they don’t have an intention that they’re going to grow, or if that’s part of their plan …

Shaun: They may hope.

John: Actually think about, are there platforms that will work well together? Maybe it’s less about internal comms and more about collaboration in the early stages. Maybe we wouldn’t call it internal communications. Maybe we call it, how do we work together and how do we collaborate?

Shaun: The culture of the business. You might set up or be very conscious of your culture, and how we maintain the company culture when there’s only seven of us to when there’s 77 of us. How do we maintain that? And that’s a challenge, isn’t it?

John: I think you hear it with these big super-corporations, like Amazon where they call them ‘Amazonians’. What do the Google people get called? Google-ites?

Shaun: Googles … ?

John: Googlers? I don’t know!

Shaun: I haven’t heard of that one 🤔

John: They have this idea … they’ve all grown so fast. Those guys weren’t companies in the early 90s, were they?

Shaun: No.

John: They’ve grown at this unbelievable rate. Of course their cultures change, but they still probably set out in a certain way, when they were small, how they wanted to be and how they wanted to treat people. That’s what it would be for me. And you probably do get to your magic number at some point – it might be a hundred, where you say: “We need someone to think about this as we scale up, because we don’t want employee number 123 to feel like we don’t … actually it’s not the same experience as employee number 56 had.”

Shaun: This is where we need to underline the importance of what a communications professional actually is. I think some people – even clever leaders who started the company – may think it’s all about the way you impart communication or messages. A comms professional is about much more than whether your message is heard by everyone. It’s about nurturing a platform of good intentions, of employee well-being. It’s about being a strategist as a communicator, isn’t it?

John: Yes, it is. I would imagine most companies as they take people on – they might just bring somebody in to do some of that for them.

Shaun: Do you mean like a freelancer?

John: Yeah, or even somebody who’s more junior. They just want them to write things for them, build some intranet pages and do a lot of the tactical stuff for them. That might be a mistake they make early on, that they’re more focused on the tactics of communications as opposed to the strategy of communications.

Shaun: There’s a Catch-22, where they may not know that they need to do more because the person isn’t there telling them “that’s how you do it” 😄

John: Exactly! When you start a business, you’re not necessarily good at everything, are you?

Shaun: No.

John: You start and you go, “I’ve no idea how to do my books,” so you might get an accountant to do them for you, and “Ooh, what are the legalities for hiring people and getting rid of people, and what do I need to do with pensions?”, and all of these things you probably learn along the way. If you’re lucky, you’re a great natural communicator, like maybe some of the people have been at these tech companies, where they’re really good at that sort of thing. But others won’t be. They might just be really good technical people.

Shaun: I don’t think Steve Jobs was ever lauded with the ‘good communicator’ thing. If anyone’s read about Steve Jobs, you can probably say he was the most transparent leader you will ever know.

John: He would tell you how he felt!

Shaun: He told you exactly how he felt about you and whether you were doing a rubbish job or not, but if he kept you there, he valued you. That’s not necessarily the best boss to have – it may be much more stressful! 🥺 But I think you’re right about managers or leaders who think, “I’ve started this business so I pretty much know the rest of it”. This comes down to one of my bugbears about leaders who don’t hire people better than themselves. You should always hire people better than yourself! Have that sense of humility where you think: “The company’s getting big now. I need to hire someone who can handle the communications for me. I need everyone to be engaged. I need my employees to be engaged. I can’t do it myself.” To have that humility to say, I’m going to hire someone better than me.

John: Not hire someone that makes me look like a fool because I don’t know what I’m doing.

Shaun: Yes! Or you’re the owner of the company and you hire these people and then you tell them what to do. What’s the point in hiring them? 🤨

John: Or, “we’ve been doing this for the last two years”. What’s the point in that?

Shaun: Yeah! I would turn around and say you’ve been doing it wrong for two years. When do you want me to start?

John: Which is probably why you work on your own!

🤣

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