From waterfalls to waves

Just as sustainability has moved from being a topic within a separate department in organizations to being firmly established on the boardroom agenda, so too communication increasingly needs to move from being seen as the responsibility of one department.

In a rapidly changing world, information flows fast across multiple mediums and boundaries are no longer as rigid. It is vital for senior executives to equip themselves to be able to communicate appropriately during times of uncertainty, stress and crisis. The divide between internal and external communication is also artificial as the lines become blurred.

In February 2021, UK Chairman of KPMG Bill Michael stepped down after making comments that were seen as inappropriate and uncaring during an internal meeting. The online session was recorded and sent to the media by an employee. Following the media exposure, Michael was quoted as saying, “I am truly sorry that my words have caused hurt amongst my colleagues and for the impact the events of this week have had on them. In light of that, I regard my position as untenable and so I have decided to leave the firm."

As many companies rework their purpose statements to include broader societal responsibility, it is vital that executives are ready for the dialogues that will emerge as a result.  In October 2021, the NY Times published an article highlighting employee discontent within McKinsey & Co around their advisory work with companies who contribute to climate degradation, sharing excerpts from a letter signed by more than 1100 employees. Increasingly, people are holding their organizations to account and engaging with external media if they feel unheard or ignored by the top. On October 27, 2021, McKinsey published a response defending its position and stating, “Our goal is ambitious and clear: to be the world’s largest force for decarbonization in the private sector.

Companies can’t go from brown to green without getting a little dirty. And if that means some mud gets thrown at McKinsey, we can live with that.”

When a corporate reputation becomes increasingly questioned, a radical shift may be required. “Facebook provides an interesting case study.  Clearly a successful business, the company has struggled with its communications to the extent that it challenged its license to operate. With the Metaverse vision and rebranding, the founder and CEO has acted to take back the initiative. Being a successful business is no longer enough. It is also vital for companies to be respected by and responsive to both employees and stakeholders. The way C-suite executives communicate has an immediate impact on the company reputation,” says Rolf Olsen, CEO and founder of Leidar Communications agency.

In leadership research that formed the basis of the award-winning book, Care to Dare, nine characteristics were identified from interviews with employees who rated their bosses as good leaders. These included the ability to stay calm under stress, using listening and inquiry, and delivering a powerful message. Says co-author Professor Susan Goldsworthy, “In today’s increasingly complex and uncertain world, it is not adversity or mistakes that define us but rather the way we respond to them. People expect leaders to be able to give as much clarity as possible whilst managing expectations with a compassionate attitude.” 

Increasing senior team communications awareness, knowledge and competence is vital. In Professor Goldsworthy’s research, she has identified that the traditional approach of cascade communication is no longer relevant or appropriate for business where information is shared like a waterfall; coming from the top, hitting different places along the way and then stagnating at the bottom. Instead, leaders need to think of communication as a series of waves, where dialogue takes place across all levels and areas for more enlightened, inclusive and informed engagement. Says Goldsworthy, “Applying this approach takes courage as leaders switch from a ‘power over’ to a ‘power with’ approach that encourages creative co-creation so that people and the planet may continue to thrive together. “