Thursday, March 23, 2006

As Desmond Tutu said to me.....

I had an e-mail from Archbishop Desmond Tutu today - okay, it came from his PA - but it's not every day (no, correct that, it's not any day) that I get an e-mail from one of the best-known and most respected figures in the world.

So why was the Archbishop writing to me?

Well, I've been conducting a number of focus groups in businesses recently where one of the issues covered has been: 'Who do you look up to as a communicator and why?'

Not entirely surprisingly, almost no-one has pointed to an exec in their own business, and while the likes of Gates, Branson and Sugar have all been mentioned in passing, very few people have pointed to business people as engaging communicators.

Now that began to get me thinking.....

Huge generalisation as I'm sure this is, as communicators, our business leaders are a pretty insipid bunch. If you're looking for credible orators who really inspire those around them, walking the talk and living up to their articulated business culture, you probably won't look deeply into Britain's boardrooms. My take is that we're in the age of the MBA-as-CEO. The '90s and '00s have brought the finance directors ever more into commerce and industry's top seats. Unlike the owner/managers of the past, or the entrepreneurs who built the business from its bootstrings and lived and breathed the making of widgets, today's execs are portable, transferring their skills from boardroom to boardroom and rarely having any experience of life close to the product or service the peddle.

It can be hard for us as communicators to make the suits even consciously effective as champions of their business. So where can we look for the naturals? Who are the communicators who instinctively know what to say, know when to listen and know how to get the right response from their audiences? My recent interviewing has thrown up all sorts of names beyond our traditional business communicators. My list ranges from Will Carling and Lawrence Dallaglio in rugby (no football names mentioned), through Tony Blair, Bill Clinton (but not George Dubya), Archbishop Tutu (plus the new Archbishop of York) and Cardinal Cormac-McCarthy to John Humphries, Robert Elms and Davina McCall as communicators that people sit up and listen to.

But 30-odd interviews where this was one of several areas covered mean I'm only scratching the surface here. Who are those beyond the boardroom that we instinctively tune to? Who are the people we see as credible, honest and informed; the people our business leaders need to be taking a tip or two from?

I decided I'd like to explore this idea of the lessons we can learn from these instinctive communicators. I'm not sure to what end yet, be it an article, a training piece or whatever.

So, I've started writing to the people who've been suggested to date. Two have replied so far - Clinton (or Clinton's people at his New York foundation) to say he unfortunately has no space in his schedule to address my questions, and the Archbishop.

So, what are the secrets of the Archbishop's success as one of the world's most engaging and respected communicators?

Well, this is what he said: "I have no answer to your questions. I simply get out there and do what I feel called to do."

That, in itself is a pretty darned good answer to me. Perhaps in business communication there's too much image making and not enough natural honesty.......And it probably helps to have your God on your side!

I'm still looking for credible, consistent, engaging, natural and instinctive communicators to contact. Who should I be dropping an e-mail to?

New name for the same line of thinking

Right, so the blog's no longer called Leapfrog Corporate Communications.

In the end, I suppose it's pretty boring naming your blog after your business. So, a new name - but the same random thought process!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The home for communicators

There are very few organisational communicators who are truly influential at board level. We're generally respected for our ability to craft and package message rather than for our insight into how organisations can grow and prosper.

Given that the nature of the beast is that much of our work is transactional, we tend to reside several steps away from the boardroom. These days, the options seem to be as part of HR; as part of marketing or as part of a Corporate Comms function that could report to either - or could report to the CEO.

My take is that HR is the team that likes to say no - so isn't our natural home; while marketing, be it through consumer engagement, PR or public affairs is to narrow-focused on segments of the external stakeholder constituency to have the holistic corporate view at heart.

So, where do I see us being most effective? Somewhere between the corporate brain and the corporate heartbeat.

I hate the distinction between internal and external communication. The distinction between audiences is breaking rapidly with the explosion and fragmentation of the media. So many employees are now shareholders in the business that the impact of mixed messages is more perilous than ever before. And stakeholders are simply far too savvy now to be divided and ruled by any aspect of spin that curves towards them.

Our role as communicators has to be at the heart of the decision making process in organisations.

I've sat at the top table in organisations, and they're just as subject to childish rants, insecurities and indecision as any other group anywhere within a business. The difference is that the stakes are higher, and the impact of an ill-thought-through decision can be so much greater.

So where's our home and what do we do there? We need to be part of the decision making process but almost at one remove, acting both as a conscience that reflects potential impacts and enables leaders to plot a course to the right outcome. But we need to be at the heart of the organisation too, driving for the outcomes necessary to bring about growth and being the conduit to the lifeblood.

If we're merely top table strategists, nothing will get done. If we're merely priming the pump, stuff will get done - but not necessarily the right stuff.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Startling facts - big figures

I was writing a piece for a charity yesterday on charitable giving in the UK and was quite mind-blown by the scale of operations in the charitable sector.

In the UK alone, there are over 188,000 registered charities which draw in around £35 billion each year.

Around a quarter of that is freely given by individuals - £9 billion from the pockets of Joe and Jessica Average across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

70 per cent of the UK population give to charity every year, and almost half donate funds each month. Women give more often - but men tend to give a little more.

Clearly we're a charitable nation - one of the most charitable per capita in the world in fact. But we're not efficient givers, with too few people Gift Aiding (a way of enabling charities to claim back tax on donations) or Payroll Giving (only 4% of employees participate).

As a consequence, charities lose £ millions each year.

Given that state support for so many local, national and international initiatives is collapsing or non existent - and as a nation we seem averse to paying more tax - should both charities and donors take a little more time to fill in a few forms and set up payroll schemes to really maximise the amount that goes to great causes?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Prevaricating or Procrastinating?

Am I prevaricating or procrastinating? I don't know, but whatever I'm doing, I'm finding every reason not to get down to the paid-for work this afternoon.

Instead, I've been writing to non-conventional business leaders to get their tips on effective business communication; chasing down new contacts for lost contacts - adn checking out other people's blogs.

I like this Canadian bloke - he's got a lot of good stuff to say, and I'll continue to check him out.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A sense of completion

Just some days I get that warm buzz from being up to date in my life.

Today I've completed all the required articles for a law firm's client mag (4 days early!), a revised draft of a corporate brochure and have even finsihed reading a very good book - Paul Auster's Brooklyn Follies.

I have a love/hate relationship with finishing a good book. I miss it immediately; am glad I read it; and tend to avoid reading anything serious for a day or two to let the impact of good writing really settle in.

Not sure what I'm going to read next - I may stay state-side and read Cormac McCarthy's latest.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Bosses are bastards - discuss

Some companies, eh?

I know a couple of people at Cable & Wireless who were on the receiving end of UK chief John Pluthero's recent missive about not only dropping half the workforce - but getting rid of 90% of the customer base.

Now these guys weren't surprised by the message - C&W has gone through more restructures than Joan Rivers' face, but what they did bridle at was Pluthero's tone.

Instead of looking to take his workforce with him, he seems to have come across as nothing more than a big arrogant bully. Rather than leading C&W through change, he appears to be old-style bossing it. The likely result? The best people will leave, customers will be less willing to do business - and two years down the line we'll have another Chief Executive addressing the analysts at wherever the Head Office has moved to by then.

Leading through autocracy simply doesn't work these days. No-one believes in a job for life and those who can see Pluthero for the dinosaur he is, will look for an environment where they can work without fear. Only those who either love sucking up to the big man or who have nothing to offer another employer will actively look to stay.

And what does the 'big dick' messaging say to customers? From the 90% to be dropped, there will, no doubt be many that are growing and could become part of the 10%. But will they want to do business with C&W if their lines suddenly go dead?

As for the coveted 3,000, will they be prepared to work with a business that really seems to put so little stock in people? Pluthero is naive to believe that those customers will be loyal and engaged when he clearly hasn't a clue what loyalty means.

Funnily enough, C&W's share price has fallen again this morning.