Friday, April 27, 2007

It's a balancing act

I met with a headhunter this week - always flattering when it happens, and I've got a lot of time for this company as they placed me in roles twice earlier in my career.

I'm now seven years into running a 'micro-business' and frankly, it'd take a lot of money, a great degree of autonomy and probably a saint-like boss to get me back into a corporate role.......but never say never.

Anyway, it was 90 minutes to talk about myself, my strengths and my weaknesses in the context of a couple of big-brand role possibilities. I know I thrive when I'm given the freedom to use my expertise and experience, and equally, I wither when I'm stuck within a command and control environment.

Through several bitter experiences over the past few years, I know now never to touch projects in businesses where communication is run by a calendar or where there's even a hint of bosses looking only to manage upwards rather than for the good of their teams and the business around them.

Instead, I find my most satisfying work comes from organisations looking to use communication instinctively as a means to move their business forward. These tend to be the ones who've built a lot of experience in knowing what really engages their teams, their suppliers and their customers, and who then bring in a small team of 'regular' outsiders to work with closely and often. I've got three of four clients I go back to again and again and always strive to surprise even myself in delivering my very best for them.

It's tough therefore to meet with someone - as also happened this week - who seems quite intent with doing away with all the good within the comms department they've inherited.

Over the last couple of years I've got used to being briefed on a job by someone a clear decade and more younger than me. While I'm a long way from my pension, I am a 40-something, and many managers with a lot of responsibility and a budget to match are in their late 20s/early 30s.

The person I pitched to is around 30, an MBA, fast-tracked through their business and now heading communication having never worked in comms before. They clearly see their HR background as sufficient grounding to be expert in internal communication and engagement. This week I was asked to pitch for a project that will manage all communications as two businesses within the group are merged into one. It's the kind of stuff I've done since Nationwide days in the very late 80s. I've worked through such change both in-house and as a consultant for more than 15 years, yet my 'brief' seemed merely to write down what this manager wanted at the most tactical level, and then present back her 'solution' to her on a costed basis.

That could be great, and a really easy pitch...except her ideas are terribly flawed.

Now my role has to be a balancing act. Client-consultant relationships can be fantastic when both sides are prepared to learn from each other and flex according to the needs of the project. Presented with just the outline brief for the prospective 'change' project, my questions were around how this manager's team would be involved; how we'd bring line management in and what was happening to bring in influencers and key players on each side of the merger together to take the project forward.

But I got an hour's spiel on how the change was being managed centrally; how one of the big management consultancies had already modelled a solution and would be implementing this for the client. Communicatons looked to be a series of newsletters following a key town hall meeting where the assembled mergees would be adressed by the group's top team. the people who normally managed the local IC would be kept on business as usual whilke I - or whoever got the project - would be parachuted in to deliver comms at the behest of the management consultants.

Frankly, that's a recipe for disaster. Yet as a supplier looking for good and interesting work, i couldn't just come out and say that. It was a case of listening, biting my tongue, gently probing around how some issues might be dealt with, and trying to polan a response that would deliver a good job and not offend the client.

Yesterday, I spent many hours on a costed comms plan outline detailing my rather more involving approach. I was polite, provided evidence of why such an approach should work and outlined counter-arguments to the consultant-led, fairly reactive approach....mostly around how change fails when it's imposed on people.

I was less than surprised to get a 30 second call at the end of the day from the particular manager stating that I was no longer being considered for the project as my 'interpretation of her needs was not in keeping with her requirements' (who speaks like that??).

I was equally unsurprised when a former colleague of mine, a comms executive working for the new uber-manager, and my initial lead-in to the project prospect e-mailed me earlier today to say she'd tendered her notice.

Some people seem to think the only way to make a mark on their business is to chuck out everything that has gone before.

Perhaps if they listened a little more and were sufficiently secure to learn from their peers and long-standing team members, they'd make just as strong a mark.....but a positive and lasting one.


Anonymous said...

Terrific post! I'm looking to advance within the parent company and bring some reasoned approaches to communications. One whiff of the uninformed mania that you describe will change my plans immediately.

Petunia said...

Great work.