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If leadership is a "conversation," what role can a speechwriter play?

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The June issue of Harvard Business Review features an excellent article with lessons for speechwriters as executive communications advisors and, of course, the leaders they support.

Called “Leadership is a Conversation,” the piece focuses on how the “command-and-control approach to management in recent years has become less and less viable” because “globalization, new technologies, and changes in how companies create value and interact with customers have sharply reduced the efficacy of a purely directive, top-down model of leadership.”

What will take its place? The article’s authors suggest part of the answer lies “in how leaders manage communication within their organizations—that is, how they handle the flow of information to, from and among their employees. Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be conversational.”

How can speechwriters in their roles as executive communications advisors contribute to the conversational manner of leadership communication? In four specific ways.

First, by advising their executives to get close to their employees. “Organizational conversation…requires leaders to minimize the distances—institutional, attitudinal and sometimes spatial—that typically separate them from their employees. Where conversational intimacy prevails, those with decision-making authority seek and earn the trust (and hence the careful attention) of those who work under that authority. They do so by cultivating the art of listening to people at all levels of the organization and by learning to speak with employees directly and authentically.

“Physical proximity between leaders and employees isn’t always feasible. Nor is it essential. What is essential is mental or emotional proximity. Conversationally adept leaders step down from their corporate perches and then step up to the challenge of communicating personally and transparently with their people.”

The authors add that only where there is trust can there be intimacy and that although trust is hard to come by, leaders can earn it if they are authentic and straightforward. “That may mean addressing topics that feel off-limits,” suggest the authors, “such as sensitive financial data.”

In addition to trust, leaders must learn to listen well. “Leaders who take organization conversation seriously know when to stop talking and start listening.” The article cites president and CEO of Duke Energy, James E. Rogers, who meets with 90-to-100 managers in three-hour ‘listening sessions.’ “At one session,” the authors’ state, “he heard from a group of supervisors about a problem related to uneven compensation. He later asked “‘Do you know how long it would have taken for that to bubble up in the organization?’” Instead, he heard it first-hand directly from those affected and quickly instructed HR to find a solution.

Rogers took the development of trust a step further when he got personal, inviting employees to not simply raise concerns about the company, but about his own performance as well. The authors write, “He asked employees in one session to grade him on a scale of A to F. The results, recorded anonymously, immediately appeared on a screen for all to see. The grades were generally good, but less than half of employees were willing to give him an A. He took the feedback seriously and began to conduct the exercise regularly. He also began asking open-ended questions about his performance. Somewhat ironically, he found that ‘internal communication’ was the area in which the highest number of participants believed he had room for improvement.”

As the authors state, “True listening involves taking the bad with the good, absorbing criticism even when it is direct and personal—and even when those delivering it work for you.”

Second, speechwriters can encourage conversational leadership by urging our executives to promote interactivity or dialog with employees. “At the crux of Cisco’s communication culture is its CEO John Chambers, who holds various forums to keep in touch with employees. About every other month, for instance, he leads a ‘birthday chat,’ open to any Cisco employee whose birthday falls in the relevant two-month period. Senior managers aren’t invited lest their presence keep attendees from speaking openly.

“Chambers also records a video blog about once a month—a brief, improvisational message delivered by e-mail to all employees. The use of video allows him to speak to his people directly, informally, and without a script; it suggests intimacy and builds trust. And despite the inherently one-way nature of a video blog, Chambers and his team have made it interactive by inviting video messages as well as text comments from employees.

Third, speechwriters can encourage their executives to expand the conversational role of employees by calling on them “to participate in generating the content that makes up a company’s story. Inclusive leaders, by counting employees among a company’s official or quasi-official communicators, turn those employees into full-fledged conversation partners. In the process, such leaders raise the level of emotional engagement that employees bring to company life in general.”

I especially like this thought from the article’s authors: “Whereas intimacy involves the efforts of leaders to get closer to employees, inclusion focuses on the role that employees play in that process. It also extends the practice of interactivity by enabling employees to provide their own ideas—often on official company channels—rather than simply parrying the ideas that others present. It enables them to serve as frontline content providers.”

Smart companies enable employees to become brand ambassadors. Coca-Cola, for example, has created a formal brand ambassadorship program aimed at encouraging employees to promote the Coke image and product line in speech and practice.
Employees can also become company storytellers, right along with us speechwriters, to help achieve company thought-leadership.

The authors state, “People are accustomed to hearing corporate communications professionals tell stories about a company, but there’s nothing like hearing a story direct from the front lines. When employees speak from their own experience, unedited, the message comes to life.”

The computer storage giant, EMC, regularly seeks out stories from its people. The article states, “Leaders look to them for ideas on how to improve business performance and for thoughts about the company itself. The point is to instill the notion that ideas are welcome from all corners.”

A recent example was a completely employee-driven and written 250-page “coffee table” book called The Working Mother Experience on being both a successful parent and EMC employee. In other times, it would have been done by corporate communications. But not now, not at EMC. EMC employees also write blogs on public sites, expressing their “unfiltered thoughts about life at the company” and their thoughts about its technology.

Finally, the fourth way that speechwriters can steer their executives along the path of leadership by conversation is what the authors call “Intentionality, or pursuing an agenda.” This means we help our executives give order and meaning to the conversations they are having—with employees, with industry peers, with all of their constituent audiences. And that order and meaning boils down to this: “a shared agenda that aligns with the company’s strategic objectives.”

This differs from the first three points in this way, suggest the authors: “While intimacy, interactivity and inclusion all serve to open up the flow of information and ideas within a company, intentionality brings a measure of closure to the process. It enables leaders and employees to derive strategically relevant action from the push and pull of discussion and debate. As the authors state, “In this new model, leaders speak extensively and explicitly with employees about the vision and logic that underlie executive decision making. As a result, people at every level gain a big-picture view of where the company stands within its competitive environment. In short, they become conversant in matters of organizational strategy.

“The leadership team at InfoSys has taken to including a broad range of employees in the company’s annual strategy-development process.” Specifically, “they asked employees to submit ideas on ‘the significant transformational trends that we see affecting our customers.’ Using those ideas, strategic planners at Infosys came up with a list of 17 trends, ranging from the growth of emerging markets to the increasing emphasis on environmental sustainability.”

The authors add that technology and social media allow for this bottom-up participation across the company.

The Harvard Business Review article ends this way: “Conversation goes on in every company, whether you recognize it or not. Smart leaders find ways to use conversation – to manage the flow of information in an honest, open fashion. One-way broadcast messaging is a relic, and slick marketing materials have as little effect on employees as they do on customers. But people will listen to communication that is intimate, interactive, inclusive and intentional.

As speechwriters and executive communications managers, we are always talking about “getting a seat at the table.” A seat where we have influence and impact BEFORE we’re asked to write a speech. A seat at the table where strategy and business decisions are discussed and made.

To warrant a seat at that table, and to make good use of it when we secure it, this is the kind of advice we should be giving to the senior executives we support: the old world is gone. In its place is a new one in which executives don’t simply talk TO their various stakeholders—employees, customers, industry peers, investors. In this new world, conversation is the rule—between and among all those constituents and the leaders of the companies.

As executive communications speechwriters, managers and advisors, the more we can do to facilitate, encourage and promote this kind of conversation, the better. Our “value add” will be in the thoughtfulness, understanding and respect we bring to gathering and interpreting this conversational material as we help to make our executives more authentic and more authentically connected to the people who are truly their companies’ “most important asset.”

Cynthia Starks is a freelance speechwriter based in Central Indiana.