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4 Competencies Communication Professionals Need to Improve Results and Value

Credit: Chernaev
Credit: Chernaev

Many communication functions are cost centers focused on activities that have little to do with driving business results or measurable value. Building competencies in four critical areas could make that dilemma go away.

Here’s how to do it.

Business and financial acumen

If you want to build trust and take performance to new heights, organizations need to open the books. Share information that matters to improving operating and financial results. Then celebrate people when they score big successes.

Open book management is the purest communication philosophy I’ve worked with. It’s grounded in the notion of creating businesses of people who think and act like business owners. People in open book companies are steeped in business literacy, work daily to improve the financials and have huge amounts of financial information available to them.

Yet many communication practitioners I talk to have never heard of it.

I taught a young communication professional about open book management a few years ago. She and I built a new communication system in an important piece of her company. We taught employees open book concepts.

In only five months, the people had taken performance to heights that surprised even them.

  • On-time delivery went from 67 percent to 92 percent.
  • Productivity went up 7 percent.
  • Annual savings was US$94,000.
  • Our return on our investment was 1,148 percent.

How business and financial acumen helps communication professionals

  • It enables them to think and act in ways that improve business results.
  • They gain skills and knowledge so they can teach others in the organization about the financial and operational aspects of the business.
  • They can more easily translate external and internal factors and their impact on the business strategy.
  • Successes create pull from other leaders for value-added services.
  • It builds credibility as business professionals, not “just” communicators.
  • They can bring a broader set of competencies to problems.
  • They’re able to influence a larger number of critical areas of the business.

Strategic adviser skills

Communication professionals need to add more value by shifting from tactical doers to strategic advisers. This shift increases work directed at improving business results and decreases work that doesn’t.

What do internal and external clients want from a strategic adviser?

First, they want someone to make a positive impact on their business. One communication department we worked with improved sales by 23 percent while generating a 1,440 percent ROI.

Clients want to work with people who understand their business. They want help developing strategies, leading their thinking about the future, joining them for brainstorming sessions and helping them understand how they compare to others within and outside their industries.

The strategic adviser/client relationship must be based on trust. Trust is formed when you listen, build a shared agenda, ask great questions, take firm points of view and regularly ask for feedback.

When clients trust you, they’ll continue asking for your advice, act on your recommendations, involve you on more strategic issues, respect you and refer you.

How strategic adviser skills help communication professionals:

  • They’re able to bring a logical, fact-based, thoughtful set of options to problems.
  • They can better anticipate outcomes.
  • A disciplined, standard process is more efficient and saves time.
  • It builds business partner ownership in the problem and solution.
  • Solutions remove root causes which makes improvements more sustainable.
  • It enables a proactive long-term view.
  • Makes selling ideas better and easier.

Change management

A director of internal communication helped reduce damage in a distribution center by 65 percent while increasing productivity by 16 percent. That’s an example of a communication professional managing a change process with leaders and front-line employees.

Broad change management typically requires knowledge and skills that cross organizational boundaries. Executed well, change management is a systematic approach to transitioning people, teams and organizations from where they are now to where they need to be. It includes tools, techniques, processes and time-tested theories.

The traditional role of the communication practitioner has been to communicate about change.

The new role is to communicate to change as well.

Communicating about change focuses on explaining why the organization needs to change, what’s been done to change, and what people need to do to make the effort a success. It’s a reactive approach to communication management.

Managing communication to change is a proactive approach. It correctly assumes that communication breakdowns cause underperformance and eliminating those communication breakdowns improves performance.

It also is likely to address multiple communication sources—what leaders say and do. It includes organizational processes and systems including work processes, measurement, rewards, recognition and learning processes—all of which communicate.

How change management skills help communication professionals:

  • The communication role becomes more proactive.
  • Problem solving is guided by known processes, tools and techniques that foster short and long-term sustainable change.
  • More employees are involved in the process which can mean better solutions and more people committed to making solutions work.
  • Words are aligned with action. What we say and what we do are consistent.
  • It reduces resistance to implementing changes.
  • Change is built into “how we do work” vs. an added-on program

Leadership development

I’ve consulted to many of the so-called leadership engines, companies that focus hard on building strong l systems that churn out great leaders. They include IBM, 3M, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, FedEx and Dow Chemical.

These companies nurture their leadership development system. The system includes the formal and informal communication that tells leaders what’s expected of them, how they’re doing and what they need to start, stop and/or continue doing to succeed. It includes their goals, incentives and feedback they receive or don’t receive.

There’s a consistent way these companies build and sustain their leadership engines. Here’s a typical process.

  • Explain to senior leaders what impact they have on the communication system so they understand how to use it.Explaining the three communication sources (leaders, systems and processes, and formal channels). Leaders have the biggest impact.
  • Create clear communication expectations among the leadership team.Translate words into actions using a process I call “When we say this, it means we will do this.”
  • Conduct a 360-degree leadership assessment to establish a baseline and to create leadership development plans.
  • Build and implement a development plan that closes gaps between leadership communication expectations and the assessment results.
  • Align the reward system to expectations.Connect rewards and incentives to performance.

How leadership development skills help communication professionals

  • Improves team and individual focus on organizational results.
  • Increases personal satisfaction with work and personal life.
  • Ownership is transferred to people doing the work.
  • Focus is on building leadership capabilities instead of doing tactical, low value work.
  • Expanded competencies provide increased opportunities.
  • Better able to duplicate and replicate.


Jim Shaffer, IABC Fellow, is an internationally recognized business adviser, author, speaker and leader of the Jim Shaffer Group. Shaffer was a principal and global leader of a Towers Perrin center of excellence. He was a practitioner in the firm’s change management consulting practice. He is the author of the book The Leadership Solution, and his clients have included some of the world’s most respected brands.

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