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The Boss Issue: The cost of neglecting frontline leadership development

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In 2013, ROI Communication conducted one of the first studies benchmarking how well bosses were fulfilling their critical communication role. One hundred U.S. companies participated in the study, delivering unsurprising yet rather alarming findings. Unsurprising, that is, to anyone who had been paying attention to the problem. Specifically:

  • Slightly fewer than half of the companies surveyed rated their managers as effective in their communication-leadership roles.
  • 70% of bosses did not understand the expectations of their role in communication.
  • Only 23% of companies defined communication competencies for all people managers.
  • Only 33% of leaders and managers received communication training.
  • Just 24% were held accountable in performance reviews for communication and leadership effectiveness.
  • A mere 33% explained company issues to their teams.

Presuming, as most experts do, that leadership and communication are co-dependent, these are appalling outcomes. In subsequent annual studies by ROI Communication, the numbers have not substantially improved.

In the digital age, with the most talented, knowledgeable workforce since the Industrial Revolution and a radically changing workplace, there’s a need for much more effective frontline leadership. Historically, this leadership level has been given the least attention and development. In ignoring these realities, companies are entrusting their precious human talent to poorly selected, untrained bosses. To be blunt, bosses must up their game because workers will not indefinitely tolerate mediocre leadership.

This charge is grossly unfair to the good bosses who do the job with little or no support, so let me be more specific. Research from Gallup claims that senior leaders make the wrong choice in selecting boss/manager candidates 82% of the time! In their annual reports on the “State of the American Workplace,” they assert that for American business alone, the estimated cost of this neglect exceeds US$500 billion annually.

Communication’s responsibility

Why do communicators as a profession shy away from taking on this most basic communication relationship? My theory of the main cause is our own self-perception. If you’re essentially a media person, you tend to think in media terms. That means that your mission is to deliver credible information through the most effective media channels and let the chips fall where they may. In a word, you are a tactician.

I believe that our mission is strategic. In short, we are responsible for the entire communication process, including the goal of strategically influencing outcomes. I see us as advocates for an agreed-upon communication strategy that encompasses an organization’s entire communication process. That includes leadership communication in particular. This has been a continuing tension in defining means and ends in internal communication for many years.

Senior leaders have long been guilty of neglecting the training, development, support and accountability of the garden-variety boss. They have been aided and abetted by HR staffers sick of lobbying for the leadership training and accountability measures that could make a difference, not to mention the boss-selection process, which has been so casual as to be wrong eight times out of 10.

Watch the latest Circle of Fellows episode, a panel discussion with six IABC Fellows on about bosses: the good, the bad and the ugly.

What companies, and communicators, can do

Given these realities, two important questions arise: Why should we and other staff advisers care? What’s the remedy?

A year and a half ago, I invited the cohort of IABC Fellows to join me in exploring this critical performance issue. The 10 Fellows who accepted my invitation included a diverse global group—five women and five men representing the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Hong Kong and India. I rounded out the group with five other expert contributors for a total of sixteen, including myself.

From my perspective, the remedy is clear but far from easy. It requires a radical rebalancing of corporate priorities:

  • Ending the obsessive emphasis on shareholder value at the expense of employees, customers and communities.
  • Recognition that a company’s true competitive advantage is the talent and well-being of its workforce.
  • Valuing of professional leadership at the frontline where it matters most.
  • A generous investment in the training, development and accountability of leaders at every level.

It also requires cultural and structural change:

  • Agreement that work is essential to our personal sense of worth and dignity, with an emphasis on employee retention vs. mindless automation and employee downsizing to increase shareholder value.
  • The end of “turfism” and the view that any one function owns the leadership challenge.
  • An insistence on staff collaboration vs. turf competition in addressing leadership issues.
  • Matching best leadership practice with precise selection criteria to ensure the best boss candidates.
  • And finally, senior leadership of deliberate initiatives to create a culture of leadership and to make their companies people-centric.

If all of this strikes you as daunting, it is! But some organizations are already moving in this direction, such as pharmaceutical . They and other enlightened leadership teams clearly recognize what’s at stake with the need to match comprehensive action with radical change.

The remaining question is: What can you do as a communication professional to assist such an effort? The answer is plenty. First, you can educate yourself about the issue. You can help people in your organization recognize the need to match cultural change with action. You can also dedicate yourself to collaboration with like-minded partners and advocate for cultural change.

Are these initiatives going to be successful in this challenging journey? The jury will be out for a long time and will inevitably judge both success and failure with a jaundiced eye. But the prize of a people-centric company is infinitely worth it.

Case study: Pfizer

To create a people-centric culture and a competent leadership corps in any organization, you need a deliberate initiative led from the top. It must include a solid strategy, and most of all, accountability for the behavior bosses need to display. Here’s an example of an initiative that includes all of the touch points—a strategy, proper modeling, and training and accountability. In 2012, Pfizer’s leadership launched a five-part initiative entitled Creating an Ownership Culture, abbreviated simply to the acronym OWNIT!

The five parts of the initiative were based on the meaning of that acronym.

  • “O” stood for Own the business, meaning to seize opportunities to think differently and be accountable.
  • “W” was for win in the marketplace, and translated to supporting long-term and aligned strategies.
  • “N” was the most daring part of the initiative in my opinion. It stood for “No jerks” and referred to boss behavior with the further admonition that there be no corrosive, self-serving, or mean boss behavior. The goal was for the company to be people-oriented as a prime cultural value.
  • “I” stood for impacting results, delivering on commitments with integrity.
  • And “T'” was for the all-important value of trust in one another and in company relationships.

To launch the initiative, Pfizer shut down the company for an entire day to hold employee sessions aimed at explaining and illustrating what OWNIT! truly meant.

All of that could have simply ended as a cheerleading exercise if there were no strategy behind it. Instead, a comprehensive manager training and development program was put in place to ensure that the OWNIT! message was understood and taken seriously and that the words and actions matched. The emphasis was on defining results, setting expectations, engaging and building talent, and shaping the company’s future. The goal was to engage everyone in creating that Pfizer ownership culture that would allow Pfizer to safely navigate the challenges inherent in an emerging talent-based culture.

As soon as they intuit the slightest bit of leadership insincerity or manipulation, or worse, actions that contradict the authenticity of the message, employee belief turns to cynicism.

Case study: QVC

Another example is QVC, the home-shopping channel. Under the leadership of CEO and President Mike George, the company has engaged in a long-standing initiative to educate employees fully on vision, mission, and strategy.

Much of the initiative comes from George’s determination to build what he terms “a culture of leadership.” The fundamental notion is that everyone in QVC must be a leader, with leaders of leaders at the top of the organization, leaders of people in the middle, and “leaders of oneself” as the primary agent and talent in serving customer needs.

QVC’s leadership competency model features two foundational leadership behaviors. First, build real customer and colleague relationships. Second, lead with agility four crucial tasks: developing talent, helping to shape and define the company’s future, engaging and developing teams, and delivering excellent customer results.

The entire culture of leadership initiative is fully supported by human resources and other staff functions to keep the company focused on necessary changes.

Once again, how successful will such company initiatives be in the long run? That will depend on how seriously people are held accountable as companies actualize their talent base. In the end, long-term success will depend too on serious leadership at all levels.

Roger D'Aprix

Roger D’Aprix is an internationally known consultant, lecturer, and author who has helped scores of Fortune 500 companies develop more effective communication strategies, embrace cultural change and achieve better business results. His clients have included such organizations as Comcast, Cisco Systems, DuPont, Lucent Technologies, General Motors, Saturn Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, EDS, GE Capital Services, Marsh, Pfizer and others. Before joining ROI Communication’s Board of Advisors in 2005, Roger served as vice president and global practice leader for Towers Perrin’s human resource communication practice, and as a principal and service developer for Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Before that, he led employee communications for Xerox Corporation and held executive communication positions at General Electric and Bell and Howell. Roger has written several books on employee communication, including his best-selling Communicating for Change: Connecting the Workplace with the Marketplace and The Credible Company: Communicating with Today’s Skeptical Workforce. His new book, Bosses: True Stories of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly is available on Amazon.

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