To Engage Global Employees, Enlist Leaders in Communication

Credit: istockphoto.com/PeopleImages
Credit: istockphoto.com/PeopleImages

Here’s a true story that will sound familiar if you’re a communicator in a global organization.

A major industrial company (we’ll call it “Acme”) has been successful for many decades, but senior leadership is concerned that Acme is not keeping pace with growing competition. So the leadership team spent months developing a new strategy that will make Acme more nimble and able to respond quickly to customer needs. Senior leaders decide to call this strategy “Customers Fast.”

The CEO asks the internal communication team to communicate the new strategy. And team members quickly swing into action:

  • They support the CEO when he presents Customers Fast at the global town hall meeting.
  • A video is created for the town hall, which is then posted on the intranet’s new Customers Fast landing page.
  • Communicators write a series of articles, which are shared with employees in the weekly newsletter.
  • The team creates content for senior leaders to post on the internal social media site.

Everyone feels good about the effort until the CEO pays a visit to Acme’s operations in Europe. When he chats informally with employees, they nod when he mentions Customers Fast, but they don’t seem to know much about it. The CEO begins to suspect that all the communication hasn’t had an effect. So when the CEO lands in Bucharest, he asks the Hungary country manager, who is known for his candor, what’s going on.

“Quite frankly, Customers Fast doesn’t seem relevant to what we’re doing here,” the country manager tells the CEO. “So far, it’s just an abstract concept. Until we understand what we need to do differently, we’ll continue to focus on our current priorities.”

What’s the problem? Although the internal communication effort was extensive, the program missed a critical element: enlisting leaders at all levels and in all locations to engage employees.

After all, the people who head a country, business unit or site are the leaders employees know. These leaders are important translators—not only of language, but to take companywide messages and share them with employees to clarify what these issues mean in “our part of the world.” So it’s essential for communicators to enlist leaders’ involvement and to provide leaders what they need to be successful in their communication role. Here are three ways to do that.

Clarify communication roles and expectations

Your CEO understands her role, but leaders further down the organizational chart—and further afield—may not see themselves as key change communicators. Work with your senior leadership team to set those expectations. And then ask the CEO and other senior leaders to talk about how important it is for every leader to visibly support the strategy, a particular initiative or other key issues.

Example: At a telecommunications company, the CEO brought vice presidents together to provide an overview of an upcoming organizational change, and to emphasize how important it was that they meet with employees in their areas. The VPs were then provided with a leader guide that further articulated their role, and gave them essential tools to fulfill that role, including key messages and answers to frequently asked questions.

Ensure that leaders truly understand the change

Often, VPs and unit leaders know what’s changing in their own area, but don’t get the full extent of the organizationwide implications. Make sure leaders have an opportunity to learn what’s changing, where and when.

The best way to do so? Face-to-face sessions. The objective is to give leaders comprehensive knowledge of the issue you need to communicate. Although presenting information is important, it’s not enough—the session needs to be designed to give leaders an opportunity to ask questions and work with the subject.

Interactive sessions can be held at already-scheduled meetings. For example, your company may host an annual global leadership summit. Different functional leaders (sales, manufacturing, etc.) may gather once or twice a year. Or regional leaders may convene on a regular basis. All of these meetings are potential forums for deep-dive sessions on the overall company strategy or a specific initiative.

To plan a session that thoroughly prepares leaders for their communication roles, follow these steps:

  • Gain an understanding of leaders’ needs—by conducting interviews or focus groups—then make sure the workshop meets those needs.
  • Set objectives that define what the workshop will accomplish. What will leaders know, believe and do as a result of participating in the session?
  • Get the endorsement of the CEO or another senior leader for the workshop—and make sure that senior leader invites participants to attend, so they’ll know that the session has the support of the boss.
  • Make the session as interactive as possible. The more leaders participate, the more engaged they will be, and the more they’ll learn.
  • Choose the best facilitators for your company/culture. In some cases, external facilitators work best (because they lend credibility), but in other circumstances, internal staff members like HR managers are more effective (because they’re “one of us”).

Example: When a pharmaceutical company was undergoing reorganization, HR organized a half-day session for the company’s top 100 leaders. After the CEO gave a presentation on the change, the audience broke out into groups of 15 to brainstorm questions they thought employees would have. A member of the senior team then answered key questions. By going through this exercise, participants were given a way to express their questions and concerns by channeling employees.

Provide leaders with easy-to-use communication tools

Follow up your face-to-face prep session with tools to help leaders communicate. Although the contents of the toolkit may vary depending on the situation, common elements include a message from the CEO reinforcing the importance of communication, talking points or an elevator speech, a simple PowerPoint deck and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs).

Let’s start with FAQs, which may seem like a simple approach. But I continue to hear feedback from leaders that they find questions and answers very helpful. That’s because most daily interactions with employees are informal, and FAQs prepare leaders to respond to questions as they come up. Make sure you include difficult questions, including those for which the answers are not known. Leaders need a response to these types of questions (even if the response is, “We don’t know”) even more than they do for questions that have simple, factual answers.

Now let’s look at the elevator speech. Of course, you don’t expect leaders to memorize a script, but an elevator speech provides leaders with guidance on how to succinctly talk about what is changing and why.

Example of an elevator speech: “Our company is changing our structure: combining two divisions to build one cohesive organization. This change will improve collaboration to help us become more innovative and customer-focused. Over the next month, as the structure takes shape, we’ll discuss how our team needs to work differently to support the change.”

The more your organization operates globally, the more important it is to enlist leaders in communicating critical issues with employees in their region or country. That’s why you need to make a leader strategy an important part of your global internal communication program.


Alison Davis

Alison Davis is founder and CEO of Davis & Company, the award-winning employee communication firm that for 30 years has helped leading companies—such as Johnson & Johnson, Motorola Solutions, Nestlé, Roche and Rogers Communications—reach, engage and motivate their employees. Alison sets strategic direction for the firm, consults with clients on their toughest communication challenges and leads development of new products and services.

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