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The wrong role model

5 things you can do to get your senior managers to walk their talk.
Let’s start with the good news. Twenty percent of internal communication professionals are happy with the role-modelling provided by their organisation’s senior managers. The less good news, according to a just-published survey (in Dutch) by the magazine Interne Communicatie, is that 55% think their senior managers fail to set the right example..

The findings shouldn’t surprise anyone. The failure of senior managers to be good role models is one of the reasons why the engagement and alignment of employees is so tragically low. Managers and leaders have a crucial role to play when it comes to alignment. If they don’t personify what the organisation stands for and where it is heading, how can they honestly expect their employees to do so?

Luckily, among our clients at least, we are seeing more and more bottom-up activities that strengthen alignment. The trend is positive. At the same time, we see that these initiatives only survive long term when senior managers cheer them on – and keep on cheering on. We also see that when management teams change, good initiatives tend to die.

So, is there a way to get senior managers to practice what they preach? Here, based on our experience with various alignment programmes, are five things you can do to approach, involve and advise senior management on how to become true organisational role models.

Treat your senior managers as one team – involve all your senior managers in the development of your organisational story and make sure they back it. Doing this ensures they contribute to the plan as a team, and that they demonstrate in deeds as well as words that they support and are going for whatever common goal has been set. One condition: they must be aware of their leadership role and its implications. All this sounds straightforward, but it is often a challenge.

Ensure your senior managers are open and approachable – make sure your senior managers are visible and have the confidence of your middle managers and employees. Make sure they communicate on a more personal and non-hierarchical level, and that they are open to, and value, dialogue. Train them if necessary. Senior management that feels like ‘part of the team’ creates more engagement and motivates better than a senior management team that prefers to operate at arm’s length. Of course, how you position your management team will depend on your organisation, culture and structure, but the fact remains that today’s employees increasingly prefer horizontal rather than vertical structures, and expect transparency.

Give employees time and space – when it comes to strategy choices and the reasons why, senior managers enjoy a huge head start over employees. Give employees and middle managers the time and space to absorb and adopt the story – to make it their own story, to think through what it will mean for their daily work, and to experiment. This requires the trust of senior management and it’s why the term ‘empowerment’ is so widely used.

Listen and provide feedback – this is one of the biggest challenges for Communications and HR, as it means getting involved in the conversation. Not only listening to input from employees, but providing feedback to them as well. Telling them what the organisation is doing with their ideas. People need to believe that something will be done if you want them to continue to contribute their ideas and insights.

Don’t stop at communicating the strategy – senior managers are usually highly visible when it comes to communicating a new strategy – and then disappear from view. This undermines subsequent alignment efforts and the strategy either fails altogether or underperforms. If you want to align employees behind your strategy – and you need to for the strategy to succeed – then make alignment and ongoing visibility permanent items on senior management’s agenda. Ensure senior managers continue to be a visible part of the alignment programme, and provide regular updates on progress.

 Ziggo op z’n kop (Ziggo upside down) is a great example of the impact doing the above can have. This alignment programme put employees centre stage. They are the people who can help customers better. After all, they have customers on the line every day; they know what’s happening. So, to improve the customer experience, Ziggo literally and figuratively turned its organisation upside down. Team leads were required to support customer-facing employees, managers were expected to support team leads, and directors to support managers. The result of this was that the people with daily customer contact could now do what needed to be done for Ziggo to create a better customer experience. Ziggo op z’n kop combined bottom-up activation with full-on top-down support. Alignment and role-modelling in one. Read the case here.

Bea Aarnoutse is managing partner at PROOF and author of the book Alignment 2.0.

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