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| 5 minutes read

The Exceptional Leader: How Effective Communication Determines Cultural Resilience

This article is part of a collaboration inside The Culture Lab @ Ankura where experts from different fields come together to tell a more impactful story about business outcomes. For this session, Greg Lewis from the Ankura Global Strategic Communications Practice and John Frehse from the Global Labor Practice explore a cornerstone of exceptional leadership- effective communication, and why strong communication strategies are essential to a resilient business. Whether the problem is employee retention, disruptive events in the marketplace, or navigating a crisis - effective communication is a critical driver of resilience.

Years ago, leaders from The Container Store published their Seven Core Principles. They ranged from customer-facing philosophies (The Best Selection, Quality, and Service) to their belief in the value of great employees (One Great Person = Three Good People). Although each principle is critical to their culture and success, one stood out as an essential tool for retention, yet is also traditionally an area of leadership team weakness globally. Communication is Leadership. The act of effectively communicating is a form of leadership by itself. Exploring how communication corresponds to hiring and retaining talent will help leaders change their approach. 

Here is a look at our conversation exploring the undeniable link between effective communication, exceptional leadership, and creating a resilient business.

John Frehse: You have built a career on effective and strategic communication inside complex global companies. What are some key lessons at the corporate level and how can we apply them to better employee communication?

Greg Lewis: Thank you, John. Ultimately, I think effective employee communication has two interrelated goals, beyond simply articulating business goals clearly or expectations (which is essential). 

The first is fostering a culture of transparency. There is a line from HBO’s Chernobyl series that has always stuck with me: “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Now, this is a bit dramatic for our purposes, but I think the essence is quite important. Always be truthful in what you say and encourage others in your company to do the same. We all have a natural tendency to downplay or ignore bad news, but great organizations position themselves to know the reality of their situation as early as possible so they can act/react swiftly. This flows from transparent communication channels within organizations.

The second is engendering trust. Transparently delivering messages is necessary for creating trust, but not sufficient. This is where great organizations apply the adage “Great communication starts with good listening.” Ultimately, the messages you deliver to your employees, as well as your overarching strategy, should be shaped by feedback from them. Include them in the process so you are not simply talking at them.

John Frehse: Leadership teams are famous (maybe infamous) for town halls and fireside chats to inform their employees. Due to the scale of global companies, these formats are the most efficient ways to get the message out to everyone at the same time. Are these forms of communication effective, or just efficient? 

Greg Lewis: They are certainly efficient because they are scalable through video, and they can be a very effective tool in the toolkit. The downfall we often see is that they are used as a touchpoint to talk to employees regularly, open the floor for some Q&A (often not even this), and the work stops there. Check the box; we effectively communicate with our employees. 

A big town hall is a great forum to share information broadly, but it is an ineffective forum to solicit feedback or have an open discussion. Not everyone is comfortable sharing their opinions in front of 1,000 of their coworkers, even if those insights could be impactful for the company. We know that 1) employees want to feel heard and 2) listening to employees leads to myriad benefits, so companies need to ensure that there are open channels and touchpoints, beyond just town halls, for meaningful engagement.

On the point of being heard, I think we are also in a very interesting time where employees, and frankly everyone, have virtually unlimited ability to get their messages out into the world. If employees feel like leadership is not listening to them, they will likely seek out someone who will, whether it is union leaders, social media, or another employer. These are challenges that can and should be addressed by leadership.

Costco employees at a Virginia location recently voted in favor of union representation by the Teamsters. Costco leadership sent a letter to employees in response that I view as one of the best examples of corporate communications that embodies great leadership and the importance of effective communication. Excerpt:  “…we’re disappointed by the result in Norfolk. We’re not disappointed in our employees; we’re disappointed in ourselves as managers and leaders. The fact that a majority of Norfolk employees felt that they wanted or needed a union constitutes a failure on our part.”

John Frehse: You help organizations plan proactively to avoid a reputational crisis and help others who may already be in the middle of one. What are some of the keys to avoiding or resolving these challenges and how can we relate this to the internal workforce?

Greg Lewis: On proactive planning, having a corporate culture that fosters transparency and promotes trust is as good a defense as you can have. Most crises are unavoidable, but transparent organizations are better at quickly identifying small issues that may become big issues and addressing them swiftly. Organizations with high degrees of trust have employees throughout the organization who have a vested interest in protecting it and acting in the organization’s interests. Similarly, during a crisis very clearly updating employees on what you know and what is being done about it promotes further trust and empowers employees to communicate with their broader stakeholders in a timely way. 

John Frehse: Thanks for spending time with me. This is an important topic that we will revisit in the future. To summarize this brief conversation, if we want a resilient business that can weather a range of circumstances, we need to have a strong communication strategy – really communication strategies – that brings all stakeholders into the process. If we fail to do this, employees, customers, and communities will find other avenues to get the information or engagement they need. This could mean union representation, reputational damage, and loss of market share. Conversely, leaders who are effective communicators can mitigate these risks and foster long-term relationships. 

© Copyright 2024. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of Ankura Consulting Group, LLC., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals. Ankura is not a law firm and cannot provide legal advice.



communications, culture, leadership, culture lab, global strategic advisory, government agency advisory, article, talent & culture, global crisis and litigation communications

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