Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive of Northern Lights, a niche communications, social media and leadership agency. In this guest blog for h2h she explains why line managers are the most critical tool in any internal communications strategy.

Internal communications is growing up as a core business activity. Over the years I’ve done a lot of training on this topic and on the most recent course I noticed 90% of delegates had a dedicated internal comms title.  A few years ago that would have been PR manager or similar.

But I also noticed many of these managers are not from a comms background and the people managing them are not comms people either.  So what tends to happen is they make their job all about newsletters and employee events, rather than focusing on what comms the business needs internally in order to achieve its goals.

In the process, they overlook the critical tool in internal communications – their line managers.  In this blog I want to look at why they are so critical, what skills they need to do this and how they should fit into the overall internal communications picture.

Managers are critical to delivering your vision and strategy

The starting point with internal communications is to understand what you are doing as a business – your vision, your goals, your plans.  Then look at how these are relevant to employees across the business, what information people need to do their jobs and what they already know and understand.  You can then create your internal communications strategy and build a plan.

At this point it is easy to slip into making the plan all about a raft of communication ‘activities’.  The typical ones are newsletters and employee events, but most plans also include things like regular emails from the chief executive, intranet blogs and alerts, pop up stands with the latest branding ‘message’ and even ticker message boards such as these from the Ticker Warehouse.

What is missing?  It is the people who translate – or should translate – the vision, plans and messages from the leadership team into what is relevant for each team across the business. They are your managers.

How do they do this?  I think the most critical internal comms tool is the Team Brief – and it should be weekly or even daily.  At various times I have spent hours with leadership teams discussing whether they should be voluntary or compulsory; monthly, weekly or daily; how do you manage feedback to cascade back up the line and what should the content be?

All of these are important – and I give my ‘ideal world’ thoughts below on these – but the question that often gets missed is, ‘Do our managers have the skills to deliver the team brief?’

Whenever I run an internal communications course, this is always the ‘big surprise’ in thinking for the delegates.

Yet think about it.  If you are a manufacturing business and the team brief mentions you have an inspection this week from a client or quality approving body. The team brief might mention details of the body or the client, the date, times and individuals attending. It might even explain how business critical this inspection is and the three top things about the inspection.

But how is this relevant to accounts or receptionists or even a production team? If the information is not made relevant to individuals, it passes them by. What is in it for them? It is your managers who translate the big picture into what it means for their teams.

Do your managers have the skills to communicate?

It is easy to say you want managers to ‘translate’ your vision and goals to be relevant to their team. The reality is hard.

What do you need from managers?

  • First off, managers need to believe communications are important. If your business doesn’t have an open culture with good communications, the chances are that managers won’t see this as one of the most important parts of their job. They probably won’t do what is needed
  • Prioritise time to communicate – if you don’t think communications are important, it is easy for everything else to be more important. Most managers still instinctively like ‘doing’, it is their comfort zone. Communications are hard, you can’t see a quick result
  • Take a business-wide communication and make it relevant to their team. This is probably the hardest part. Taking the above example of an inspection – what would accounts or receptionists need to know? Accounts might need to ensure they have relevant data available; receptionists might want to know timetables so they have teas and coffees ready or know people’s names to make them feel welcome. A junior member in production may need to get boards up to date.  It is not immediately obvious?
  • This leads to the next challenge. Give permission to teams to contribute. No CEO, director or manager can possibly know how their business plan will affect every individual person’s job.  The only people who really know are those doing the jobs themselves. So good communications means leaders need to explain the big picture and then let individuals work out how it will affect them and then discuss how this will work as a team.
  • Encourage individuals to give feedback. ‘Feedback’ can feel critical and for many managers, it can immediately make them go defensive. Learning to take feedback and even encourage it is the final critical skill in all this.

What does a good team briefing look like?

I promised to say what I think a team brief should look like – and would love your views if you disagree and have other ideas. I have put these together from my years of working in manufacturing (when there were no briefs) to watching what works with clients and years of interviewing the best leaders on their Investors in People. So my view is

  • A team brief should be compulsory
  • It should be given from the top to no more than ten people at a time and then cascaded quickly through the whole organisation
  • The whole cascade through the business should happen within two days – never more than a week from beginning to end
  • It should be done personally, not by email or intranet
  • It should go to everyone in the business – including contractors, mobile workers etc. Technology makes this feasible for those not on site – even with time differences and off-site commitments everyone should be included
  • It should have no more than 10 slides – ideally five or six
  • Remember the NLP rules – people take in information in different ways. Slides should be as visual as possible with points for discussion – minimal words
  • It should be done weekly – many do it monthly, but I think it is better to do shorter team briefs more often
  • Managers should tailor each slide to be relevant to their team – so they use the corporate slide and then tailor it as they talk it through with their team
  • There should be one point for discussion and feedback with each team – these are then fed back up to leaders with opinions, ideas or whatever
  • The feedback should be summed up and fed back to teams in the next brief – so you start creating a virtual cycle of communications. Individuals feel it is worth contributing ideas and their views matter

I worked with one company where we had a long debate about compulsory or optional for the team brief. The leadership team had all sorts of reasons why it couldn’t be compulsory – not least people would not attend. One director said his solution to this was, if anyone couldn’t attend he went out to them individually to deliver the team brief in their office.  He said it was amazing how everyone then turned up for future briefs!

None of this is easy and it won’t happen if leaders think internal comms is optional or nice to have. But if you analyse the most profitable, long-lived companies they all have really excellent internal communications.