One of the more enduring myths in the world of internal communication is that you need to have a ‘seat at the boardroom table’ to be an effective and influential internal communicator within organisations. This simply isn’t true and the reality for most internal communicators is that they will never achieve this lofty and privileged status.
I’ve been an internal communicator for over twenty years now, and only twice in my career have I been granted regular access to a seat at the ‘top table’ on executive level decision making committees and boards in the organisations where I have worked.
From experience, I can tell you that it is not the universally liberating and empowering experience that some would have you believe it is. In fact, it can actually expose you to far too much cross examination, unnecessary scrutiny and executive oversight which can be a hindrance to implementing effective internal communication and getting things done in a timely manner. I think you will have heard the saying ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’!
A reality check
I recently ran a Twitter poll as a small scale reality check of whether or not other internal communicators thought they needed to be in the boardroom to do a good job. The answer was, not many. More realistically and sensibly, the majority thought that we needed to be able to run channels effectively and influence middle managers to be successful. More on this latter point later in this blog.
As a profession we must stop perpetuating the ‘seat at the table’ myth and the notion that all internal communicators must somehow aspire to this unattainable status. In the words of fellow internal communicator Cal Monaghan, who commented on the poll – “IC seems to have an unhealthy obsession with leadership engagement and getting leaders on side. Sure, they can be a tricky bunch and are both a stakeholder and an audience. But without being a competent channel manager, you’re convincing no-one.”
Thanks Cal, I couldn’t have put it better myself!
The fact is, we are not doing ourselves any favours by constantly banging on about ‘seat at the table’, influencing CEOs and focusing on senior leaders as the only stakeholder group in town. By doing so, all we are doing is setting up the vast majority of internal communicators to fail, be disappointed and to feel that they are in some way inadequate. We are creating fertile ground for their imposter syndrome to proliferate.
I’ve written before, in other blogs, about how to influence senior stakeholders in organisations and get things done when you don’t have access to the boardroom, or when leaders won’t listen to what you have to say. Here are a couple of things all internal communicators can do, to have more influence in organisations and to get their good ideas heard and implemented.
Learn how to work ‘the governance’
All organisations have decision making structures and bodies, we call this the ‘organisational governance’. To be a successful internal communicator you need to learn to work with and leverage this governance. It is, quite simply, your doorway to getting the majority of things done and it is not necessary to try to influence the CEO or the board to achieve them.
This means getting your ideas and proposals under the noses of the right decision making committees, or project steering groups, in a compelling way. Most of these committees and groups have no direct relationship to the boardroom and the matters they consider rarely need escalating up to that level or end up being ‘for the attention’ of the CEO. They work at the level of the practical and that is EXACTLY where the majority of internal communicators need to be, to be effective and to have the most impact.
Another related tip is to get to know the project managers and planning, finance and governance colleagues in your organisation. They are skilled in dealing with governance processes and creating business cases and options paper. They can help you get your communications voice heard more loudly and effectively in an organisation where there is a lot going on.
Internal communicators need allies like these within their organisations, it makes the job just a little bit easier, so actively seek them out and make them your best friends.
Influence middle managers
A few years ago, I completed a CIPR Internal Communications Diploma with PR Academy. My research topic was middle managers. I can confidently tell you that they are one of THE most influential and often overlooked stakeholder groups in organisations.
Middle managers are unique in organisations in the ways they operate and communicate to get things done. A study by Rouleau and Balogun in 2007 presented a detailed assessment of how middle managers perform a ‘strategic sensemaking role’ to achieve organisational objectives, and revealed two specific middle management micro-practices:
- ‘performing distributed conversations’ – the composition and diffusion of different versions of stories for the different audiences they work with daily – using the right language for each audience to create meaning and understanding.
- ‘enrolling networks’ – ability to activate networks, often by-passing formal organisational structures, building alliances and mobilising people around a change project – knowing who to contact to get things done.
Obviously, this is a more ‘academic’ assessment of who middle managers are and what they do. However, all you need to know as an internal communicator is that they have the connections and the influence to get things done in organisations, perhaps more so than the CEO and the board do.
Make sure that you become a fully paid-up member of their middle management networks, by getting to know who they are, what they do and by creating a mutually beneficial relationship.
If you are interested in knowing more about middle managers and how they influence internal communication and employee engagement in organisations, I have published an extract from my diploma paper on my website.
No seat required
Being an internal communicator is a tough job, and we don’t need to be making it any tougher by setting ourselves up to fail because we think we need a ‘seat at the table’ to get anything done.
We live in strange times where organisations have been shaken to their foundations by the disruptive forces of the pandemic. For many internal communicators this has meant they have had to work more closely with senior leaders and the board, perhaps for the first time, to navigate through the crisis.
BUT let’s be clear, whatever some commentators might say, for many internal communicators that will never translate into some kind of enduring access to the CEO and the boardroom in perpetuity.
Executive teams needed our help and advice when the chips were down, and now that the crisis has dissipated it will be back to business as usual for many internal communicators and the relationship and level of access to the CEO and senior leadership will have reverted with it.
We should not be disappointed by this. There are other more practical and realistic ways for all internal communicators to have significant and enduring influence in organisations. No seat required.
If you have some time and a little spare cash, and would like to hear an expert panel debate ‘seat at the table’, there is an opportunity to do so during the forthcoming Comms Hero Week. ‘A seat at the table: silver bullet or white elephant?’ will be chaired by Kate Jones, Head of Communications & Corporate Affairs at Tarmac. I’m sure that this will be an interesting and insightful discussion.
To be clear, I am a protagonist of the elephant!