Soon before he died in 2008, my dad and I were talking about how he’d loved watching us girls grow up into jobs we enjoyed and were doing well at. It’s a chat I’ll treasure but he also said something that stopped me in my tracks.
“I know what you do, love, these staff magazines and things,” he said, “What I don’t get is WHY you need to do it.”
After I’d pouted – way to make a girl feel special, pops – I started to understand where he was coming from.
In 1964 my dad was 20 and working in the defence industry, packing parachutes at a rural Worcestershire airbase. Soon after, he stepped onto the factory floor at Rolls-Royce and spent more than 25 years grinding gears. At no time during his 40 working years did he come across the lesser-spotted internal comms manager. If you’d asked him what a business partner was, he’d have told you not to talk daft. But he was a loyal, proud worker who bought shares, knew exactly what was going on and felt responsible for how the factory was doing.
And here’s the reason he didn’t get why I existed. “When we needed to know something, the foreman just called us in a corner and we talked about it. So how come these places need you these days?”
Get a group of internal comms pros together and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to line managers. We acknowledge their vital role in engagement and we agree most of them aren’t very good at it.
But here’s the rub: we did it to them.
As we worked hard for our value, our profession, to be recognised within our businesses from the boardroom down, we took on a lot. We do that; own that; deliver that, we said. In the great editorial era of internal comms, we bypassed the hierarchy with newsstand-quality company magazines. We crafted and drafted podium-worthy speeches for our leaders. And we equipped line managers with highly detailed briefing-by-numbers scripts.
Come on, you know we did. I sure know I did! But where does equipping stop and emasculating start?
Coming out of the editorial era and into the era of engagement, we rediscovered what my dad and his foreman knew in 1964. Employees want to hear from their manager. So now we’re making up for lost time and the lost art of manager-led comms with toolkits and training and an uphill struggle to get leaders to agree that they signed up for engagement when they got the job title.
I daresay my dad’s information was top-down and heavily filtered. And he was certainly as likely to believe what he read in the papers as anything on the noticeboard. But at least their manager talked about it when they clocked in for the night shift.
I think about my dad now whenever I’m writing. He’s my audience – whether I’m prepping bullets for a line manager to use when talking about change, or when I was writing for magazines for factory and frontline audiences.
Just one of the many things I have to thank him for.
Looking for a great line manager comms toolkit? Try these for size:
The line manager mixtape – by Daniel Grafton via CIPR
Why managers are the key to poor signal strength – by Lee Smith via IoIC
Six steps to get manager communication right – from Headlines
Ted Jones 1944 – 2008