How to Communicate Effectively with Leaders, Ensure Successful Program Outcomes, and Promote Accountability
In a perfect world, organizational communications function in a loop: frontline employees and managers address client pain points, work with cross-functional teams to share solutions, and mitigate risk areas. Mid-level managers coordinate with senior leaders to provide real-time information on team performance and customer engagement while executing against organizational goals and strategies. And senior leaders cascade information on those goals and strategies throughout the organization, providing a clear path forward. Effective communication is an ongoing process and an integral part of a healthy, high-performance culture.
In reality, organizational communications often function more like a busy traffic circle: employees and leadership merge into the corporate circle from different points, gather the information they can, work with other drivers, attempt to stay in the correct lane, and exit as appropriate. However, when the circle backs up unexpectedly, drivers can crash. And sometimes, cars – i.e. projects and programs – can be totaled.
When it comes to information technology (IT) and security, there is an obvious danger in the latter model. From breaches and attacks to leaks and program failures, the risk of exposure is real. However, it’s not inevitable.
By communicating effectively with stakeholders across the organization, including communicating up to leadership, every employee can promote security, successful program outcomes, and a culture of accountability.
Speak the Same Language: Communicate Effectively with Leaders
Communication plays an essential role in daily operations, as well as crisis response. Yet, too often, team members are so close to their projects that they assume all other members have access to and are working from the same sets of data and information. That’s when cracks begin to appear in projects, programs, and even organizational culture.
As George Bernard Shaw so aptly put it, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Alissa Burch, a chief advisor on cybersecurity and risk at Sila, puts it another way. “When an IT program stumbles, it is often because those on the front lines struggle to push their messages upward in a way that gets noticed and addressed. What is the single most important thing they can do to influence behavior? Hone their communications skills.”
How can you avoid communication pitfalls, regardless of work location, role in the organization, or tenure?
- Prioritize regular communication with your leaders. Just as you gather information daily from clients, employees, vendors, and partners, make it a habit to update leaders as part of your regular operating rhythm.
- Think like a project/program manager. Organize your data, dashboards, and insights, then provide them to leadership in time for them to act. Remember that C-suite executives focus on strategy, long-term impacts, and financial investments.
- Proactively share negative information. Present the right context to help leaders understand risks and challenges to the business. Come prepared with solutions and options for improvement.
- In the event of a potential crisis, engage stakeholders who will listen and spur action. Enlist help to find those leaders.
- Consider different perspectives and seek allies in your organization who share similar concerns, then join forces to help strengthen your message.
Lend a Hand: Help Leaders Communicate with Their Leaders
In the course of your interactions with leadership, you may find that leaders are more familiar with certain technical areas than others. Helping them fill those gaps demonstrates your expertise and builds mutual trust.
Be prepared to share relevant expertise and lessons learned, bringing leaders up to speed quickly and equipping them with the information they need to make informed decisions. And remember that strategic initiatives don’t always come from the top down. Support your leaders as they define and communicate their strategic vision to stakeholders throughout the organization.
Take Responsibility: Clear Communication Supports Accountability
Accountability – a sense of responsibility and ownership – matters. It has a direct effect on your organization’s reputation, culture, and brand/value. Accountability also drives proactive decision making.
“In working with the IT and security community,” Burch said, “one of the primary disconnects is that ‘security’ is a journey – it’s not a piece of software, a one-and-done fix, or a program that we stand up.” Burch added, “Effective communication and the resulting sense of accountability are indispensable to that journey.”
Experience shows that communication promotes accountability. Leaders are responsible for the people, products, and initiatives under their watch, which means they must stay informed and involved. It matters how they get what information.
While regulatory or compliance concerns are also significant drivers, organizations that solely focus on these areas will continually play catch-up. Don’t confuse procedural compliance with clear, direct communication. It is one thing to note a problem – to record it in a log. It is another thing to raise an issue in a timely, direct fashion so the right stakeholders can address it.
After all, leadership is truly accountable when they have the right information at the right time and are equipped to act: when they are part of the communication loop, and you are, too.