Leaders are often defined by what they do when the stakes are high.

Rarely have business leaders been put under such an intense spotlight, and even the most resilient leaders have been challenged to respond decisively.

One thing COVID-19 has reinforced for all of us is that strong leadership is built on strong communication — the kind that can deliver clarity, reassurance and even inspiration through the cloudiest uncertainty. 

For internal communicators, so often positioned as the go-between between leadership and employees, the COVID-19 crisis has opened up opportunities to work closer with leaders to craft and deliver the messages employees need right now. 

As part of The Bananatag Morning Show, we’ve been asking comms experts how communication professionals can help their leaders be better communicators during COVID-19.

Here’s what they had to say:

 

1. Help leaders get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Uncertain times are uncomfortable.

Not only is it hard to have all the right information, but what was right yesterday may not be the case the next day. Nor is there a clear endpoint to the current crisis in sight.

For many leaders, the scale and size of the current uncertainty is a shock to the system. Especially when there is no clear playbook for how to connect with fully-remote employees around the most immediately pressing matters, much less provide reassurance.

So how can communicators help leaders to connect with anxious employees?

In her visit to the show, Rachel Miller of All Things IC encouraged communicators to coach their leaders in embracing a lack of preparedness:

Rachel Miller

 

 

“When we think about leadership communication, for me it's around ‘how do we help our leaders get comfortable being uncomfortable?’ Because right now they're having to do things like show up virtually and connect with their people in different ways. Sometimes there's not a script, sometimes there are no key messages or talking points, and that might be really uncomfortable for our leaders.

So our role as internal communicators is really working with our leaders to get them comfortable being uncomfortable. It's okay to say you don't know the answer to something. It's okay to not have a script. But our role there is just to coach them through that.

Erika Migliaccio, Founder and Principal Consultant of UpstreamHR, spoke of the importance of  leaders displaying vulnerability:

Acknowledge the challenges, encourage people to talk about each of their personal struggles, ask people even in a group, "how's everyone doing?" What are you guys struggling with? As a leader and as a communicator, be brave and vulnerable enough to do that first because you will set the tone. When you put yourself out there, other people will put themselves out there too. One thing that I believe really strongly right now is that the more normal we make this, the less weird it's going to feel.

Now is not the time to play boss; now is the time to show everyone that you're just like them. So are all leaders going to do it naturally? No. But they might listen to you right now if you encourage them and push them that way.”

 

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Catherine Ducharme, Coach and Director of Client Services at Smart Savvy Associates, encouraged communicators to seize the opportunity to guide leadership through change, drawing on their own expertise as the voice between employees and leaders:

Catherine Ducharme

 

 

“I think this is the time for internal communicators to step up. Because they're that connector piece, right? They advocate for employees, and have a good sense of the employee pulse there. And then they're also trusted advisors to their leaders, and they know what kind of communication needs to happen in change.

So, this is their opportunity to shine and really play that pivotal and influential role. And I think that goes with helping leaders understand what's different — what changes when you're going through uncertainty and crisis. How the leaders need to show up. We know leaders need to be visible, and checking in with their team, not checking up on their team.” 

For employee engagement specialist Kristin Hancock, communicators are uniquely positioned to aid leaders in exhibiting emotional intelligence, and understanding what employees are experiencing at the moment:

“We're that bridge between employees and leaders, and I think that we take that very seriously. and that's a really wonderful thing. Now more than ever emotional intelligence is the name of the game. And I think we forget – "this is not working from home, this is you being at home during a crisis, trying to work.” It's very different from working from home under normal circumstances. It's not normal.”

 

Kristin Hancock

 

2. Help leaders stay visible

Many Morning Show guests have spoken of the value of having leaders be more visible and connecting more personally with employees. 

In her episode, Rachel Miller pointed out that visibility is about building trust and showing empathy for employees by being authentic and accessible:

Rachel Miller

 

 

"It’s so important to encourage our leaders to be visible and particularly at the moment to display empathy because we're trying to connect with our people, particularly if everybody's working remotely. Our leaders and how they show up day to day is incredibly important. But right now, for our leaders to show empathy is incredibly important. So that's using the right language. It's accepting that it's not business as usual at all.

I think now is the time for real, genuine connection with our people. So it's admitting that they're also scared, they're also concerned, they're also worried and they're also trying to be all things to all people and finding it really tough.

Particularly at scale, it’s making your leaders visible and accessible. But the tone of voice has to be not just a ‘keep calm and carry on’, it's, "I know that it's really hard to keep calm, but we do need to carry on, I'm in the same boat as you." So it's the language and the approach that they take which are incredibly important.”


Erika Migliaccio also explained how greater visibility paves the way for leaders to connect more meaningfully with employees on a human level:

“I think that now is a wonderful time, especially for leaders who haven't had this type of style in the past, to let your guard down. Completely just be yourself. If you've got messages going out from leaders, tell them "don't dress up right now". Everyone else is at home and lucky to have taken a shower and put pants on.

So if you're going to send a message out, make everyone see that you feel what they're feeling. Wear a sweatshirt in your message. Be you and be humane. And guess what? Many times when we're going to be on meetings, someone's going to walk by in the background, the dog's going to bark, the kid's going to come and try to peek at your meeting. Don't pretend that stuff's not happening. If we embrace these 'distractions', it will actually help us connect at a deeper level.”

 

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Catherine Ducharme expanded on this point, encouraging leaders to always be honest about where things stand:

Catherine Ducharme

 

 

“Sometimes leaders want to be compassionate, they want to be understanding, but they're not too sure how they make that connection. Because when we're working remotely, it seems more formal to check in with people than sort of dropping by an office.

So, as communicators we need to reinforce those messages. If you can't over-communicate, you have to be visible. And really, you have to take a stance of being curious, really understanding what your team needs, letting the team know where they stand. "Here's what we know. Here's what we don't know.

Because it's about getting to know your employees, and building up that trust. And as communicators, it's giving leaders tactical ways to build trust, to show up, to be visible, and to have the conversations that they need to be having.”

When Erica Goodwin stopped by, the Global Communications Manager at Heifer International shared some of the efforts they have adopted to keep their leadership team visible:

"Last Friday we had our first virtual town hall. Tomorrow we have a Heifer hangout with our CEO. He wanted to be able to do those and create a super informal space for employees to come and ask questions. A space where they can be open and receive responses in real time. It's as if we were running into each other in the hallway, only through Zoom.

When the CEO pops in and is like "Hey guys, what's going on?", people are kind of star struck. It's so interesting because that would not happen generally in a face-to-face situation. Leveraging technology to do that is really reinforcing for morale, and to keep people engaged and feeling like they're connected to the organization.”

 

Erica Goodwin

 


3. Help leaders not only give answers, but ask the right questions

When organizations are in crisis, employees expect leaders to have all of the answers. 

But against the backdrop of COVID-19, easy answers are few and far between. And they can change from one day to the next.

Catherine Ducharme pointed out that when information is changing daily and things are uncertain, maybe there’s something more important leaders need than answers:

Catherine Ducharme

 

 

"What leaders actually need is all the questions right now. So, the coach approach is about being curious, and listening, and finding out what people need. It's not about telling, or giving advice, or having the answers.

And when you ask people questions, you do a few things. You assume that they have the capability to figure things out. And you know what? People have the capability to figure things out. And when they come to a solution on their own, they get the benefit of the learning. When we're telling people what to do, or how to do it, or solving problems for people, we're actually robbing them of that learning, and we're not creating independent people. We're just creating followers.” 

Kristin Hancock touched on the importance for leaders to give reassurance even with the smallest of details, especially when the bigger picture is less clear:

As a leader, if you can do everything you can to spell out what you do know, and give people that sense of being in control of things, and knowing that we don't know what's going to happen, but we do know these things. We know how our supply chain works, we've been in contact with our vendors, and here's what's going to happen with your pay. Anything you know, is helpful information right now, even if it seems really minuscule. Because we're stuck in this phase of ambiguity.”

 

Kristin Hancock

 


We're supporting you, supporting your leaders

COVID-19 has brought out the best and worst in everybody.

The size and scope of this crisis means it will be something that we all remember for the rest of our lives. For many leaders that can feel like an enormous burden to carry.

Luckily, as communicators, you’re there to help.

Even in turbulence, opportunities can appear. For many communicators, the relationships that they’re building now will serve them immeasurably in the future. The efforts they’re making to manage this crisis might be some of the most impactful work they ever do and will long resonate into the future.

Between the Bananatag Morning Show, and Comms-unity, our dedicated Slack space for Communications professionals, we’ve seen some brilliant and insightful discussions on how communicators can encourage leaders to embrace new ways of connecting with employees and distill meaning in chaos. 

If you’ve got more questions about how to support your leaders or want to hear from the most brilliant minds in communications, join us in Comms-unity or watch the Morning show every Wednesday and Friday at 9am PST/ 12pm EST where we will be continuing to help you lead your leaders through COVID-19.