Culture, character and communication

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Next week, Sally Loane (CEO of the Financial Services Council) is guest of honour at a Melbourne lunch hosted by Pritchitt Partners, which will be attended by executives and journalists interested in financial services.  Ms Loane brings a number of solid skills to her role as CEO including communication, having a distinguished career in communications in both journalism and in the corporate world.

It seems that communication skills are often an overlooked talent for CEOs yet the ability to communicate clearly is rapidly increasing in importance as the changing media landscape and the role of technology continues to impact on message delivery.

This is true at all levels, whether it is getting your story through the ever-widening range of media or directly to stakeholders such as investors and employees.

Communicating with employees

We have seen a number of examples recently where employees’ misunderstanding of policy and practice has caused major embarrassment for organisations. Often employees think they are doing the right thing by their employer, but it turns out that management has failed to gain an understanding of how policies should be implemented when dealing with the public.

One thing in common after such events is that senior executives talk about changing the culture of the organisation, or else claim that such events are not consistent with the organisation’s character and ethical approach.

But did employees understand what the character of the organisation was?  Did the senior management communicate it in an easy-to-understand way, or was it a jargon-filled convoluted email to “the team”?

Whenever there’s an issue with customer service that goes viral, questions should be asked at the very top level about why staff apparently misinterpreted the organisation’s culture and character and customer service needs.

Nearly all apologies after the event claim that this wasn’t the way the organisations wanted to operate.  Or so they said.

So it seems that the culture that the people at the top thought existed was one thing, but how staff operated was another.

Policy vs practice

Executives who have learned good communication skills, or who seek the advice of communication professionals and act on it, are less likely to cause such gaps in policy and practice.

The starting point is nearly always poor communication. If employees do not understand the culture and character of an organisation, and how it should affect the way they work with the public, mistakes are inevitable.

Even though staff may think they are doing the right thing by the organisation, they can end up ignoring basic service standards and creating issues.  The way the problem is then handled in subsequent public communication by management, who don’t really understand how it could happen and are completely blind-sided, can make it worse.

I believe much of the problem is because of the language used in communication from senior executives to operating staff, particularly with those who have contact with customers – which is why it’s always good to see professional communicators like Sally Loane at the top of organisations.


When managing directors talk or write to the “team” using management-speak, and jargon, that in itself sends the wrong message.

In the corporate world, it’s implying that meeting targets and maximising profits is more important than anything else, including what is in customers’ interest.

Indeed, often the main thrust of management communications to staff is to urge greater effort to meet key performance objectives and enhance productivity.

This always assumes that operating staff understand the gobbledegook that surrounds such messages.

Senior management also needs to understand that rhetoric doesn’t really help – exhorting staff to “enhance the customer interface experience” is meaningless without specifics in clear language.

Indeed, too often it is overlooked that implicit messages are much more persuasive than outlandish claims of jargon-filled urgings to get everyone on the same page when in fact no-one has said what book they are all supposed to be reading.