In this weeks ‘learning from failure‘ series, I spoke to Oli Howard, currently Membership Strategy Lead at the CIPD. Oli has had an expansive career, covering a range of internal communication roles at organisations from the Royal Mail, Scope and the Civil Aviation Authority, to becoming a Board member for the IOIC, up to his current role at the CIPD now.

Oli is an internal communicator with a wealth of experience and credibility behind him, but not without having overcome a number of challenges and lessons learnt along the way.

What do you find hardest about working in internal communications?

It’s so hard to directly link internal communication activity to organisational performance. It feels to me like a lot of what gets written on this subject implies that it is actually pretty easy and IC people just can’t be bothered. That’s not true in my view.

There have been isolated occasions in my career when I’ve been able to do this – a campaign to reduce manual handling of mail for example, where I came close to proving a causal link between the communication activity and increasing productivity in certain sites. But most of the time we’re attempting to link a business outcome (eg. staff retention) back to internal communication activity via a general concept (usually employee engagement, which is defined differently in different organisations and is impacted by a huge number of variables). We are often proving correlation at best, and without clearly being able to understand what kind of communication activity drives better business outcomes, choosing the right practices is difficult.

“I sent a CEO on stage once with a speech that entirely missed the tone for an organisation in the midst of a restructure”

What has been your biggest failure in IC and what did you learn from it?

One of the first things I did in my first ever IC job was accidentally send a message about the catering arrangements in a single building to the whole organisation. I was mortified when I realised, but I learnt something valuable about quality controls and pre-distribution checks.

As my jobs have increased in size and responsibility, the failures have become bigger too. I sent a CEO on stage once with a speech that entirely missed the tone for an organisation in the midst of a restructure. It landed badly, which I could and should have predicted. From that I learnt to subject my work to greater scrutiny (I use the ‘pre-mortem’ technique much more now) and to push a bit harder with my senior stakeholders.

In another organisation I never got the CEO relationship to the place I needed it in order to be a valued advisor, which severely limited my impact. I’d previously been very confident about my ability to establish strong, senior-level relationships. But I’d overlooked the fact that each case is different. I needed to check that confidence and think harder about the individual, the situation and what I could bring to help, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.

How have your failures affected you and how have you overcome them?

My reaction to failure comes in three stages. The first thing I have to deal with is the immediate feelings of shame, horror, disappointment etc. They are going to occur, they are natural and I need to accept them at face value. I have an inner voice these days (it has taken years to cultivate) that reminds me of this whenever I feel that way.

The second is putting it in context – how big is the failure really in the scale of all the things going on in the organisation and my life? In the moment of failure it is the biggest thing in my world. After a little bit of time, I can zoom out from that and see it for what it is. That second stage is important for the third stage, which is looking dispassionately at what happened, being honest with myself about what I should have done differently and banking the learning. I’m not going to go as far as embracing the ‘failure is good’ mantra, but it is inevitable and my job is to extract the most value possible from it.

What is currently one of your biggest challenges in IC?

I’m not in an internal communication role at the moment. What is interesting about that for me is that my involvement in IC is now as a manager and leader within my organisation, which is commonly identified as where communication really breaks down. I need to understand the organisation (its strategy, context, products, services, activities and plans) and interpret this both for and with my team and colleagues in a way that helps us to make good choices and play an effective role.

What are some of the things you think IC pros are struggling with the most?

To the point above, in order to do my job well I need things like: up to the minute information on key decisions, projects and strategies; access to senior staff in order to ask questions of clarity and provide any useful perspective from my business area; out of date information to be cleared and/or labelled as such; dates on everything; clarity on what is expected of me as a communicator.

Organisations are complicated places. In order for me to succeed, I need the IC function to be providing me with maps and directions to help me navigate it. To do that, IC functions need to be positioned at the heart of the organisation and to proactively seek and distribute clarity. I think IC professionals are often caught between a world of huge concepts and a world of immediate pressures (I have written about this here). There’s a place in the middle where I’d say at least 50% of the effort should be concentrated. The challenge is in re-engineering IC functions to work in this way… to help managers like me be effective communicators within the system.

What are your top lessons learnt from working in IC?

In no particular order:

1) IC is neither the ‘voice of employees’ nor a corporate mouthpiece. It is a facilitator of a valuable relationship that should have mutual benefit. It should act as such.

2) Learn to read a P&L. Be a businessperson first, a communicator second.

3) Many of the things presented as facts about internal communication are actually opinions. Scrutinise everything. Apply critical thinking.

4) Document your processes as you create them. It means you sense-check them and it makes life easier when you grow the team or hand it over.

5) If the objective isn’t clear, keep asking. If you don’t think asking will get you there, try suggesting. If you don’t think you’ll get a clear objective at all, try to minimise the effort spent servicing this work (in reality, we all know there are stupid requests we just can’t say a full ‘no’ to).

6) You’re only as good as the relationships you build. Invest time in them.

7) Put serious time into your development – training, qualifications, self-reflection, networking, CPD. There’s an infinite amount to learn, so at least aim to put a dent in it.

What advice would you give your younger self starting out in IC?

The first jobs are the hardest ones. Your position in the organisation, job title, age and experience grant you little to no authority and respect. Get through these, and the rest is much better. Oh, and ask for help if you need it.

What would you look back on as your greatest IC success and why?

In a charity I worked for there was a period when we did a campaign to launch a new strategy and another to harmonise employment contracts and benefits across the organisation. Both were clear, creative and impactful in terms of achieving their agreed objectives. The reason I am most proud of them is that I actually did very little direct work on them – the ideas, the plans and the deliverables all came from two members of my team. I look back on them as a success because (I like to think) they were the product of the team dynamic I’d worked to create, the time I’d put into people’s development and the standards I had set for the team’s work.

“I’m a member of the IoIC and find their events, factsheets and VOICE magazine to be valuable”

How do you look after your own mental well-being?

All sorts of things. I protect my work-life balance, I stay tidy and organised (which I think provides me with an illusion of control), I rest when I need to (as much as you can with children of 6 and 3), I run, I apply the kind of techniques I described in question 2.

My working life has generally been a pretty happy one. I’ve had a few times where the circumstances have been difficult and led to unhappiness. And, for me at least, unhappiness at work can easily spill over into unhappiness at home (and vice versa). In those cases, there has usually been something I could do to address the problem – usually find another job. I do think it’s important to expect happiness and unhappiness as normal parts of life… but also to do less of what makes me unhappy and more of what makes me happy.

Top resources you use to support your IC development?

I lean quite heavily on academic papers (this has been the case since I did a postgrad diploma almost 10 years ago). What you lose in accessibility and practicality is more than made up for by basis in evidence and the relative absence of bias. My general rule is that if I have a question in my mind about an aspect of IC practice I will try Google Scholar before Google. Now I’m at the CIPD, I am making much more use of the excellent research reports and guides that our team produces. I’m a member of the IoIC and find their events, factsheets and VOICE magazine to be valuable. I have used Twitter quite a bit to share thoughts, see what others are saying and pick up on blogs and articles I might have missed elsewhere.

Where have you seen the most self-growth and why/how?

I would say the most important bits of development I have done have been around assessing evidence and applying critical thinking. The most significant piece of development I have had on that was the diploma, which is now a masters run by the IoIC – I wrote comprehensively about that here.

Thank you to @howard_Oli for taking the time to share his experiences. This blog series is so important to me because collectively we need to highlight that we all go through challenges, but that is all part of the learning process and I hope from this series that we can all find something we relate to, and equally can learn from and take on-board.

If you have any thoughts on Oli’s interview, or if you would like to get involved in the series yourself you can either tweet me @mandypops or email me, I would love to hear from you.

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