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Four things you have to remember when driving cross-functional teams. It’s how you make the C-Suite sit up and notice

A friend asked me this week ‘how is PR changing, and what does that mean’? It was a question that caught me a little off guard. Not because it’s a foreign topic, but because the nature of our relationship doesn’t centre on work and rarely crosses into it. But… as tends to happen in these situations, my motor-mouth kicked in and I began to espouse a diatribe of flowing prose weaving in all the usual buzzwords and cute phrases that too easily roll off the tongue and pretty soon was thinking to myself – that was quite eloquent considering it hasn’t yet hit 8am! It wasn’t until our phone call had ended and I was five minutes further down the road that the thought hit me like a parked car… I didn’t really answer her question at all.

As much as this Blog looks to cut through as much BS as possible, sometimes getting lost in ones’ own waffle is an easy trap. What I failed to do was actually share with her what the changing communications landscape actually meant in a practical sense to organisations. Everybody knows the rules have changed; few know what this means for the game.

One of the most important changes for organisations today when it comes to best practice communications is ensuring cohesion amongst stakeholders, all the while acknowledging their diversity. This is a fine art.

Once upon a time, when the main path to market was display ads in print and media releases over the wire, communications were much easier to manage. This one-dimensional attitude with a daily deadline gave birth to the phrase “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper”. This simpler world meant having a singular voice that represented the company was not only achievable but optimal. No longer!

Now with the multi-channelled communications options available to organisations, one voice cannot, and should not, be all there is. Different stakeholders are responsible for different things and as such should be empowered to address them with their target audiences at a variety of levels. The main challenge with this, and the answer to my friends question is, ‘how do you manage these individual voices while maximising your brand value as a whole?’ The first part of this I addressed in an earlier blog: Being relevant – to your audience internally and externally – ‘listening’ is key. Your PR team is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when it comes to this. The other part is how do communications pros drive cross-functional teams?

I’ve had the privilege of working both internally as a communications manager and externally as a consultant and on this topic it’s important to stress that each position is vastly different on this issue. When you are external you can be an excellent repository of information, yes. You gather it from different business units and when they don’t talk so well together, it’s always a big tick when you can share some insights about what is happening within their own business. The problem however is when you are relied on to be this conduit because these business units don’t want to talk to one another or aren’t set up in a way that encourages them to! There is only so much you can do from the outside – fortunately influence and education sit squarely in your backyard.

As a communications manager that sits within the organisation, you have an even more pivotal role in resolving this challenge and it’s such an important role that your organisation’s entire brand health depends on it.

Four things you have to remember when driving cross-functional teams:

You need to identify a common sense of purpose. Of course different functions and different divisions make sense, but from a brand perspective, they need to be mutually supportive of each other. Too often you see Business Unit leaders or Function leaders have a narrow view of the role they have as an ambassador. Few people in the organisation are better suited than those in comms to rein this in. Even some MDs find they end up siding with a particular area because it is a cash cow. Problem is, the cash cows of today are the dogs of tomorrow. When your comms manager is a real leader, one of their most important qualities will be their ability to paint this holistic picture so that everyone is on the same page and pulling in the right direction.

You need to clearly articulate roles, responsibilities, rewards and expectations and hold them to account. It is so important that each individual contributor understand the part they play in the strategic plan. It cannot be managed at a tactical level and be effective. As a communications manager your responsibility has to be to use your key messaging map as the sheet music and your spokespeople and cross-functional team as the choir. You are the conductor! You need to state what success looks like, acknowledge it across teams when it happens and refine the process continually.

You need to have a resolution process established up-front. You know there will be dramas and… as there is no one right answer, remedial processes are important. As a comms pro you will know that consistency of dialogue is vital, so you can’t let disagreements become bottle-necks for you. One of the traits of a high performing team is that there is robust and healthy challenging of ideas, but it can’t go around in circles. You need to maintain momentum. High performing teams trust one another and they need to trust you as a comms pro. Set the ground rules down for managing disagreements up front which includes an escalation path so you can manage the diversity of perspectives that is inherent in cross-functional teams.

You need to have agility at the front of your thinking. Leading a cross-functional team can be a little like turning a herd of rampaging buffalo, so you need to be empowered. Ideally you want the authority to decide or act. This is the journey comms pros are on as they prove their worth further up the food chain. Forward thinking executives are already working with their comms pros like this, but for those that aren’t – start with a policy. Get the policy signed off and use it as your mandate. Policy is often blamed for retarding progress, but when it is used appropriately, with the objective being enablement not restriction, it becomes your steering wheel not your brake. The trick to getting everyone on board with it is involving them in its development, not using it as a whipping stick because you will quickly learn, that never works. And quite simply… that’s how PR is changing, and that’s what it means to organisations.

– My name is Aaron Crowther. Follow me on Twitter @ascommstweeter

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