Leadership Communication Principles: Dealing with Change and Crisis | In Practise

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Leadership Communication Principles: Dealing with Change and Crisis

Head of Internal & External Engagement Division, European Central Bank

Why is this interview interesting?

  • Why communication is a foundational leadership skill
  • The importance of a confidant for leaders: having someone who can give you honest feedback
  • Leadership communication: why it matters to develop self-awareness
  • The pillars of effective leadership communication: clarity, integrity, authenticity
  • Tools for leaders to communicate effectively through hierarchies
  • The power of storytelling in leadership communication
  • How leaders can build trust through communication in a crisis

Executive Bio

Torsten Busse

Head of Internal & External Engagement Division, European Central Bank

Torsten began his career as a journalist covering Silicon Valley at IDG News Service. He switched into the corporate world from IDG where he spent 10 years building German software giant SAP’s internal communications department. Torsten then joined Brunswick Group from 2010-18 as a director responsible for helping corporates with communications consulting around mergers, acquisitions and restructurings. In 2018 Torsten was recruited by the European Central Bank to head their internal communications and their external engagement division. Read more

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Interview Transcript

Torsten, before we dive into a few questions that relate to your deepest areas of career experience. Could you tell us what you’ve been up to for the past few decades?

I benefited from switching perspectives a few times. The red line through my professional career is communications. I started out as a journalist covering Silicon Valley. Then I switched sides and went into the corporate environment. Worked for the software company SAP and built their internal communications department. That was the first switch of perspectives. Covering the IT sector, but then being part of it. Then after ten years, I decided to make another career move. Took a break, sorted myself out and figured out what is the most likely next step? Ended up doing communications consulting around mergers and acquisitions. Restructuring. Did that for eight years. That, again, was a switch in perspectives in terms of communications. It was a core issue, but I was helping others by advising them. Which, in a way, if you do internal communications as I did at SAP, that’s a big part of your job always. Then about two years ago, I was recruited to join the European Central Bank to head their internal communications, as well as their external engagement division. Which I found really intriguing, because until the headhunter called, I actually hadn’t considered public sector. I believe in Europe, so to say, I was immediately intrigued, and I was really lucky to end up with a job. This was another switch in perspectives, the red line is communications. Advising others on how to do communications and how to improve their skills. Always from a different perspective. Who knows? Maybe there is another perspective I will take down the road.

Torsten, having been exposed to many different approaches to leadership development in different environments. How do you feel about the way communication is perceived/approached; the importance placed on communication skills in traditional leadership development?

It’s interesting. If you look at a leadership position and obviously, starting with the chairman or the CEO of a company, what is his/her job? It’s communications. Then it’s communications and then it’s communications. If you cut across all of the stakeholder groups that I need to be mindful of and communicate with, it starts internally with rallying, motivating, inspiring your own team. Be it the board that you have to manage or be it that larger employee base. No matter what company you’re in. Can you lead people in the direction? That’s not to say, I give you operational instructions, but can I paint the vision, share my values and give direction to people? That’s really what your job is. You then need to apply that to the outside. You will always have customers that you need to communicate with. There’s always the media. There’s social media these days. The immediate communications with the outside world. Not through the transmission mechanism of the media. It becomes, as we all know, a lot more important and as we also know, there are a lot of politicians that skip over the media these days. You need to learn all of these mechanisms and understand them. I find it very interesting that if you look at studies being done, interviews of CEOs and people in c-level, so “chief” positions and ask them about their experience about climbing the corporate ladder or organizational ladder.

Ending up in positions of responsibility. What they all unanimously tell you what they underestimate is how difficult the job of communications is, how critical it is, how important it is, how much time it takes. What does that mean? It means that it’s a lifelong learning process. Communication is never finished. You can always get better. We can always practice and rehearse and train. That really is something that I would recommend to anybody in a leadership position, is to continually focus on this. I worked for many years with Henning Kagermann, the CEO of SAP at the time I was leading internal communications. I often cite him as a really good example because he had some tremendous discipline. Every quarter when we had quarterly announcements or results, he would take the time and engage with an advisor. Go through the Q&A about the financials. Practice, practice his message. Make sure that he knew what he was talking about. He was very good at all of the numbers but throwing a bunch of numbers at you can confuse the audience really quickly. It’s been selective. It’s being on-message. It’s being targeted. It takes a lot of practice. It takes a lot of preparation. One of the common mistakes that a lot of leaders still have is, “I know what I’m doing. I’m confident. I can go to this situation and make the best out of it.” It takes a lot more than that. I do think that it takes a lot of preparation and practice. You can continuously do that no matter what part of your career you’re in.

Why is this so difficult?

Why is communications difficult? It takes discipline on a lot of levels. Obviously, I like when I do media training, like so many others in that field, I like to put people in front of a camera. Why? If you see yourself, you see all the different levels that need to come together. My words now matter, the way I move, my facial expression, my nervous habits. There are a lot of different things that we do subconsciously that I need to be aware of, so that I don’t do it in a TV interview. What I’m trying to say is there are a lot of things that have to come together in order to really be on-message and make sense and be believable. It’s a matter of total performance, the words my body and what I say, but also, am I on-message? Do I have a clear message to relate to my audience? Do I know who I’m talking to? Obviously, right now, I’m talking to a computer screen. That’s a very different situation even though I can see you from having 20 people, 50 people, or 5,000 people in front of you. It all starts with imagining the situation and preparing for that. Making sure that I know the message. Also, making sure that I’m being myself. I relate my values. I relate a clear message. I’m authentic. I don’t spin the story. All of these things matter in a very condensed time. Television, you get 20 seconds, 10 seconds. That soundbite that the television newscaster likes to use as a part in the segment that they’re producing about whatever issue it is. It all comes down to that 20 seconds. That needs to fit. It takes a tremendous amount of preparation and self-discipline to get there and make it work for yourself.

I’m hearing in a number of ways, Torsten, an invitation to reflect on this dimension of self-knowledge. You mentioned the importance of authenticity. Maybe in part this difficulty, it really involves as a leader being aware of yourself and as we all know, that can be quite a challenging process to come into knowledge of one’s instincts, especially unconscious instincts.

Especially in times of crisis or times of stress. Even the people that do take time and prepare, what if something happens from the time you prepare to the time you get in front of an audience? Can you develop that self-discipline to say “whatever just happened threw me off track and made me emotional” has to wait because I have an important speech to give? That self-consciousness is really important. There are lots of studies being done on the chemistry. I’m not an expert on this, but certainly did my reading about it. The chemical reaction inside all of us and how it influences us and how we can basically through some body movements, stretching, standing upright and so forth, build up the right chemistry level in your body, so that you actually support what you say by the way you appear in front of an audience. All of these things matter incredibly. Yes, I completely agree that becoming aware of yourself and not just the words, but your entire body language is extremely important. Speaking of words, generally, there are a lot of people that are really eloquent, but one recommendation I have for every leader is, get your confidant. Get your person that you actually allow to give you advice. We all benefit from advice, no matter how high up in the hierarchy we are. Whether we’re in politics or in the courtroom or in the public sector, it doesn’t really matter. What we all can benefit from is that advice from somebody that you trust that you let in, so to say. To say, “Listen to me and then afterwards tell me what you think, how I come across? What can I improve?” That person is incredibly important. It’s something that I’ve told many leaders once you’re in that position of having to guide the communications of an entire company or organization. Find that person that you trust, ideally your head of corporate communications. It can be somebody else in the organization that you can take advice from and listen to. I do think that people that fail in times of crisis, they stop listening to others and they stop that reflection process on, am I effective? Am I getting a message across or not?

On that subject of self-understanding and being able to tap into a degree of authenticity. Torsten, you mentioned very clearly the role of a confidant or a trusted advisor. You mentioned a little earlier, the power of practice and having that discipline. Perhaps practicing in front of an audience, in front of a TV screen. What other ways have you found powerful for leaders or people in positions of responsibility to develop their self-awareness and go through what is often quite a difficult and painful process?

It only starts when we’re ready. It is what I just outlined, it's to prepare and rehearse, but then also do a debrief. Ask questions, what worked, what didn’t? Look at yourself. Personally, I have a hard time taking a look at myself on video. It’s not easy for everybody because they become very self-conscious, but it is what it takes. Important for you to become aware of how you come across and ways you can improve. Anything from do I control my hands like I do? As you can see, I like to move around, I like to twitch. That is fine. Sometimes it also creates this notion of nervousness. Not self-confidence. That’s what it takes. Is to also reflect on past performances. Just like now, I should probably take a look at whatever we record and take into heart what I like about it and what I don’t. If I do that with other people, I don’t build in my own biases about how I perceive myself. Allow somebody else to say, “There is part that really works, there is a part we need to work on.” Your body language and your message or what you say. Also, length, do you get a message across? Do you repeat it three times in different words? How do you relay the message to people? That goes back to preparedness. Are you clear? How many people rely on speech writers? What is the process you engage in with your speech writer? Do you give them notes? Do you give them headlines? Do you bother at all to talk to your speech writer and help them get on to paper and into a speech what you actually need to get across? That whole process is time-consuming. It requires time. One thing I would always like to point out to people, a PowerPoint is not a speech. A PowerPoint is a visual aid. Honestly, let’s forget all of that. It’s what you say to an audience or to a camera and how you come across and how you put it into words, that really is what matters. Your visual aids, your pictures and your graphics. They come later. There’s a lot of time and energy going into creating nice charts and nice PowerPoints. They matter, but they’re not your message. It’s not you. The words that you relay are actually what matters a lot more.

How would you summarize the pillars of effective leadership communication?

It’s clarity. It’s integrity. Authenticity. It’s telling the truth, basically. Starting with the latter, unfortunately, we’re living in an environment where that obviously doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Even in this current situation right now, there are a lot of facts and there is a lot of fiction. There are a lot of poor messages being distributed. Without going too much into the pandemic situation that we’re in, unfortunately, from the local environment, there’s a huge tendency to make up your reality. That doesn’t count for you, it doesn’t work for you. It will eventually break down. That honesty, that telling the truth, specifically in a time of crisis. A time of crisis is not a time we start spinning the story or making it into something that it isn’t. You have to tell the truth. Of course, there is a way to frame the truth. You can say it very directly. You can say it in a very displeasing way. You can say it in a nice way, but it still needs to be the truth and it still needs to be based on facts. That’s basically lesson number one. If you do tell the truth, I think the other ingredients that I mentioned. The integrity, the values that you hold close to your heart, being authentic and honest will come through because if you’re guided by facts and telling the truth, then you’re yourself. That’s actually what matters the most.

If I put myself in the shoes of a leader where I am looking to communicate through multiple layers of a hierarchy. What are the typical challenges that I would face in reaching people and in crafting a message that is appropriate for the board, as well as for the front lines?

Specifically the last part of that question is very important. Communications is translation, not in terms of I’m translating my words into another language. Translation in the sense of can I find a metaphor, a good story, an example to illustrate what I’m saying? Often, things are very complicated. Specifically, in a corporate environment, or the environment that I’m working in when you talk about more into policy, economics. It takes a lot of education, a lot of context, a lot of background to make yourself understood. A huge ingredient that’s very helpful is to find these illustrative examples and relate it to people’s reality. That’s very key. Now, generally, as you know, you get a lot of support as a CEO of a company or as a corporate leader generally. The corporate communications departments are there to assist you in this job. To craft the message. To get it onto paper. To put it into pictures, metaphors, examples that you can relate to people. The difficulty with hierarchies is, do you own the message, and do you carry it forward the way it was agreed? Why are you starting to put your own spin on it? How many times has it happened that a board agrees on a particular step and explains the reason and spells it out in some clear message? Then it gets a couple of hierarchy levels down and people start saying, “I disagree with that. Let me tell you why.” Does that help you as a leader? Likely not. It actually makes you pretty vulnerable because you start interpreting the decisions of others.

Make it your own and you become basically then the one that also has to explain why you disagree and why you don’t go along with it. It goes back to discipline. Does an organization provide the hierarchy levels with the documents and the messages that you need, the information you need to carry forward the message based on decisions that have been taken? Or are you left alone? I think generally in my experience, there are a lot more companies can do in terms of the timeliness of providing that information to me as somebody who is a couple of layers down in the hierarchy, still has to talk to a team and make sense to them. The layering of that information, because we all are different. Some people like all the details. Ready everything. Then they can best relay the message to others. Others just want the headlines. They do stick to the message, but they don’t want to be getting lost in the details. The layering of the message. Can I give people headlines? Can I provide a bit more details? Can I give all details that there are depending on the type of information consumption that I have as a leader in the hierarchy? Generally, I think a lot of organizations can still improve.

There’s been lots of progress made over the years that I’ve been in the communications business. I think generally, as organizations tick, there is still a lot to be done. One aspect to keep in mind, the communications environment obviously changes due to social media. The pace of social media forces us to step it up generally within our organization. Our communications discipline. Why? Social media is immediate. I can put out a message, a Tweet, a post to a lot of people really quickly. If it takes ages for the organization to respond to it, in case it’s not correct or it just begs for commentary around it, you need to provide color around it. It can cause a lot of damage. I think social media shows to a large degree the function is in the slow pace of organizations. How many people have to be conferred with and discussed with before you come to a consensus and actually respond and react? I think organizations need to start with social media and the immediacy and the pace that it has in order to really look at their processes. At some point, also maybe decide to have a much shorter escalation path within an organization, so we don’t discuss with everybody before you respond, but you have a clear chain of command of people, of fewer people, so you can actually respond and react much faster. That’s what it takes these days. A post and Tweets are immediate. They’re global. You do need to be able to respond quickly. You cannot let it go because it mushrooms so quickly these days that you’re forced to react. I think generally organizations need to rethink how they actually get messages crafted faster and get it out to the audience in a much more effective and efficient manner.

On this element of storytelling, Torsten, how useful is it from the perspective of a leader to really study the pillars of great storytelling?

Very effective. You already gave the answer in the question. What I said earlier about finding the metaphors in the pictures, in the illustrations that allow you to make a point and make a certain amount of information relatable to people. That’s very effective communication. The more you know about good storytelling, the structure of a story, the catharsis in a story, the crisis. What it means and how we learn from that? It all helps.

It should be part of your toolbox. Part of the toolbox that I mentioned in the beginning. That you constantly need to hone and rehearse and always get better at. It’s part of this. When I talk frequently about what’s your message? What do you want to get across? The tendency is to think in headlines. Below that headline also needs the explanation. The metaphor and the story. The narrative that I can use to relate whatever I want to get across to my reality, to the audience’s reality. What’s very powerful is if you talk about yourself. Right now, that we’re all in the same boat. Meaning, we’re in a pandemic situation, a lot of countries are in lockdown. We’re experiencing new ways of working together. Keeping virtual teams intact. Maintaining social contact as much as possible. I find it incredibly powerful if leaders in high levels sit down with employees and talk about their own worries in this situation. If you become relatable. If you close the distance between you as somebody who is in a high position with a lot of responsibilities and the people that you actually want to inspire and give direction to. That’s done by telling a good story and by sharing your own emotions. Nothing is as powerful as being honest with your own situation.

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