10 Sep Brexit. The ultimate de-merger.
There is a lot to learn about Brexit. And, for people who need to communicate effectively at a senior level, there is a lot to learn from it. It’s a big ask, but leave aside the political aspects for a moment. What we have left in operational terms is the biggest de-merger in UK history. As anyone will know who has communicated a major corporate move to stakeholders, it’s often not the quality of the decisions that matters most. What really cuts it, or fails to make the cut, is the audience’s sense of clarity, certainty and common sense.
The close-run result of the Brexit vote shows that neither side can claim they won the day resoundingly. In the aftermath of the referendum, nobody seems particularly enthusiastic about the future. And nobody is communicating a plan with any real clarity. Translate the political picture into the corporate arena and what do you have? There is a trading entity that is neither fully merged nor fully de-merged. The workforce is divided. The top management is visibly overwhelmed. Most communication is either defensive or uses its energy only to criticise the opposite point of view.
How would an effective business leader communicate their way out of the Brexit minefield?
They would start with honesty. Of course issues of confidentiality affect business leaders, just like politicians. And there is a need to protect a negotiating position from the full public glare. But audiences have a kind of sixth sense, similar to the instincts of a jury. They can spot the truth, even if its message is less attractive than the spin version. Openly acknowledging problems and challenges communicates strength, not weakness. It shows an awareness of reality that suggests the ability to deal with it.
They would provide reassurance. In a crisis most people instinctively look for the reassurance that comes from optimism, as well as decisiveness. The optimism should not be blind. That would suggest a leader was happy to patronise their audience or, more worrying still, that they didn’t really grasp the situation. Winston Churchill memorably made the point that most events are neither as bad or as good as they first appear. Acknowledge the bad, and then move on quickly to the good.
They would communicate a strong sense of the end game. If nobody knows where a situation is leading, the result is inevitably a muddle. And in a muddle, the best anybody can hope for is a tactical firefight. That is exhausting and it goes nowhere. The alternative is to have – and to communicate – a plan. The plan does not have to be bogged down in detail. That would be counter-productive. But it does have to identify a clear, simple and credible end goal: this is where we are going and this is how we are going to get there.
Honesty. Reassurance. A strong sense of the end game. These are the core qualities of effective communication in even the most complex situations. When these qualities shine through what you say, their impact will be powerful. In the end, history will simply record Brexit as a fact. It may not be quite so forgiving about how leaders of every political persuasion dealt with that fact. And the most damning criticism of all will be reserved for the ways they communicated with their ‘stakeholders’, both before and after the event.
Photo: Banksy, www.banksy.co.uk