Internal Communications and the boardroom

Julie Skidmore, Head of the Internal Communications Recruitment Practice at Ellwood Atfield delves into the learnings provided by a recent debate she hosted alongside Gavin Ellwood, founder of Ellwood Atfield that posed the question: ‘Will IC ever make it to the boardroom?.

It amazes me how few companies see the immense benefit that internal communication and strong employee engagement can bring to the table. There are far too many organisations that still see internal communication as they used to see public relations - as a fluffy department that sits anywhere but around the boardroom table. This is an issue which is vigorously debated at EA, with particularly strong and varied opinions held by my former Group Comms Director and HR colleagues.

With that in mind we decided to test the waters with fellow internal communications professionals by hosting a debate in the ellwood atfield gallery entitled ‘Will IC ever make it into the boardroom?’ We invited the strategy consultancy Q&R to take part and provide a Pulse Check™ that we commissioned specially for the event.

The results of the flash survey on whether IC would ever make it to the boardroom were pessimistic. While 42% agreed that internal communications would, eventually, make it into the boardroom, most went on to qualify their answer by saying the transition would only happen when the discipline was taken more seriously.


survey info

Other, more direct comments talked of delusional and frustrated communications practitioners, who lack the skills necessary to interact at board level and who laboured the point of wanting to be taken more seriously.

To be taken more seriously, IC Professionals may consider being more proactive about taking their ideas to the board and influencing them on how IC can add value to the business bottom line, which will highlight the correlation between engaged employees and superior business performance.

The debate was chaired by Lesley Allman and saw many IC specialists ready to take up the gauntlet and fight their corner. Others were happy to be involved in the conversation but did not want a seat on the board because, according to Olivia Gadd, director of communications at Grant Thornton – “knowing the strategy and how you fit into it is important. That’s where engagement lies. The IC function should not sit on the board otherwise you cannot be honest and really challenge”.

Internal communications must be able to challenge at the highest levels in order to maintain and protect the company’s standards and ethics. However, everyone on the board should hold the reputation, values and ethics of their organisation close to their hearts. Lorna Gozzard, head of corporate communications at London Legacy (Olympic Park) agrees; “It is about having a champion in the boardroom for internal communications. It is important that everyone on the board views IC as part of their responsibility”.

Lucy Adams, ex-HR Director at the BBC and latterly a writer, suggests that where IC sits has always been an issue. It is her opinion that pure IC is becoming redundant; “HR has wasted so many years trying to be taken seriously but actually it is nothing to do with positional power. If external communications has a huge influence as the guardian of reputation, then is not IC equally the guardian of the reputation of the organisation”.

Once again, we witness the on-going tussle between internal communications and HR – something I addressed in a previous article). I am a firm believer in IC and HR having separate roles, but needing to collaborate in order to execute them effectively. In my experience one of the biggest constraints faced by IC professionals is that they can’t speak the language of business. This is highlighted by the fact that a lot of Heads of Department have worked their way up through the marketing or PR ranks. In order to be more effective, we need to be more challenging.

Some of the debate’s participants had absolutely no desire to enter the boardroom. Ben Matthews, Head of Strategic Communications at eBay says he partners closely with the leadership team, but doesn’t want a seat at the boardroom table. “I would throw myself out of the nearest window. It is one of the dullest places to sit. It is not about being in the boardroom. It’s about access and understanding”.

Ben also believes that there is a kind of ‘language barrier’ that IC has to overcome. Moreover, he feels that business leaders need to be more collaborative with internal communications – by asking for their opinion on major changes to the company. He says; “Suddenly, the biz needs us when there is change going on. How many times does your senior team come to you and say ‘we are doing this – can you communicate it?’ as opposed to ‘we were thinking of doing this – what’s your opinion?’ Ban the word engagement from the lexicon – it has done us no favours in the boardroom. At eBay we don’t use engagement as a measure. We are working towards ROI on a full colleague’s lifecycle. No one owns colleagues”.

As well as having the ability to influence at a senior level, IC professionals also need exceptional Emotional Intelligence skills (EQ). For the senior IC roles I am currently recruiting for, this is a pre-requisite in addition to having a real understanding of the business issues an organisation is facing. This then gives IC instant credibility as a trusted adviser - even before thinking about the internal communications strategy.

One final thought that was pointed out by Ben from eBay was the fact that there has been a return to benign paternalism. Companies are looking for high employees retention levels – especially in Silicon Valley. Facebook is even building houses for the people who work there. But as he says; “Internal communications has not nailed it for the Millenials – particularly in Tech”. So, how do we win round Generation Y with internal comms?



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