A Guide to Corporate Communications and Climbing the Corporate Ladder / by Adam Howard

It's been a long time between drinks...a looooong time.  I must confess, I have been distracted and I apologize.

I thought I would be pretty obvious with the title for this month's Update.  No beating around the bush; just straight to the point.

Hopefully most people are aware a close associate of mine, whom we will call The Alter Ego spent a few years working inside big organisations, and most of the jobs he had while inside those big machines involved dealing directly with customers.

That made sense, as the jobs he had before that, in really small businesses, involved dealing with customers.  

It was something he enjoyed.

Over about 15 years he boiled dealing with customers down to three simple rules.  Ready? Here they are:

1.  Don't be a dick.

Seriously.  So simple, yet so difficult.  Don't make people feel you are doing them a favour by serving them.  Don't make your job and what you are doing seem really complex.  Don't  make promises you are not certain you can deliver.  Don't go missing.  Return calls.  Stay in touch during the process.

MUCH more on the final points about communication in a bit.

2.  Don't stuff it up.

You're a professional, or at least you purport to be, so behave like one and deliver.  That's not meant to apply pressure, but it is staggering how many professionals CANNOT EXECUTE.  Can't get a deal done.  Can't complete the task.  There will always be instances where things don't go to plan, and in those instances communicate openly and often, make sure expectations get adjusted as circumstances change.  But in the main, understand what it takes to get a deal done, identify any potential risks upfront, make sure the customer knows what they are, and proceed.

3.  Do what you say you are going to do.

There's an old saying about over-promising and under-delivering.  I have to confess that this is a trap The Alter Ego fell into in the past, because he can be a bit of a people pleaser.  But, and this ties back into Rule 2, if you know your industry and products, you should be able to make some commitments at the start, and then work on getting those done.

Simple.  And the one theme that underpins everything is good communication.  But then, good communication skills are something modern capitalist societies are meant to foster; it's meant to be one of our key skills that develops with the emergence of a service sector.

It's also one of the three uniquely human skills that are apparently impossible to automate and/or computerize.  These are complex communication, idea formulation and non-standard pattern recognition.

But I see plenty of instances where these skills are garbage.  I mean, really in the toilet.

What do I mean?

How about the stereotypical business banker you CANNOT get hold of on the phone or by email?

The trades person who doesn't return phone calls, even though it means potential revenue for them.

Emails from senior execs to their subordinates and wider teams with no capital letters, no punctuation and no grammar.  Screams a lack of respect.

CEOs of major corporations sending out company wide emails clearly written by a junior corp communications staffer, with a headshot attached where they are wearing a sh*t-eating grin, talking about "exciting developments", "core company values" and talking about "going forward."

And finally, an inability to clearly make a point in writing.

My rule of thumb is this:  one email to communicate a complex point.  If it is clear from the reply my point was not well enough made and not understood, or there is some remaining uncertainty or conflict.  Basically, if there is anything that leaves either sender or receiver with the potential for anything other than comfort and satisfaction, make a call.

Call and discuss.  If this doesn't resolve the impasse, make a meeting time and get face to face.

So, here are some rules of thumb The Alter Ego uses with communication, first with content:

- Introduce yourself.  Be polite.  Explain who you are and why you are communicating.  The best way to manage this is to call first, advise an email will be following, then the email is expected.

- Structure your communication.  The best writing you will read is in the newspaper.  Each story contains an introduction, the current situation and a conclusion.  Your communication should be the same.  Make it clear what's going on.

- Be accountable.  If you have made a mistake, or the customer is unhappy take responsibility and say sorry and ask what can be done to remedy the situation.  If the person's beef is with the bank, then as far as they are concerned, you are the bank.  Don't pass the buck.

- Timing and Deadlines.  Make it clear what happens next, and when, and who needs to complete jobs by then.

That's it.  Pretty simple.

Now, time frames.  How long do you have to respond to communications in today's world?

Well, here is my opinion.

A Letter.  Old school.  Travels slowly and can be responded to slowly.  Rarely contains a deadline or relevant date that isn't a long way off.  In my world you have a week to send a reply to the letter, but it's a good idea to call or email the sender and acknowledge receipt on the day of receipt.

An email.  Aaaaahhhhh.  The bane of the professional's work life.  The inbox is always sitting there, blinking away, with new "important" or "urgent" items appearing every few minutes.  Here is a tip.  If it was urgent they'd call.  If it was important, you would be expecting the email.  The rest is just a distraction.  Shut down the inbox.  Turn it on every hour, or even three times a day:  first thing, just after lunch and last thing.  But replying to an email?  You have a day to acknowledge receipt.  Not to resolve the issue being discussed, but just to say "Hey there.  Got your email.  Will get back to you."

A phone call.  Answer it, or at worst, call back by the end of the day.  Maybe, at worst, send a text apologising for not taking or returning the call and commit to calling back first thing in the morning.

A text.  If it is a question, request or sounds urgent you need to reply to it within minutes.  That's the new world of digital communications we live in.  The text is the new "I really need to know something now!" means of communicating.  It has quickly usurped the phone call and email as the fastest way to grab someone's attention.  Your phone pings and vibrates, and EVERYONE has a phone, so there is no way you can say you missed the call or email.

Finally, a text, followed by a call.  Or a missed call, followed by a text.  This is BIG.  That person really needs to speak to you.  NOW!  So get back to them now.

And that's it....simple.

The Alter Ego TRIES to follow these rules.  He fails sometimes.  Gotta be honest and realistic and admit he does't always hold up the standards he promotes, but he tries to.

That's how he likes to have others treat him, so it's how he tries to treat them.

Now, one further short diatribe.

The Alter Ago has left corporate life, and that's given him an opportunity to reflect on his time inside the Big Machine.

Now, this isn't a bitter broadside from someone who failed.  It's more like a cautionary tale AND advice for those so inclined.

So inclined to what, you may ask?  Climbing that ladder, baby.  Taking the elevator to the C Class floor.

He didn't make it, and I reckon he made one key error, and that was moving from being a Big Fish in a Small Pond, to being a Small Fish in a Big Pond.

He moved from a small bank where he knew everyone and was known by all.  It was a flat organisation and still operated on the basis of merit.

Then he jumped, for the sake a few extra bucks a year, to a much larger (15 x as many staff) bank.  And he jumped sideways to the same job.

Now, the price he paid for those extra bucks was high...too high in retrospect.

He lost his reputation, support network, mentors and career trajectory.  I have written about this previously, where I said employees suffer from chronic short termism, and that was his problem.

At the smaller organisation he was probably not far off a regional manager's job, maybe, and then, well, who knows...

At the larger organisation he was years away from being highly regarded IN HIS CURRENT ROLE, and there were lots of highly regarded people ahead of him.

That made me reflect on 3 fairly prominent bankers and their career paths:  Ian Narev (CBA CEO), Gail Kelly (ex-Westpac CEO) and Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan CEO).

All three worked in smaller organisations where they rose quickly, and then used their own particular circumstances to move sideways into CEO roles at MUCH larger organisations.

Kelly was Head of Branch Network for CBA when she was headhunted for the role of CEO at St George.  Kelly then moved sideways into the CEO's chair at Westpac, and proceeded to pay a massive premium to buy her old employer, St George.

Prior to CBA, Narev was a partner with management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and was head of the McKinsey team that helped then-CBA CEO Ralph Norris buy Bankwest and integrate it into the CBA group.

Norris liked the cut of Narev's jib, and stole him from McKinsey and, surprise! surprise! when Norris retired, Narev got the top job.

Dimon and another bloke called Sandy Weill met at Amercian Express and moved to a small consumer credit business called Commercial Credit and borrowed bucketloads of cash, bought and sold a number of businesses, and ended up forming Citigroup as a result.

Dimon was forced out and took on the role of CEO of a second tier US lender, Bank One, and when JP Morgan Chase bought Bank One, Dimon ended up in the top spot.

There are some common themes here for the aspiring executive:

- find a mentor.  Two of the three above had strong advocates.  Norris for Narev and Weill for Dimon.

- start at a smaller organisation which is flatter and in need of staff who are talented.

- mergers and acquisitions provide great opportunities for ambitious people.

When The Alter Ego got into the finance sector he chose a bank that was growing fast; much faster than the rest of the system, as he thought there would be good opportunities there.

There were, but there were better opportunities once that bank ran into difficulties and there was a degree of political turmoil in the ranks above me.

He had found a bloke whom he liked and who had some faith in him, and he rode a nice wave for a while, until he shot himself in the foot and left too early.

Now, the above rough sketch of a career road map might sound cynical.  "Do you really have to be that focussed and have that degree of strategy in place to succeed" you may ask?

I would reply "Just ask Niccolo Machiavelli."  That is, if you want the top job.

And you also might ask "What about committing to something bigger than yourself and contributing to the greater good?"

I would then ask if you are aware what the Big Machine will take in exchange for the big pay cheque and the C Class title?

Because the answer is "Everything."  Long hours, no real time off, a requirement to sacrifice all on the alter of career.

Now, if that is for you, then heed the above advice.

But if not, then that's food for thought...