ILM Discussion: Communication, communication, communication

July 25, 2018

Business and finance journalist, Matt Packer discusses key news stories with the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) head of research, policy & standards, Kate Cooper.


In order to communicate well with customers, businesses first need to learn how to communicate well internally. Providing a safe space for people to voice their opinions while creating a positive workplace culture and lexicon is vital.

But that space doesn’t have to be physical, as demonstrated by US real-estate firm eXp Realty.

As a recent Business Insider article reveals, the company has made huge strides towards creating a shared sense of its culture among its remote-working staff.

Instead of using conference calls to communicate, or team-messaging apps such as Slack, it has built a virtual island inside a computer server that acts as a ‘campus’ for workers to report into.

The Thunderbirds-style base of operations has a number of virtual buildings filled with digital recreations of offices and conferencing facilities, and each worker is represented by an avatar. The whole experience harnesses the audio-visual techniques of online videogames to help distributed workers feel as though they are all in the same place – and on the same page.

After taking a tour around the island, Business Insider journalist Prachi Bhardwaj noted: “It became clear that these execs were totally used to being immersed in this world. They referred to things being ‘behind me’ or ‘behind Mitch’, showing that they have a sense of where things are in this virtual space.”


Reality check

Tellingly, at the end of last year, Glassdoor named eXp Realty a best place to work. But what about companies that haven’t developed such sophisticated facilities, and still rely upon staples such as conference calls and team messaging?

Which communication skills are most critical to deploy among any kind of team in order to build an authentic sense of community and trust – and to ensure that the whole working experience doesn’t feel impersonal?

Kate Cooper says: “A couple of years ago we did some research on managing and leading distributed teams, and we found that the most effective methods revolved around evoking a sense of connectedness. The Business Insider example is terrifically sophisticated – almost like something out of Second Life. But one of the most accessible and easy-to-replicate methods that we found really worked was for each team member to set up a webcam in their remote office. That way, everyone else can see who’s ‘in’, and get a feel for the shape of the team at any given moment.”

Cooper points out: “One interesting behavioural aspect of videoconferences – especially among people who are used to seeing each other in that particular format – is the amount of waving that goes on. So there’s that important note of personal recognition, plus a desire to use warmth to overcome the distance and technological trappings.”

However, she notes that in cases where sophisticated technical equipment is in short supply, one of the most effective steps is to use voice in place of tools such as email.

“One of the biggest tendencies in the early days of remote working was for people to use the written word in place of the spoken word: ‘I can’t see you, so I’ll write to you instead.’ But when you reflect back on that, even just a few years later, it all seems rather nonsensical. Then we got to the point when even office-based workers started emailing each other about everything, and even emailed the people right next to them,” she said.

“The use of voice, whenever you can, reframes that whole relationship, because it takes micromanagement out of the equation. It’s about finding out, through conversation, what you want out of someone, rather than telling them in often gruelling detail what you think they should be doing. One great concept that seems to be quite popular among distributed workforces is Pizza Night: everyone rounds up a pizza for themselves, tunes in to the rest of the team and the company collectively gorges on pizza even though all the members are dispersed around the world.

Cooper adds: “Alongside all those behavioural points, it really is important to note that no matter what technology you use – whether it’s videoconferencing, webcams or Skype – it has to work. That is a perennial frustration of remote teams: being unable to start the task you’d planned to fulfil because a key colleague isn’t connected, or something in the system has broken down.

“All told, though, I’d say that in ever greater numbers, workers are definitely enjoying this process of connecting, and are growing increasingly comfortable with the connection being a virtual rather than physical one – because they understand it doesn’t prevent them from getting to know their peers.”


Communication problems

Whatever platform you use to connect, and whatever position you hold within the company, remaining professional and respectful should be a given.

Global pizza chain Papa John’s recently made the decision to remove founder John Schnatter from day-to-day running of the company for using a racial slur in a conference call.

In the May discussion – which had been convened by the firm’s marketing agency – attendees were supposed to carry out a roleplay exercise designed to help them sharpen their approach to PR crises.

During the call, Schnatter said dismissively that KFC founder Colonel Sanders had never been criticised for using the slur in question, which Schnatter stated clearly and unambiguously.

Schnatter’s misstep came as the final straw for his fellow senior leaders, following the founder’s earlier decision to criticise the NFL for not cracking down on black players’ kneeling protests in last year’s US football season. A Washington Post report notes that Papa John’s stock price plummeted 12 points once news of Schnatter’s use of the slur went viral – then immediately rose by 12 points upon the news of his removal from daily operations.

In a 13 July open letter to investors, the company’s CEO Steve Ritchie wrote: “Papa John’s is not an individual. [It] is a pizza company with 120,000 corporate and franchise team members around the world. Our employees represent all walks of life, and we are committed to fostering an inclusive and equitable workplace for all.

“Racism and any insensitive language, no matter what the context, simply cannot – and will not – be tolerated at any level of our company. The Board of Directors of Papa John’s accepted Mr Schnatter’s resignation as Chairman of the Board earlier this week. It has also been decided he will no longer be in any of the advertising or marketing materials associated with the brand.”

However, as a 30% shareholder, Schnatter will remain on the board.


Brand voice

Does this show that it is inherently risky for companies to be closely identified with their leaders?

Kate Cooper says: “Quite a few commentators, notably Patricia Pitcher, have developed models and methodologies for what firms need at various stages of their development. Pitcher divided leaders into three categories – which she labelled Artists, Craftsmen and Technocrats – to convey how leaders with an approach that works for one, specific phase of a company’s life would not necessarily work for later or earlier phases.

“So what we can say on that basis is that when it was an early-stage, homespun startup, Papa John’s needed Schnatter’s creative, entrepreneurial zest and energy. But when it moved into a different phase, becoming a vast multinational, it required the input of different skills and personalities.”

Cooper explains: “By sticking religiously with the founder as a figurehead, the risk is that you will have a highly visible team member who is overly identified with the organisation… and yet the skillsets upon which they have based their own – and the firm’s – reputation are not the ones you need to prepare the firm for future challenges. It’s a problem that crops up with painful frequency within small, family-run businesses: the reluctance of the founder to let go, because so much of their life and ego is tied up in the company.”

She concludes: “A certain level of self-awareness – a quality that appears to have gone missing in Schnatter’s case – would enable a founder to grasp that what is good for them may not necessarily be good for the company. So I think that acquiring that level of insight, whereby you are able to separate yourself from the organisation, is one area in which a solution such as coaching could be of terrific help.”


For more on these topics, listen to Episode 7 of the ILM podcast in partnership with LID Radio:

About the authors


Matt Packer

Matt Packer is a business and finance journalist who provides expert comment for organisations such as CPA Global, Inemmo Leadership Development Consultancy, The Institute of Leadership & Management and the Chartered Management Institute.



Kate CooperKate Cooper is head of research, policy and standards at the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM). She has appeared on BBC Television, BBC Radio 4, has a regular column in Dialogue magazine, is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s research agenda.


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