AUTHENTIC CORPORATE ENGAGEMENT HELPS US TO BELONG

It may seem an obvious point, but authentic engagement is a process not an event. It is integral to an organisation’s culture and ultimate success.

Throughout my career, working with CEOs, I have come to understand an anxiety that many authentic senior leaders have. That those around them are not telling them the truth. Rather, given their organisational status, they fear they are being “managed”. While they may not much like candour, the enlightened leader will put ego aside, placing a value on honest feedback. CEOs are human, they want to do well and know that they are doing well. “How did I do?” was a question I often heard leaders ask of their teams after a presentation. Having invested many hours in preparing for a stakeholder event they naturally wanted to do well. However, despite the sometimes effusive (if not entirely honest) post performance feedback, a strategic communications challenge lingered. Corporate leaders can confuse the broadcasting of their message, albeit well delivered, with effective stakeholder engagement. This is a problem.

Certain CEOs can exude such certainty that they seem super competent beyond improvement. Yet, when it comes to communication and employee engagement, an Achilles heel can emerge. Leaders who become overly invested in their own role in planned communications events are missing the point. Their own delivery and their immediate impact in the room becomes their priority. Of course, delivering well should be part of a leader’s personal brand. Presentations should engage and inform the audience. However, when leaders come to believe that they have a repeatable blueprint for further communications success the problem is exacerbated. This is when ‘truth to power’ is required. There is a fundamental difference between repeatedly delivering a corporate narrative effectively and authentic stakeholder engagement.

Engagement is a dialogue warts and all. It flags how an organisation is led and the cultural bias of its leadership team. It requires a long-term ambition if it is to drive organisational change. Articulating a well-honed corporate narrative, at a series of slickly choreographed events, can deliver the message of the day. But it’s short termism in the extreme to see this a worthwhile corporate engagement. The authentic leader well understands that engagement is more complex. Corporations and their leaders can only build trust across complex multi layered stakeholder landscapes through sustained engagement. Sounds great, but some business leaders can be deeply uncomfortable with the loss of control that conversation necessitates especially with employees. They may hear things they disagree with and dislike. Despite this, the authentic leader understands the need to listen as well as the need to influence.

Authentic Engagement is Contractual and Conditional

Historically, the Chief Executive could drive employee and other stakeholder’s compliance by force of personality. Thankfully, successful engagement between employees and employers and organisation and stakeholders is generally more nuanced today.  There are always exceptions.

At the heart of effective stakeholder engagement is a realisation that engagement is based on a relationship which is both contractual and conditional. The journey toward organisational trust is based on an implicit contract between the corporation and its stakeholders. Historically, that relationship was based on an imbalance whereby the organisation held economic power particularly over employees. Post Covid, the willingness of employees to leave employment for reasons beyond financial gain is well documented. These days employees can literally vote with their feet. This places the onus on the organisation to deliver more to their employees than financial compensation for work. The wider environmental and social concerns of stakeholders makes effective stakeholder engagement even more challenging. The shift in leadership and operational focus beyond shareholder returns to stakeholder interests continues to be a challenge for many corporates. Value and values need to coexist. Leaders must be aware of the conflicting interests behind both. Striking a balance between shareholder and stakeholder expectations is a challenging highwire act.

We Need High Performing Corporate Athletes as Leaders

The mental demands of business leadership are complex and exhausting. The expectation of above average delivery on profit and performance is constant. That’s why leaders are paid well, and why pay is linked to performance. However, those pressures are matched in complexity with the increasing concerns of employees. Work anxiety, isolation and dislocation have ushered in a state of hyper vigilance and unprecedented personal challenges for many employees. As new ways of working become the norm many of us have more intimacy with a screen than a human. We are more part of our living room than any meeting room. Social isolation is real and a clarion call for authentic leaders to listen and engage authentically.

People want to know that their leaders care enough to listen. They don’t necessarily want their leaders to have the all the solutions, but they do want them to understand their challenges. Authentic leaders are often the ones with the confidence to say; “I don’t know” from time to time. Too often status and ego make leaders think they must be seen to have the answer at all times.

The social isolation of employees is a threat to organisational performance. Market induced isolation is as invidious as it is carcinogenic to wellbeing. The bar for world class employee and stakeholder engagement is now a very high one. What sets one organisation apart from another can be the vulnerable honesty of not knowing. World class engagement has at its heart, a willingness to listen and an intent to learn and co-create solutions.

This is not easy work, especially for business leaders. It often seems that today’s chief executive needs to be part high-performance corporate athlete and part behavioural psychologist. The task of leadership is to both lead and transform the business simultaneously. This requires significant critical thinking capability combined with emotional intelligence. That’s just the starting point. Authentic leaders must offer a galvanising corporate vision as well as having a clear personal purpose. It is expected that they will have an expansive understanding of the organisation, its stakeholder landscape and possibilities and limitations. We can only hope that they will also recognise that profit performance does not have to come at the price of personal decency.

This is not about showmanship or salesmanship it’s about authentic availability. The journey toward trust requires that corporate leaders both listen to and reflect on stakeholders expressed needs and longer-term interests. Most Chief Executives recognise that shareholder needs can often be at odds with wider stakeholder ambitions. They understand where there is alignment, future space for compromise on issues and where divergent interests cannot be resolved. They think and scenario plan over these seemingly intractable dynamics over long time horizons. The good ones also recognise that it is much easier to navigate their stakeholder landscape if they have personal reputational capital built up over time.

Reputational capital is the currency of authentic leadership. Earned over time through continuous engagement and consistent behaviours. Hardnosed business skills are expected of business leaders. So too are the very human qualities of charisma, vulnerability, and imperfection. The opportunity to lead authentically and engage transparently is highly complex. Given the complexity of business’s operating landscapes it can seem counter intuitive to be emotionally available as a leader. But good leaders are both emotionally intelligent and corporately robust.

As stakeholders, we do want our cake and naturally enough, we want to get to eat it. Yes, we want corporate leaders to drive growth. We also want them to transcend traditional relationships and help us belong to something bigger than ourselves and our screens. Therein lies the challenge.

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