Communicate or be damned

Three leadership lessons stand out in a series of political twists and turns surrounding the departure of Michelle Guthrie as chief executive of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): the importance of internal communications; the power of good stakeholder management; and the need for clear, consistent messaging.

The importance of internal communications rings particularly true in a politically sensitive and highly scrutinised role leading the nation’s public broadcaster. Internal communications is often undervalued, but it helps leaders articulate their vision and values so that employees feel empowered and feel a sense of shared purpose.

We no longer simply work to live. Instead we want to do something meaningful — led by someone whose views we share. For Guthrie, staff complained that she failed to connect. Town hall meetings were dominated by detailed flow charts when the journalists she was leading wanted to know what being part of the ABC meant, particularly when they felt under fire by their opponents.

In a recent interview, veteran ABC presenter Barrie Cassidy told The Australian that while he supported Guthrie’s digital push, she failed to enthuse staff. ABC radio host Jon Faine told the Sydney Morning Herald he believed “she would not take on her role as a champion for this organisation. [She] has been remarkably quiet and reluctant to engage”.

Compare this with Australia Post’s Christine Holgate, who told the Qantas magazine that as a new CEO, you “don’t just go marching in there making decisions. Be respectful of that company’s heritage and what it’s been through but also be clear about the vision of where you want to go”.

The second lesson in the Guthrie example is that networking and managing your stakeholders is paramount. As well as alienating internal stakeholders, Guthrie couldn’t keep her external ones onside either. This is a critical failing given that the ABC is a public institution which requires the trust and confidence of the public and its parliament. No leader of an organisation with public stakeholders, such as a statutory authority or an ASX-listed company, can afford to mismanage stakeholder relations. A good leader needs to know who their key stakeholders are, what information they need and how to convey it.  

The third and most critical lesson, as it feeds into the others, is being able to clearly articulate your message. Who are you? What do you stand for? How are you trying to achieve it? What is your company’s future under your leadership?

In the case of the ABC, it is an organisation that Australians trust and one that has triggered two royal commissions (formal enquiries run by the judicial system) in the space of 12 months. It is curious that the managing director of Australia’s most powerful media organisation didn’t understand the power nor value of her own brand.

This was crystallised when Guthrie told a Melbourne Press Club function that she wasn’t speaking out strongly against the ABC funding cuts because “I'm also one of those people that [sic] thinks that the more you speak the less you're heard”. Good campaigns are all about reinforcing your message and making yourself heard. For Guthrie, no one seemed to know what she really stood for nor the role of the ABC in the modern age. That’s a serious failing for a country’s pre-eminent communications organisation.

To ensure corporate messaging is on track, organisations should define why they exist, what they do and how they do it. In a competitive environment, people want to know your values, the why. They strike at the heart of emotional appeal: the notions of right or wrong; good or bad. Being able to articulate why you exist gives your audiences — both internally and externally — confidence in your organisation. From here, you can then define your how which is your product differentiation — why you are unique.

Ironically, as veteran business writer Alan Kohler pointed out in The Australian, Guthrie’s departure actually did the ABC a favour as it forced a debate on what the ABC stood for and enabled the organisation to be properly defined. Since Guthrie “was unable to successfully lead the creation of content within the organisation or to represent, and preferably personify, what the ABC stands for, outside it, either to the public or the parliament”, the why, how and what is now finally being defined.

Interestingly, it also raised the question of whether the CEO of a media organisation can realistically double-hat as editor-in-chief or if the separation of business and editorial decisions is preferable. Most private-sector mastheads would tell you that separation is necessary.

The departure of Michelle Guthrie from the ABC gave important insights for business leaders on the importance of quality communications, with both internal and external audiences. Employees and brand consumers want to know what you and your organisation stands for. Those who can provide those answers, and are able to articulate them, succeed.