There's been a lively debate on the learnings that heads of comms can offer. Public sector communications teams are changing. They have to. Reduced budgets, devolution, more partnership working, these are just a few of the changes that are now facts of life. So what will it take to lead a communications team in the future, and how can previous learning help? One man looks back at his own experience and forward to what future leaders might need.
by Simon Hope
Working as a head/director of communications is a rewarding, interesting, frustrating, exciting, annoying, varied, and worthwhile experience. So what have I learned during my own career, and which elements will be most important in the future? Here are some of the important ones, with a few others thrown in.
Have an overall plan of what you want to achieve and what kind of team need to be, and stick to it as much as you can. Make sure your team knows what you and the organisation want from them, and ensure that you check regularly yourself that you’re on track. There will be many distractions, and your plan may change slightly over time, but you need to know where and you’re going, lead the way, and get there.
Be relevant - to elected members, colleagues you work with and for, and members of your team who work for you. If you’re not adding value, and people don’t realise and appreciate what you bring, then why are you there?
You are nobody’s friend. A head of communications is a strange and often lonely role, where you need to ignore hierarchies and give opinions and advice that is not always welcome. In the long run integrity is more important than popularity.
Produce the evidence to prove your and your team’s worth. Evidence based evaluation is important now, but will be even more so in the future. And it has to be real evidence that supports your organisation achieving its priorities and key outcomes, not meaningless localised outputs.
Back your staff. There are times when colleagues are critical of members of your team, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. By all means acknowledge the criticism, whether or not you agree with it, but don’t join in. This isn’t blind loyalty, it’s just being respectful. Then work out a solution with your team member, solving the problem is the best way to deal with criticism, rather than dwelling on it.
Spot talent wherever and whenever you can, and do all that you can to develop it. Your future team is just as important as your present one, and in most cases won’t include you. So get it right. When you decide to move on, there should be candidates in your own team who are capable of taking over. If there aren’t, you’ve failed.
Do all you can to support and develop your team. Encourage them to do things their way, not yours (remember what it was like when you were in their shoes and were told to do things a certain way), as long as they’re contributing to the overall plan. And when you do feel the need to intervene, explain why and ensure that is helpful, meaningful, and respectful.
Be consistent, but don’t treat everyone the same. Being advised to treat everyone the same is bad advice. People are different, they respond to different methods. By all means have some set values and policies that everyone is aware of, but find the best way of realising them for each member of the team. In the long run, they’ll work more effectively, which is the number one aim.
Delegate whenever possible, with one notable exception, recruitment. Bad recruitment can be incredibly damaging to you and your team, especially when you are trying to introduce a different way of working. And in the public sector, where moving people on can be both difficult and time-consuming, a bad decision can hurt you for a long time. As teams get smaller, their make-up is going to become increasingly important.
The jigsaw pieces don’t have to fit together perfectly. Your team needs to be multi-faceted, effective, and increasingly flexible, but they don’t all have to love each other. Teams are like families – some are there when you arrive, so you didn’t have a choice, and the ones you bring in aren’t always what they seem! But as long as you can get them to work together and get the job done, then it’s fine.
Learn to be comfortable with people crying in front of you. It happens, quite a lot! And usually it helps the person concerned deal with a frustration, so don’t think less of them for it. (Unless they do it every week, in which case lock your door).
Success is when your team needs you less and less. Always remember it’s about them, not you.
Always think ahead – what’s the next step and the ones after that? Be more forward thinking than anyone else, both for the times when you’ll still be there and the time when you won’t.
Always remember to laugh with others (nicely) and at yourself. It’s a serious job, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
Simon Hope has led and managed communications teams in both the voluntary and public sectors. He now runs Simon Hope Management Ltd, providing interim management, consultancy, service reviews and training. Prior to setting up his own business Simon was Director of Communications, Customers, and Policy at Wakefield Council.