I’ve been working with a number of new executive directors this past year. After years of hard work, or in some instances, after waking up from a dream about a new organization that MUST exist, these people found themselves with all eyes on them. From the moment they updated their bio with their new place of work to the first time they addressed their new team, they were sending signals about who they are, what they stand for and the mark they wanted to make in their new position. They’re communicating intentionally and unintentionally. No pressure.
For the past 16 years, Spitfire has run a yearlong learning group called the Executive Leadership Program. It offers leaders a chance to explore not only how they can transform into communicating leaders, but also how to run communicating organizations. We have been honored to host leaders from National Women’s Law Center, ACLU, Surfrider, Choice USA, Advocates for Youth, Color of Change, National LGBTQ Task Force, Moms Rising, Nature Conservancy and Center for Media Justice.
The big challenges our world is facing bring new leaders to the fore. Some of these folks are new to the nonprofit world, some are stepping into new positions and others are looking to improve their communication skills. Social and environmental justice drive many of these leaders, and we’re focused on what will help them succeed in their important mission. Experience tells us high-impact communication plays an important role.
We are putting the finishing touches on this year’s curriculum for the Executive Leadership Program, which made me consider: what do leaders need to be good at now when it comes to communicating? Whether you are a new E.D. or just someone who needs to communicate well, here are some areas to focus on.
Give Good Vision.
This is an evergreen need. Leaders need a vision, and they need to articulate it well and often. The vision needs to focus on answering “why” questions. Why is this issue so important? Why is the organization’s work essential? Why is the leader doing what he/she is doing? Bryan Stevenson shows us how it’s done in his People’s Choice Speech, where says, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
Know Communication’s Role.
Are you using communications to expand the good food movement like Farm to Fork? Are you changing the narrative around the idea that better transportation makes everything better, like the Barr Foundation and its partners? Are you using communication to fight disinformation efforts to get a clean Census 2020 count, like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, is doing? Communicating leaders know how to use communication strategically to achieve what they want. It isn’t just an add-on tactic. They keep focused on the strategy and don’t divert their team with bright and shiny distractions.
Build a Profile with Purpose.
Communicating leaders use their profiles to shape conversations, create and advance relationships and build trust. They are clear on what lane they want to play in, which conversations they are tracking, what narratives and messages to reinforce, which media they want to be go-to sources for, what they need to tweet about and when and if they even need to tweet at all. They consider profile before schedule when deciding whether to speak at a gathering. Their profile complements the organization’s identity and doesn’t compete with it. Elizabeth Méndez Berry offers a good example, using her perch as a program director to make the case for why critics of color matter. She champions that idea in writing and amplifies the work of grantees through panels at important gathering spots like Sundance 2019.
Use Inclusive, Asset-Based Language.
Communicating leaders walk the talk. Granted, at Spitfire we work only with leaders who are advancing racial, economic and social justice, but this advice holds for many leaders. Consider whether using phrases like “vulnerable populations” or “at-risk youth” rob audiences of their power and agency. Think about whether you unintentionally speak in a way that delineates an “us” vs. “them” mentality, rather than a combined “we.” This plays out in framing, narratives and messaging, and communicating leaders know the role of each of these in connecting with, resonating with and motivating audiences. If you are looking for good advice on language and messaging, Opportunity Agenda is always a good source.
Be Audience Know-It-Alls.
Leaders who resonate really know who they are engaging with. This goes well beyond broad segments, beyond demographics of age, race or geography. It delves into worldviews, behaviors, attitudes and lived experiences, all of which affect how a person sees and engages in the world. If you really want to get to know your audience, analyze them psychographically as well as demographically.
Cultivate Ecosystem Awareness.
No one communicates in a vacuum. There are multiple conversations going on about issues, and savvy communicating leaders know where they are happening and how to insert themselves, rather than expending energy to start conversations. Identify the different conversation circles, the influencers and influential gathering spaces (real-time and online) and the timelines that drive conversations. For example, if you are pushing for corporate accountability, there are policymaker circles that are buzzing about Bernie Sanders’ Stop Bezos Bill, gatherings like Davos where this is a big conversation (especially after Tim Cook of Apple called for governments to regulate and protect personal privacy) and boardrooms that are keeping an eye on shareholder advocacy organizations striving to protect employees rights to organize. All of these ongoing conversations can be shaped, and wise leaders use every available opportunity.
Tackle Communication Conundrums.
If progress isn’t happening fast enough, chances are there is a communication conundrum standing in the way. It may be that record numbers of people are concerned about an issue but lack the agency to do anything about it. In this scenario, leaders need to shift messaging from a focus on the extent of a problem to what people can do about it. Not sure what your communication conundrums are? Gather your team and consider not what you want audiences to do that they aren’t doing, but why. The why will let you know what you are solving for and keep you from wasting unnecessary time and effort.
Know Good Communication When You See It.
If a leader is lucky, she has a cadre of teammates helping to pursue a mission. This may mean delegating communication strategy and implementation but should never mean giving up the responsibility to confirm that the power of communication is being used to further the work and not distract from it. Leaders need to see how communication aligns with organizational goals, uses all of the organization’s assets – from spokespeople to reach to expertise to motivate audiences – resonates with audiences, uses compelling messaging that activates and posts measurable progress toward set goals. This means leaders know the hallmarks of good communication so they can offer effective oversight. It means keeping up with trends and encouraging teams to integrate sound guidance like this piece from Nature on how to combat scientific misinformation on climate change.
Measure Progress and Impact with Curiosity, Not Aversion to Failure.
Smart leaders establish feedback loops that tell them who their communication is reaching and what effect it is having. They honestly want to know where it is working, and – just as importantly – where it is not. Reviewing traction offers a chance to learn what to do better and not a dreaded blame session. Ask questions that start with “what” and “how,” and avoid those that start with “why.” It will decrease the chance of defensiveness and put everyone in problem-solving mode. A great example is this group who realized that their messaging conflicted with “heritage narratives.” This insight will help them improve efforts in the future (and consider inclusivity as a centerpiece of smart communication before getting started next time.)
Get Out of a Pickle.
The world is a complicated place. Organizations that speak out are targets and may find themselves engaged in crisis communication. It may be your own doing. Not having a social media policy for your team may come back to haunt you. Or an adversary may accuse you of something and now the press is calling. Crises happen, and that moment is not when you want to think about the process you should have in place. You want to be using that process NOW. The best way out of a crisis is to stay out of one in the first place. Assess your vulnerabilities and where you can, minimize them. Where you can’t, prepare for possible claims and when there’s no pressure, game out what you’ll do if the need arises. Then, if a crisis hits, you stand a much greater chance of getting the upper hand quickly and getting back to business at hand.
This is a lot for an E.D., especially a new one. Whether you are new to the position or new to the organization, communication can be easily another one of those important – but not urgent – functions. Approach communication in a disciplined fashion, and you’ll find it can be one of the best paths to make significant progress.
You can get your communication house in order by taking advantage of skills-enhancing opportunities like the Executive Training Program, our yearlong program that has helped hundreds of nonprofit executives build the communication chops needed to drive meaningful change.
We work with leaders to discover ways to be good at all of the essential skills discussed above. If you want to assess where your organization is, and where you might want to focus immediate attention, try out Spitfire’s communication audit.