The Gatehouse Blog

Effective line manager communication – John Clegg, Oxford University Press

Internal communication can be a lonely job. Earlier this year, we hosted our first IC World Summit in London – a friendly, informal day for internal communication pros to discuss their challenges, celebrate successes, and build their professional network in an uncompetitive environment. John Clegg, Communications Executive at Oxford University Press (OUP), talked about why effective line manager communication makes all the difference in any organisation.

What was your challenge with line manager communication?

OUP is made up of four divisions, each with a business portfolio to look after. One manages academic publishing for higher education; the other three are focused on education. I work within the English Language Teaching division, where our employee engagement survey showed that only 35% of employees believed leaders made the right strategic decisions for OUP. We believed this score was down to a lack of wider understanding of the process that led to the decision. We needed to change people’s opinions of the senior leadership team and help them understand the rationale behind the business’s decisions.

The biggest challenge with line manager communication is that every team has a line manager, but line managers aren’t necessarily a team. Line managers are individuals, and each approaches their communication responsibilities differently, based on their individual background and skillset. There can also be variances in how many people line managers are responsible for, which in turn will affect the method, frequency and effectiveness of communication from the top down.

“We need to change people’s opinions of the senior leadership team”

So, how did you tackle line manager communication?

We identified 65 managers with large teams, or who held significant budgets, and decided to focus our efforts on them, considering their influence within the organisation. Previously, the only communications they received was an email notification a few days before a decision was made. This gave them very little chance to understand why decisions were being made and limited their ability to influence any changes before the decision was implemented.

To begin with, we created a community out of these managers, focusing on refining their communication ability and equipping them with the right information so they could filter this down to their teams – and influence their attitudes.

We started by inviting them to a monthly webinar, led by our division’s managing director, which includes performance updates, debriefs from the Press-wide Executive Committee (ExCo) and divisional senior leadership team meetings, plus news and items that require specific action by them. This webinar gives them access to key information and insight into why decisions are being made. The slide deck and a summary are hosted in a secure part of the intranet, so they can cascade the information down to their teams; and recordings of the webinar are made available in case they need to refresh their memories.

In parallel, we ran a course on leadership communication tactics – focusing on how to be better communicators, handling tricky questions, and how to be better storytellers and enable more engaging connections when communicating to their teams.

The re-launch of the strategy for our division posed a perfect opportunity to put this additional training and team building into practice. Our managing director launched the new strategy with a great presentation, which saw really high engagement levels. We then gave our managers a pack of information that supported them in communicating the strategy.  This pack enabled them to run a workshop that engaged their teams with the impact individual roles have on implementing the strategy. We set a deadline for managers to run this workshop with their teams, after which a short survey identified that 98% of these managers had done this. This was a phenomenal take-up.

And what was the overall result of this communications overhaul?

Overall, it’s starting to improve the trust issues that were identified in the employee survey. As a result of the training and webinars, our line managers are now communicating a lot more frequently, and there’s been a noticeable shift in the way that communication takes place. There is more confidence in informal links of communication between our managers and the senior leadership team, including our managing director.This contributes to a more direct dialogue, allowing for openness and transparency throughout the business.

Line managers aren’t always considered an audience, but they need to be. They are often bypassed, and messaging is simply expected to filter down without their input. If you don’t have their buy-in and influence, communication will always fall down. As a division, we continue to build on the work with our managers, and are currently developing a strategy dashboard that they can use with their teams to discuss the progress our division is making in implementing the strategy.