With the NBA finals starting today, I’ve been thinking about numerous communications teams I’ve led and why some were better than others. I don’t take credit for the work, but I do think that that the environment needed for a team to succeed lies with the coach. Here’s my best advice on creating a superior communications team.
1. Organize in a way that meets your needs
How your team is structured directly impacts how goals are accomplished. There is no “ideal” structure, but there is a structure that’s right for your organization. Do you serve different business units? Geographies? Product lines? Does it make sense to divide communications by audiences? Internal? External? Customers? Investors?
Depending on the type and size of the organization, the answers to these questions will vary. But choose the options that will make communications strategy and implementation easiest to facilitate. Then write job descriptions for various roles based not on whom you already employ, but on what the best fit for your needs will be.
2. Do what it takes to get staffing right
A hiring decision is among the most important that you’ll make, so it’s worth the time and effort it takes to get it right. For lower-level positions, insist on a writing test. My own bias is that the ability to write well is the most basic, must-have skill for any communications job. For upper-level candidates, ask several variations on “What would you do in this sticky situation?” Look for detailed answers that showcase strategic thinking.
You won’t always have the luxury of hiring a brand-new team. Incumbents deserve to keep their posts; but, only if they qualify. Talented people will enjoy working with each other, and fewer morale problems will develop if everyone pulls his or her own weight. But good people will leave if you insist that they “carry” poorly performing team members. Who would you rather lose: the great employee or the mediocre one?
3. Let people play to their strengths
One of the best courses I took while working on my masters’ degree was a leadership course. In it, the professor focused on leadership as a “collective property.” In his view, leadership isn’t just a matter of strength and charisma – it’s about bringing out the best in those who follow.
Every employee deserves a chance to learn and to take on new challenges, but don’t neglect the satisfaction that employees will gain from having responsibility for the thing they do well. Everyone has strengths. Let your team members play to theirs.
4. Focus with discipline
What’s your vision for the communications function? You’re the leader; articulate it to your staff and inspire them to achieve it. And keep in mind that focusing isn’t just about vision; it’s about discipline, which is sadly lacking in many communications programs.
You know where you want to go, but make sure you have a roadmap to share with your team. Outline the standards you expect them to follow, and make them accountable for doing so. Creative approaches, adherence to deadlines, error-free copy – these are fundamental to any effective communications function, but as team leader it’s your job to articulate the standards.
5. Check in regularly
Regular staff meetings that follow an agenda will save time and effort in the long run. Let your team know that you’re paying attention. Ad hoc meetings for special projects and brainstorming sessions are also well worth the time they take. Consulting firms generally understand this better than their corporate counterparts: A diverse group of people can often generate wildly creative ideas – but first you have to ask them to participate.
6. Create a bias for learning and improvement
Are you doing the best you can? Celebrating successes is great for the team’s morale, but so is honest reflection. Routinely review your communications plan and make changes if the work you’re doing isn’t achieving the results you want. Always hold postmortems on projects to review what worked as well as what could be improved. And, always thank your team for a job well done.
These are the building blocks I believe to be most important. Do you agree?