AB Thinks  →  6th May 2020

Lessons From a Lifetime in IC – The Wit and Wisdom of Bill Quirke

AB Thinks

In Episode 8 of Season 3 of The Internal Comms Podcast, host Katie Macaulay spoke to a man we dubbed The Godfather of Internal Comms – Bill Quirke.

One of the world’s leading authorities on internal comms and the management of change, he has helped many global and blue-chip organisations align their leaders, engage their people, and turn strategy into action.

As well as being managing director of IC consultancy Synopsis, Bill is the author of two seminal books: Communicating Corporate Change, and Making the Connections. He has also devised numerous tools, strategies and models that have profoundly influenced our profession, most notably the “Communication Escalator”.

It was a struggle to pick just five highlights from this 90-minute conversation filled with wisdom, perception and fascinating stories gathered during a lifetime of hands-on comms experience. Nevertheless, here they are.

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#1 In the early days of IC, employees were low on organisations’ lists of priorities…
“No-one knew what internal communication was, so employees were always the last audience they ever thought of. They were always the afterthought. Leaders would go through who they needed to talk to: they would go ‘the City, the media’, and then there would be a long pause, and I would say ’employees?’ And they would go, ‘Oh, yeah, them as well’. That taught me a lot of lessons about the hierarchy in communication. There was a naivety that said, if you tell your employees what to do, they will do it.”

#2 But things have changed
“Organisations are realising that the first audience you think about now is the internal one, the employees. That has shifted dramatically. If you engage with leaders now and say communication is important, the bad news is they may agree with you and say, ‘yes, absolutely!’, and get very enthusiastic and run around saying, ‘let’s do it! let’s do it!’. Then they say to the internal communication people, ‘I’ve already done the thinking, I know what’s required, you just implement it’.”

#3 You’re expendable, so speak truth to power
“Almost all projects are a partnership with clients. In my career, I’m only as good as the client allows me to be. I bring in some independence and objectivity, but the client brings an understanding of the culture, the politics and the personalities, which I don’t have. I’ve often been hired to say things and then get fired. You’re brought in to say what no-one else feels they can say.”

#4 The telling use of “I”, “we” and “the organisation”
“I’ve seen feedback sessions where the charismatic chief executive starts off answering a question about shortage of paperclips by saying, ‘I believe every person is entitled to their own paperclip, there should be paperclips for everybody’. It’s all I, I, I. Then, when he’s asked about giving customers poor service?’ they’ll shift to ‘we’: ‘We believe this is the best way of doing things.’ And then when challenged about something more serious, they’ll suddenly say ‘the organisation feels…’ It’s very interesting to watch how they respond to the feedback, because there is a defensiveness in dealing with feedback. Often, you’re training leaders not to react, because their first reaction is defensive and to use power.”

#5 Mere engagement is not enough
“Communication is a means to an end. Start at the end. Engagement is IN something: we’re engaged IN producing stuff; we’re engaged IN winning customers. I think we all have a thirst for purpose, and what people want isn’t just ‘it’s lovely to work here’. Increasingly, people want a sense of purpose and contribution, to feel that we are together, engaged in something. That’s how you build friendships and relationships: when you’re commonly involved in something, and you feel you’re contributing and making progress, not ‘we love working here and the canteen’s great’. It’s a great idea to build engagement, but my issue is – focus that energy in something.”