“Public leadership and the role of communications today,” Aniisu Verghese talks about his journey to becoming a communications expert and his take on how he thinks effective leaders should communicate. Views expressed in this blog are personal.
1. Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself?
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this Q&A. I currently serve as the Director of Corporate Communications for the global development center at a leading travel technology firm based in Bengaluru, India. Over the last 20+ years, including short stints in the UK and Bangladesh, I have invested in helping individuals and organizations discover and develop their ‘sweet-spot’ through effective communications. Organizations, according to me, are an amalgamation of personal brands. Those organizations that invest in helping employees discover their best selves and focus on employee branding will gain trust and succeed in the long term. Through my blog (started in 2006) on internal communications, workshops, speaking assignments, coaching, and my book, I continually seek opportunities to engage with the industry and community as an internal communications leader, personal branding coach, corporate social responsibility advocate and researcher.
As a young student, I always loved reading and writing. I was born in Calcutta, (in the eastern part of India) and known as the City of Joy. My father served with the Japanese Government at their consulate as an Economic Relations Officer and retired as the Chief of Staff while my mother worked as a librarian in the National Library, which probably had the largest and best-known collection of books and periodicals in the nation. Access to the library changed my life and opened my eyes to the world of possibilities. I spent my growing years reading books on all possible subjects including literature, science, psychology, culture, and war. Often, reading late into the evenings till they shut the doors! That apart, I spent a good part of my life on the National Library quarters which meant access to the best sporting infrastructure, large playfields, an excellent community, and a recreation club where I honed my table and lawn tennis skills. I live with my family (my wife, Wilmmaa, and son, Aadvay) in Bengaluru, India.
2. What got you interested in communications?
Throughout my childhood, I was very interested in reading and writing. My quest for knowledge meant I would devour the daily newspaper before getting onto anything else in the morning! As a family, we listened to lots of radio (especially music and quiz) and had access to Bangladesh TV (since Calcutta borders the nation and you can catch the transmission), which used to broadcast some of the American TV series that came to India television many years later; Knight Rider, Street Hawk, MacGyver, Spencer for Hire, A-Team, Road to Wembley and more. I was a keen observer of advertisements that appeared in print and TV, participated in slogan and creative writing contests, and corresponded with radio stations (Radio Australia, Voice of America, Radio Sweden, etc) around the globe to share feedback via SINPO rating. The signal reporting code – SINPO (Signal, Interference, Noise, Propagation, and Overall) is used to describe the quality of broadcast and radiotelegraph transmissions and is part of a hobby called DXing – distance-unknown. This is probably the earliest format of seeking periodic feedback, practiced now in most organizations. Radio also honed my ability to understand how sports commentators and newsreaders framed their updates to help listeners ‘see’ with their ears, essential for successful communications. In college, I edited the college newsletter and participated in cultural events as a member of the college team. I wanted to be in a creative field of work – a few seniors in my college, brilliant with theatre, art, and debate, were my inspiration and mentors. I almost became a dentist after clearing the national medical examination but didn’t pursue it because I had already enrolled for a science degree. I freelanced for leading Indian newspapers while pursuing my MBA. Then joined advertising for a couple of years before finding my ‘true north’ in internal communications, the glue that holds organizations. I continue to delve deeper into this domain through my YouTube channel content, research interests, writing, speaking assignments, and workshops.
3. What is the role of communications and leadership?
The link between communications and effective leadership is known to be strong. Personal credibility is a critical leadership capability and that comes with direct, candid, and authentic communications. Even more so during crises, the expectations from employees are that leaders will proactively communicate often and directly. A recent Gallup study indicates that only 52% of organizations surveyed have communicated a clear plan of action during this time. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that employees and other stakeholders expect a lot more from CEOs – for example, to take up the societal issues more actively. The recent report also indicates that CEOs aren’t leading in terms of trusted spokespersons – in fact, experts (read: medical professionals, doctors, etc) are considered more reliable when it comes to quality information. This is concerning since trust is important for messages to be believed and unless leaders gain back confidence in their constituents, it will be an uphill task to keep audiences engaged and motivated.
4. How can leaders communicate more effectively, especially during a crisis?
I recently shared a few trends shaping our world post COVID-19 and one of them is on leadership. Leaders are expected to be visible and engage as much as they can with employees. By staying connected and available they can inspire staff and align them with the organization’s purpose. They can be effective in this crisis with their clarity, decisiveness, sense-making, and empathetic approach.
5. Are there any leaders who are doing a good job with communications, now?
Three leaders, according to me, stand out during this crisis and are currently doing a great job with communications; Singapore’s Prime Minister – Lee Hsien Loong, New Zealand’s Prime Minister – Jacinda Arden and Germany’s Chancellor – Angela Merkel. What makes their leadership exemplary are the following traits – owning the narrative, resilience, speed of execution, presence, transparency, candidness, and empathy.
6. What principles should public leaders messaging be based, around?
Leadership is no more about just driving organizational performance. A McKinsey study shows that there are 4 key behaviors that account for 89% of leadership effectiveness – supportiveness, results in orientation, including differing views and problem-solving. Therefore, all messaging needs to on empathy, action, positivity, and authenticity. Likewise, a Deloitte report on talent indicates that employees prefer to continue for organizations where leaders can be trusted with articulating and implementing corporate strategies. Adapting strategies to align with the needs of different generations in the workplace can also help messaging land well.
7. What skills should a young leader aim to develop, to communicate effectively?
Leaders are expected to have a balance of soft and hard skills and be the ‘communicator-in-chief’.
More than ever, leaders need to be empathetic and balance IQ with EQ as they engage employees. Thriving employees The need to be trusted, simple and clear in your communication is important more than ever. Staying grounded and gaining respect as a leader with strong business acumen is important to be trusted and be effective as a communicator.
8. Any other thoughts on public leadership and communications?
It is crucial to develop an authentic voice and keep your stakeholders and communities at the heart of everything you do – in a crisis or otherwise. Helping create a vision for your team, community, organization, or country is essential to build trust among stakeholders. Leaders must treat their internal memos or videos as external communications, since sooner than later such messages get in the public domain. We’ve had numerous examples of politicians, CEOs, and business leaders exposed by their approach and tone of communication. The ability to help reassure people and be the source of trust during situations when misinformation is rampant is core to public leadership. Crisis management and communication are considered key leadership skills and how a leader engages in digital media can make or mar their credibility and the reputation of their organizations.
Bio: Aniisu K. Verghese is an internal communication expert, author, and speaker with over twenty years of experience with leading IT, financial services, and consulting organizations. He advises individuals (on personal branding) and organizations (through consulting and training) to discover and develop their ‘sweet-spots’ with effective communications. He is the author of Internal Communications – Insights, Practices & Models (Sage Publications, 2012). Having founded and led a not-for-profit on injury prevention and road safety, he strongly believes in the power of corporate social responsibility for organizations to be societal leaders.