Five tips for designing and delivering conferences that move middle management minds
I’ve always been struck by the gulf between the aspirations of senior leaders, as discussed in the boardroom, and the concrete reality of what people really think, say and do, day in and day out, on the factory, office or shop floor. Indeed, that’s what got me involved in employee engagement in the first place, over 25 years ago.
In internal communications, as on the tube in London, the cry is often the same: “Mind the gap”. And who is sitting right in the middle of this gap in most organisations? More often than not, it’s your middle and line managers. To get your workforce engaged in delivering the strategy that’s been drawn up (or at least agreed) at the boardroom table, you need to fire your middle managers with enthusiasm.
Despite advances in new digital channels, direct communication from middle and line managers is still the most influential channel for the people they lead. People pay real attention to what their immediate boss says and does, so you need to get those bosses saying and doing the right things – acting as role models not ‘well poisoners’ or ‘energy thieves’. Get your line managers to act as advocates for your strategy and, through their actions, you can inspire the entire workforce. But fail to get them onside and they will do a lot of damage, passively or otherwise.
One of the best forums to connect with and win over middle managers is at conferences and other live events. Here are five tips for doing just that.
1. Create compelling messages
To begin with, you need a set of clear, concise and compelling messages that you want the entire organisation to understand and act on. That will give you a consistent foundation upon which line managers can add their local information. We often describe it as one company song for which there can be a number of arrangements depending on the needs of discrete audiences.
So start as you mean to go on and get some of the event participants co-creating these messages with you; messages for the business, by the business. As McKinsey put forward, messages are more powerful when they come from a ‘bloke like me’.
2. Make it interactive
We use the word ‘participant’ deliberately. You don’t want ‘attendees’ or ‘delegates’ at your event, you want participants; you want your line managers interacting with your strategy and plans, being inspired by them, owning them and ultimately of course being advocates for them.
And you won’t achieve any of that if your conferences are a seemingly endless sequence of PowerPoint presentations during which the audience dies in a hail of bullet points. Genuine interactivity is key to the success of a leadership event.
3. Secure commitment to action
We urge you to share your vision for the future of your organisation, then give your audience a chance to check their understanding of it through carefully facilitated interactivity. You want to know what they liked about what they just heard, what was inspiring, what questions they have about making it happen and what might be challenging.
Then get participants truly collaborating to create pragmatic ways forward to overcome the challenges and help execute the strategy and plans in their part of the organisation. Get them thinking about the behaviours they’ll need to exhibit to model the way forward with their teams – and identify the behaviours that won’t work and need to be consigned to history.
4. Use the latest tech
All of the above can be a lot to cover in one event – and that’s where we often supplement traditional facilitation techniques with the latest audience interaction technology.
Using it we can quickly get instant feedback from the audience, capture their comments, anonymously if that helps, log and respond to their questions, prioritise ideas, even measure the success of the event – all live.
It’s amazing how much you can accomplish using the collaborative tools. And participants love it, modern tech for a modern, forward-thinking employer.
And post-event we can email individual actions plans and notes, created at the event, back to participants and send a ‘digital copy’ of the entire event to leaders as a Word doc or spreadsheet. Oh, and no one has to type up any flip charts!
5. Help managers bring the baton home
As your event comes to a close, and while your line managers are all fired up, give them some engagement skills development and get them practising how to share the buzz of event with their teams back in the workplace.
We think the success of any leadership event should be felt months after it has ended – by people who didn’t even attend, the people your line managers need to inspire, the people who will ultimately deliver your strategies and plans. The conference presentations may have finished, but the task of inspiring the entire workforce has just begun.
For us, that often means co-creating ‘cascade packs’ that will help line managers thrive in their role of bringing your messages to life in their part of the organisation. Stapled copies of some slides just don’t cut it these days!
Indeed, you should be super clear at the outset about the role of participants in cascading messages from the events. Maybe even share how you are going to measure the success of the cascade – that often gets people sitting up straight and licking the end of their pencils from the word go!
As facilitator, I often ask which part of their salary participants want to give back if they don’t think that inspiring their direct reports is part of their job! Their role, like yours as communicators and leaders, is to close the gap between rhetoric and day-to-day reality.
So do use your conferences and events to fire your middle and line managers with enthusiasm. And if the well poisoners really don’t want to get on board, maybe in some cases you might need to fire them full stop (whether you do it with enthusiasm is up to you – but of course you must always do it with the full support of your HR team!)