The role of the surrogate communicator

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on September 14, 2011 · 2 comments

Leaders are often unaware of the power of their communication. The words they say are interpreted down to the last word and tone. People extrapolate what is said to try and add additional meaning to the message. Some leaders are unaware of this, which can make their communications reckless. Other leaders are extremely aware of it, and resultantly say very little, or say it in a guarded way. Either way, this dynamic makes communicating with the organization more complicated and difficult.

One concept that is often overlooked, mostly because it is not a formal mechanism, is the surrogate communicator. Politicians use this approach very effectively. Every President has a Press Secretary whose job is one part to communicate on behalf of the White House, and one part to fill in the blanks and flush out what the President intended to or wanted to say, but couldn’t.

Leader s Speaker

Although without the official title (or press, microphones, cameras, and so on), this is the same role that leaders can utilize inside their own organizations to help round out their communications with a more complete message. This is particularly true when the message that the leader wants to deliver is more likely to cause the wrong reaction then the desired reaction.

What do you look for in finding a surrogate communicate? 1st, the surrogate communicators must be recognized as individuals who are trusted by the leader. This is necessary so that as they carry a message forth, it is understood that the individual is in a position to understand the inner thoughts of leader. 2nd, the individual must be in a position where they can be trusted. This means that as they speak, the individual understands that they’re not getting manipulation but getting what the individual thinks. And 3rd, the individual must be able to understand the complex situation that the leader may be communicating about.

The surrogate communicator then has a responsibility to share the message and expand upon it in a way that helps the organization understand the true nature of what is intended. They will use sentences such as “what Brian really means and wants is…”

“The best surrogate communicators work to interpret and reinforce the leader’s words and actions, allowing their own style to come through” suggests lean communications expert Liz Guthridge of Connect Consulting Group. Liz adds:

However, if the team members tend to gravitate toward the ICU —that is, the “individual contributor unit” – and look after their own interests rather than the organization’s, what Jamie suggested doesn’t work. Just as leaders don’t often realize that everything they do communicates, their team members often aren’t aware that they’re sending signals that they’re focused only on their area of responsibility.

This speaks to some of the risks. What are the dangers of the surrogate communicator? The 1st is to overuse the mechanism. When overused, it appears to the organization as a form of manipulation, which it probably is at that point. 2nd, while a surrogate for some communication, it is not a replacement for all. You still must maintain an active dialogue with the right people in the organization. 3rd, you must be careful of the impact to the surrogate communicator. This will never be their full-time role and can, if you’re not careful, harm their important relationships.

What would you look for in finding a surrogate communicator, and what would be important to their success?

1 Karen Wilhelm September 14, 2011 at 10:20 am

This is particularly delicate with social media. Should the leader personally tweet, comment on Facebook, or through the company’s own Yammer or SharePoint site? Does Barack Obama really write and send out all his messages? Does Lady Gaga? A surrogate can maintain a leader’s presence in the organizations social community. Whether it should be as a ghost-tweeter or not is a big question. If it’s understood that Michelle tweets “Brian said in a Gemba walk today… or on Brian’s behalf, “I saw on a gemba walk today…” it still makes Brian more real to the other folks who interact virtually. But Brian has to step in with his own off-the-cuff tweets or updates, or questions, regularly. More importantly, Brian needs to see the value of “listening” to the conversations in virtual communities to see what people are thinking. Again, a community manager or surrogate can spot conversations that the leader should be aware of and respond to. When he jumps in and clarifies a position or recognizes a problem, he’s responding to the pull of his employee-customers. Does that take “too much” time? Or is it akin to a gemba walk? It’s just one of the many forms of communication leadership should recognize.

2 Jamie Flinchbaugh September 14, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Karen, the application towards social media is an interesting angle. I was focusing more in the face-to-face informal conversations, but certainly many people have surrogate communicators through formal means and social media. I’m not sure what the best practices are in this case, but I’m sure that the leader must still own the message.

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