How to stop taking orders and start adding real value

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Early in my communications career, I was speaking with a colleague who was telling me about her overwhelming workload. “I currently have 35 pieces of work in flight or in the pipeline, and my clients just keep adding more. I don’t think there’s anyone else here who’s working as hard as I am right now!”

She was right, and it wasn't a good thing! My colleague was incredibly well-intentioned, capable at her job, and in charge of helping a dynamic business communicate with its employees. However, she always said "yes" and rarely pushed back with her clients. To them, she had become an execution-focused order taker instead of the strategic advisor she wanted to be. As a result, she was never consulted in advance of key decisions being made.

She wasn’t the only one hurt by this: while she was struggling under the workload, the business she was supporting was pumping out tactical, transactional and scattershot communications not bound together by any common strategic theme. The people ordering up these pieces weren't communications experts, and it showed. It was a mess for her, and it was a mess for them. That’s not to mention the end user – the company's employees themselves! Needless to say, there wasn’t a lot of happiness to go around in this situation.

Communicators are constantly striving for the strategic partner label, believing they deserve an early seat at the decision-making table. It’s a worthy pursuit to be sure – the status of a trusted advisor lets you add value before, during and after a project launches, and often gives you visibility with top leaders.

But how do you earn that coveted status without falling into the trap my colleague fell into? Here are a two things to consider:

Learn how to say “no.”

You hear this so often, but it really does bear repeating: as long as you don’t challenge and push back when you should, you will be seen as an order-taker. Your seniority inside the organization doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a senior vice president or a junior associate, you have to be able to productively and respectfully challenge and push back when something your business is proposing just doesn’t feel right.

This isn’t about blocking the way. It’s about showing a better one. "No" immediately refocuses the conversation on a very important question: "Why not?" This then creates an opportunity to show that you have expertise regarding the issue at hand and to recommend a different course of action.

Saying "no" also shows you're carefully weighing the positive and negative outcomes of what's on the table, rather than just mindlessly executing what is asked. Most importantly, you have to show the additional value your approach would yield over and above what has already been proposed.

Do this well, and your clients will see the value you bring, and mindsets will shift. In fact, “no” is so powerful that it can change perceptions with just one interaction. What’s more, your clients will start inviting you into the discussion before an approach is decided. After all, you’re the expert. Once that becomes clear to them, they will know there's no one better than you to advise on the correct way forward?

Be curious and understand the business you support

It’s often easy for clients to be dismissive of communicators who don’t sit in the business, and therefore “just don’t get it.” Few things show your client you care about their world more than genuine curiosity, and an ability to intelligently and accurately discuss the strategy and the priorities of their business.

This means you’re keen to get your hands on the strategy documents as soon as they become available, and you jump on the chance to sit in on and contribute to the team meetings your clients hold. It means asking lots of questions, and often getting to know your clients on a personal level.

It's difficult to paint someone who does these things well as an order taker focused only on execution. Again, by investing time and showing care and curiosity, you'll create more opportunities for your expertise to show.

If you want to add even more value, become more knowledgeable about the external environment. What sort of impact is the current economic climate or competitive picture having on the business you work with? Are you able to connect emerging external trends with what’s going on inside the company, and offer new communications strategies as a result?

The bottom line is that if you want to be a strategic partner, you have to earn it. Learning to say “no” and really getting to know the business you work with can completely reframe how you’re perceived. Your clients will thank you, you’ll get to do much more (truly) strategic work, and you’ll move the needle in terms of employee engagement and buy-in.

I hope you enjoyed the post, and if so, that you’ll take the time to like, share or leave a comment below!