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The ability to coach leaders to be effective communicators is becoming increasingly important as a way IC professionals can add real value to their organisations. We talk to Sheila Hirst, who runs the Institute’s coaching master class, in the latest in our IoIC People series.

How did you get into employee engagement and change as a career?

I started work teaching English as a foreign language in Algeria which was exciting and great fun and I learned a lot about the power of non-verbal communication. Back home in the UK, following spells in the Finance world, when a job came up with Aspen Communications it seemed like an ideal opportunity to work in something like my English teaching but better paid. Back then in, the early 90s, internal communications was a very new discipline and tended to focus on top down messaging to promote understanding and at best organisational commitment.

What made you decide this was what you wanted to focus on?

Seeing the damage that was created when people misinterpreted the way the organisation or ‘others’ communicated with them and the buzz that occurred when it worked. I wanted to create more buzz for people at work

Tell us about your current role

I’ve two complementary hats. As an executive coach, I work directly with senior and middle management, supporting their personal development and helping them tackle challenging performance issues. I’m also co-director of OmiliaHirst where we focus on all aspects of leadership communication to support performance across cultural and functional boundaries. In practice, this can involve evaluating levels of engagement and motivation, developing specific interventions to embed values and getting cross-functional teams or ‘silos’ working better together. We also run skills sessions for communicators and leaders.

Describe an achievement you’re particularly proud of

There are some big ones I could share but a recent assignment springs to mind. I worked with a ‘high potential’ young leader who had lost confidence in her ability to project what she wanted to say. This was not only impacting her relationship with her team and her promotion prospects but her private life as well. After several intensive coaching sessions she was able to pass a promotion board and is now happily leading a new team and soaring!

You specialise in helping leaders to be better communicators – how have your own experiences in management roles informed your approach?

I know what it’s like to have a manager that communicates only by directive! I also know how each leader has to work their communication approach out for themselves – I’d have loved someone to challenge and help me through that journey

What do you think leaders find most challenging about communication? Have the challenges changed in recent years?

I think the biggest challenge has been, and still is, when the organisation needs leaders to deliver a message they don’t necessarily agree with. It’s hard to stay authentic as a person and a leader in that position. Right now leaders are also finding it harder and harder to ring fence the time to meet their ‘followers’ face to face. Also when they do carve out the time, the challenge is to make sure that the encounters work and are meaningful to all the diverse parties.

You run IoIC’s very successful coaching master class. What is it designed to achieve?

It’s meant to give communicators the practical skills to support their leaders to be credible and effective communicators.

What sort of difference do you think an internal communicator who is a great coach can make?

Providing they have the right relationship with their ‘clients’ and permission to coach – they will be highly valued as a trusted adviser.

What leader do you particularly admire – alive or dead – and why?

My boss Simon in my first sales role. He was enthusiastic and energetic about what we and the company had to achieve and he held me to account for my part in that. He knew what made each member of his team tick – when to be understanding and patient and when to challenge and drive. We also knew him and what he stood for – the scars on his face every Monday from weekend rugby were a clue. I was never afraid to go and talk to him about anything that was getting in the way of my work – and he always had time to listen. He took the team’s opinions and views into account and was never afraid to challenge upwards on our behalf. He made work both fun and profitable.

What would be your ideal way to get away from it all?

A riveting book, a deserted beach, sunshine with a large beach umbrella and blue blue sea lapping on the shore…

IoIC's next coaching master class will be taking place 13 October. Find out more about the programme.
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