January 15th, 2021

Business leaders can learn from political vacation scandal, experts say


By Brett Bundale, The Canadian Press on January 5, 2021.

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., on May 13, 2019. One of Canada's top public relations experts says the controversy of politicians jetting off to sunny destinations despite travel warnings to stay home underscores the importance of effective leadership communication. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The ongoing controversy involving politicians who ignored travel warnings over the holidays holds important lessons for Canadian business executives, according to experts in public relations and organizational strategy.

They say the situation provides valuable insight into effective C-Suite leadership and communication during a turbulent period.

A growing number of federal and provincial politicians have found themselves in hot water in recent days for travelling outside the country over the holidays even as Canadians were urged to avoid non-essential travel to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The backlash against politicians illustrates how easily hypocrisy, contradiction and privilege are exposed in an age of social media, said Bob Pickard, principal at Signal Leadership Communication.

Outdated “spin doctoring” is not only ineffective, he said, it can make leaders appear further out of touch, worsening the backlash.

“There’s a disconnect between how leaders are communicating and how people are feeling,” Pickard said.

“There’s a lot of pain out there and high anxiety, public emotion is on a knife’s edge … leaders need to anticipate the playing out of public emotions.”

The public relations expert said politicians and business leaders alike must “understand the zeitgeist” of the moment and how people feel and allow that to shape their actions and communications.

He said leaders should practise a sort of “radical candour” communication style.

“You’ve got to be transparent, you’ve got to be candid. You don’t need to sugar-coat it,” Pickard said. “Leaders have to be frank and honest if they want to earn the respect and buy-in of the public or their workforce.”

Lorn Sheehan, a professor of strategy at Dalhousie University’s Rowe School of Business, said it’s critical that the actions of leaders align with the policies and objectives of an organization.

“If you expect people to behave or act in a certain way, and then the leaders act or behave in a different way, it creates confusion and raises very legitimate questions,” he said. “The leader needs to set the example.”

While crafting a good strategic plan or policy is important for any organization, he said the actions of the leadership will determine its effectiveness.

“Increasingly, we’re realizing that for any organization to achieve its vision, it requires a strong culture,” he said, adding that the culture is often set “at the top.”

“It’s the effect that people in positions of power hold.”

Steve Pottle, director of risk management services at Thompson Rivers University, said the success of a strategic plan at any organization or company hinges on individual buy-in.

He said that’s achieved through strong leadership, an effective plan and consistent follow-through by senior management.

For example, if a company makes masks mandatory but the CEO fails to wear one, Pottle said it sends a message to employees that it’s not necessary to follow the rule.

Meanwhile, Pottle, also vice-chair of RIMS Canada Council, a standing committee of the Risk and Insurance Management Society, said it’s also important to consider a plan from a risk perspective, including what can throw a plan off course and what can help an organization achieve its goals faster.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.

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