In business, communication is king. And yet, knowing when to communicate what message and to whom can be an art form. Pitch an idea before it’s fully baked and risk losing buy-in. Suggest a new program before you have the right level of support and miss out on budget dollars. Rather than thinking about communication as a formal deliverable or milestone that happens once everything is polished and “ready” successful communicators, change agents and business leaders embrace their company’s “back channel.” In addition to clearing the path of obstacles, leveraging the “back channel” will result in expanding existing partnerships,building new alliances, and driving productive outcomes.
What is a back channel?
Merriam Webster defines back channel as “a secret, unofficial, or irregular means of communication.” In corporate practice, the back channel can be thought of as “the meeting before the meeting” or the “conversation after the conversation.” Most companies have a back channel. In fact, most companies and leaders have many back channel cohorts regardless of the size of the company, or the industry that the company operates in.
What value does a back channel bring?
The back channel is a powerful, specific, type of communication channel. When engaged, it can be used to:
- Accelerate decisions and outcomes
- Understand the pulse and the unspoken feedback
- Plant seeds of change and influence
- Receive actionable and constructive input
Back channel discussions can make the difference between successful adoption and a humiliating “miss.” When driving business decisions or facilitating a business change, activating strategic conversations at the right time with key colleagues measurably speeds business outcomes while also raising your overall and perceived effectiveness as a leader.
Mastery of the back channel requires knowing:
▶️when to reach out and to…
▶️what (either an ask or a share), and…
▶️where to have those conversations.
Building and leveraging your back channel demonstrates a level of effectiveness that executives hope to have on their teams and recruiters strive to uncover in the interview process.
When to engage your back channel?
- Before proposing an operational or governance change: gauge sentiment, identify potential blind spots or objections, and rally supporters
- To validate or challenge bias: Am I thinking about this right? Who is going to object?
- Before meeting with board members or other influential company directors: get individual support from members of the board and have supporters in the room when you make the pitch.
- After a meeting where changes were discussed / presented: gauge sentiment, brainstorm execution, consider the implications.
I want a back channel, where do I start?
The back channel is a resource that you need to nurture, so that you can tap into it when you need it. If you only reach out to people with questions or to ask for favors, you’ll find that they stop taking your calls, or offer less value over time. To have a back channel, you must tend to it by allocating time to invest in relationship-building and connection. Once you have those connections, when you need to tap into them, it won’t feel as awkward and the return will be worth it. So, where should you start?
- Compliment & Appreciate — When you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner, you send them a text after to thank them and you compliment the food. The same should be true for meetings. Thank the person who invited you to the discussion. Use that as an opener. Thank them for including you, and tell them specifically what you’ll do with the new insight and then ask them for their opinion. Better yet, ask a specific question. When someone speaks up in the room or asks a question that you were thinking, call that person afterwards to let them know that you appreciate their contribution.
- Request Advice & Feedback — Everyone loves to be viewed as an expert. Most people love to help other people, if you can pair those two things together, you’ll find that you have a strong ally. In his book, Robin Dreeke outlines the subliminal impact that asking for feedback has. Asking questions and requesting feedback helps create a bond, a connection between the two parties. It also signals that you’re open to receiving feedback and new information.
- Daydream Aloud — One way to scope a person’s potential contribution to your back channel is to frame a hypothetical aloud to see how and if they respond. The discussion could be about real ideas or theoretical scenarios. If there is good engagement with healthy challenge or a “yes, and” rhythm it’s a good sign that you’ve found a valuable relationship for your back channel.
Who to include when building your back channel?
The members of your back channel should be colleagues that you trust and who will give their honest input, and who may help you craft a better outcome or catch a landmine before it explodes. Depending on the particular objectives you are after, or the particular challenges you are facing (e.g. resistance, apathy), you may choose to prioritize different individuals to partner with for that purpose. You will face many different obstacles, challenges and opportunities — building a broad back channel will enable you to activate the right resources when you need them.
Start by thinking about the types of topics that you want to leverage your back channel for and then think about populating it with a range of individuals.
- Lateral — Someone at your level, they may be in your same reporting line which is helpful when trying to strategize how to get the boss’ attention. But a lateral partner may not be in your same reporting chain, they may have more experience in the company or experience driving change successfully. Having access to a lateral partner can help you play out how scenarios might be perceived outside of your own current field of vision and outside of your existing sphere of influence. A key benefit of nurturing a back channel with lateral partners is the feeling that “we’re all in this together, at the same level.”
- Influencer — Adding someone with influence, and who is potentially more senior to you is useful when you are working on something that may require more senior level buy-in. This person can help you craft your message, timing, and approach for success and may also be able to give your proposal additional senior support. Be mindful of the potential for an imbalance in the relationship because of seniority — and consider what value you bring to them that will make them want to help you. A strong relationship won’t necessarily be built off of keeping score and ‘owing’ them a return favor, but it will require a genuine connection and perceived value.
- Willing — The willing partner can be at any level, although most likely at or above the level that you are currently at. The ultimate motives of this type of partner should be based on shared history or friendship. Perhaps you’ve worked with this person before, or your kids are friends, or you drove them home after the company party. The willing partner is interested in your success, or simply curious about what else is going on and has a skill or experiences that can be useful to the challenge you’re working on. When someone expresses interest in what you’re doing, take them at face value, they may turn out to be a very useful member of your back channel.
Whether you choose to embrace and build your own back channel or not, know that it is a thing and that it exists and successful business leaders are using it. It may be happening around you, unbeknownst to you until now. So, before proposing any strategic change or investment to committee for a vote or a review, embrace the back channel to strengthen your proposal, test the approach and gather support — or risk being surprised or disappointed.