Building communication competency of leaders, to improve production through effective team functioning.

2021: Volkswagen Group South Africa

With one of our first big corporate clients, we developed our strategic partnership through in-depth research, measurable strategies, and global best practice implementation. The results we delivered improved trust in the communication function and the recognition of communication as a business driver. It enabled us to train the company’s leaders to be competent communicators in their teams. Thinking out of the box with our training method and our consistent commitment to their dialogue loop improved their speak-up culture and team relationships in such a way that production was positively impacted.

Volkswagen Group South Africa (VWSA), based in the Eastern Cape Province, employs approximately 3 600 people, and impacts over 28 000 jobs through suppliers and service providers. The factory (90% of employees) manufactures the Polo and Polo Vivo, South Africa’s two best-selling passenger cars. Maintaining consistent production is essential for the sustainability of this factory. A loss of production would have a negative impact on the company’s reputation and have an immediate financial effect on the province with the greatest unemployment rate (35.4%).

VWSA contracted DevCom in 2012 to conduct an in-depth communication audit to establish a baseline for internal communication. These audit findings led to us developing a thorough communication strategy that included operational communication activities to improve tone and build trust with target audiences with well-defined profiles.

We used four different methods to collect data in the research, including face-to-face interviews and focus groups for qualitative information and surveys for quantitative information. VWSA implemented the communication strategy, with us as their strategic partner. The same technique was used in their second audit in October 2019. Read the case study on these projects here.

Core issues in both of the findings indicated that VWSA did not have a speak up culture and lacked communication as a leadership competency. More than 90% of respondents agreed that employee well-being and engagement influences production.

Our implementation

VWSA’s Training Academy and Communication Department partnered with DevCom to develop and implement a focused communication training that would lead to behaviour change in leadership teams and create a culture of speaking up without fear of repercussions. There was also a need to teach the leaders skills like organisational listening, how to actively pursue issues as they arose, and relationship building through face-to-face communication. When leaders are competent in communication, there are fewer misunderstandings, and this increases productivity.

We determined that a Communication Excellence Training comprising of practical, face-to-face training sessions with actionable homework would be the first step. It consisted of 4 modules with tailored communication competency content to meet the business need and a golden thread of the four VWSA values (Respect, Integrity, Excellence, One Team). This would then form the foundation of any communication or conversation within VWSA.

Given our target audiences and the business need, our rationale and approach were:

  • Face-to-face training for 4 hours, we needed them to focus for a period without interruptions while engaging with the material optimally.
  • Language adaptions to suit different formal education levels. We removed jargon, changed difficult terminology, and included technical automotive jargon relevant to each audience.
  • The use of multi-media during the sessions and where possible in the manuals to attract and retain attention.
  • A balance between theory and practice with managers and supervisors receiving customised resources.
  • Downward communication focus for leadership – the messaging was about building relationships with their teams, creating psychological safety, giving positive feedback, and building trust.

*StiBa is a Volkswagen Group annual engagement survey done by all the plants. The outcome of StiBa can influence business decision making.

Our impact

We evaluated and measured the success of this project using StiBa* and surveys to test the reliability and validity of our outcome objectives. Over 80% of leaders completed the training and there was significant improvement in their interpersonal communication competency to establish effective team dialogue. An improvement in leaders’ confidence (based on comfort levels) revealed their willingness to give behaviour-based feedback. This confidence creates a safe team environment and empowers them to deal with difficult conversations and enables a speak-up culture. The consequent StiBa surveys showed 58% and up, positive responses on questions relating to team functioning, leader relationships and overall company perception as a trusted employer. Participants felt empowered and that the change in their teams is so valuable that the training must be rolled out to the rest of the organisation.