Protocol is a basic principle of professional success
In our fast-moving, twenty-first century society, personal attention is the biggest gift you can give someone. Personal attention in the form of time: time to welcome people, time for a personal meeting. The internet revolution and the exponential growth of the use of social media come with an increasingly hectic modern life in Western countries, and the growing need for space and time for real, personal attention. Businesses and governments are conscious of this need, and try to provide for it. Think about local authorities that want to be ‘closer to the citizen,’ banks that have the ‘ability to give you the personal attention you deserve’, and the many, many network events that are organised at all levels today. These are well-intentioned attempts to provide personal attention, but they are not always as successful as they could be.
Simultaneously, time is precious commodity. Who doesn’t experience the daily tyranny of urgency? Everything has to be instant, dozens of questions and decisions beg for our attention – we have so much to do and so little time. There is also little time dedicated to giving personal attention to people, for maintaining our professional networks, regularly meeting with existing contacts and making new ones. Who would not rather have more time for that? We all know how important relationships are for success, both in our professional and in our personal life. This is, for example, addressed in The Grant Study, a major study carried out over 75 years by Harvard students. This study showed that students who were able to maintain relationships were better at building successful careers. Another example is that of Jan Egeland, the Norwegian diplomat to the United Nations who received the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award in 2008. In his acceptance speech he indicated that the success of the UN in developing countries largely depends on the success of building an effective network.
This article describes protocol management as the solution for today’s strong need for personal attention, and for the crippling sense of time deficiency that affects us daily. Protocol is often regarded as unnecessary formalities, but in my view protocol is rather a means to create and structure meaningful encounters. Modern protocol management is derived from classic protocol, and is the keystone of a clearly formulated relationship management strategy. It is the most efficient and effective way for organisations to maintain their relationships.
Know your classics (and know how to use them)
Classic protocol was developed by and for the European monarchies in response to a question we still struggle with today: the King and his entourage had little time, but had to see and speak to many. Searching for a more efficient method to manage time and to get more out of the events at the Royal Court, they developed protocol: rules and guidelines to structure events, with the goal of increasing the effect and the number of meaningful encounters. This protocol was also intended to show respect, at different moments and in coordinated ways.
Classic protocol still exists. For some protocol has a negative image, caused by a certain type of protocol officer. Willem-Alexander, the King of the Netherlands talked about ‘protocol-fetishists’ in an interview before his inauguration. The classic protocol officers put the rules of protocol above all and are only focused on matters like the correct order of the flags, the correct use of titles and the correct placing of the cutlery. For a protocol-fetishist, protocol is the ultimate goal and not “why does the event take place, what is the goal, and what does this mean for protocol?”. These are the questions asked in modern protocol management.
Modern protocol is often perceived as a new form of protocol but, in fact, modern protocol is an incorrect term – the protocol itself hasn’t changed. It is the approach that has changed or, rather, should change. Where the protocol-fetishist says “protocol is always the same”, the modern protocol officer embraces the fact that protocol can be different every time. Protocol is, for him or her, not a goal but a tool with which a certain goal is reached. The translation of the goal into a different protocol every time is an important component of protocol management, which is itself a component of strategic relationship management.
Strategic Relationship Management
If protocol is not the goal but a tool, what is then the goal? This question brings us to strategic relationship management: acquiring, keeping and strengthening professional relationships, on the basis of a previously formulated networking strategy. This networking strategy is an extensive translation of the communication strategy of a business or an organisation that is itself a translation of the overall vision and strategy. Figure 1 gives a picture of the underlying cohesion behind this:
Surprisingly, most businesses and organisations lack a networking strategy, even if relationship management is important and many network events are being organised. That this leads to less effect and little room for networking is not surprising. To simply put 500 people in one room is not enough to create a networking opportunity. The Dutch organisation Protocolbureau has sent out hundreds of questionnaires to attendees of network events, and always received reactions like ‘it was perfectly organised, but where was my account manager?” or “who were all the other people who were invited?” An event only becomes an effective network meeting if it is arranged as such, structured, executed, evaluated and followed up.
Protocol was, and still is, the perfect way to bring people in contact with one another. How to do this depends on the business or organisation along with the occasion and the goal of the event. Protocol management is all about analysing, translating and applying. From an overall strategy to a networking strategy and, finally, to a protocol framework that works for each occasion or event. In other words, protocol management begins strategically and ends operationally.
The modern protocol officer – and also the event manager who regularly organises network and relationship management events – knows and understands the greater context in which the events are organised. He or she also know why having a network is so important for a member of the board/CEO/minister/councillor and understands that without knowing the right people that person cannot be successful.
The modern protocol officer/event manager develops a protocol tailored for each event. This could be to structure meetings, for example between the Mayor and his or her most important guests or between account managers and their key clients. Obviously, the correct people should be invited for this. That happens on the basis of stakeholder management: which relationships should we invite for what, which potential relationships and which ‘beautiful people’ (those who will never be a client but will serve to support the networking function of this event)? The protocol officer/event manager supervises all the parts of the operation, including taking care of the training and support of the hosts and hostesses, being available on the spot to monitor the progress of the event and with a plan to measure the results of the event.
What can go wrong?
Professionalising relationship management is somewhat tricky because of the many different ways it can go wrong, both on a strategic and organisational level as well as in the follow-up. Businesses and organisations can make crucial errors.
It has already been said that businesses and organisations often lack their own networking strategy, and if they do, the networking strategy is not always successfully translated into effective network events, and/or to the operational level. Relationship management should be consistently applied over a longer term, and the protocol officer/event manager responsible should be able to set up and control the internal project organisation that is necessary to implement a policy. This can be difficult if the relationship management does not have a clear place within the organisation. Is relationship management the responsibility of communications, external relations or facilities, or do these departments all contribute a bit? On what level are the decisions made and what is the mandate of the protocol officer/event manager responsible?
On the operational level, too, there can be deficiencies if a network event is not operated like one. Experience shows that this happens a lot: network meetings in locations that are much too small, for which the wrong people have been invited, have packed programmes, music that is much too loud, long-winded speakers and lengthy dinners. These are all obstacles to real personal meetings.
Last, but not least, every network event is nothing more than a snapshot. The effectiveness of it hinges very much on a good follow-up. Many organisations fail to ask their employees afterwards: “Who did you meet? Who did you speak to and what was the result?”
Strategic relationship management on an operational level: protocol management
- The organisation of the encounter
- The guest list of people who are interested in each other
- An invitation process to guarantee the desired attendance
- The briefing or training of those who will act as host/hostess
- The staging of the meaningful encounters
- The measurement of the results
Those who dismiss protocol as nonsense are making a crucial error. Hundreds of important personal meetings are taking place every day, on all levels, and protocol is the tool to structure this. The structure makes it possible to build a meaningful network, which is the basis of successful leadership. For these reasons, today’s protocol specialists – the modern protocol officers and event managers – are essential for businesses and organisations, and are crucial to the success of their managers and leaders.
Jean Paul Wijers is the director of the Protocolbureau and the Institute of Strategic Relationship Management (ISRM). Both organisations are based in The Hague, and provide various forms of support, such as at official events and relationship events. In addition, the Protocolbureau offers a wide range of protocol training; the ISRM’s services include a postgraduate course on Strategic Relationship Management.