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Podcast: The future of fearless communications

Podcast: The future of fearless communications

Jonathan Davies


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21 mins read

Thu, Sep 17, '20  

Here’s a riddle for you, what do the Canadian Post, Batman, Andrew Brown & Elizabeth Williams have in common?

The answer: They’re all fearless communicators. 

Our guests this week, Andrew Brown & Elizabeth Williams, are the co-founders of the Academy of Business Communications, and have come armed with secrets to meaningful and authentic communications, and how to achieve fearlessness.

You can listen, watch the podcast, or read the full transcript down below. We hope you find this conversation as insightful as we did.

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Jonathan Davies: Here we are back again with another episode. Today I've got a special treat for our audience, in the form of Andrew Brown and Elizabeth Williams, who are both from the Academy for Business of Communications, which is amazing because there was a very key point in the way that they communicate and how to differentiate from all of the other Business Comms Academies out there, that we're really going to be talking about today, which is fearlessness.

Before I start firing off my myriad of questions, because we had a great pre-podcast discussion already and that was so much fun, so I'm really excited about this, but before I dive into that, please, Andrew and Elizabeth, can you introduce yourselves to our audience?

Andrew Brown: Sure. And Jonathan, thank you so much for having us today. I'm going to jump in, I'm going to introduce Elizabeth Williams.

You should know that she is not your typical communicator. She is indeed fearless to pick up on your point. In fact, if you check out her LinkedIn profile, you'll see that she has over 20 years of experience helping large and midsize international organizations navigate complex change. But that's really, I see it as only half the story you see, she has armed leaders with communication strategies needed to transform businesses into world class organizations.

What's really unique about Elizabeth, is that she brings a compassion for employees' wellbeing. She truly cares about people thriving in their workplaces and contributing their insights enthusiastically, and being truly appreciated. I've seen that there are thousands of people around the globe that are happier, more productive and more fulfilled at their jobs because of Elizabeth Williams.

Elizabeth Williams: Wow, thank you for that Andrew. I'm Elizabeth Williams and thank you Jonathan, for having us on, and I am pleased to introduce my partner in crime, Andrew Brown, who is a self-described organizational junkie, and has turned that weird obsession into a long career where he's helped, organizations harness communications to adapt to change. He's worked with countless teams of communication professionals, in big multinational organizations to inspire them, to do really, really great work, he's worked in pretty much every industry you can imagine from nonprofit to banking, to construction, legal, a few agencies along the way.

One thing people don't maybe know about him is that he is an author of several business books, including Do or Die Communications and, he and I are proud to combine forces to try to make co-organizational communications suck just a little bit less.

Jonathan Davies: Amazing. Basically we've got Batman and Batman put together, or Batman and Batwoman, or Batwoman and Batman, it doesn't matter, there is no Robin here. You're both on completely equal footing.

Facilitating fearless communication in organizations 

You've put your brains together and you've created this amazing Academy that is there to basically create fearless communicators. Right? That's your mission statement, am I correct?

Andrew Brown: Yep.

Jonathan Davies: That's an amazingly interesting part because I think that fearlessness is increasingly becoming very important for Internal Communicators. Also, the courage that's required to become fearless. Now we've dealt with the Corona pandemic, we've had podcasts on it. We've had a myriad of talks. You both have also put out quite a lot of contents on how we can deal with the Corona pandemic reality. At a certain point, this will end, now in the meantime, Internal Comms has been able to ride a wave of respect, right?

Because CEO's, and to be honest, the rest of the company, suddenly started realizing how vital it is to have somebody to facilitate communications within your organization. Now my question to you both is, and I'm really curious to hear your visions on this, is how can we capitalize on that newly found respect that Internal Communicators have just won, and use it to kind of skyrocket themselves into a better position than they were before. How can they remain fearless with the respect that they won.

Andrew Brown: That's a lot that I'd like to, we'll come back and we'll unpack fearlessness, but I'm going to suggest that we take a look at the two things, the forces that are going to keep employee communications front and center post COVID and those that are going to be pushing employee communications back in the back closet of an organization, make sense?

Jonathan Davies: Yes, sounds great.

The challenges to employee communications within organizations

Andrew Brown: Let me talk about the, what I see is three forces pushing employee communications, to the side, or to the back corner. Pandemics are scary, right. Humans are built to learn and adapt, part of our inherent defense of mechanism is really to try to forget or minimize those things that we don't like or cause us emotional disruption like pandemics. Of course that makes learning out of tragedy, inherently challenging and frustrating. After all, we ask ourselves who would want to go through this ugliness again, but we often do. Something that's important to keep in mind is that during disruption, our brains function, four to six grade levels lower than usual.

That means even the best intentioned people aren't always firing on all cylinders. There will be a tendency for parts of the organization to rush to a state of post pandemic normalcy, and since normalcy historically had employee communications undervalued, they achieve comfort once again by marginalizing employee communication.

That's one thing, I'm going to just touch on two others quickly. Another force that relegates employee communications to the back closet will be budgetary, we were just actually speaking to an organization in the transportation industry that 's cutting it's employee communications team in half as a result of a decrease in revenues.

The other force is that for many organizations, the comms professional has been a new player at the decision making table. These comms professionals have been contributing to making decisions that have been done by others historically. That's a shift in power or influence, and post-pandemic, some managers or leaders may want to reclaim their power and influence that they have had diluted during the pandemic. Those I see as the forces that are pushing employee communications off to the side. Now do you want to hear what I think are the forces that are pushing communications to the strategic table.

Jonathan Davies: Absolutely.

Andrew Brown: Let me take a crack at these because they're not as much fun, but I think they're still important. Assuming that the employee communications professionals successfully strengthened that emotional bond with your organization, there will be employees scattered throughout the organization who have really come to expect the increased frequency of communications, the heightened transparency, an increased sense of belonging, that employee communications has created during the pandemic.

That's a force that says, keep those folks at the strategic table. Another one is, leadership will have come to rely on employee communication professionals for having a keen pulse on the organization. For instance, understanding the employee receptivity to drastic and radical change as well as a sense of employee trust in the organization, its leaders and its mission, and leaders aren't going to want to lose that.

Finally, if the decision is made by communications professionals, were indeed valued and were recognized for the value they brought on, that could be monetary value, time savings, or more importantly, in the pandemic, life saving, leaders may choose to keep communications professionals involved, and they're going to see them as essential.

Those are the forces. What ways out we can talk about as well.

Jonathan Davies: That was exactly going to be my question. Now, I guess a matter is going to be which side of the scale will we fall on, right?

Elizabeth Williams: Well I think the thing that is going to tip the scale one way or the other for fearless communicators is the ability they have to actually demonstrate the value they've brought. It's one thing to say, well, we punched out 15 newsletters in three months, it's another to come back and say, and this is the impact we had on our employees, and I think that Andrew's great point about leaders looking to their communications teams to help them build trust and help them connect, are only really going to trust the numbers that come back. Whether they are numbers, you get out of your own organization, or if you don't really have the ability to measure, I would say that we're seeing some very encouraging numbers from third parties, there's a great poll from the Institute for public relations that looked at North American companies and employees' attitudes towards their employers through the sort of March, April, May timeframe. We can see that communicators are actually making a difference in having traction. I think the ability to demonstrate empirically that we did that something right, is what I think what's going to be the force that keeps nudging us back to the center.

Building connection between employees

Jonathan Davies: That's interesting. I recently spoke with a large international company and one of the things that they said that has really changed, during a pandemic, because obviously they had this increased need to share, right. Employees also felt the increased need to share. What they started seeing, is that, for example, they're a company that will rent out machinery equipment. Now it's not the most exciting or sexy thing, but they're pretty innovative in what they do. Part of their employees who have always been hard to reach, and often in other companies, will get kind of neglected by Internal Communicators because they don't have a desktop computer, these people would now end up using their mobile phones to take pictures of, for example, the truck of this company standing in front of a beautiful scenic location at 5:00 AM.

These were not things that happened before. This is just a very simple tactical example for stuff that started to happen. One of the statements that Chris, a person I was talking to made, is that their sense of company pride has become a bit more tangible, has become a bit more increased also because everybody felt like they had put our shoulders under it together and let's get this done kind of feeling. Have you been noticing any of this happening, which is a bit of a positive change that definitely we can attribute to Internal Comms?

Andrew Brown: Elizabeth, I think you've got a great example of this don't you?

Elizabeth Williams: We're certainly seeing this across particularly services that are essential. We have this vision that the entire workforce got sent home in March, and we're all sitting around in our pajamas, failing at Zoom calls and in fact, a good portion of workers, stayed on the frontlines. These companies that rent heavy equipment, we're doing work with a company that is a logistics company, and you're right I think communicators very early on realized that the only way you can engage people who are coming out every day in a pandemic, we didn't really understand, at risk to their families for wages that are not always that high, the way that you get that is through a shared sense of meaning and purpose.

I think the good communicators early on tapped into the fact that people on the frontlines need to feel like their work matters in this pandemic, that they're not, for lack of a better word, kind of roadkill waiting to happen. That what they do matters, and it keeps people safe.

It keeps economies moving and so I've certainly seen a lot of that. I've seen the pictures, I've seen the hashtags, I've seen communicators amplifying that. One of the companies in Canada that we're watching is the post office. The Canada Post every single day posts pictures of regular Canadians thanking their postal carriers and the momentum and the engagement that, that simple act of posting a picture of some little kid who wrote a nice thank you note to the postman is incredibly inspiring. I hope that continues after the pandemic.

I hope we continue to find ways to celebrate the meaning and the shared sense of purpose that we have in organizations, because it's just really important. I think it's come into focus as you observed Jonathan .

Andrew Brown: I would just amplify that by saying that in organizational life we tend to establish varying degrees of connections. The pandemic has ostensibly isolated us a bit more from one another. We're always looking for ways to say, how do we connect with individuals now, of course Zoom is a technological way of doing it. It's flawed because we are human beings. We need to be physically in one another's space in order to feel that sense of connection to one another. Then the other thing that organizations provide is other excuses to establish connections.

Connections with particular tasks, a particular industry's standards, and to a vision or a mission. When one of those connections is reduced in this case, a connection to individuals, we'll look for opportunities. We'll look for that, our brains, we're hard wired to look for connections and opportunities to share pictures and experiences is our coping mechanism and our way of making sense of the universe and our organization.

It's inspiring to see it, it's also very human to be establishing connections in different ways.

Jonathan Davies: Andrew, I'm gathering from how you're answering these questions, and you're giving me some amazing insights that I've not heard yet before, you take this very much from a psychological point of view. Now, my question to you is, and this is one of the things that we frequently hear as well: people need to feel engaged, right? The example I gave was an organic one. This was somebody, an employee taking initiative now also, Internal Communicators need to facilitate this engagement. Are there ways that you believe are strong and meaningful connection builders during times where people are largely remote from each other that Internal Comms can capitalize on more?

Andrew Brown: Sure. There's some good and bad. Interesting that you say that we approach it from a psychological perspective. We take a look at employee communications at the individual psychological level, as well as the social level, what happens in groups and then at the organizational level, in that there are dynamics that happen across organizations that also have an impact on employee communications and the outcomes of employee communications. To your point, are there things that we as employee communications folks can do in order to strengthen that bond, that connection with the organization, which I believe is the fundamental purpose of employee communications.

First I would say, and recently, we did another podcast on it. I think that we have to not over-communicate. Isn't that strange to hear from a communicator, right? Don't choose the battles, right? It's not about volume. It's about communications based on your understanding of the needs, the fears, the hesitancies, the concerns and they're existential, right?

People are concerned for their very lives. The first step I would say is shut up and listen, which by the way, actually is another topic that we're constantly thinking about, and we love platforms and tools that can help employees and organizations listen. The top of my list is, spend time listening and that is both informal listening, meaning listening in on Zoom meetings, right? You have 15 people around a Zoom meeting, listen to what people are saying and what they're not saying, the topics that they're exploring and the ones that they're keeping away from. Then there are more directive forms of listening. We know surveys, right. Surveys is another rich topic that we can explore.

I would say step one, listen. Structured and unstructured listening.

Elizabeth Williams: I would add as well, resisting the urge to make something programmatic. Jonathan, you used the word organic when you talked about these essentially user generated content, right, from employees. I think in our little communicator hearts, we want more than anything to say, "Ooh, let's make that a thing!"

Every Thursday we'll share a picture of our heavy equipment somewhere interesting. I think that that sort of thing mercifully went out the window with COVID and it was just, what have we got, what can we share? I think we learned that nothing bad happens when you just share something and it's meaningful to people.

You don't have to do it every second Thursday at 2PM. You can do it whenever and it will have meaning and impact. It will also, I think to Andrew's point about listening, you not only have to listen, you have to be seen to be listening. We call that listening theater and there's no better way than to be seen to be listening than to share something unedited, uncurated, just raw.

Hey, here's this really great thing that someone did. Let's have a look at it. That would be my advice too, don't over program your communications during this time.

Jonathan Davies: Yeah, I think that's great advice. I think lately in the past two years, and now, especially because of the pandemic, we've seen a rise in the amount of raw and authentic pieces of communication that have come out from both Internal Communicators, as well as just employees within the organization. I think those things will always have more of an impact and will feel more at home within the organization than anything else. I mean, if it's not organic, then it can also, it can be when you over program it, to your point, it can come across as plastic, almost like you're communicating a plastic reality when the reality is very different out there. It's much better to deal with that.

Elizabeth Williams: If you overstructure it, you almost paint yourself into a corner as a communicator, because now you've got to go find a thing because it's Tuesday and it's 2 and no one sent a picture this week. Suddenly you become then somebody who generates content out of nothing, rather than somebody who, enhances an internal conversation.

Andrew Brown: Jonathan, you raised the point and Elizabeth, you amplified it about authenticity. Actually that we see authenticity, as being a key quality for fearless communications and fearless communicators. Authenticity to us is when communications reflect an organization's true values.

We all see values that are printed on the website, right. Some of those often reflect an organization's value. Sometimes they're aspirational values. People really want to get to them. But authenticity is one of the foundations of fearless communications. I'm going to talk about what we see as the other two, because in our years of experience organizations that have fearless communicators and fearless communications are wonderful places to work with and flourish.

Authenticity is one. Alignment is another, which is having communications that support an organization's priorities. We all talk about making communications linked to an organization's priorities, but those organizations that successfully do that, achieve a degree of alignment that builds confidence and trust, and understanding that those organizations that don't have alignment don't have.

Finally, what we also call in a very fun way, but it's genuine, awesome. Meaning communications have to achieve a desired impact. Whether that's changing a behavior, which is difficult over a period of time or, shaping perception of employees within an organization. Awesome, aligned and authentic creates fearless communicators and fearless communications.

Jonathan Davies: Love that. I think if anybody needs to take a key lesson out of what you're listening to right now, that is it right there, the three steps. Amazing. Actually, I'm relating to that, we've talked a lot about the, just sort of tactics that we've seen, right. Channels being used during the Corona reality. To be fair also outside of that, now let's have a look at strategy because, okay, cool, we have an idea of how to do our job well when it comes to the execution side, but as usual, Internal Comms got overrun, everybody got caught off guard by this pandemic, we had to send out a lot of communication.

What should Internal Communications keep in mind before building a strategy? 

Some of it we found out later, it was maybe not important. Some of it was incredibly crucial. Maybe we have a better understanding of our own internal audiences now. But now that in the immediate future, Corona's going to come and go in waves, maybe until there's a vaccine, nobody knows, but we have the opportunity now take a step back and be a little bit better at finding our strategy when it comes to communications. I'm curious to hear if both of you have any recommendations when it comes to forming that strategy, where do we even begin?

Elizabeth Williams: Oh, my goodness. I think you're right. I think that as communicators, we've been working our butts off for four months.

I think that right now, and we're recording this in late July, I think we're in this little window, and it's closing, where we can assess what just happened. I would say the first thing communicators should do is actually go take a break, get healthy again, get over your burnout, because as you said, we're probably going to have successive waves of this for, I don't know, the next 12 to 18 months, who knows.

I think we need to make sure that we're healthy and strong, and ready to come back when all of this happens again. I would say when we do that, we need to focus in three areas and the first would be, I think, to take a really critical look at your communications infrastructure.

Have a look around at your intranet and the human and budgetary resources you have, and your video platforms. And really understand, did they serve us or did they create roadblocks that held us back or speed bumps. What should we be changing if this is how we're going to be working in the future.

I think of the steep learning curve of collaborative platforms like Zoom or WebEx and the number of clients who went through miserable meetings for a month while everybody figured out how to mute or not mute or get the cat out of the room or whatever it was. Now we need to look and say, "Okay, were they any good?"

Like really, did they help us? I think we have a really good time to look at that stuff. I would say the second thing is to look at the processes. I think we talked a little earlier about how quickly we were making decisions through this pandemic and, comms people are used to sitting around for days or weeks waiting for someone to approve something or move a comma, and then approve it.

I think that we learned how to accelerate that, which is both good and bad because we were getting pretty much anything approved, which is good, but the bad news is we're getting anything approved to go out. We need to look at those processes because we're making decisions quickly, but were we really making them well, how were we creating our communications, who was approving them, if anyone, and how were we disseminating them. I would say there's always room for improvement in the process.

The third part, which Andrew said about a minute ago is what was the impact. We created millions and millions of words and videos and podcasts, but did we really give our employees the information that they needed, did we give them the support that they required.

Did we give them a sense of agency in terms of how we got through this together? I think if we're assuming that people are staying home except for the essential workers, one of the things that I would say strategically as communicators, we need to do once we've assessed our processes and our infrastructure and our impact is we need to acknowledge that the people who worked in our workforces in the early part of this year are not the same people, who are there now. And I mean, obviously they're literally the same people, but I think that I'm reading all kinds of stats about the mental health toll, that this whole thing has taken on people. Remote workers, more than half of them say that they've got anxiety, depression, and isolation.

We can't ignore that as communicators. We need to understand that these are not those people who we were having a party with back at the holidays in 2019. I think we have as well an issue, we're learning that the managers who are managing remote teams are learning that it's very different than managing people you can see. I saw a stat somewhere that only about a quarter of managers of remote workers have had any kind of training in how to do that. I think as communicators, strategically, we need to really focus on making these remote managers much more effective communicators and not just people who forward things and cascade, but who actively engage in creating a sense of shared purpose, building trust, agency, all of that.

I would say for your to do list, we need to prepare all of our leaders from the CEO right down to the team leaders in our frontline operations for another six months of uncertainty. I would focus that work on building trust and creating that shared sense of purpose.

Then when we think about returning to the workplaces, I know in some places in Europe, the reopening offices, certainly North America, that's a bit of a question mark about when we're going to do that. It's interesting, I was actually yesterday with a client and we were talking about the return to work and we were looking at some of the results that came back from a survey they did for workers who'd been sent home and were now being brought back at some point. The questions were really weird. We said, well, what questions do you have? They were asking things like, well, how will we sanitize the markers in the meeting rooms?

I thought, "Well, that's a really weird question. Will we have touchless faucets in the washrooms" I was thinking who the hell asks that. Then I realized that they don't care about the markers or the faucets. They're very, very frightened. They're facing a really scary prospect of having to come back to work during a pandemic and so what I was hearing there was not that they care about whether the markers are sanitized. But that their employer is taking their safety seriously, because office workers have never really had a lot of conversations about, is it safe? About the worst thing that can happen is you can fall off your chair and spill your coffee.

But now we have to take that seriously. I would say strategically communicators need to really focus on how do we send strong messages that reassure the workforce that we're taking their safety seriously, and I think that I will close this long ramble with one final thing, which is that the way we treat employees now, and in 2020, I think it's going to affect our employer brands and our ability to hire and retain for years and years to come.

We need to go very carefully through the next few months. I think we need to make it a very employee centric experience. I think our communications need to be very much around enhancing the employee experience.

Jonathan Davies: I think that is probably the most extensive summary I've heard of exactly what it is that we need to be focusing on in the next six months.

Very well described and certainly a lot of points to learn and to get inspired by. I'm going to echo that key takeaway that office workers were never concerned about their safety before. If we take the contextual example of somebody working in a machining company, obviously it's the essential workers that knew safety is an important thing because it's been a part of their career all their lives. Whereas for us office workers and counting myself among those, it hasn't. And you're right, it's a lot scarier of a prospect to get Corona than it is to spill your coffee. There's a very big difference there, which means there's a big communication gap to overcome. Andrew and Elizabeth, I both want to thank you so much for taking your time to talk here!

I really enjoyed this conversation and I hope we can do a followup in the future because I feel like there's so much more that we can discuss. Am I right?

Andrew Brown: Oh, I think we surfaced a lot of great topics. One that comes to mind is trust building, that's a role that employee communications implicitly is supposed to be doing. But if you speak to a lot of employee communications professionals, they're a little stymied by how to go about doing that systematically and sustaining it. That for example is one great topic that we could explore.

Jonathan Davies: Okay, well, definitely, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Williams: I would say, one other really important thing is around gathering data. We talked about listening, but we should also be pulling as much data as we can out of our various platforms and systems, and using that to build our ongoing plans, because we know that one of the, we talked about one of the ways that we can stay at the table, the decision making table is to have really, really good data.

I would say we need to, understand and build our skills around how we measure what we do and how we feed that back to our organizations.

Jonathan Davies: Well, you've heard it here first. The next podcast that we will be doing with both Elizabeth and Andrew is going to center around building trust and using data, which in and of itself are already a beautiful combination of nouns and verbs right there.

Elizabeth and Andrew, thank you both so much for being here. I hope you enjoyed it. I really look forward to having you back in the future. Terrific.

Andrew Brown: Thank you, Jonathan.

Elizabeth Williams: Yeah, it was a pleasure to be. Thank you, Jonathan.