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Podcast: Change management without the bull****

Podcast: Change management without the bull****

Jonathan Davies


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21 mins read

Thu, Feb 27, '20  

A new year does something to you. It’s a chance to start fresh. Leave behind the old, march on with the new.

But, in some cases, you have things you were particularly proud of. Things you just have to keep doing. Our podcast is one of those things. With an initial five-episode pilot program, we managed to reach an audience of more than 2700 Internal Communicators worldwide. That’s something we’re proud of. That’s a reason to continue. 

We’re incredibly excited to kickstart a new series of The Internal Communications Podcast, with our first guest of 2020 – Rum Ekhtiar. He is the founder and partner of Rum & Co, a collective of super smart brand consultants that focus on getting $#!% done instead of endless PowerPoint presentations. He’s experienced, highly opinionated and very entertaining. He also packs a big wallop of knowledge, and a love for Internal Comms. See, Rum was a senior consultant at Citi and in his time there, led the “200 years Citi” campaign – an initiative that was vital to restoring employee pride in the organization. Something that reinvigorated Citi’s reputation among 100 million clients in a post-recession world. 

How did he do it? Look no further: press the play button below or listen to the podcast in an audio-only format on your favorite platform. If reading is more of your thing, you can also find a full transcript right beneath.

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Jonathan Davies: Welcome to our podcast! 

Rum Ekhtiar: Thank you for having me, man. I'm excited.

Jonathan Davies: All right. So this is actually coincidental, because we were talking about focusing on the leaders of Internal Comms for our podcasts in 2020. And then, around that same time, we got in touch. You had a very interesting story. That's actually singular. You have multiple interesting stories, so I just want to give you the chance to introduce yourself to our audience and tell us why you're here to talk to them.

Rum Ekhtiar: Thanks for the PR, first of all. Thank you very much. I do have some good experience actually. So, my name is Rum Ekhtiar and I founded a company called Rum&Co. We basically help agencies and brands get unstuck. Where my experience is relevant to what you guys are talking about today - I did the global communications for all of Novartis Pharma, for MetLife, for Citibank. I've done a ton of change management. So, there's a lot of good experience working in the trenches both on the junior side of the house, and then working with the c-suite. You kind of get to understand what it really takes to make effective employee communications happen. It's definitely not a memo in the coffee-room. Set it and forget it kind of thing. There's a lot more involved.

How leadership changes affect company culture 

Jonathan Davies: All right. First, you mentioned some very big names. We also teased a little bit when we were talking about this leaders of Internal Comms thing. You mentioned there's been a couple of very big leadership shifts recently. Just to name a couple of examples: we've got AT&T and senior leadership, McDonald's is obviously a big one, Boeing also went for a big one. Unilever, Apple, GM. All of these happened very recently towards the end of 2019. So, we're here to talk to you about what you think happens, when such a senior part of your company changes. What happens to the culture of the company. What can Internal Comms do with that?

Rum Ekhtiar: It's a big deal. We could be blasé about it, and say "Hey, I don't work in headquarters, or I just work in this corner of the company." But it definitely has an impact. I think that the companies that you just mentioned, the culture was probably impacted before these leaders actually left. Look, they weren't dismissed. They didn't leave on the best terms all the time. It was probably a matter of an inflection point for the company. It needed the change to happen anyway. You can look at it in two ways. You can look at it being scary or you can look at it as an opportunity to do a reset, and to get back to what the company culture was all about. It's a big deal, but it's also a huge opportunity if you do it the right way. 

Jonathan Davies: How do you start? You just mentioned getting back to what the company culture is all about. How do you start with that? Do you start surveying everyone tomorrow?

Rum Ekhtiar: A lot of the times and I find this a lot in startup cultures that go from 12 guys hanging out at WeWork. Everyone can hang out with each other, we're having beers, we're talking, and all of a sudden we got a little bit of funding. Now the boss that I used to hang out and have a beer with has his own office. Now he has a chief of staff and all these different layers. So you have this old guard, who's used to this kind of cool startup culture that's no longer possible because the company is trying to scale and become big. That's the initial culture change typically that seems to happen with these large organizations. You really can't do things from the headquarters and think about it being successful. What you have to do is really think about people at different levels. Let's say, Nike, for example, there's going to be people who are in Oregon that are really shaken by something. And then you have the factory over in Vietnam. They're not going to understand it as well, and they're going to have a very different impression. It's really important to recruit people from different levels, in all corners of the company, so you understand what's happening on the ground. You make sure that whatever messages you develop, whatever initiatives you propose are going to be relevant. Then, secondly, you're gonna use these same people - I call them ambassador or champions - whatever cliché word you want to use, these are the people who are closest to their peers. They're closest to the function, they're closest to the front lines. It's important to recruit those people to get them to give you feedback, help you roll out your initiatives, and to see the change. At the same time, leadership has to set a vision for the company. A CEO change is a big deal. Why is this happening? Why should I stay in my job and continue to work for you? Versus jumping ship and going to another company, right? The biggest thing with change management, is that you have to make sure that you're keeping the lights on, while you're figuring things out. A big part of that is making sure that people feel comfortable. Secure layoffs are not coming, or if they are coming, "don't worry we're gonna take care of you" kind of a thing so that you can make sure that business continues. It's all about business continuity. Then the next thing is, once we get through this transition, I need to make sure that your brand is preserved. Because maybe you're going through a tough sales period right now. Maybe you need to reduce staff or you need to change management. Eventually you're gonna want to grow. That's why you're changing the leadership. You turn the business around to address whatever shortcomings, or whatever issue, in order to be an attractive employer moving forward. The way you handle management and leadership changes are going to affect your brand. And the way they're able to recruit people moving forward.

Jonathan Davies: So you really are looking at it as a big opportunity. It's not just like this big hairy thing.

Rum Ekhtiar: Listen, I've lived in America for about 20 years, so you get this blind optimism thing. It's kind of like a drug. It's cool-aid because, at the end of the day, you can look at it as doom and gloom, but the objective of change management is to continue the business and to turn it around. That's what we have to remember. 

The challenges of change management

Jonathan Davies: Having dealt with some change management before as well, one of my biggest challenges was always that change happens at a very high level. This means that the most important parts that need to get signed off are also at that very high level. And because there's that uncertainty, there's a delay. I always felt that the lack of speed impacts change negatively. Do you agree? And have you dealt with that before?

Rum Ekhtiar: A hundred percent. Depending upon what level you are, you're going to have various levels of access to senior leadership, etc. A lot of times, there's going to be the general counsel, the CFO. That kind of people. This weird group of executives that are cut, that you're not used to engaging with on a day-to-day basis. Speed is essential. Because, either you're going to get the message out and you're going to control the story, or you're going to let other  people do it. So, in terms of getting to them and saying look guys, we have to have our messages in place. We have to go through a Q&A session ASAP, and think about all the miserable unchartered territory kind of questions that employees, journalists, and analysts and all these different people can ask. We have to have an answer for them. I'm not saying it has to be a hundred percent baked. But, we have to have a framework to work with, and then that way, we can create those toolkits and onboarding of those champions and managers, so we can all be singing from the same hymn sheet. Speaking the same message. It's very important for consistency, in terms of messaging and speed. I think it is absolutely essential because if journalists start calling employees, employees will start sharing memos, and tape-record town halls, and things like that. If you don't have your act together, it's not a good look.

Jonathan Davies: We've always been advocating that Internal Communications, on the most necessary level, start with creating alignments. It sounds like that's also the case for change communications in general, right?

Rum Ekhtiar: Absolutely. Again, I can't reiterate how important the speed factor is. And in terms of alignment, you bring up another good point. Who knows who's going to be bringing you into the office to be talking about this? A lot of the time that will come out of human resources. Other times, that will come out of communications. A lot of the time, those two don't talk to each other so your job is like this kumbaya Oprah, bringing people together to make sure that there is alignment, and we're not all trying to kill each other. Hey, we're all actually working towards the same goal, which is stabilizing the business, making sure that employees feel warm, fuzzy and safe and to chart out the strategy in the path for the company. You can generate excitement and enthusiasm, and believe that this is a turnaround, versus something really bad. For example, with Nike there were a lot of scandals, a lot of allegations of misconduct. That's an opportunity to reset and show employees we heard you. It's time for us to be doing something new. Putting on our PR hat they talked about the new guys experience in digital, and how that's gonna be important for the company's transformation. We don't want to be selling through third-party resellers as much anymore, we want to be doing direct sales. This will help our bottom line, so it helps employees understand the rationale for the change, what's in it for them. What's in it for you, the employee, is a better stock bonus, better growth opportunities as a company that's going to be more stable. A job that's more stable for you.

Jonathan Davies: I think that what's in it for me – factors so crucial in the way that we communicate to people.

Rum Ekhtiar: A hundred percent. We have a lame thing that we say here. It's called what's in it for me. At the end of the day, when you're talking to an audience member, they're very selfish. Look, we're all good people, we're all kumbaya. We're going to go volunteer and all that, but when it comes to your livelihood... that's very, very scary. How am I gonna pay my rent? How am I gonna make sure that my kid can go to school, and get the medicines etc. Those basic needs are what people care about, when you have major leadership changes. Let's talk about WeWork for a minute. You don't know if you're gonna have a job that causes instability. What we saw in WeWork, was the staff slowing down. I saw the staff hanging out, and not putting the mugs away. Stupid things. I know they sound dumb. But then as a tenant, I'm thinking to myself: "I'm paying $3,000 for an 80 square foot office, you know I this isn't worth it to me. I'm going to go somewhere else. I'm just going to go sublease space somewhere else". And, you wind up losing business you wind up losing talent. You wind up losing your customers. Then, it's the antithesis of what you want it to happen.

Jonathan Davies: I think it's quite challenging, especially when you're the Internal Communicator. Regardless if your function is formally Internal Comms, or if you sit in HR, or maybe a part of corporate Comms whatever…I would think it to be very challenging. Knowing that your biggest stakeholder has just left, and then you need to empathize towards people at all ends of your organization, and think well they're now thinking of their family. They're thinking of paying their mortgages, they're thinking of feeding their pets. That's difficult to shift that mindset. I mean, how would you do that? 

Rum Ekhtiar: You know that well. Here's the deal. You're also a human being, and you're also an employee. You're probably also wondering - do I have a damn job? I'm not going to feed the bulldog today, right? For me, again, I'm very grateful that I've lived in the US for so long. I try to see opportunity in everything. It's about: what if I do a really good job with this change management? If I show this new leader that I'm really good at my job, and I'm paying attention. That I'm thinking about it from all angles. There's an opportunity for me to rise within the company, there's an opportunity for me to do a really good job. There's an opportunity for me to control the story. If the coverage comes out externally, about how we handled it from an internal perspective, and it's positive... that's a win for me. Maybe I will lose my job still, but I'll put that on my resume. I'll take it to the next job, so again, what's in it for me? 

Jonathan Davies: Yeah, I love that. That's a great tip. Let's say you've just gone for it… is that a website?

Rum Ekhtiar: I feel like I need to google it. You'll see. It's the cheesiest thing in the world. It's like from 1987. Shoulder pads included. It's a true basic. It's a basic human truth. You're worried about yourself, and what's going to happen to you. That starts with you putting yourself in their shoes, so the employee is thinking: "I want to keep my job. Is this a big company to stay with senior leadership?". Start thinking: "Holy shit, I have a lot of people to convince internally. I have to make sure that the trains are still running on time. I have to make sure that investors still believe that we're actually a viable company. And I, myself, have to prove that I was better than these other guys. A lot of these other guys, there's like a cult behind them. Their personality is like they're celebrities. There's a lot to live up for that leader. If you're doing a really good job, and if you show your leader that I'm all over this, and I'm all about this... that's going to endear you to them. That's going to help you in your career. That's going to help you advance, so there's a selfish reason. There's an altruistic reason as well. 

Change-management process

Jonathan Davies: I think the most beautiful parts are when those two come together. I think everybody who works at the company works there because they have a certain thing they want to achieve. The company is a certain thing that once you achieve them, you create magic. You actually just touched onto something interesting. When you become endearing to leaders, and this is when they start listening to you, you're in. In change, you're navigating a very complex, either restructuring in people. Or even the entire organization. You have to navigate through a lot of layers of leaders. There's no way that you were buddy-buddy with everyone. How do you gain the trust of those people that you need?

Rum Ekhtiar: It's a lot. Hopefully, you're not doing this on the day of the change. So, you know it's hard to establish relationships, and it's hard to establish trust overnight. It's something that I would say to you. You reap what you sow. Again, I'm full of cliché examples today. But, if you're putting the seeds of I'm really good at my job, and I really give a shit...people see that. People respect you, and people trust you. With all those other stakeholders, again, you have to put yourself in their mindset. When you're speaking to them, it's about persuading them that you understand their interests. That you're able to support their interests to a degree, mas o menos (more or less). Sometimes you can't do that all the time. But, it's really about showing them one "I got my shit together, you can trust me, and then to understand, being empathetic for where they're coming from. Where are they feeling threatened? What are their needs? What do their stakeholders need to know? This is a true service job. This is almost like being in the hospitality business. We're here to serve all of these other stakeholders, as opposed to ourselves, so we have a lot of masters to serve. It's really about doing your job before. Networking within the company, and understanding who the key players are, and developing those relationships. It's somewhat doing your own PR, as well internally. Whether you're merchandising the kinds of things that you're doing; not in a vulgar, obnoxious sort of life; but there's ways to make people aware of the kind of work that you're doing. You establish that credibility. You establish your credentials, so I trust you and I will believe you. I think that that's probably the most authentic way to go about it. Then, when you're in tough situations, and someone's getting in your way, sometimes you have to call in senior management. And say: "this guy's getting in the way, I need some help. Call in friends, call in backup". That's what I do all the time. 

Jonathan Davies: A couple of people listening will likely be people that take on projects, from time to time, and Internal Comms tend to get roped in too late into almost everything. Big change processes are a part of this. So, let's say you get roped in for a change communications project, and this change is happening right now. You have not had a chance to build up your credibility. How do you start presenting yourself? Do you start referring to your portfolio?

Rum Ekhtiar: I've been in a situation where, McKinsey, or Boston Consulting, has done their fancy spreadsheets and powerpoints, and they're like "Oh by the way…we're going to flip the switch tomorrow. We're making this change." And no one knows what the hell to do. There's no communications plan against it. For me, if you're brought into that kind of situation... they're going to know if you're good or not. I always look not to be obnoxious. I think the way that you present yourself, the way you talk about the solution, and the way you map out what's happening: "Well, these are the five to ten things that we have to do immediately." You just start speaking from your experience and you speak with confidence. It's a great way to win over people and to get things going. I'm a consultant, and I've worked with these huge brands all over the world. All that kind of good stuff agency is usually bringing in under crazy "call me at midnight, we have this big presentation the next day, we have four creative platforms needed." If you're brought in like that, you've probably already established your reputation as being someone who can light a fire really quickly. If you have it by showing what you're doing by coming up with the lists, and the action plan, and being action-oriented and proactive, suggesting things, versus sitting in the corner and waiting for someone to tell you what to do… to me, that indicates someone that knows what they're doing. Or at least, has a really vested interest.

Internal Communications and change management 

Jonathan Davies: You just named two things that are actually big issues within the Internal Comms industry. One is to be proactive and let things happen to you. The other part, which is a recurring theme throughout our podcast, is confidence. It must be so tough if you're somebody who's in the house, for a change, you've been there for five years, change starts happening, and you've been the person who always gets roped in. Last-minute, it's this at that moment in time where you say okay... buckle up, buddy. It's done cashing in on all of the credibility that I've built up with my peers, my stakeholders, and such. Then, how do you flip that switch? It's almost like I'm talking from a psychology perspective, but how do you suddenly gain that confidence? 

Rum Ekhtiar: It's your time to shine. It's an opportunity. I view everything as an opportunity. As an opportunity to learn a lesson, so hopefully you've been able to establish a trust on the way out there. Hopefully, you've built out an organization, where you're not being reactive. Hopefully, as an Internal Comms person you're actually building out content calendars with milestones. Let's say the company is going to have a product list that will launch in six months or so. There's going to be these kinds of activities: being as proactive as possible, and gaining the measurement from the communications and the talking will help you activate in that moment of need. Sometimes, you know you're gonna be successful. Sometimes you're gonna completely screw up. If things are gonna go very badly, it's an opportunity. If they're like, okay, either I can beat myself up, or I can learn from this opportunity. That can change it, and turn it around. It's hilarious, because the things that I'm talking about today, there's no magic. You see, it's all Captain Obvious stuff, right? It's just going back internally and trusting what you know. Having the right intention, when you walk into that meeting and saying this is what I can do. This is where I'm going to need some help, and I'm not the best at it. Did I handle all of the questions?

Jonathan Davies: Absolutely. I think confidence in those situations comes very much from being extremely transparent about who you are. Knowing what people can expect. You, knowing what you can expect from them.

Rum Ekhtiar: Don't fake it too much. We have to fake it till you make it. But, if you really don't know how to do something, don't pretend. Because the outcome is going to be much worse for your reputation, and the company. Then, trying to do something and really failing at it.

Jonathan Davies: So, you're sticking to that old PR saying of: "PR is the truth well told."

Rum Ekhtiar: It's true.

Jonathan Davies: Let's say you're in this big change process, and you've managed to create some sort of alignment. You've managed to touch upon at least a core amount of leaders that you need to communicate messages properly too, and you've brought out that maybe for mission and vision. Maybe you've renewed core values, whatever it is that changed. How do you shift from: "this is what is new" to "Oh, people are actually talking about this themselves. It's become a bottom-up and not just the top-down thing."

Rum Ekhtiar: It depends on how large the organization is. I work with those massive companies. It could be a person, a company of 10 people. At the end of the day, getting those messages into the hands of those champions that I told you. What you do is you have to create an infrastructure that allows you to distribute it in multiple channels. And it's not just about distributing it and saying, hey, here you go, here's your messages. Have a good time! It's about having conference calls, webcasts, etc. - to onboard those managers to make sure that they understand or align with workers. To make sure that they understand the message. To make sure that they understand why to ask questions, to make sure that they understand the Q&A that you gave them. That's the baseline, and this is what we're talking about. This is the immediate change management. Let's say if you're rolling out a new mission, vision, and all that kind of good stuff, you now have to think about initiatives to make that stick. Remember, Internal Comms is just consumer communications within a company. So, think about when a brand markets to you how many different times are you seeing the message in different formats. What kind of format is the message? Is it Instagram with a caption of 20 words? It's it a short 30-second video? It's an email blast. It's infographics. It's posters. It's all of those. So round sound kind of things that you have to think about. The beauty of having this champions network of ambassadors is that they will tell you the best way to communicate with their peers. Because they understand the communication methods. They understand what's most pressing with their peers. It's about the toolkit. It's not about doing the toolkit and global. Whether it's London, Amsterdam, or New York it's about making sure you develop the toolkit centrally. But then, you socialize it locally to make sure that you adapt the messages, and make sure that whatever initiative you develop later on is actually gonna work. Are they buying what you're selling? That's what I always say.

Jonathan Davies: You're looking at it like a cross-media approach, essentially. Stop only focusing on one channel. Incorporate multiple with the same message.  

Rum Ekhtiar: Listen, at the end of the day, Internal Comms is the best marketing gig in America, in the world, because you can do all these really cool creative things within the confines of your company. The cost is not as extraordinary as an external marketing campaign. It can be really cool, and it could be really fun. I think of it as a great way to create a consumer engagement campaign internally, and I have fun with it. For Citi, we created Citi 200 music. We went and had bankers audition on their iPhone because we want to recruit upon it. We want to create a virtual Orchestra. He hired the producer of Moulin Rouge, we had hundreds of bankers submit their music sample, we had the interns review it, and then, we went around the world and shot individual bankers playing music, stitched it together and created a music video to talk about how Citi is not one company. How proud they are to be Citi. That's pretty freaking cool that's even better than doing a Super Bowl ad for me, honestly. When you have like sixty, to ninety thousand employees looking at this video with pride, it's on their hold music. That's on their YouTube channel, that's fun. That's cool, and it's a great way to reach, to re-instill pride for a company that had a really rough time, post-financial crisis.

Jonathan Davies: That's amazing. That almost sounds like something an ad campaign or an ad agency would have come up with. 

Rum Ekhtiar: That's how I think about it. I think about the way I communicate to employees the same way I would create a marketing campaign for a consumer brand. How do they want to hear the message? What format do they want to see it in, and what's going to trigger that change? How do I hit them more than two to three times, so they remember? 

Jonathan Davies: We're putting a fine exclamation mark behind. This is Citi we're talking about. A very forward-thinking company, but it's not Google or Apple, or this super progressive tech company. Even within the body, let's say more of a corporation you managed to find a very creative way to do things.

Rum Ekhtiar: I think that's why I get called. Because we always think in that consumer mindset. The other thing I'll say that's really important is that you recruit those peers to be a part of those campaigns physically. I just did a big project with Novo Nordisk. We were at a speaking conference, they were changing their strategy in terms of how they worked on career development. We recruited different employees within the company, to talk about their career track at Novo Nordisk. It was to inspire employees to say, even if you start in one part of the company, we want you to grow your career with us. We've brought people who started in as interns and sales and then went into research and marketing folks, who started off in science, that wound up in a completely different division within the company to inspire employees to stay. Right now, it's all about retention. Everyone is having a really difficult time recruiting talent. We want to keep the people that we have. 

Jonathan Davies: I love it. Rum, I think your stories are really going to inspire a lot of Internal Communicators out there to think like a creative agency, even if they're one person. I really want to thank you for putting that forward to them. To end this podcast, maybe you can say what someone needs to be successful as an Internal Communicator during leadership changes, during culture changes... what would those things be?

Rum Ekhtiar: I'm not a spring chicken anymore. I've done this for a while, and I've been in very stressful situations, where I'd like to panic attack and the whole thing. My biggest advice is to breathe, and to use your logic. Put yourself in the other person's shoes, and think about what I would want to hear. What would I need to see to help me feel like everything's not falling apart, that everything is gonna be okay. How would I want to be reassured myself authentically? And then, have fun. It's an opportunity to be part of a turnaround, to be a part of a new management structure. To relaunch a company and to do creative programs. Even if it is just a newsletter, you can put your own spin on it. You can download really cool royalty-free images, and make it look much more slick than the average email blast. It's truly an opportunity for you to express yourself. It's an opportunity to have an impact on the company.

Jonathan Davies: I love it. Rum, thank you so much for your time, and all of your inspiration. I really look forward to hearing what everybody has to say about this. If anyone wants to get in touch with you, where can they reach you?

Rum Ekhtiar: There are two ways: you can go to Rum and Coke NYC or just drop me an email at rum@rumandcokenyc.com. I don't think anybody will be able to miss that.

Jonathan Davies: Fantastic. Again, thank you so much. I look forward to having you back on the show sometime. 

Rum Ekhtiar: Cheers, my pleasure.

We hope you enjoy this podcast as much as we enjoyed this conversation. Stay tuned, because we’ll be posting a new one every month. Next up is Janet Hitchen, former Head of Internal Communications (and a myriad of other high-level communication roles) at Apple. Stay tuned!