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Podcast: The role of employee ambassadors and how to find them

Podcast: The role of employee ambassadors and how to find them

Jonathan Davies


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25 mins read

Sun, Sep 6, '20  

“Happy employees are around 20% more productive.” That’s all well and good…but what’s the recipe for a happy worker? That ping-pong table and those free beers might look cool, but won’t give you any insight on what’s really going on.

In this week’s podcast, we are joined by Imogen Hitchcock, all around Internal Communications expert, who knows just what ingredient is indispensable. You can watch or listen to the podcast, or read the full transcript below.

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Jonathan Davies: Alright, welcome. We're here back for another episode. Today we have a guest with possibly the most epic name I've ever heard. Welcome to the show Imogen Hitchcock. Before I start rambling on, I just really want to give you a chance to introduce yourself, tell us, who are you?

Imogen Hitchcock: But what an intro, the most epic name you've ever heard? How can I follow that? Imogen actually comes from Shakespeare. It's my father, he was a great Shakespeare fan. I have been stuck with Imogen and it's various ways of pronunciation for my life. I have been working in communications for around 16 years now. I've always been passionate about the power that communication has in order to influence change, to be able to get people to change the way in which they feel, think, or do things just through the power of storytelling. I'm a bit of a problem solver, and so over my career I've worked with a number of different companies from not for profits to multinationals, to startups, and really helping them bring their purpose to the heart of what they do, linking it back to their performance and then hopefully building a team of engaged and passionate employees who will help them deliver on their business objectives.

Why is having employee ambassadors important?

Jonathan Davies: Amazing. Well, it sounds like we're going to have a lot to talk about, and actually speaking of which, we originally got in touch because we were having a quick online conversation about employee ambassadors or internal ambassadors or activated people, however you want to call them, lots of terms for them these days, and I think that we started off a great discussion and I'm really happy that you wanted to jump in and just continue that discussion here because then it's for the benefit of everyone essentially to hear. Today we're going to talk especially about internal ambassadors and activating them. I think that's been a part of Internal Comms that kind of flies under the radar. Sometimes, we get caught up in sending that corporate memo or allowing bottom up communications, but we don't really always invest in activating people to do that communications themselves, essentially. I just wanted to touch base with you and first off, say why does this even matter to Internal Comms. Why should we start paying more attention to internal ambassadors?

Imogen Hitchcock: I am incredibly passionate about the power of ambassadors. I think that unless your employee base understands where the company is going, what their role is in that and how they fit into the bigger picture, then actually your company is not going to succeed.

I mean, it's often said in marketing that people trust people and they don't trust brands. if we adjust this to an internal perspective, think about who are you most likely to trust as an employee? Are you more likely to trust your peers or people you work with every day? Or are you likely to trust that sort of top down message from the leadership or the management?

It's interesting, Edelman does a trust barometer every year. And in this year's trust barometer, fewer than 50% of people actually trust the CEO of their company and what they're saying, but that number rises to over 60% when it's a person like me, or it's a colleague who is used as a source of information.

I think for organizations, if we harness the power of internal ambassadors, we can start to connect those dots. We can start to tell the story about why the company does what it does. We can tell the story of what role an individual employee plays in the success of a business. It has to be more than just KPIs and charts and sales figures.

Your ambassador network, if you have one, will help tell a more human story of your organization in language which is the same language that your organization uses in the day to day, and therefore you're more likely to inspire and influence your employees.

Jonathan Davies: Right, so here's the thing, right? Ambassadors aren't always just managers, right? They can be essentially anyone, people that have built up credibility in the organization. Generally, I guess you and I agreed on this where we kind of see ambassadors as the role model employee, they're kind of the ideal sort of people. There is strength to that because you just said that a lot of people don't necessarily always trust information coming from their CEO.

The difference between managers and employee ambassadors

It's really interesting. We also know that Gatehouse as a state of sector, year on year shows that managers are a very trustworthy source of communication, but ambassadors kind of add to that. What's the subtle nuance between the two?

Imogen Hitchcock: For me, your most effective ambassadors are probably not someone who are people managers or in the leadership position. If you think about any organization you've worked on, there is always that one person that you will go to for information, for the latest on what's happening in the business or that person who's always organizing social events, or always seems to know what's going on. To me, those are informal leaders.

They may not have a role of management or people management, but they are at the heart of the business and they are people who generally embody the culture of the business. While there is absolutely a really important role for the leadership and for that middle management in communications, we actually have to harness the power of bottom up communications and getting those informal leaders, those people that people trust to tell the truth, and we need to harness them to help us spread our message.

Discovering and activating employee ambassadors 

Jonathan Davies: Okay, so the case is clear for Internal Comms, we need to start making more use of them. I mean, it doesn't get more obvious than this, I suppose, but now here's the thing: you work in a 10 thousands people global corporation, or for that matter, a 200 person company with three offices spread out in the same country. How do you even go about finding those ambassadors? Where do we start?

Imogen Hitchcock: That is the eternal question, isn't it? And I think it's something that Internal Communicators struggle with on a daily basis. The one thing we need, if we're going to run an employee advocacy and employee ambassador program, is one thing, and that is employees who buy into the benefits of that program. A lot of organizations, and I see it in the day to day, they have a kind of mandated ambassador program. Internal Comms will want to run an ambassador program and the leadership will go, okay, John will do it, Mary will do it, and Bob will do it.

It's never going to work like that. We can never really rely on people who are volunteered by their bosses. They have a million other things to do. They're not passionate about it. And they're just been told it's something more to add to their to-do daily list. Not everyone is suitable to be that employee ambassador. I think the best ambassadors are those who self-select. The question then comes, how do we get these people to step up and step in and be ambassadors. One of the key things as communicators we're always thinking about is the " what's in it for me " and the "so what" question, and I think we need to address that when it comes to employee ambassadors too.

What are the benefits of being involved in such a program? There are benefits that will appeal to people on the development side, so networking opportunities, training, learning new skills, but there are also benefits which will appeal to the base of instincts, I think, of humans in the fact that we like to know what's going on and we're a bit nosy.

If we're first to know something, we quite like that power. I think an opportunity to have their voice heard, to shape new projects, to be seen as an expert or a leader, to be the first to know something. I think those are benefits that really will appeal to the type of people we want to get involved as ambassadors.

I think as well as the benefits, the other sort of clear things for me are we need to make it easy to become an ambassador. We don't want it to be a process where you have to commit to meetings every week, and you have to do reports, and you have to do X Y Z, it needs to be easy and there needs to be an example.

There needs to be a leader who is engaged, who is leading the way and we need to reward people for their dedication and taking part. It's no good asking people to do something extra if they're not going to see any gain or benefit from that. It's about reward systems. It's about recognizing contribution, celebrating commitments.

I think with a combination of highlighting benefits, of having an easy to use program, and getting a real sense of achievement from being part, then I think we can start to see these informal leaders come forward and take part.

Jonathan Davies: Would you then see if we have a look at the kind of what's in it for them factor?

I love the two aspects to it, right? Sometimes people are just nosy and they want to know things and for the other side they're in it for the development, it's career advancement in a way. If we look at the nosy side of things, would for example, an ambassador advisory board be a pragmatic way to get this going?

Imogen Hitchcock: Well, I think you're never going to start up an ambassador program overnight. This is not a quick win in Internal Communications. An ambassador program is going to take years to develop, and we have to appreciate that when we start. Maybe a good way of starting is to start small and start with pilot programs.

And be able to use that pilot as a way to show the business that this actually works and it does bring real benefits. I think advisory boards are great. I think if a company, any company is going through change, which it should do, most of the time companies need to always be evolving, otherwise they go backwards.

If a company is going through a change, getting a pulse or a sense check on the wider employee base and how they feel about those changes, what kind of suggestions they may have to bring those changes and to make them stick, I think that's a really good use of an ambassador program.

Jonathan Davies: Awesome, and then on the other end, for the development or career advancement aspects, there you're looking at one of the things I always bring up in these cases: if you want to advance your career, the more you advance your career, the more important soft skills become and consistently in the top three of soft skills that everybody has to develop is, guess what? Communication. If you're in a position as an employee to get coached by somebody like you, who is looking to activate internal ambassadors, I'd say that's a clear benefit, right?

Imogen Hitchcock: Absolutely. I don't think you can expect ambassadors to go out and tell the story you need them to tell without giving them the skills and the confidence and the permission to do that. I think that it's our role as communicators to act as coaches and to help people understand the best way of telling that story.

It may be informal coaching, as you mentioned, it may be a more formal program that you want to bring in, of presentation skills or empathic listening, or just general skills in communication. I think, there are some great examples of other companies who do that kind of thing.

I think Adobe has a program whereby it sends its employees through a two day course when they become their ambassador program. it gives them all of these soft skills that you talk about. I think that's part of the reward for a lot of people. They may not have time within their day to day job, or they may not have the opportunity to get those kinds of skills or to practice those kinds of skills, so I think we need to play up on that a little bit and give people what they want.

Measuring the impact of employee ambassadors 

Jonathan Davies: Amazing. We know how to find the ambassadors. We know how to sort of stimulate these ambassadors and get them on our side. Now here's the thing, this is a big time investment for us as an Internal Communicator and product proxy, that means that the CEO is paying our salary to do something. One thing that we as Internal Communicators need to be a little bit better at is justifying the time we spent versus the outcome it will have on the business. Let's talk numbers. What's the business case for ambassadors?

Imogen Hitchcock: As you say, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Internal Communicators will forever need to justify the impact of their work on the bottom line.

It happens every day and it's really not easy. A lot of what we do isn't tangible, it's not measured directly in sales tickets, for example. However, I think if we can manage to step back a little bit and look at it a little more holistically, if you have a group of employees who feel that they are active in shaping company direction, If they connect with the company's vision, if they understand how they contribute to the company's success, they become naturally more engaged.

We know that engaged employees are happier employees, and we know that happier employees are more productive employees and we know productive businesses work faster and smarter, and those businesses beat their competition. When we are talking to our leadership about employee ambassador programs, we really need to link it back to delivering on those business objectives.

What's in it for the business leaders? What do they get out of an ambassador program? For me, there's sort of three or four key things that really a leadership team get from an ambassador program. The first one is this insight into employee voice, so it helps your leadership understand how the people that are working for them, feel about the business, where the barriers to success are, and actually in a lot of cases, you will get new innovation ideas coming from the bottom, from these ambassadors. Secondly, it's a chance for the leadership to be able to address rumors. As we know every company has its rumors. But the problem is, if you don't know about those rumors, you can't actually address them.

By having an ambassador program, we can get on top of those rumors and we can increase engagement and morale by addressing and answering those questions. It's another channel for our leadership to connect directly with our employees. And it's an opportunity for us to build the culture of the company from the bottom up, as opposed to top down, which is the normal route for culture.

There is a myriad of statistics out there around the impact of having a strong culture and what that does for the bottom line. If you look at Fortune and you look at the hundred best companies to work for, that fortune does, so if you're in that hundred, top hundred companies to work for, the stock prices of those companies rose 14% per year from 1998 to 2005. Companies not on the list only had a 6% increase.

You can see a very clear correlation that if people like working for your company, it has an engaged culture and it's productive, your stock price is going to go up. Leadership like that because they are beholden to our shareholders. Happy employees are around 20% more productive.

If that's a sales team that's 37% more productive with a happy sales team, just imagine how that correlates to the amount of business that you're doing, the amount that you're selling. I think for communicators, we need to find data and insight, which backs up what we already know intrinsically is that engaged employees are better for business.

We just need to find the data in order to sell that back to our leadership.

Jonathan Davies: In case of engagement, when it comes to that happiness measuring or, I'm not really a massive fan of proper, big engagement surveys, but I like simple pulse surveys that just give you a bit of a benchmark so you can quickly check over time. But then happiness relates to a very important thing in the world today, which is a decrease in turnover. Considering this war for talent that we have going on right now, keeping that very hard to find talent on board, I guess is really, well, crucial. You said another good thing, which is productivity.

If a sales employee is, 37% was it?

Imogen Hitchcock: Yeah.

Jonathan Davies: Yeah. If a sales employee is 37% more productive, now sales employees are pretty expensive, but I'm getting 37% more value for the salary that I paid them. That's a pretty big business outcome as well.

Imogen Hitchcock: Absolutely. I think your point about retention is absolutely key. And it's especially key for when we are trying to get our HR colleagues on board to be a bit of an advocate for employee engagement or employee ambassadors. There was a survey taken about motivation for changing jobs, and 25% of people surveyed said they were leaving to find a better work culture.

That's a staggering amount of people who are looking for culture, there's so many surveys out. There's another survey, which says that people would accept a 7% lower salary if they went to a company that had a culture and values that fit their own. Now, if you extrapolate that into money saved with regards to recruitment costs, with regards to training and development costs with salary cost, benefit costs, the impact of having a strong culture, of having employees who are motivated and engaged, is staggering on the bottom line. One of the ways in which we can help build this culture and build these employees that we want is by having a group of people who they trust who are their peers who are helping us spread our messages for us.

Jonathan Davies: Yeah, absolutely. I think actually to add to that, because you've beautifully gone over productivity and essentially turnover decrease, I think for ambassadors themselves, there's another one to add, which is a metric that people are using more and more frequently these days called employee lifetime value. What that essentially means is the cost that I pay for an employee versus the return that they gave me over their average tenure. For most companies it can be, well, let's say some, a baseline of $210,000. That's your average employee lifetime value. If you have more ambassadors, we discussed this before, right. And ambassadors, essentially, are model employees. What does a model employee do? Well, they'll go the extra mile, so they're more productive and they don't want to leave. They'll stay, which means that you're upping your overall employee lifetime value.

If you can segment out, these are the amount of people that we've turned into ambassadors, now we've created two more. That's X percent of your employee lifetime value. You just created a business case, not even for the effect on the bottom line of the company, but just purely for creating more ambassadors.

I think that's something I've spoken to a lot of C-suite people about this over the past few months, and this is something that they considered an untapped part of potential because everybody's focusing on making recruitment more efficient, keeping your people onboard, having people be more productive, more happy, less turnover, all of this stuff, not a lot of people are focusing on helping your talent reach their full potential.

Do you think that ambassador programs, and sorry for the long rant, but do you think that ambassador programs are a way to also capitalize on the untapped potential of our employees?

Imogen Hitchcock: I think it's a really interesting point there, the return on investment from an employee and I wonder what my figure would be if I were in an organization, but absolutely I think, every manager, every people manager, every leadership position is looking to get the best out of their teams. They're looking to do that through not only making sure that the happy high morale productive, etc., but also through training and development and retention and making sure that there are avenues for them to progress within the company to give more and to give this better return on investment.

I think if there is a way of tracking that, if there is a way of putting definitive numbers on that, then that is an incredibly strong way of talking to leadership about the power of Internal Comms more generally, but specifically about ambassador programs, which does help people develop and connect and build their networks and progress through the business.

Yes, I think getting a number around that is fascinating and a really exciting development that you have.

Jonathan Davies: Awesome. Actually I think this ties into our discussion nicely as well, and it's maybe a little bit more visionary or philosophical if you want to say. When I say I started doing Internal Comms, I sat in the HR team.

The role of Internal Comms in creating employee ambassadors 

I come from a marketing communications background, and I know there's always an internal discussion of where should Internal Comms sit, spoiler alert, it doesn't matter whatever the benefits, whatever the business benefits most from, that's where you should see it. However, I've always seen Internal Comms as kind of marketing internally, maybe with a little less fluff, but essentially your day-to-day tasks are very kind of the same as what a marketer would do. But if now we start looking at "Well, what's our effect?" Our effect is people, right? It's a people thing. We know that we can't prove return in the same way that sales can. What if we then start looking at the way HR proofs their value, which is very much through people metrics, do you agree with me that there's this thing of, we execute our costs as a marketer would do, but we report on our effects as an HR person would, do you think it's a little bit more gray than that?

Imogen Hitchcock: I'm just going to consider what my role as an Internal Communicator is, and is it a marketing role and I'm not sure that it's a purely marketing role. I think my role is to help people do their job. To help them feel good about doing their job and to give them the motivation and the means in order to become brand advocates for me.

There is a bit of marketing in there as well, but there's also quite a lot of more tactical, fundamental things around understanding business objectives, understanding roles within that understanding vision. I think the way in which we currently measure Internal Comms is very HR focused. We use employee engagement surveys, and we use pulse surveys and we use the focus groups.

It would be nice to have a more data driven way of measuring the metrics. But as I said before, a lot of what we do is not really that tangible. It's not something we can link directly to sales figures, and Internal Communications departments can't necessarily say we've gone up in sales by 5% that's due to X, Y, and Z.

It's an eternal challenge, isn't it? It it depends on what your objectives are. If you have clear objectives with clear areas of measurements, then you can always turn that to show that return on investment. But if you are going into a firefighting Internal Comms mode, which a lot of us have to do from time to time, then it's going to be very difficult to measure how we're doing and what change that we've made. I don't have an answer for you, I'm afraid.

Jonathan Davies: I actually think that a non-answer is perfectly fine in this case. Maybe that's just a very biased point of view because this is how I used to do my thing, but I agree with you. It's definitely not a matter of you're essentially a marketer. You evaluate, according to that, it's just, I've always seen, sending that top down news and writing a good story on behalf of my CEO, kind of what a marketer does with the press release or a PR person, that from the bottom upside fostering conversation to happen, kind of what a social media community manager does.

Imogen Hitchcock: But then I think that you're approaching your communications wrong. I'm going to challenge you if I may, because communications should never be just top down and sending out a missive from the senior leadership or having social media posts that people can post out. That's not what communications is, that's broadcasting.

That's not what our role is. Our role is to listen to employees, to act as an advocate for employees, to understand the employee voice and be able to foster a dialogue between the employee base and generally the leadership. That should be our role. We're not there as a mouthpiece for the CEO and we should never be there as a mouthpiece to the CEO.

Our role is to challenge. Our role is to sit on the side of the employee, to ask questions that they don't think they can ask, and it's to get that voice heard at the top. Then also to help the top, the leadership's voice be heard at the bottom as well. I see us as a sort of middleman, as opposed to just someone who sends out stories.

Jonathan Davies: That part I 100% agree with you. I think that top down communication will always be a part of our role. It is always important to help leadership communicate to the rest of the company. It is a one to many kind of broadcasting way of doing things, but it will always be part. I definitely think that now there's much more of a movement towards facilitating bottom up conversation, using those smart people to actually help the business forward.

Then moving further and that's our conversation essentially now, that's when we're looking at, okay, now we're going to activate as many people as possible so they can do to communications for us. One of my favorite Internal Communicators, her name is Ansleigh. She always said, it's my goal as an Internal Communicator to not communicate anything and have everybody else do the communications for me. Do you think that that's also potentially a way for us to alleviate our eternal resource problems, because essentially you can scale a bit better as an internal communicator, right?

Imogen Hitchcock: You can and Internal Comms, as we know is woefully underfunded, under resourced, and in a lot of companies that I work with and have worked in the Internal Comms has always farmed out to some poor HR executive who's got a million other things to do and no interest in Internal Comms at all. I don't think we should look as ambassadors as arms and legs solely. I don't think we should look at them as someone who can do our job for us. I don't think that's fair. I think we need to look at them as a resource for information we need to help our leadership, not only communicate down, but also listen and understand and gain insight from what we are discovering from our ambassador programs. I think we need to use those ambassadors, not only to help spread the message as you rightly say, but also to gain intelligence from areas of the employee base that we may not hear from more naturally. For me, I think one of the the gray areas where employee ambassadors could work really well would be within our factories and our distribution centers in particular Internal Comms traditionally has huge struggles with blue collar workers because priority is a different, because focus is different, because there are different ways of working as opposed to sitting in an office or out on the road.

But the teams within factories and distribution centers are really sort of the people that you need to listen to the most, because that's where the problem is going to start. If there is discontent, it's more likely to start there and we need to be able to address that and be able to talk about those issues.

Having employee ambassadors within your factories, your distribution centers, manufacturing centers, that's going to be absolutely key for any organization working across different sectors like that. Because you need to be able to talk to people in their own language, and in a very human way. Leadership communications is not going to do that for you.

Communicating employee ambassador initiatives to leaders 

Jonathan Davies: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I'm going to give a shoutout to a CEO of a company I used to work for, Ruben Timmerman, who always told me that tension within an organization is never felt firstly at the top, it's the bottom first. Then it's a matter of being able to communicate that up quickly and react to it.

Imogen Hitchcock: Yeah, absolutely.

Jonathan Davies: It's a beautiful point. I think to that one there's one more thing that I wanted to touch upon because we were very much talking about, you cannot determine who ambassadors are from the top. Just like I see a correlation between that and your company core values. Those are sometimes also determined from the top, which may not be what they are.

It has to be kind of an organic thing. How do we convince our leadership that that's the way to go, knowing that they generally will want to have input on these things?

Imogen Hitchcock: Is there room maybe for a hybrid model then, I don't believe that people should be volunteered to do something. Because I think they will lose the passion and the dedication. However, there may be room or opportunity for a hybrid model in order to get started. As we talked about earlier this change and this ambassador programship, isn't going to happen overnight.

It's going to take years to get a self sustaining ambassador program. Potentially in order to kick start, you might want to take volunteers, mandated people who are naturally quite passionate anyway. There's a way of choosing these volunteers, right? You could either volunteer James who has a million things to do, and really doesn't care that much. Or you can volunteer, Mary who loves to take part and is passionate about her job and her role. I think there's a way of volunteering people. I think if you volunteer the right people, then you will start to get the self-starting members in the organization joining because they respect Mary and they respect the people within that group.

I think that element of respect and trust is really important. If you have a group of ambassadors that people do not respect or trust or believe, then it's not going to work. The fact is that if your team is unmotivated, no matter the incentives that you put in place around an ambassador program, it's not gonna work, right?

Firstly, you need to make sure that your engagement level is where it needs to be across your organization. Then if you, your leadership team, does feel that mandating people or volunteer people for an ambassador program is the way forward, you need to make sure that they're volunteering for the right people, the people who are motivated and passionate and who have a certain level of soft skills that you need in order to make it work.

Jonathan Davies: Right. Essentially we could basically say, well, as Internal Communicators are end of the extremes, we want everything to be organic. We want this to just happen. Leadership on the other hand may be on the utter end of the extreme. What you're saying is there's this gray area where we can approach leadership.

We can figure out who we would want to volunteer. Then maybe as Internal Communicators, we can then step in and say, well, I've asked Mary and Mary actually really doesn't want to do this. Maybe that wasn't a great idea, but we can move on to the next one on the list. That could be a decent approach, right?

Imogen Hitchcock: Yeah, I think there's always compromises and there's always hybrid schemes that you can try. Ultimately, even though Internal Communicators and leadership teams may seem to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum, ultimately we have one thing in common and that is that we want to see the business succeed and we want our employees to be productive and happy in their work.

We have that in common. I think as with all communications, when we're approaching leadership teams, we need to make the most of that common ground and get that emotional connection with our leadership teams. Then it will be much easier to tell that story around our ambassadorship and the benefits thereof.

Jonathan Davies: I think I couldn't have said it better. I definitely could not have said this better myself, but just wanted to emphasize. I completely agree with you. Fantastic image and we've reached the end of our podcast recording length, oh no. I really want to thank you for your time and the answers.

I think that this revealed a lot of those misconceptions and maybe even secrets that people feel they had about, well, I need to start my ambassadorship program, but why actually and how and where do I go? Thank you very much for clarifying this for everyone. I hope you had a good time too.

Imogen Hitchcock: I did. I just want to, if I may, finish on two things that I think are really important for the ambassadorship programs. The first one is having measured success and being able to measure that success regularly. We know as communicators that we have to show that return on investment. The way we do that is by having clear objectives and clear measurements of success.

It's about pulse surveys, focus groups, employee surveys, social media reach if you're going that direction, to have something in place so you can show at the end of the year, what progress you've made. Secondly and finally, I think ambassador programs need to be authentic. They need to be transparent, and they must be fun.

There's absolutely no point in having an ambassador program that is seen as a corporate math piece. This should actually be a group of people who love their company, who love what they do and want to help tell that story and spread that story both internally and eventually externally, too.

Jonathan Davies: Yeah. I mean, relating back to that, what's in it for them factor, I don't think there's a better what's in it for them factor, then it's fun. Right? Imogen, thank you so much for taking your time here. I love this and yeah, I hope to see you back on our podcast some day,

Imogen Hitchcock: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.