Podcast: From newsletters to Artificial Intelligence
Fri, Aug 16, '19 •
Let’s face it. There aren’t a lot of Internal Communicators who grew up thinking Internal Comms is what they want to do. You wanted to be a fireman (or woman!), an astronaut or a ninja turtle. Your parents were probably telling you to become, as the song goes, “a doctor, or a lawyer, or a business executive”. Yet here you are. You’re doing Internal Comms. You won’t be on the cover of Forbes magazine. You probably won’t have a custom trading card, and you likely get less credit than you deserve for what you do. But companies -need- you and let’s face it, you need them. If companies didn’t have Internal Comms issues, you wouldn’t read this post! This is how it works for most of us. Most of us.
Jason Anthoine isn’t “most of us”. He may not have labeled it explicitly, but he definitely feels it was his destiny to become an Internal Communicator. And you know what? 30 years later he’s still doing it. Jason tells us how his parents - particularly his father - inspired him to become an Internal Comms professional. He tells us all about courage his number one most important attribute for success, and how he’s seen IC move from paper newsletters to A.I. The role of IC is changing and Jason has a clear view of the horizon. One we can all learn from. Listen to his words of wisdom on the video below, on your favorite podcast services, or read the full transcript down below.
Jonathan: Jason Anthoine is a managing founder of Audacity, a US-based consulting firm, focused on employee engagement, internal communications and culture change with more than 30 years of experience.
Jason's career includes the leading global communications for GE energy management. An $8 billion manufacturer of energy and electrical components, reporting in 20,000 employees. A Newell brands, a 16 billion manufacturer of consumer packaged goods, was worth 30,000 employees earlier in his career.
He also led Internal Communications for Southwire company, and Siemens energy and automation, both global manufacturers of energy, electrical systems and components. His other client work includes employee engagement and change management assignments for CIB vision, the Coca-Cola company, Crowne Plaza hotels and resorts, Johnson and Johnson, Mars, Chocolate North America, and Time Warner cable. Jason, welcome. I'm so thrilled to have you here.
We actually got into this in a very funny way. I came across you on LinkedIn. You had a beautiful biography in which you described how much your father actually inspired you to do Internal Comms. So I'm really curious, can you tell us more about that?
Jason: Well, Jonathan, thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here and I get more compliments on that LinkedIn profile story than probably anything else that I do online. I think it's because people really connect with that story and how I came to be in Internal Comms. You know, my dad was a production line foreman at a school bus factory, in middle Georgia. My mother was a secretary for the President at the local bank. And so, every day I would hear stories from both of them about things that were happening, at both of their workplaces. What was working well, what was not working well. Little did I know at the time that that was really the beginnings of my entry into Internal Comms.
I didn't know Internal Comms was even a thing, but hearing their stories and having them talk about leadership issues, communication challenges, particularly for my dad, with frontline employees who certainly at that time, were digitally disconnected as most of them still are today. That had a lasting impact on me. When I went to university, I studied Public Relations and ended up getting into Internal Comms. My first job right out of college. I've stayed in Internal Comms for about 30 years now.I guess I'm one of the guys who started in Internal Comms, and stayed in it.
Jonathan: But Jason, that makes you a bit of a rare duck opponent because a lot of people kind of stumble into Internal Comms after dabbling in this and that for a couple of years, but it seems like actually this is really what you want to do. It feels like, at least to me, it seems this is something you were meant to do.
Jason: I think that's right. You know, people who really enjoy their work, it doesn't feel like a job. It just feels like an extension of who they naturally are. And because of the blue-collar household I was raised in, and the types of conversations that I heard at an early age, and studying public relations at University, it just was a natural fit for me to take that first job right out of college doing an employee newsletter. I also had responsibilities for media relations and press releases. On the external side, it's difficult to see whether you send out a press release if that really has an impact. Yes, you can see how many views or clicks or whatever, but I've never felt like if I send out a press release, it's going to change the world. But every single time I issued a, a new newsletter with a story from the CEO, or a story from somebody in our field operations about something that they were doing, that was fantastic. I could see the impact that it had on the organization.
Just from day one, I knew this is exactly not just what I want to do, but truly what I was meant to do. I didn't know any of that at the time. But from day one, I just felt like this is my calling, and I've spent 30 years doing pretty much nothing but Internal Comms.
Jonathan: You mentioned that you can directly see the impact that it has when Internal Comms is executed.
Are there a couple of examples? Things off of the top of your mind that make you go, wow, this is why Internal Comms is so important in companies.
Jason: Well, there are tons of examples. A couple of early examples from that first job, oddly enough, I was working at a bank, which is where my mother worked when I was younger. Not the same bank, but you know, we had a bank president. We had all the functions you would imagine in a headquarters operation. And then, we had no branches all over the state of Georgia. I recall working directly with the CEO. This is my very first job right out of college. Very wet and green. He trusted me, and very early on, when we were working together, he brought me into his office and said, you know what? You're not here to communicate. For me, you're here to make me a better communicator. I just thought that that was the best advice I ever heard, and it still is because the job that we do in Internal Comms shouldn't be about us, and what we're trying to do on behalf of the company. It's what we're trying to do to make the leaders of the company stronger and to make their relationships with their employees stronger.
That very first piece of advice that I got working with that particular CEO has been the bedrock around which I've built my career, which is, we're there to make sure that all communications go through us. We're there to make sure that communications happen and that it's better because we're there.
Jonathan: I'm a big fan of research that's been done in our field. Luckily, we have a couple of agencies that do this. Gatehouse is one of them in the state of the sector, 2018 they've really researched the difference between how we perceive leadership in North America versus how we do it in Europe.
It seems that, if I remember this correctly, in Europe, our focus is made mostly on online management and direct leadership above, whereas in the States, higher leadership to CEO that you just described is a bit more prevalent. What kind of advice, considering the fact that you have more than three decades of experience, what kind of advice would you give to internal communicators that are trying to forge that bond with the CEO, to get them to really help them be better communicators.
Jason: I think a lot of times, particularly executives in the C-Suite, they're a little bit nervous and sometimes reticent to embrace their role as essentially chief communications officer for the organization. That might not be their title, but that certainly the role for the CEO and every other senior leader there. They've gotten to those roles cause they're really good at managing and leading and producing widgets. But nobody ever got there because they're really good at inspiring people typically. They really haven't exercised that muscle as much as we might have hoped that they would have along the way.
So it's our job to help them be much more comfortable at embracing their role as a communicator. Not just in the C-Suite. We want communications happening all over the organization, and we want frontline managers and leaders. We want middle managers and leaders. We want just straight-up regular employees to be really good at communicating, sharing and working well together. It takes a little bit of coaxing, some time to get those senior leaders comfortable with being transparent and comfortable being themselves. A lot of them think “I'm not a rock star CEO and I'm not the kind of guy who's going to be on a video and do amazing things”.
That's fine. You don't have to be. All employees want you to be yourself. The more authentic you can be, the stronger that bond will be, and the more trust you'll create. When trust is there there's really no limit to what that organization can accomplish, when employees trust their leadership, and when leaders trust their employees.
Jonathan: It might be a bit of an abstract question, but do you feel that that's maybe something that Internal Comms has much in common with HR, which is, you know, I've always seen HR as a department whose responsibility partially is to make a company more humane. Do you feel that?
Jason: I think what we do is similar to that. If you work in HR, clearly the first word in your function is human. A lot of organizations somehow forget that. It's our job to remind them on a regular basis that the whole reason we're here is that we're all working together as a team to help accomplish the organization's objectives.
The things that HR does and has to do, feels transactional. Onboard these people, promote these people, train these people. All of those feel like a lot of online transactions. Sometimes that's how they're approached, but it's our job to make sure that everything doesn't feel transactional, and that it feels more relational.
I feel like we have a role to play in helping HR, not just HR. But certainly, HR should be more human and be more relational and to accomplish all of the transactions that they need, with a human touch to them.
Jonathan: Would you say that you agree that these days Internal Comms really needs to change the way that they operate from exactly that transactional mindset that you just described, that HR often has to be able to take a step back and take a more strategic approach into communicating with your company, building those relationships.
Jason: Absolutely. I think we get so caught up in when is the next town hall? When is the next email? What is the next piece of content I need to publish on the internet or the mobile employee app? All of those things are incredibly important, but all of those things are just the what, the when, and the how when we're truly being strategic.
We're including the why and we're painting this story around whatever the data point might be. We have a unique role in that our jobs are to help tell stories that help drive the success of the business, not just relay data. Anybody can send out a PowerPoint with all the data points that anybody could ever want to possibly read, but none of that is important unless it's put into context. It's our job to help put that into context. To me, when you're really operating at a very strategic level in Internal Comms, you're figuring out how to tell that story with a heavy focus on the why, so that people begin to understand what it is that we're trying to do as an organization. Their role is helping the organization be successful, and then understanding what the organization is doing to help them also be successful.
We have a bunch of transactions and tactical work that we have to get accomplished just like everybody else. But if you truly want to be a trusted advisor, we've got to really focus on that strategic side, which is driving the culture and driving the business imperatives, and making sure that our focus is on that broader picture and not just checking things off a box that we have to get off our to do.
Jonathan: I've really hoped that every internal communicator now changes their definition of Internal Comms into driving. Using stories to drive success for the business. I think that's a beautiful way to describe what Internal Comms should be doing today.
Jason: It's no different from what our friends in marketing and advertising are doing.
They create wonderful stories to talk about our brands and our products, to get that content in front of consumers and customers. They've been doing it for a while and there's really no difference in that. That sort of art and craft versus what we do. Our job is to market and advertise to a select group of people who happen to be inside the organization.
We should use the same types of methods, the same types of data and research, and, and quite frankly, much more creativity in how we tell those stories. Outside of the office, it's 2019 and people are consuming content in lots of ways, making very individual choices about that and having all of that content be personalized, not just customized or personalized for them. When you walk into the doors of the office, sometimes it still feels like it's 2003. I can't tell you the number of times I've gotten a letter from human resources that starts out with a dear employee. I'm like, hey guys, I've worked here for 10 or 12 years. You don't know my name yet. Why am I just a dear employee? You know, there are so many easy ways that we can make that a much more relational feeling transaction, by just following in the footsteps of three methods that advertising and marketing have conquered years ago.
Why can't we do the same thing in Internal Comms? Why can't we still treat our employees the way we treat our customers? They deserve that.
Jonathan: So if I look at your two key points into doing that, they really revolve around treating them like humans and taking that relational approach and starting with your why.
Jason: Yes, absolutely. I mean, from the Dawn of man, people have told stories and it's a powerful way to share information and we should take our cues from that. Not stories for stories’ sake. but stories that really matter, that help to make all of the mission, vision, values and corporate objectives much more easily understood in such a way that the CEO and the C-Suite kind of defines those. All the way down in the organization to the very frontline employees. Everybody understands what they're doing and more importantly, why they're doing it. And how that has an impact on the organization. That's when we're really adding turn value. When we got 43 emails out, and 10 videos, and we did seven town halls this year, all of those things are great measures of those outputs, but it's the outcomes that really matter.
So how are we building stronger relationships? How are we helping to strengthen the culture? What are we doing to make sure everyone understands exactly what it is they need to be doing every day to help drive success? Not only of the company, but you know, their own personal success.
Jonathan: Bring it back a little bit to helping the C-Suite become better communicators. Starting with why it's going to be that big part of it, right? Is that really the key to getting them to open up to be that key figurehead of the organization towards everyone?
Jason: I think so. If you look at a typical town hall meeting, let's say your CEO is standing up there with a slide deck, and here are the results from our previous quarter. Those are great measures of whether or not we accomplished our goals. But all that is a look in the rearview mirror. All those things have already happened and we can learn from them. But more importantly, we need to stay focused out the windshield of the car, not just the rearview mirror. What can we learn from how we performed in the last quarter? How can we take that and use that to figure out how to perform better in the next quarter? It's not enough to just say here are the KPIs that we're trying to hit. Here's what our shareholders expect. You know, here's what our customers expect.We need to know all of those things. But the why is important around those things. Why is it important that we hit these numbers? And what happens if we don't hit these numbers so that all of those things are in context. People tend to like sporting events no matter where they might be in the world. I can't imagine going to a sporting event that doesn't have a scoreboard. It makes no sense to me to just say, here are a couple of numbers without giving any of the employees a full understanding of what it means if we don't hit those numbers and how we could go about. Doing a better job in hitting those numbers, you know?
All of that comes from the stories that are around those numbers. It starts with at least having some sort of a scoreboard, but also building the context around what those numbers mean and why it's important to accomplish that.
Jonathan: So basically, like my client said in his last research report for us, and then also one of his participants said data is great, but words are where the story lives.
Jason: That's exactly right. You know, some people can tell you all kinds of data points and they're all fascinating and interesting, but so what does that mean? Put that in context for me. You know, the speed limit says - don’t go over 55 miles per hour here in the US. Great. What happens if I do? What happens if I don't? Why is that important? So I need to hear the stories about safety. I need to hear stories about fuel economy. I need to hear stories about efficiency because that puts it in perspective. Otherwise, it's just somebody telling me something. With no real context around it, then that leaves it up to my own interpretation.
We don't always interpret those things the right way. So in a vacuum, let's just fill it with the right stuff so that people are interpreting it the right way.
Jonathan: Right? So the next time that the CEO wants to present a quarterly report at a town meeting, we need to sit with that CEO and say, actually, these numbers are great, but here's what the story is.
And this is what you need to talk about.
Jason: That's right. So let's pretend that the CEO has 20 slides that they're going to cover. 10 of those are typically what happened in the past, and 10 of those are what's going to happen in the future. Maybe it's five of those that talk about what happened in the past because there are some lessons to be learned from that. What's more important is the other 15 slides about what we're going to do to be more successful in the future and very specific examples of what to do. So if you've got a quality problem in the previous quarter, then specifically in this next quarter, here are the three things we need you to focus on to help us fix quality.
We had an on-time delivery problem in the previous quarter. Here are the three things that we need to focus on in this next quarter. More time needs to be spent looking out the windshield than the rearview mirror, with some context around what those numbers mean and why it's not enough to just say, here's what we're trying to hit. We need to, we need to give people a reason to want to do that other than I told you so.
Jonathan: Do you have any tips for internal communicators that are trying to help those C-level people form a story when what you're looking at is an Excel sheet with data.
Jason: One trick that I've seen that works really well is to have them look at that sheet, and understand what the numbers are of course, but then, put down the pen, put down the video camera, close it the laptop and have the CEO just tell you what happened, and what needs to happen, in his or her own words.
How would they tell that story to their spouse? How would they tell that story to somebody that they met on a train on the way to the airport? What would they say if they were just asked like a normal human being, how would they tell that story and get them to tell it that way? There's the crux of your presentation right there, that story. Then you can hang those other previous quarter numbers off of it, and then the next quarter's KPIs off of that. It starts with what is the story that we need to tell about what happened, and what we need to do next. The best way to get them to understand is to just have them do it. How would you tell me this if you didn't have slides if you didn't have a spreadsheet, what would you say? Get them comfortable with that. And then you can build all the other stuff around it. But it takes practice because they're not comfortable doing that, because they've never had to, and their careers have been exactly the opposite of that.
That's probably how they've gotten through those roles. But now their roles are different. It takes a mix of both of those things. They're just not used to exercising that other muscle. And it's our job, kind of as a personal trainer to help them exercise that.
Jonathan: So how do you make them comfortable then?
Something I've always been challenged with is we can help them formulate the story, and you can see clearly that they have a passion for the company. Most CEOs are entrepreneurial types that can be very charismatic even if they don't know it. So how do you help them get comfortable talking about this in front of a lot of people?
Jason: I think it comes down to helping them be comfortable with who they are. Not who they are as a CEO, but who they are as a person and as a leader. Like I said earlier, a lot of them have misconceptions about the way a CEO ought to act. Sometimes that gets in the way of them just being themselves. The more they can feel comfortable just being themselves, the less concern they have about being super polished and super on-script. The slide deck looking exactly the way it needs to look. Yeah, all those things are important, but what's more important is for that person to just be himself or herself, and to tell that story and be comfortable with who they are.
That, to me, it's a seriously important role that we play. We're in communications, but we're really in psychology and psychiatry, and a lot of other sciences because we have to use a lot of different techniques to make sure that we're bringing the best out of the people that we're working with.
Sometimes, it has everything to do with communications, and sometimes, it has a lot of other things to do with plenty of others. Things like confidence and courage, and a lot of other things that it's our job to help draw out from these leaders, and managers.
That means we have to wear a lot of hats. Somebody has to do it, and it might as well be us. That's how we become much more trusted advisors by earning that trust and helping those people who become, quite frankly, who they already are and being comfortable with that.
Jonathan: So do you have a couple of examples of CEOs that you feel are really amazing at being themselves and almost unapologetically unafraid to be like that to the world, and that's why people relate to them? For example, to me, Tony Fernandez from AirAsia, he really comes out to me to be one of those people.
Are there any particular ones that just jump out to you?
Jason: Elon Musk kind of jumps out at me. People can debate whether or not the company itself is successful, and they may agree or not agree on how that company has performed. But he's unabashedly himself, and he's got a ton of courage and he's not afraid to say what ought to be said, whether people agree with it or not. I think he's a good example. I think Tim Cook has done a great job at leading Apple after the visionary leadership of Steve jobs prior. That's a hard job to get into. I think he's done a masterful job of not just communicating what needs to be communicated when it comes to products or services, but just really embodying what Apple is, what they want to be, and what they aspire to be.
He's not afraid to be himself. There's also the CEO of Delta airlines here, headquartered here in Atlanta. He took over that company now two years ago. From every communication that I've ever seen from him, and I'm not privy to any of the internal communications, just the external communications, almost every single external communication starts out with some sort of point of view from the employee's perspective.
They have a customer issue. It starts with the employee perspective, they have an operational issue. It starts with the employee perspective. He is very quick to build his entire messaging track around how this matters to the organization and how our employees are gonna help us work on whatever that challenge might be.
It's not like he's been coached to do that. He's just naturally that way. And so I think those, those three, in particular, are good examples of people who have courage, and aren't afraid to be themselves and are very comfortable in their role, not just as CEO and putting on that suit every day and acting as the CEO, but truly being the leader of the organization and leading by example, not just going through the motions.
Jonathan: I think, and here's the key, but you said to be courageous and be creative with your ideas, but do make sure that you backed them up with data.
Jason: That's right. Because if you just go in there with an idea and say, I think we ought to have a pink elephant parade, they're going to go, well why do you think that? Oh, because I have 30 years of experience. Well, so what? It's just an opinion. But if you back that up with, I've talked with hundreds of employees across these three regions, and all of them have said the best thing that we could possibly do is have a pink elephant parade.
Then now you've got data that supports your opinion, and you've matched that up with your 30 years of experience, and you've weighed whether or not you think that would be a good idea. And based on what your experience tells you and what your boys are telling you, you know, now you've got, you know. The data and the research to back up that idea.
Otherwise, it's just some stray idea and opinion that anybody could have. Unless that's backed up with a lot of support about how and why it would work and why it would matter, That really is all it is, is an opinion. So if you want to provide that really trusted counsel and advice, you've got to be able to back it up with that data.
Jonathan: Do you think that new technology can play a big role in candidate data?
Jason: There's so much data we can gather now on employee choices and behaviors. What they like and don't like.
Even if all we did was look at the analytics on the backend of our technology platforms, that gives us so much insight into what works. I remember working at one organization and we had a senior leader who was just insistent on sending out, you know, ten-minute videos about whatever it was important. I was like, don't you think maybe you could do a two-minute version of this and that would be even more effective? Oh no, no, it needs to be ten minutes long. I was like, all right, why don't we do it both ways and we'll release both of them and then we'll just see. So, we posted the ten minute video and we posted the two-minute video content. Wasn't that different? You know, the two-minute video is just an executive summary, and then we went and looked at the analytics. Around three or four times as much engagement with the shorter video than the longer video. So now it's not just my opinion that a shorter video would be better.
It’s based on how people engage with it. It was easier for me to go and have that conversation with him and others that says, hey, seven-minute videos don't work, but two-minute videos, dude. And we should focus on that if we really want to get our employees’ attention. So that made it easier to propose the idea and to have the courage because it was backed up by that data.
Jonathan: Exactly. I want to poke one more time on a section of technology because you brought up some interesting views about artificial intelligence in our conversation last time, and the kind of role you see it play in Internal Comms. What is your vision? Where are we going in this world? Technology, what can Internal Comms do with it?
Jason: On the artificial intelligence front there are tons of platforms that can help automate things and look at data in ways that mere human eyes can't. To help you come to some conclusions about how, why, and when to do things better. I'm in favor of all of those technology platforms that can help us be better at our jobs. As I'm fond of saying, there's artificial intelligence and then there's actual intelligence. So as much data as those platforms allow us to gather, and it's easy to automate some of the routine tasks that we have to accomplish, we cannot lose sight of the actual intelligence that it's our job to gather.
Rather than sitting there at your desk and poking at your laptop and making all of these things run beautifully, get up. Go out, get out in the field, go to the manufacturing plant, go to the retail site, go to the customer warehouse and logistics center. Talk to people and understand what it is that they need and want. You might be delivering something very elegantly over and over an AI system that somebody really doesn't want. It's highly efficient but completely unnecessary. You won't know that if all you do is look at the efficacy of how that AI platform is operating, it looks like it's operating beautifully, but the reality is nobody wants it. You don't know that because you never asked anybody.
So get out, get out of your desk, get out of your office, or your cube, or wherever it is you sit and go talk to people - that actual intelligence is to me. You know, even more important than anything that artificial intelligence can do for us because it helps us to decide whether that AI solution is right, based on the people that we're deploying it for.
There's just no way to beat that, that actual intelligence piece of it.
Jonathan: I totally agree, Jason. We’re coming towards the end of this podcast, and in the end we always promised our audience an answer to the 60-second questions. So I'm going to time you and I'm going to give you 60 seconds to answer the following question. I hope you have a water bottle ready, and lungs filled with air. Here we go, Jason.
What do you feel in three decades of experience, are the three key skills that every internal communicator must have to be successful at what they do.
Jason: I would say the three things every internal communicator must have to be successful is number one, curiosity. You can never be satisfied with whatever the answer is. Except whatever you're told and have maybe one question, you need to have seven or eight questions that are lined up against whatever it is you've been told. That just comes from being naturally curious and wanting to know more. So you can tell more.
The second one being courage. I think it's incumbent upon us to be very creative in how we approach our Internal Comms challenges. I think we need to be totally confident in going in and recommending whatever it is that we think will work, and have the data that back up those decisions.
And then the third one, I think it sounds kind of crazy to say, but understanding communications is not just one way. It's not just us talking to employees. It's an opportunity for employees to talk back to us and to help shape what we do to help shape the decisions that are made in the C-Suite. To have a hand in creating the culture that we all know is necessary for us to be successful.
So if I had to boil it all down to three things, it would be those - curiosity, courage and truly understanding the role of communications and how and how it's practiced. Okay.
Jonathan: Went a little bit over that, but I'm going to forgive you because you summarized your answer beautifully for us. Thank you very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, this was Jason Anthoine. Thank you so much for being a part of this.
Jason: I appreciate your time, Jonathan. Thanks so much.
Jonathan: There you have it. Three decades of experience. Jason has formed a vision of internal communications that we can all learn from. In spite of it, he remains practical. If we want success with leadership, we need to realize that we're their confidant. We’re a coach, and we're the ones that help them understand that being them is exactly what the company needs. The rest will follow up. When we approach them with ideas, we need to make sure that we have courage, creativity, and importantly, data. But that data needs a human touch.
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I'm looking forward to seeing you there. Until next time.
Jason Anthoine is the managing founder of Audacity, a U.S.-based consulting firm focused on employee engagement, internal communications and culture change. With more than 30 years’ experience, Jason’s career includes leading global communications for GE Energy Management, an $8 billion manufacturer of energy and electrical components with more than 20,000 employees, and Newell Brands, a $16 billion manufacturer of consumer packaged goods with more than 30,000 employees. Earlier in his career, he also led Internal Communications for Southwire Company and Siemens Energy & Automation, both global manufacturers of energy and electrical systems and components. His other client work includes employee engagement and change management assignments for CIBA Vision, The Coca-Cola Company, Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts, Johnson & Johnson, Mars Chocolate North America and Time Warner Cable.