Mixing Board Studio Session: Amanda Atkins on a new era for internal communications
Internal comms used to be a thing that amounted to making the email from the HR team about new company policy read a bit better. Then it grew into producing the company all-hands. Regardless of the medium, it was long a tactical function for broadcasting a message to employees — not engaging them in a conversation.
Since then, lots have changed with internal communications. And the pandemic further accelerated a decade’s worth of transformation in about a year.
Mixing Board community member Amanda Atkins has the very meta role of being the head of internal communications and culture at Slack — a company, of course, focused on internal communications and culture. Amanda has led efforts around Slack employee and executive communications, change management, engagement, and culture for the company’s fast-growing global workforce since 2016.
Here are excerpts from Amanda’s Studio Session with Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett.
SG: How has internal comms leapt forward in the last year?
AA: I like to think of internal communications as the connective tissue that keeps everything in the company moving together in the same direction. With the pandemic, you have so much less control over where everybody is and where their heads are at and what’s going on. So I think internal comms has been invited to the table in new and different ways, and this gives us an opportunity to demonstrate that we are not just communication leaders, we are business leaders. We are influencing decisions that are made about employee policy, decisions that are made about how we are going to shift company priorities or goals, or how we are going to change performance management, policies and processes.
More than anything, the pandemic has demonstrated the fact that internal communications runs through everything that happens at your company.
It isn’t just about telling people the latest news scoop from what’s coming out of this department, it is about making sure that the company’s strategy is set up in a way that employees are going to be able to understand it and know how to use that information to make decisions about their work. It’s making sure that leaders are able to show up in the right way for their teams, and that’s a little bit different for every leader, based on what they do and who they are and what their personalities are, and being able to give them that coaching and guidance.
SG: Where should the internal comms structure sit within the company? Who are they reporting to?
AA: I have worked in a thousand different structures but I recommend having internal communications sit within a global communications team. This seat affords you the right level of independence so that you are able to be seen by employees and by executives as more of an objective party who has no motive to oversell and you’re able to give objective guidance. At the same time, you’re acting in lockstep with external comms and, since what’s internal is increasingly external, and vice versa, this is more important than ever.
I prefer to keep internal communications out of human resources. HR has a very specific purpose and goal, and a lot of times, that is protecting the company, which is great, that’s what they’re there for, that’s what they are trained to do, that is a very important function. But I think there’s an important check and balance there in making sure that you have somebody who really deeply understands the employees and can understand what they need, what will freak them out, what will make them happy, what will give them confidence and what is going to totally turn them against you.
SG: What’s the right level of participation in gaining input from employees, whether you’re changing your company’s mission or considering your purpose, what’s the right amount of inclusivity with employees on efforts like that?
AA: If you have a 50-person company, then it’s going to be a lot easier to give everybody a voice and to make sure that this is something you are aligned on. Even that is a large group of people, don’t get me wrong. That’s going to require some facilitation and some careful, thoughtful planning, not everybody is going to be happy, and it’s going to take some work to get that buy-in. If an organization has grown dramatically or something big changed or you’ve pivoted your focus, or whatever it is, then you can, very easily, try to over-involve people in those kinds of things. I recommend establishing an employee ambassador group, some kind of representative group of employees across your organization that includes folks at different levels, different teams, different locations, etc. We have one at Slack, I like to change it every year, we have a new “class” of folks who participate.
These are people who are manager-nominated, they are culture carriers, they’re the internal influencers, they’re the people who are going to be doing all the talking and the idea-sharing and the feedback-giving anyway, so being able to give them a very specific role where they can contribute in that kind of energy effectively goes a long way toward making sure that you are understanding the employee perspective and getting that kind of input and making sure that those voices are included in the discussion, without trying to engage a 500-person or 500,000-person organization in coming up with a new mission statement or a set of values, whatever.
And so this group is one that you can test messaging with or you can get feedback from or you can have them be eyes and ears on the ground, giving you specific input on what’s landing and what isn’t. It’s been remarkable how helpful it is because internal communications teams, communication teams period, are notoriously under resourced.
SG: What have you found successful to build trust and confidence in internal comms from employees?
AA: Number one, when you are first building out a function or when you first join an organization, spend a lot more time listening than doing. It’s valuable to spend one-on-one time with people at all levels of the organization and not just hole up with the executives at the top. You have to know them and you have to build trust with them, but that’s usually the easy part. It’s a lot harder to build those relationships throughout the organization and be able to have those be meaningful.
Getting some early wins that demonstrate that you have been listening is also helpful. So, right away, if I go into a new organization, I’m looking for what is the big obvious gap that’s driving everybody crazy and what can we do to, if not immediately solve it, to at least acknowledge it? My number one value as a communicator is transparency, and transparency takes a lot of forms. Sometimes, it isn’t, “I’m going to tell you everything that we’re going to do about this thing,” sometimes it’s just saying, “Hey, company, I recognize that this is a problem, I recognize we don’t have this right yet, and this is what we’re doing in order to work on it,” or even, “We want your help to figure out how to work on it.”
Being able to demonstrate that you are creating a bridge between the senior leadership and the broader employee base is really important, and that comes through action and being able to really see that there is something different happening here. If you come in and, all of a sudden, it’s just prettier emails being sent out to the company, then nobody’s going to care and it’s not going to make any kind of real dent in the business, overall. But lots of good things can happen if you’re able to start solving real problems, build real connections and speak people’s language without sugarcoating things.
SG: What are the foundational steps of developing an internal comms function?
AA: There are three key steps:
- Start with picking a change management philosophy that really works for you and go deep on it. I really like the switch framework, it’s easy and people can understand it. The idea is that in order for a change to be effective is that, regardless of how big the change is, people need to understand, emotionally, how it affects them, and they need to have clarity on what the path forward looks like. The framework gives you this great metaphor of a person riding an elephant down a path, and so you’ve got these three things to consider. The person on top of the elephant is the rational brain, this is the part where you need to say, “Here’s exactly what’s happening, this is exactly what you need to know, these are the facts.” The elephant is this big strong creature that, whether the rider is very skilled or not and fully capable or not, the elephant can completely go anywhere it wants, and that is what represents the emotional piece of change management. And so the elephant is really key here because you have to understand what about this change is going to scare people, what’s going to freak them out, what’s going to start getting them spiraling in a different direction, and how can you get out in front of that in the way that you’re communicating to people? So, if you know that a change is going to scare people, what about it is going to scare them and how can you make sure that you are proactively addressing that before they even have a chance to go down that scary path? And then your elephant is going to be like, “Okay, I may not totally love this, but at least I’m cool with it and I get it. My rider has the information that they need to direct me, I’m cool.” And then shaping the path forward so that the elephant and the rider both know where to go and how to get there, that’s where you’re showing people, “Okay, I’m announcing this change, and I’m going to show you what is going to happen next. I’m going to tell you exactly what to expect, I’m going to tell you what the mile markers are, I’m going to help you understand how this road is paved and where it is taking us and what it’s going to feel like along the way.”
- Build executive coaching skills. A lot of times, we act as pseudo-psychologists and therapists, whether it’s for employees or for executives, and I think being able to handle those big feelings and emotions and being able to give counsel and guidance through them is key to achieving the ultimate outcome, and so those skills can always help out in that arena. But I think those are two really cool fundamental ways to start.
- Get more in touch with your own experience as an employee. If you just want to start to feel things out, we’ve all been employees of a company at some point, almost certainly, and, a lot of times, if you aren’t thinking about that as a, “What is that experience really like? What are the things that are influencing that experience? Who are the people, who are the decisions, what are the factors that are making or breaking that experience?” And think about the fact that internal communications can potentially influence all of those things. And so it’s just a shift in perspective of, “What am I really focusing on? What am I really looking at? What does that stuff really mean? And how can it be influenced differently?”
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
This interview is part of a regular series of “Studio Sessions” with Mixing Board members. The live interview includes the Mixing Board community and invited guests. We regularly share highlights of many of those conversations here.