ICology: change communication and internal comms

Ep #11, Priya Bates with Inner Strength Communication

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Priya Bates is the President of Inner Strength Communication, a Toronto-based agency that focuses on engagement, branding and training from the inside out. In the episode of ICology, Priya shares her insights on the role communicators should play with change. It may be a bit cliché, but "change is inevitable" and communicators must be ready to help its organization through change. Change comes in many flavors and communicators need to have a healthy appetite.

You can connect with Priya on LinkedIn and Twitter.  


Episode Transcript

Chuck: Welcome to ICology, the podcast dedicated to interesting people doing interesting things in the world of internal communication. In this edition, you'll hear thoughts on the role of internal communication in change management from Priya Bates, Inner Strengths Communication.

This is episode 11 and second one here in 2016. In last episode, we talked with Paul Barton about crisis communication, and we sort of did touch on the topic of internal comms and change management. And I have to admit to the audience here, I feel a little icky saying this, but change is constant, change is never easy. Those are both very cliché statements, but they are both very true.

And honestly, it doesn't matter which industry you are in, whether you are in high-tech software, whether you are manufacturing, whether you are in education, healthcare, whatever that might be, it's true. Change is always around us. Now, some industries might change more than others, and we see that. They are always having the flips, especially in the technology world.

But if you are communicator, and you feel your company isn't changing, or doesn't have change programs, or there is no change management going on, my guess is you're not tuned in to your company, because it's happening everywhere. And what's great is it's increasingly recognized that internal comms is playing a role in helping employees, not only just deal with change, but also understand the change and then accept the change. But some still do question its effectiveness. Now, this could be on the practitioner level. This could be on the messaging level, but that's what we are going to address on the show today.

Employees need to hear a message over and over, not much different than consumers, before they believe that this time to call for change is not just a limb or passing fancy. For those organizations that change a lot, probably have to deal with a lot of skepticism that we know. Will the change stick? How much until the next change? And it takes time and efforts for employees to hear, understand, and believe the message that communicators and leaders are trying to deliver.

And the challenge here, we get into that skeptic a bit, if they don't particularly like what they hear, then it takes even more time for them to come to terms with what this change mean. And that's why leaders needs to talk the long story, one that motivates employees again, and again, and again. And that's what we are going to talk about today with Priya Bates. She is the president of Inner Strength Communication and a leader in employee engagement and change communication. Priya, welcome to ICology.

Priya: Well, thanks, Chuck. I'm really glad to be here.

Chuck: I'm glad you're on here as well. So as we always kick off the show, I like to have guests just quickly walk through their career. So why don't you, for the listeners in the audience, these are people that are in corp comm, internal comms, HR comms, sales, we get everybody here listening to ICology, quickly walk them through your experience?

Priya: Well, I've been a communication professional for more than 20 years now, and I started out in customer and marketing communication. And then I had this light bulb go off when corporate communications was added as part of my responsibilities in a tech company in the late '90s, and I realized that we can make a bigger difference from the inside out by actually educating and inspiring our workforce. What a concept, right?

That's when I took my first position dedicated to internal communications at Compaq Canada, and that became HP when it was acquired. And then I most recently led internal communications for Canada's largest grocer with a workforce of close to 150,000 people. And now, I'm president of my own business, Inner Strength Communication Inc.

Chuck: Now, I should also mention you are also our first featured guest from Canada. So welcome to that for our Canadian listeners that are out there. You and I have met. I think at the most recent IABC World Conference was the last time I saw you, but I always check out my guests' LinkedIn profile, see what they have been up to lately, and I noticed you have a lot of different acronyms after your name on the profile. So why don't you walk those through for everybody in case they go and look at your LinkedIn account.

Priya: Well, technically, Chuck, they're abbreviations not acronyms.

Chuck: Well, whatever we want to call them.

Priya: But yes, I do have a few acronyms. So ABC stands for accredited business communicator, and that's for IABC. MC means master communicator, and that's the highest distinction bestowed upon a Canadian communication professional by IABC in Canada, so that was pretty exciting. And CMP is the communication management professional. I was one of the first CMPs to graduate from the new global certification program that's being sponsored by IABC.

Chuck: So with all those to add up in my mind, you sound very legit here, which I like. That's good. So let's get into the topic here. Now, before we get to the IC angle on change management, I want us to break down and get into the word change itself. So how do you define change? You mentioned that it's part of your abbreviations, that is the new title. But how do you, Priya, how do you define change?

Priya: For me, change is disruption. It happens when you go from being comfortable to being uncomfortable and having to learn something or do something new. Does that make sense?

Chuck: It does. And as we said in the beginning, it is so cliché to say things like change isn't easy and change is constant, but it is an inevitability. I think there's even some old quote about it, "Don't change your diet," kind of thing. But when you were a day-to-day practitioner, and I think we're all communicators. Even people that wouldn't call themselves a communicator, we all communicate. But when you were in the day-to-day world of it, talk about some of those changes and the variety of changes that you went through. You talked about even going back to technology in the late '90s. There was all sorts of change going on.

Priya: Absolutely. And I think I'm a little drawn to organizations going through change. I find it really exciting, but that's kind of who I am. I love things evolving and learning things that are new. But I had opportunity to be part of the integration team during the HP-Compaq merger in the early 2000, if you were around then, what was a very complex proxy battle, and I had to wear two hats during that one. I helped plan and create communication from the new company, but I also had to keep the lights on at Compaq Canada during those uncertain times. And I was very proud of the fact that Compaq Canada had it very...they have a quarter and annual results, while it was going through to transition, and that was really cool.

I've been involved in acquisitions and the best features making sure employees that are being brought into the new organization are leaving their existing organization self-informed during transition and engaged as soon as possible once the change was official. I've called myself from times "the reorganization queen."

I've helped communicate reorganizations and restructuring every single year. I swear of my career. Between strategy and technology changes, leadership changes and integration, there is always something to reorganize, and employees need to understand and then continue with limited distruption. I helped launch new values and brands, and my latest effort was with IABC, where I lead the development and now adoption of the new brand. So the adoption deadline is June 2016 for chapters and regions around the world, and they are doing a great job. So I have no doubt that we are going to meet that deadline.

Chuck: It sounds like you have been...you said you are excited about it. You are drawn to change, and reorganization, and restructuring. But there's stat out there I've seen that says that 70% of change programs fail. Now, that's a very broad term, and we're applying very broad labels and big numbers to it. But regardless of how you label it, it's not a really good statistic for somebody to see there. If they're getting ready to undergo a big change at their organization, then it means 7 out of 10 don't work. From your experience, which has largely been on the successful side, but as you've monitored this and as you've watched this, what are some of the reasons why change programs fail? And then what can an internal comms professional do about that?

Priya: Well, as a communicator, I will always say a big part of it is the lack of communications. I think it's a lack of employee and leadership involvement before, during, and after the change. A lot of the times people think that change is being done to them, the decisions have been made, they don't have an impact. And you really need to drive ownership during change, and that's something that we miss. And I probably say a lot of role modeling by the leader is we are constantly saying that actions speak louder than words. So when people feel like change is being done to them versus it's a part of what the organization and they need to do in order to adapt, people will resist.

Chuck: What I see, too, is that communicators by nature are really good at creating content but sometimes forget the very important side of it, which is context.

Priya: Absolutely.

Chuck: Answering the whys and not just the here, here's what we are doing, but the why, and the how, and the becauses, and giving people that context of it, because I think at times, we underestimate the intelligence of some of our employees and how much they care about the business. If they feel that it is the right decision, they'll get behind it. If they feel it's a wrong decision, that's part of that resistance.

Priya: Absolutely and ultimately, what you are saying is about respect, right? It's about asking people's needs to understand and know what's going on and believe in the cause. And most of that comes from having a conversation versus having a one-way communication that's telling them what's happening.

Chuck: Now, in the past, you've shared three components that you've characterized or are very important to change communication. I don't know if you call them the three Ts, but they are all T-words. So we are going to walk through them. And first stop is team. Now, for those that listened to the episode we had with Ally Bunin, she labelled the best advice she ever received was, "Who else needs to know?" And we talk about team here. This more sounds like, "Who needs to be involved?" So when you talk about team, what do you mean on this?

Priya: I am a big believer in collaboration. I don't think anyone lives alone and in a vacuum. And communicators, by our very nature, need to work closely with the business and leaders in order to deliver the results. So depending on the change, I've worked closely with HR leaders, and legal, and IT, and training, and leadership, and it's that by working closely with people, is you ensure you understand the nuances and the different perspectives in order to deliver really successfully. So that's key.

Who needs to be around the table in order for you to have the big picture and understand every rule that's going on is really important. And it's been at the table. So many of our communicators are working hard to get there. Probably, in the last 10 years of my career, I've been at the table having those conversations, and they've been invaluable in terms of being able to deliver what I need to deliver.

Chuck: Yep, and one of the hidden discoveries that I've found from the psychology is how much things are starting to relate to each other. So again, period back to the previous episode we did with Heather Wagner, she talked about that seat at the table, and it wasn't just important to have an opinion but have a point of view. And so I think that's where when you talk about who to assemble around this table, it's not just who do you think needs to be around the table, but who does everybody else think that needs to be around the table to make sure that it is a very inclusive project, so that even if someone is resistant, at least they say, "Well, they've at least got the right people together to evaluate this."

The next T-word is tools. Now, this is obviously something that communicators are familiar with. We rely on tools. Some communicators, that's what they like to focus on. Others like more strategy. But what are the key tools that you see when it comes to change communication?

Priya: Well, you're absolutely right that internal communicators, especially, have a number of tools and vehicles at their fingertip, and whether it's existing infrastructure like your intranet, and your town halls, and you team meetings, and newsletters, or it's something that you create new that is really created specifically for the program like videos and tool kits, you need to decide based on the change what tools are going to be the most effective, and it's not a one-size-fits-all.

I think you always have to be careful. You mentioned that some communicators really like to focus on the tools, but then they just throw everything in every tool, and I feel like what we need to be careful of is creating too much noise out there. It's really being selective on the things that are going to work.

Chuck: I would imagine, too, that in going through a big change and getting these messages out there, it's important to have a balance of one-way and two-way tools be available.

Priya: Absolutely. So as much as possible having that ability to have conversations and dialogues around changes. One of the things that I've worked on in the past is with change management experts and change management forums that take employees through change: what's going to happen, where we are trying to go, and walk them through it as well. And that creates an opportunity for conversation.

Chuck: And then the final T here is tone. And I guess I maybe sort of touched on this when I added in context, but I think tone is a whole another layer, isn't it?

Priya: It absolutely is. The one thing that I've discovered is that this is something that is really important. Key messages and the voice have to set the tone accurately. And sometimes that tone is urgency, like when you are competitive environment has changed or your business is struggling. Sometimes it's empathy, like during a reorganization where you really want to provide an authentic feeling message that takes into consideration the emotions around that time. Sometimes it's excitement, because we are getting ready for a new opportunity.

And it could be a combination of tones during the evolution of a change program. But it also could be different based on your stakeholders. For instance, the tone we used when we acquired a major organization in Canada, that was really, really excited and celebratory. In our headquarters, there was a very different tone, even though the messages were consistent, when we had our leaders walking into the acquired organization and sharing the story.

Chuck: I would think, too, an important element of tone, and I don't like using this word, because it's used a lot, but it's the only one that's in my mind, is being authentic with that tone. I guess in my opinion, if you try to manufacture it too much, people are going to see through it. I think about past companies that I've worked at, where it's clear that benefits are being reduced, that it's negatively impacted employees' life, but somehow the company tries to add pretty pictures and make it sound better than it really is. And the tone just doesn't fit the message. So I would think that that alignment would have to be clear or else it's going to blow up in your face.

Priya: And I've also found that when you understand what the tone is, it's not manufacturing it. It's the matching the messaging with the appropriate tone.

Chuck: Well, I guess going into the consumer package role, does the package meet the product or the two align there.

Priya: Absolutely.

Chuck: Now, we've touched a little bit about leaders and the role of leadership in change, because honestly a lot of change communication and change at the center of organization is very top-down. When it comes to communication and change, how are leaders critical to the successive change? But then also, how can commutators themselves coach or work with leaders to become more part of the process and not just the person pushing change down through the organization?

Priya: Well, I think a lot of it is about building those relationships with leaders throughout the process at times, and I prefer to be really proactive with the leaders, ask a lot of questions, so that...because they'll have the information. You talked a little about authentic, creating those authentic messages. The conversations I have with leaders will draw that information out, and I will get a huge amount of my key messages from the things the leaders are just saying in a circle of their peers, because they really do have to make some of the tough decisions and understand how to talk to their employees in an authentic way in terms of why they're making those decisions.

So I really like working closely with them on that. Building that report is really about listening, asking the right questions, and then being able to provide the advice and counsel that you can deliver on. And the one thing we talk a lot about, I've been involved with Goldstraw a lot, is that really at the outset, determining what measurement, good measurement, looks like, what are we trying to accomplish in terms of results with the organization they can bring back to those leaders.

Chuck: And a great point you bring up is the exercise of asking questions. And I think so often, I don't know if it's a lack of confidence or fear of asking leaders questions, there are many times in my career where I've had to say, "I'm going to ask you questions. I'm not questioning you. I'm asking questions to understand." And I think there's a big difference between the two, and I think communicators need to be comfortable with asking, not the easy questions, but the really hard questions to make sure they are understanding that maybe it's getting the leadership maybe thinking about things in a different angle.

Because so often in the past, we've talked about this curse of knowledge that exists around communicators. I think sometimes leaders suffer from this course of knowledge where they know everything that is going on in the organization. And so they assume by default and natural bias everybody else does. So any questions can maybe draw out some of those gaps that can occur in communication.

Priya: And the questions exactly show that you're with me.

Chuck: That's true.

Priya: I used to say, especially in the tech industry, I was probably the most non-technical person who worked in the tech industry for the years that I did. And I'd always come to the table, especially with IT professionals saying, "I am going to use my ignorance to my advantage, because if I don't understand what you are trying, no one else will either." When I talk to communicators, I really try to emphasize that we want to stop being order takers. People see us as writers for hire, and if we are simply order takes, that's the only way we are going to be perceived. By asking the questions, they understand that we are listening. And by providing a point of view and advice and counsel, that sometimes is taken, we'll help that process.

Chuck: Now, one, the way I see it as one key purpose of communication during change is to try to prevent or at least reduce the amount of resistance that is out there. You should always know there's going to be some resistance. It's just sometimes how much and maybe where it's from. I think the more you can anticipate the volume, the quantity, and the source, the more successful you'll be.

So you would like to think that when there's resistance to change is low in organizations, and you would think that change effort would be higher, but me, I'm always a bit of a skeptic. I'm always sort of the people that I don't necessary resist, because I don't believe, but I resist in a way to ask questions. Back to that, what can communicators do to help employees fight through this resistance to change?

Priya: One of my strategies has always been to ask who are those who may fair, who are the people who are going to resist and engage them in the development and the process, because when you have an opportunity to engage those folks early, they are also key influencers. And it makes a big difference in terms of getting their issues and concerns expressed before you actually start going through change, so you are prepared to even answer to the questions.

I also find when change is happening, as we talked before, we need to make sure there's a lot of two-way dialogue, a way for folks to ask questions and have them answered. It's better to have one version of the truth versus the rumor melt take over. And having those meetings and Q&As;, that comes in really handy. I've always made sure during all my changes that every manager has a toolkit on here's what happened, here's why it happened, and here are the questions you may get, so you can be that first point of contact, and you can answer with some authority. And then when there's something more complex, here's where to go for answers.

Chuck: Now, the next thing I want to talk about here briefly is employee commitment. Now, I would imagine every employee has a unique work experience, every employee's individual experience is different. And for those organizations that are constantly changing, it's got to be hard for employees to...they commit to the change philosophy, but committing to each change, and what's going on, and whether that's new software being rolled out internally or some sort of new platform, or is it a company that's going through a lot of acquisitions and mergers in time after time. So is there a way that communicators can get employees, get their mindset to change and commit to the idea that change is here, and I need to be a part of it?

Priya: One of the things I always talk about is that the best-in-class organizations have proactive internal communications and proactive internal communication infrastructures. They communicate during good times and bad, and the trusted infrastructures during the good times will serve you really well during a crisis, because it's already there.

People trust those vehicles. They trust those leaders, trust those managers, and they trust the process, so that whether that process is being used in a crisis or in a celebration, it's just a process, and they are not resistant to it. There are too many organizations who say I am going to start communicating, because we are going through something tough. So really building that infrastructure and engaging that internal communication support all the time is really important. I also...sorry, go ahead.

Chuck: No, please go ahead.

Priya: Okay. So also, if an organization is communicating proactively and regularly, change shouldn't be too much of a surprise. And that's something I've maintained over the years that I have worked with companies that have been growing through tremendous change, because most of the time the changes, that are been created, whether it's mergers, or acquisitions, or reorg, or [inaudible 00:24:33] are in line with a strategy that's overly articulated. It's a bit of an extension of here's what we're doing, here's why, and this is what we've always said we're going to do, and where we're always going to focus.

Chuck: Yeah, and you bring up a great point, and shame on me for not thinking of that before, but the role and concept of trust and change management, I think back to when we see the stuff that comes out from Edelman and Edelman Trust Barometer and how people, they trust their peers, they trust their managers, but then trust begins to erode. But I would imagine in those organizations where you do have a very strong trust in leadership, and the CEO, and president, and chair, whoever this organizational structure might be, that that's got to dramatically help organizations going through change.

Priya: Yeah, I don't know if anybody has done any research on it, but I'm sure there is some research out there somewhere, but I guarantee that those companies that have the high trust also have really good internal communications infrastructure in place.

Chuck: Well, probably, if they have high trust, they probably also have success through change, great IC structures. They probably have also high engagement with employees, so trust can, I guess, be a little bit of a linchpin here for a lot of what's going on. But I also want to talk about...those are some of the good things component. But what are some of the bigger mistakes that you see communicators do during change programs? Is it not communicate enough? Is it not provide context? What are some of those mistakes that you see communicators make that they could easily fix to help programs in the future?

Priya: I guess, a couple of things. I think that it's the whole idea that believing that there's simply a formula. In the tech industry, when I worked there, we called it vanilla or off-the-shelf solutions. The truth is every organization culture and issue is different, and we need to understand the big picture and do the details, stakeholder analysis, and decline the milestones, because they are always different.

When I see people try to put a formula to this change project, that's when they tend to go off the rails. It's also communicators focus so much on their tools, and they send every message through every tool, and what we tend to create is a lot of noise. So we need to be really careful of, I always say, teaching people to ignore you, because the minute that people just hear noise that seems irrelevant, they don't listen when it matters. So I actually am a believer of doing less and doing it really effectively, because that can also build the trust and everything else that we are talking about.

Chuck: Well, and so often communicators want to look at their peers or their organizations to see what they did, and what worked, and what didn't work. And while that is still very valuable, you bring up very good point in that what works at one organization, simply may not work in another, because I love the science and math of this, and we talked about formula, the variables are different at your organization. Just because you are both in the same industry, and you are both maybe the same size, but if that's all where the similarities are, the same thing may not work in the same place.

Priya: And every leader is different, too. I know, Chuck, you've probably worked with a million of different executives out there, and you really need to figure out a communication formula that's going to work that leader in that comfort zone in order to drive that authenticity.

Chuck: Agree 1,000%, Priya. So I want to thank you for that, the Q&A we went through there around internal comms and change. And so what's the final piece of advice you would want to share with listeners? Again, these are people that most likely are in communication. Perhaps they've now realized they can do better when their organization is going through change or they're getting ready to undergo big change within their company. What's the piece of advice you want to share with them?

Priya: My big piece of advice is have some courage. As a profession, we need to change perceptions that we're not just simply writers for hire. We need to step out of our comfort zone, I call it, and ask the questions, take more risks in order to get that, become that trusted adviser that we aspire to.

Chuck: That's a great piece of advice. So Priya, I want to thank you again for being a guest on ICology and sharing your knowledge. Again, I know it's one of those things that I said in the very beginning that it is inevitable, it is constant, it's never easy, there's all these clichés around it, but it is an opportunity for communicators to really step up in an organization and be a proponent, be a true leader, but more importantly, be a true business advocate for their company and be a big part of that change.

ICology is a listening post for communicators. This is the place to hear stories from professionals like you who can aspire them to be better communicators, because I think we can all be better communicators. Please follow ICology on Twitter @LearnICology. To show how this is growing, we are only 11 episodes in, but I'll be launching an ICology website here early this year. Of course, it will be a place for you to, not just listen to the current episode, but go back and listen to past episodes and hopefully much, much more. So Priya, again, I want to thank you. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening.