ICology: Making your internal communications more personal

ICology ep 15,  Kristin Hancock with the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba

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Kristin Hancock is the Manager of Communications for the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba. She also serves on the Program Advisory Board for the IABC World Conference. There are a lot of communication managers out there but few that are true leaders. Kristin is one of these leaders. 

In this episode, hear how Kristin conducts her weekly staff meetings to improve the employee experience. And the lessons learned are ones that any manager can use to enhance staff meetings that might have become boring and dry. Maybe it's not the staff meetings are boring but the content or the person leading them. Kristin discusses this and her unique approach. 

Resource: Meeting template (PDF)


Episode Transcript

ChuckHello, this is Chuck Gose. This is Episode 15 of ICology, and as I've thought more and more about making my way through this podcast, what I've realized is that often these past episodes really what I've been doing is recording conversations that I'm already having or would have already had with communicators from around the world.

In the last episode that we did with Simon Wright from Gatehouse, we learned about this disconnect between what communicators view as far as line manager communication and just overall manager communication but also what they expect from managers and how they communicate.

So today's guest, I met at last year's IABC World Conference. And in past episodes, I've talked about the importance of Twitter for internal communicators and how I think more internal communicators should be using it. But I met Kristin Hancock because she Twitter-heckled me. So basically I was doing my presentation, finished up and looked at Twitter, and there was Ms. Hancock making some funny but very poignant accusations about me not representing my alma mater very well, presenting at the World Conference. But anyway I've gotten to know Kristin since then, and mentioned the recorded conversations I would have had.

As a communications manager, she's created this great tool to help guide those in communications and those outside of communications and how to better manage people. So it's not directly related to the world of internal comms, but I think it can be a great tool to help communicators educate managers on how to communicate better by providing a very simple and important structure for them.

So Kristin Hancock is the Manager of Communications for the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba. Kristin, welcome to ICology.

Kristin: Thank you. I'm excited to be here. And for the record, I was heckling you because I wanted you to bring the mascot dog with you to your presentation.

Chuck: That's right, so this is a little shout-out to Trip, the Butler University mascot...

Kristin: Yes,

Chuck: ...who I did not properly recognize apparently in my presentation.

Kristin: ...who you did not travel with.

Chuck: But also congratulations on having the longest title of anybody on the episode so far.

Kristin: Oh, thank you. That's quite the honor.

Chuck: It is, it is. So before we get started, explain what the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba is.

Kristin: So we're a regulatory college. And for anyone who's listening in the US, the equivalent for you guys would be your State Board of Nursing. So we set standards, professional conduct issues and licensing. So we're not an association, so we're not specifically representing nurses, and we're not a union, so we don't deal with any labor issues. So it's really about the registration and licensing aspects and then setting education and practice standards. And then, of course, we deal with professional conduct issues or the regular way of saying it, complaints.

And our communications within that, what I find interesting when I connect with other communicators is that we would be viewed as somewhat boring, but mostly because we have such strict standards about what we are allowed to communicate and how we do that.

Chuck: Well, I think that'll be really interesting to some people because they do deal within a lot of regulated industries where I think they feel that their hands might be tied a little bit or they have to go through legal and sort of this bureaucratic effort to get communications out. But correct me if I'm wrong, the staff there is quite small. You have a strong team, though, in place, but your reach is pretty broad. So why don't you describe your responsibilities there?

Kristin: Sure. Our staff, specifically at our head office, is only about 30 people. So definitely compared to a lot of other guests you got on the show, we're very small. Our communications team is three, so that's tiny, probably. But having said that, we deal with close to 14,000 registered nurses throughout the province of Manitoba. So the people we are trying to communicate with is a large audience, but our specific kind of goals within our own corporate head office is very small.

And then our communications team, we deal with everything. So we are internal. We are external. We are everything in between. All of our publications, documents, all that kind of stuff, comes out of the three of us, and then we work with graphic designers and video production companies outside of our organization.

Chuck: Now as you've mentioned, you've got a communications staff of just 3 to 30 overall staff. I think for a lot of companies, they'd be quite envious of that ratio.

Kristin: It's funny you say that, because you mentioned that to me when we met at World Conference when I was asking about the ratio in larger companies. And I hadn't thought of it that way, but it's a good point; 3 to 30 actually isn't bad.

Chuck: Yeah, but you're the communications manager there. Why don't you talk about your approach to managing your team?

Kristin: I think my approach would be the same as how my staff approached me as well. We're all adults, so it's really about treating each other that way. I don't necessarily see it as managing my team as opposed to us developing ways that we can all work together. I used to joke that I had won the staff lottery, because I have such great staff here. But now that I look at it more carefully, it's really not a staff lottery. They were hand-chosen and they were selected very carefully, and I think that's where a lot of that relationship starts is choosing the right people to be on your team in the first place.

Chuck: And other than outing you as a Twitter heckler, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on this show is that I caught wind of how you run your staff meetings. And again this is where I talked about it's not just communications staff meetings. These are just normal staff meetings. These are meetings that could happen in a different department. They could happen in a quality department. They could happen in a hospital, retail, whatever it is.

You see a lot of employees complain about the number of meetings they have. They're sort of standard weekly, and all of a sudden it chews up so much of an employee's time. Now one could argue whether or not the complaints are valid or their meetings are valid, and that's going to be different across any organizations. But you do have these weekly staff meetings. Why are they important to you or why is it important to have them?

Kristin: It's funny. We have such a small team here in communications, and we all physically are near each other in the office. So I think there's a misconception about communication with smaller teams, and I think it's easy to think that the larger the team you have or the more people that you're trying to communicate with that the more challenges you have. And we laugh sometimes that the challenges we have with three people are fundamentally the same as I guarantee that people have with 3000 people. So we're just a really small microcosm of what I'm sure everybody else experiences within their own teams, because those same challenges are applicable in any organization with any number of people.

I guess that you had on your podcast earlier, Rocky Walls talked about the argument that people's attention spans aren't shorter, your video content is just really boring, and that's why people don't want to pay attention to it. And that's always my argument when it comes to meetings. Do your employees hate going to meetings or do they hate being bored because those are two very different things?

So I think that's part of how this started. I think, and my first thought was, we need to have some kind of regular meet-up with just the three of us to go over the basics of what we're working on and just to catch up. Things get busy no different than in a large organization. We're all running around trying to get our jobs done. So it's nice that on Mondays we have a usually 30-minute, maybe 45 minute meeting. I will note that I do not call it a meeting, not that that makes a huge difference, but we always call it our communications coffee party. So every Monday morning, we have kind of a quick, 30, 45-minute coffee party and just kind of catch up.

And location is important to me. We don't usually sit in our office. Sometimes we have to. We'll go to the lunchroom. We'll take up another meeting room space. There are times, especially in the summer, when we'll go offsite and just have coffee somewhere else, because I think there's a lot to be said for getting your head straight without having the distractions of being in the office. And when you're sitting in your own office, it's easy for other people to come in and interrupt, and that weekly meeting is our time to catch up and our time to get things straight for the rest of the week, so I don't want any interruptions.

So it really starts off the week nicely. There's often snacks. It's very important to us to eat at our meetings. And it kind of gives a structure to guide the conversation, and we rotate who hosts the meeting every week. So that is maybe a little bit different than how some people run their meetings. But that was really important to me when we started so that everyone has a chance to bring something to the table.

Chuck: Why do you think it is important how you package things? You mentioned you don't call it a meeting. You call it a coffee party. I know personally I would much rather attend a coffee party...

Kristin: Right.

Chuck: ...than a meeting. So you mentioned this rotational basis of host for the meeting. There's a lot of managers out there who would feel like, "Nope, this is my staff. I'm in charge. I'm at the head of the table." So for you, what's the value in not having the managers host the meetings all the time?

Kristin: I think there's value for everyone in rotating that kind of responsibility. I'm a big believer that people rise to the expectations that you set of them. And if my expectation is only ever that you show up and listen to what I have to say, that's a pretty low expectation. And it's really about accountability and responsibility, too. So if you're responsible for setting up the meeting and hosting the meeting, there's a different level of accountability there. You've got to get the materials ready. You've got to make sure everyone can make it.

And I just think there's an engagement level there that forces people to be accountable, and it makes it more enjoyable. You get to set some of the content yourself, and you get to make some of those decisions. And I guess it depends maybe on what kind of growth you want for your staff or what kind of growth your staff want for themselves, but for us, we have a younger staff and I think all of us are looking for more opportunities to grow and potentially move up into roles with more responsibility.

So this really gives everyone a taste of what it's like to host a meeting and what it's like to invite people and set a topic and be the main conversation piece for that meeting. So it's kind of about what I'm leaving behind. None of us will be in our roles forever. And then it's just kind of that piece of growth that everyone has a chance to learn how to do something new.

Chuck: What I want to get into now is talking about sort of this form that you've created that provides the guidance for the meetings, because I think for those people that might be uncomfortable changing something the way it's always been done or doing something different, this form really creates an easy way that anybody can adopt the structure. It's very simple in nature, but I think it's pretty amazing. So talk about the evolution of this form and what it is today.

Kristin: Well, I wanted some piece of structure for the meeting, because I think it's easy to say that you can all sit and talk about what you're going to do this week, but if there's no structure to the meeting, things just kind of spiral out of control. And I will admit with the three of us and being younger and female, it tends to go all kinds of different directions. So it was important for me to have some kind of structure but still allow for conversation within that. So I kind of pulled different ideas from other organizations I've been a part of or other seminars I'd sat in on, and mashed them into one. We call it our Comms Coffee Party Worksheet.

So the structure of it really, at the top, talks about your goals from the last meeting and whether you were successful or not and why. But the main component of it, the meat of it, is two sections; one is work related and one is personal. And each one of them talks about the best thing that happened last week, what you're most looking forward to this week, something on your mind that might distract you, and then what you want to accomplish by the end of the week. And for your work life and your personal life, you fill out both of those sections.

It's fun in a lot of ways, because you get to catch up and find out what people did last week and things like that. But the nice thing is it gives people a structure to talk about what is going on in their life at work and outside of work that might impact one or the other. So it really gives that structure, but there's room for discussion within that structure. And then each week, whoever's hosting the meeting picks a different learning topic. Last week, we did something on changes that are being made to Twitter. A couple weeks ago, it was personality styles and conflict resolution. So the topic can be anything that you choose that could be interesting in work or in life. And then there's a conversation about that as well. So there's still structure within that hosting responsibility. It's not just you need to bring the snacks and ask what everyone's doing. There's still a format for how that happens.

Chuck: We talk about employee engagement. There's this big, giant ball of content and conversation going out there. But I think one of the elements that so many people miss on the topic is the personal aspect of an employee's life that when you look at these engagement surveys, it's all about the company. It's not really about their world. And that's what I think is the most genius element of your meetings is mashing up the employee's work life and their personal life, and putting them together, because that's the world the employee lives. They're not isolated from their personal life at work. They're not isolated from their work life in the personal world.

So as a manager, why is this important that these two worlds sit side by side in this meeting?

Kristin: Well, I think you hit the nail on the head, and I know we've had this conversation before. I don't think work-life balance exists. I don't think that we should strive for that, because I think it's impossible. The word "balance" itself implies that your work life and your personal life are going to be equal all the time, and that's never going to happen. It's impossible. The best you can strive for is harmony. And I don't want you to check your personal life at the door when you walk in, because I don't want you to be a robot at your desk. I didn't hire you to be only the person that can exist at work and not function in any other way. We hired you because of your personality and how you interact with a team. So a lot of this concept of work and life molding together comes from the idea of being responsible for your own energy. And if energy is a weird concept, then just being responsible for your own mindset.

So the form provides structure to acknowledge how you're feeling that week or that day in particular. And what I've found is an interesting thing happens when people are allowed or encouraged to acknowledge what their mindset is going into a meeting. And for example, say if there's something on their mind that might distract them, it's interesting. It's two-fold. On one hand, if someone comes into the meeting and says, "Oh, I had a terrible morning. I burnt my toast and my kids aren't feeling well, and I ran late and I slept in," and whatever else, the staff that work with them, every time, will always say, "Oh, man, that sounds like a really crappy morning. Sorry to hear that. Can we help with something? Do you need to call your kids' daycare? Do you need toast?" Something like that.

But the other thing that happens is when you acknowledge your distractions or how you're feeling when you go into that meeting, you instantly feel better, because other people will understand it, because we've all been there in some way or another. And when you know that other people are understanding and are willing to help out if they need to, or at least they're providing a space and an opportunity for you to share that with them, you'll feel better. So it actually helps your day too. It's sort of an unintentional side effect of doing that. But it just provides the structure to acknowledge that there are other things happening in your life that may impact your work, because that's reality for all of us.

Chuck: Well, and we've all worked with those people who are 100% comfortable with dumping all of their life's problems out on the table for everybody to see. And then there's some employees who don't and aren't. And I think that this allows, especially those that aren't, that it's not they're dumping problems. They're just sort of letting people know...

Kristin: Right.

Chuck: ...what's going on in their life. And for those that do like to dump their problems, they're limited to a little, tiny square piece of paper.

Kristin: Exactly.

Chuck: They'll be able to do that. So it has to feel great as a manager though to know that you're creating this very comfortable environment for employees to share their concerns, whether they be personal or work-related.

Kristin: Well, I think that I may have provided the structure for that, but from that initial structure, we've all fostered it. And it really didn't take long. I do want to say just because I know that when I share this idea with people, they often assume that the three of us are all best friends and we hang out on the weekends and that's not the case. So we all get along really well and are aware of what's happening in our lives outside of work, but I do want people to know that this is not a situation where the three of us are good friends outside of work.

And I share that because I don't want that to be a reason that someone would not implement something like this. You don't need to be best friends to be able to come into a work environment professionally and say, "This is what's happening outside of work. I might be distracted as a result of it." It doesn't have to be a big life event. It could really be anything or it could be nothing and that's fine too.

Chuck: Well, and when I first heard about this, and I approached you about it, I think you probably got the impression I was overreacting to how you do these meetings. And you seemed really surprised when I shared with you that I don't think many, and I will say if any, managers approach staff meetings, team meetings or coffee party meetings like this. So why do you think they wouldn't?

Kristin: It makes me sad. I can't be the only one doing this. There has to be somebody else out there, or at least I hope that more people do now. I think maybe part of it is time. I know we're all "meetinged" out most of the time, and the thought of hosting another meeting or even scheduling another recurring, weekly meeting maybe is a bit terrifying or frustrating for people. But then my counterargument to that is you as the manager are not responsible for preparing for every single one of those meetings. There's three of us on our team, so we rotate week to week, which means once every three weeks, I have to host this or I have to get content together for it. And if you have more people on your team, it's even less than that.

So if time is the issue, that's my argument to that. If you think that employees won't like doing something like this, I guess that's always possible. But something very interesting happened. We had a, I call it, a retreat but I use that term loosely. It was just a full day. We didn't go anywhere for longer than that. But we got out of the office for a full day a couple of months ago really just to plan for 2016 and talk about what worked, and what didn't work, and what we want to accomplish and all those kinds of things.

And the one thing that everyone said, let's not change, was our coffee parties. And I was maybe a little bit surprised, but not shocked because that's the time when we get together and get to plan what we're doing as a team. That was the piece that everyone wanted to keep. So I think that in itself speaks volumes about the value of it. And this wasn't me saying we can't get rid of this. It was me asking them, "What do you guys like that we're doing?" And everyone said, "Well, let's not change our Monday morning coffee parties because they're really valuable."

And then I think for the personal questions, I think we're always quick to assume, "Oh, nobody wants to share personal stuff at work, and it's not appropriate." I think it is appropriate. I think it's necessary, and they're optional. So you don't have to share your life story, or like you said, you can within the short box context of the form. But I don't know. I think that people crave connection at work and at home and everywhere else. And if you can offer the opportunity for your staff to have those connections at work, professionally people will jump at it.

Chuck: Well, and I think there's this perception out there, especially all the managers, that they're afraid of being accused of having fun at work. And fun can come in a lot of different shapes and forms. It could just be your employees enjoying what they're doing at that point in time, which could be that staff meeting or that team meeting, or it could be...the personal side, it could be these amazing things that's going on in somebody's life. So it doesn't always have to be something negative or something they're struggling with. It could be some amazing news or something really exciting in the world that they want to share that then their co-workers can be a part of.

So I think it provides this really safe but encouraging structure to get employees...again, whether you're in communications or not, it's a way for communicators to take this to other people and say, "Hey, here's an idea if you want to gauge your staff a little bit more or maybe you don't do it every time. Maybe you do it once a month that you do this." It's a way to start learning about who you are, who your co-workers are and what's important with them. But we talk about this form like it's this static thing that just sort of sits there and people fill in but there are changes to it.

So, for example, you sent me a couple, and the one I was looking at that was from January 6th, which I assume was probably your first meeting of the year. And it was focused on things like lessons learned from the last year or whatever employees might be excited about coming up this year. Another one you shared with me talked about an article that employees needed to read before they came to the meeting, so I guess a little bit of homework, I guess, if you want to call it that. So for you, is this so that the meetings don't get stale, there's sort of a little bit of changes going on?

Kristin: Yeah, and I think it's a good point you bring up about the distraction comment, because the way that the form is structured and the exact wording is not, "Here's something negative happening in my life that I might bring to work." The question is, "Here's something on my mind that might distract me." Maybe you're planning a birthday party for one of your kids. That could be distracting in itself. It doesn't have to be something negative. And I think that's what keeps it fresh as well.

So having different hosts, the almost unintentional side effect of that is that the conversation changes and the topic changes. So the structure at the beginning of those questions from work and personal life are the same every meeting. But the theme of it might change, and so it gives us a different focus every week. And it's interesting and it's kind of fun.

So, like I was saying earlier, our meeting a couple of weeks ago, one of the people on our team had said, "Oh, there's really interesting proposed changes happening to Twitter." So that was a very work-related learning topic. She sent out the article to us by email ahead of time and said, "Here, check this out before our meeting because we're going to have questions about it." So then underneath that section of work and personal questions, she developed three questions about how do you think this might harm our profile, how can it change for the better, what can we do to adapt to it, and we had a really interesting conversation about it.

And sometimes it's not work related at all. Sometimes it's about personality styles or things happening in our city that week that might affect us at work or at home. So it just gives a bit of structure or focus for our conversation, and I think that would be really useful especially if you have a team that either isn't as close or is larger that you need more conversation or more structure to happen. There's that learning element that changes every time.

Chuck: And then with those personal boxes on the form, because again I think that's what stands out to me is people talk about their work goals or problems they might be having but it's that personal element. But as a manager, so let's say an employee is uncomfortable answering the personal questions. And let's say somebody never does. What does that signal to a manager? Do they have to fill that out? Or to you, as a manager, what does that say about that employee if they never bring in their personal world?

Kristin: So, first of all, they don't have to fill out any section of that including something on their mind that might distract them for work or their personal life. And, in fairness, sometimes there is nothing on your mind that might distract you, so that's fine too. It's funny you say that. I thought about that when I first put the form together. What if nobody ever fills this out? And it's never happened.

So it has happened on occasion where someone has said, "You know what? I don't really have anything on my mind outside of work that would distract me here." "Okay, great, move on." Has it happened consistently where one person never wants to fill that out? No. I would say if it did, that's their choice. It's still up to them. We're providing an opportunity for that to be shared. If you still would rather not share it, that's okay too.

I think what happens is that because it's an environment where people feel comfortable doing it, you also don't have to go into detail. So you could easily just say, "You know what? There is some stuff going on at home right now. I don't want to get into detail, but I might be a little distracted today. That's fine. All I'm looking for is for you to acknowledge your mindset going into that meeting and going into that week so that we know that there might be something else going on and that's okay. We can all adjust to that."

And there's the section at the end about goals. It just says, "By the end of the week, I want to..." and then at work and in your personal life. There might not always be something that week in your personal life that you need to accomplish. That's fine. You don't have to have a personal goal every week. If you didn't have a work goal every week, I'd probably start asking more questions about what you're doing all day. But in terms of the personal side, no, it's completely optional. And there are times where people don't fill it out, but more often than not, they do.

Chuck: And for those that are wondering what this form looks like, I'll be sharing images of this form on Twitter at the @LearnICology account, not with Kristin's answers on it. These are just...

Kristin: Oh, please do. That would be entertaining.

Chuck: But really, Kristin, I think this is where this helps communicators, I think, in three areas. One, as a communications manager of a team, it's a new way to do these check-ins with employees and really get them sharing, get them talking as a team. I think if you're not a manager, this is something you could take to your manager or director and say, "Hey, why don't we try this?" or, "Why don't we do this once a month," or, "Let's do this every week," or something to where again it creates some camaraderie, gets people sharing, gets people talking. So you don't have to be in the leadership role, I guess, to pitch the idea or suggest it.

But also, as a business advisor, so many communications people want greater visibility within a company. This is a tool that you can take to other departments and say...or maybe it's sort of you're an add-along to other meetings. You suggest this as a way to shake up the structure of these meetings, where employees, as you said, might be bored. It's not necessarily they're tired of meetings. They're just tired of that meeting because it's not that interesting. They're just being talked to, whereas this could create a greater team mentality.

So I know that you said you don't think it's a big deal. I think it is a big deal. And I think it's a great way, no matter where you are in an organization to...we're always going to have team meetings. We're always going to have staff meetings. Those are inevitability. So why not have a little fun with it and build some of that team environment. So thank you, Kristin, for sharing your story.

Chuck: And then what's a final piece of parting advice that you want to share with listeners? We have a wide variety of people that listen. It's business owners. It's obviously internal communicators. It's HR. What's your piece of advice to help inspire the listeners on this episode?

Kristin: Have fun. That's always my advice for people. We get so bogged down with working and trying to get tasks done and stressing out about things, so have fun. Call your meetings coffee parties instead.

Chuck: Right. And in a previous episode with Natalie from Hampton by Hilton, they even came up with little titles for themselves. They're not the official titles that are on their business cards, but it's something that sort of speaks to their strengths and who they are. And I think, again, having fun is so great.

Chuck: So, Kristin, I do want to thank you for being a guest on ICology. Like I said, I think that what you're doing with your team is a great example, not just for communication managers but for people that want to become better communicators when they're working with their staff.

ICology is a listening post for communicators. It's a place for them to hear stories from professionals like you, Kristin, who can inspire them to be better communicators, because I think we can all be better communicators. Please follow ICology on Twitter @LearnICology. And very soon an ICology website will be launched. It will be a place to not only go listen to the past episodes, but many more internal comms resources. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thank you for listening.