ICology: Building a strong internal communication foundation

Ep #47, Stephanie McCarty with Taylor Morisson

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Stephanie McCarty is the VP of Communications for Taylor Morrison, one of the nation's largest home builders and land developers. Before joining Taylor Morrison in June 2015, Stephanie worked in communication roles for Apollo Education Group for more than five years, along with stops with Insight and ON Semiconductor. She's experienced in both internal and external communication.

In this episode of ICology, she shares examples of how she and her team are helping the company build a strong foundation of internal communication, including launching a new mobile-friendly intranet. Roughly, Taylor Morrison employees are split between sales and on-site construction. This creates a communication challenge that Stephanie and her team met with the new intranet.  

They also helped craft the company's employee value proposition, called TM Living. It's a shared set of attributes, and tangible and intangible characteristics of working at Taylor Morrison, and includes three main tenets:

  1. Spirit and pride
  2. Community and giving
  3. Health and wellness

In this episode, she also talks about a creative approach to get messaging to employees by internalizing their own "Carpool Karaoke." Leaders were reluctant at first but the fun approach was well received by Taylor Morrison employees. 

You can connect with Stephanie on Twitter and Linkedin

Episode Transcript

Chuck Gose: This is ICology. It's a podcast about interesting people, doing interesting things in internal communications. In this episode I'm with Stephanie McCarty from Taylor Morrison. If internal comms is your passion, then this is your podcast. Listen in. Hello I'm Chuck Gose, the host of ICology. Thanks for listening to this episode. One of the great things about this podcast is one, I get to dictate the content, but two, it's also a chance just to feature communicators who are doing great things in a day to day life of an internal communicator.

Today's guest is someone I met years ago. First through IABC. We met at one of the world conferences and she's risen up through the ranks in communication working for a few different organizations. I consider her both friend and communicator. Stephanie McCarty, from Taylor Morrison, welcome to ICology.

Stephanie McCarty: Thank you Chuck. I am excited to participate and it's truly an honor.

Chuck: As I've shared on previous episodes, I'm oddly obsessed with this new podcast called "Tell Me Something I Don't Know" from the guys at Freakonomics so I'm going to completely copy one of their techniques here. Here's what I do know about you Stephanie. You're the VP of Communication at Taylor Morrison, and before that you were the Director of Communications at the Apollo Education Group. You're also an Arizona State Sun Devil who does not understand the concept of winter, and you're infatuated with your daughter Hazel, as you should be. Stephanie tell me something I don't know about you.

Stephanie: Well I'm sure there are a few things that you don't know about me Chuck, but something that is a little unique, when I was really young my mother once told me that I was allergic to chocolate so that I wouldn't eat it. I've actually carried that with me now. I did find out later in life that it was a lie, and she didn't know that to be true. I don't eat chocolate anymore for fear that maybe I would have an allergic reaction to it.

Chuck: That's an amazing parenting win there.

Stephanie: Yeah I think I might try it on my daughter. It was a successful tactic.

Chuck: It's like how my children are convinced that they do not like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and I'm happy that they believe that because at Halloween time I get all of them.

Stephanie: More for you.

Chuck: That's exactly it. We've known each other for a while. As I said, we first met through IABC so I have to ask, is being on ICology the most exciting thing you've ever done professionally?

Stephanie: Well I would start with, I'm not a brown-noser, so I'm not just going to jump right in and say yes, but communicators are without a doubt my favorite people. They are my species. They are my kind so I love the opportunity to give back. Truly honored to participate. I know I've been giving you little jobs here and there. I've been following the podcast and it's a great resource for internal communicators. It's introduced me to a few of my colleagues that I might not have heard about or known about the great work that they're doing. I'm actually really excited to be a part of it and truly honored. Something I'm very excited to be a part of.

Chuck: I'm going to use a little home builder pun here. Under the Taylor Morrison roof, what are your key responsibilities there?

Stephanie: That's a good question. It continues to evolve. I've been here just under two years and have been able to really define what corporate communications could look like in our home building space. If I had to put it really in simple terms, we're the creator and keeper of the company narrative to all of our constituents. Creating the consistent message, making sure that it starts internally, and that our employers are very well informed and educated of what we're trying to do. They can be our greatest brand ambassadors. We own all of our external communications as well and shareholder communications. The narrative starts and ends with us and that's the primary focus of my team's responsibility.

Chuck: A lot of people may not be familiar with the name Taylor Morrison. Some people might, some people might not. Explain a little bit about the company. Obviously people now hopefully know that it's a home builder.

Stephanie: Sure.

Chuck: Sense of the size, scope, and scale of the organization.

Stephanie: Taylor Morrison, we are a leading national land developer and home builder. We operate across the country coast to coast. We have 17 divisions. We're in all of the top markets. We have about 1,800 employees. We actually don't build homes. I tell folks we facilitate home building, we're more or less your general contractors, but we build beautiful homes for all stages of life for all different consumer segments. We have a unique population. We're, I'd say, pretty much half divided by sales folks and construction. Think you've got your sales folks who are chipper. They're naturally a little bit more communicative, and then you've got your construction guys who put their hard hats on and they're out in the fields. They're a little bit harder to reach and have a very unique way of communicating and being communicated to.

That lends itself an opportunity to think through how we communicate internally in different ways. It also keeps our job exciting and fun.

Chuck: What are some of the things that you've done to reach, and I'm going to correct you on some little bit, I assume you have some construction ladies as well.

Stephanie: Of course we do.

Chuck: That was a little jab from myself. What are some of the creative ways because there is sort of that traditional, the way a lot of people look at internal comms is like oh people have a desk so they have these tools, oh people are non desks so they don't have these tools. How have you balanced communication between what I will acknowledge are two very diverse audiences.

Stephanie: When we first got here we knew we had something that really blocked the opportunity to get in front of construction. While they do have job sights and access to computers, that's not where they're spending their time for a significant part of the day. Luckily we were able to get in touch with and really convince our leaders in construction. All of our superintendents or area construction managers, they all have Ipads, and that's actually how they log and schedule starts and closes, and keep the teams updated. We were actually able to push out our internal intranet out in an app that they can access through their Ipad. We're able to reach them in a very similar way, and we do a round the horn way of collecting all of the top stories and pushing that out to them also via email.

It's still very digital. Technology allows us to communicate with them through the device itself and the tablet. I think there's still a lot of opportunity on how we can tap into that audience because I don't think we're doing it the best way yet today. Still an opportunity for us.

Chuck: In a presentation I saw you shared, it was something very Vince Lombardi-ish that you had on the slide. You said that culture isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing. My question to you is, is it the only thing?

Stephanie: That is our CEO, Sheryl Palmer, it's one of her favorite quotes. As the concocter of the Kool-aid, I'm the first person to drink the Kool-aid too so I do believe that. It might not be the only, only thing so that's the caveat. It's the most important thing I think without a solid strategy and alignment, culture there won't be much to do so without the culture you certainly can't do much, but I think it does go hand in hand. I think there's a few different quotes out there with strategy eating culture for breakfast, and yada, yada being the only thing. I also think that culture is just simply a shared way of doing something with passion, and that's how we view it here at Taylor Morrison.

Chuck: While we're on this culture bend, what are three words that you would use to describe Taylor Morrison's culture, and how do you think it might be a bit different from either other organizations you've been at or your competitors out there?

Stephanie: I would say Taylor Morrison's culture, it's warm. It's open, transparent. It's fun. That was more than three, but-

Chuck: You went four but that's alright.

Stephanie: I'm not in math. I'm in journalism and communications so I'd say our culture, certainly in our sector and in our space is much different. I think the tone at the top, we have a female CEO, which she's the only female CEO in all of home building so naturally it's more warm. It's a little bit more communicative and that sets us apart. We also attract a fair amount of employees because of that. We talk about things in a different way. Now we have peers and colleagues that at some of our competitors, and it's a very incestual industry too so everyone's been a part of other home building organizations as well so when they come over here and I ask them how it is different from our culture and communications style, you know it is more human. It's more real. It's more engaging. Everyone has a voice so I would also say that our culture's very flat. There's a lot of open doors. We're not very hierarchal if you would.

That's different. For other industries and other organizations that I've been a part of, I think every communicator has faced that moment in time, hopefully not too often, where they're ready for a leader where you're almost just pulling everything out of you to write something that you know you really just don't believe because of maybe it's the leader that you're working for or it's a difficult message, but we don't have that here. We're very fortunate that we have a very transparent, honest, genuine, authentic leader and that makes our job much, much easier.

Chuck: One of the things that I like about employee value propositions is that it puts the responsibility on both the employer, and the employee to own up to that. Probably more so on the company, so I'm curious, what is Taylor Morrison's EVP?

Stephanie: We're actually getting ready to launch our EVP at the end of this month. It's taken a long time to really cultivate what we think our employee value proposition is, and we got a lot of feedback from our employees. We asked them what they care about most. What really sets Taylor Morrison apart? Why they come to work each day? What they love about this place. From that and recent employee engagement surveys, we created TM living, which is the name of our EVP, and it's really the foundation of a shared set of attributes, and tangible and intangible characteristics of working at Taylor Morrison. It's based on three core tenants. The first one being spirit and pride. I think that really captures the passion that our employees have for Taylor Morrison and what we do. We provide beautiful products. We build beautiful homes and communities for our customers that they can live in and raise families in.

That is something that we don't take lightly and we are empowered behind that. Spirit and pride is the first one. The second one is community and giving. Not only are we in the business of building community, and not just quality homes, and we take that charge very seriously so our culture reflects that commitment to serving others and the spark for creating an internal employee care fund, our own charitable foundation that's launching later this year. Our division's donate a lot of time and money to causes that are important to them and to their division.

The third one's really about health and wellness. We think about health and wellness and a whole person's health and wellness program. It should include a variety of activities that improve our employee's fitness, encourage healthy behavior both mentally and physically to cultivate that sense of well being. We think that if we help employees be better professionally and personally, that that'll carry into all attributes of themselves and all areas of their lives. Through establishing TM living in our EVP, we also used waggle to crowdsource a new internal purpose statement. We had more than 400 submissions out of 1,800 employees, and more than 1,400 votes. Finally came up with an internal purpose statement that really feeds our EVB too, and that is building a better tomorrow for your family and ours.

Everything rests on that. We're excited about our EVP. We're teaming up with our people services team to make sure that it's a true representation of what we want our culture to be, how we can talk about our employer brand externally, how we can rally our troops inside and get them really excited about what we do each day. I think it will, over time, as you know EVP takes a long time to fully engrain itself into an organization, but I think over time it'll be another differentiator for us as an organization. We're really, really excited to launch it.

Chuck: I think it's interesting that the health and wellness is a big part of the EVP, so in an earlier episode this year, interviewed Hillary Gabso, from Reebok and there was we talked about how health and wellness is a big part of their internal brand and obviously that makes sense. They're a fitness brand so health and wellness should be a part of that, but this is an example of where in your line of business it's not that direct correlation, but still health and wellness is a big part of the employee life and the company encouraging them to be healthier and happier at work.

You had mentioned earlier about this intranet launch that you had, and there are a lot of people who for lack of a better word, poo poo on intranets. I was on a call earlier this week with someone who actually said he's surprised that companies even still invest in intranet so obviously you believe in the power of an intranet and recently launched TM 360. What is it that you like about intranets, and describe some of that process of properly rolling that out to make sure that employees could take advantage of it.

Stephanie: I am. I'm an old soul. I'm a big believer of intranets. I think that there's a way that you can do them well. I think that there's a way that you can do them not well, but I really believe that beyond the technology it's truly about the content. When I got here in June of 2015 we did have an intranet present, but we didn't really have anyone that cared about the content. In order to provide a way to increase the frequency of content, change the content strategy we went through a whole process with our IT team to really create a new intranet that was appropriate for the kind of communications that we wanted to share. The frequency-

Chuck: Wait a minute. I got to interrupt you here for a second. You successfully partnered with IT is what I'm hearing.

Stephanie: I didn't say it was easy. I didn't say it didn't come without its moments of banging heads on walls, but we did it successfully over time. It's an evolution. We continue to find ways to enhance our intranet to meet the growing and changing needs of our workforce. I'd also say that home builders aren't super communicative. It's a very, very local business. There was an argument of do we even need a national communication platform. There's a lot of selling that went into the front end of it. We had to say, "Hey don't worry about the content. Let us worry about the content. IT executives you just need to give us the tool and we will prove to you that it is a successful investment and a worthwhile investment."

We've lived up to that. We share I'd say three or four stories a week. We have a very robust content calendar and now when I go out to the field and I talk to our employees they can't remember what it was like before TM 360 when they had visibility into areas of the business that they didn't previously have. They had opportunities to congratulate their peers across the country on successes. They had the opportunity to weigh in, comment, engage with peers, again, across the country that they wouldn't have had that opportunity before. TM 360, our intranet, has been wildly successful, and we hang our hat on that success. We were able to build a lot of credibility early on by sticking to our guns and saying that the intranet was the way to go for Taylor Morrison, and it is. Now we have this great foundation to continue to build upon.

Chuck: Now that you've had this foundation what are some of the goals or any new things you want to have for 2017 and beyond to keep building on that platform?

Stephanie: We're looking into other tools, other things that we can integrate into our intranet. We're looking into recognition platform, creating our own app or partnering with an external vendor who can help us create our apps so that we can send alerts and communications directly to people's mobile device that they have in their hand all the time. We're exploring a lot of different options. We're riding the wave. Our intranet just turned one in February so we had a big birthday celebration and got a lot of feedback on what we've done well. We used it as an opportunity to give back again to all of our users and thank them for a great year. We turned on a few enhancements to the tool itself. Now we're actually building out division sites, so we're taking it down that next little air so that everyone will have their own mini version of TM 360.

Again, it is a very local business and each of our divisions run pretty independently. Giving them a change to communicate within their own teams, and guiding them, and training them. That's next on our to do list and our evolution of our intranet and TM 360.

Chuck: In 2016 you also launched something around leadership called the second story, which is another good home pun. What exactly is that?

Stephanie: We're really creative with our program names. The second story simply is a renewed focus on improving core aspects of our operations. I think a lot of organizations that go through rapid growth like we did. We went through three or four acquisitions in my first nine months here, expanding us into four or five new markets and adding in a total of almost 500 new team members. When you grow that fast, you kind of lose sight of some of the basic more foundational ways of doing business. I don't want to say it's a cost savings program, but it's a transformational program. There's not a part of our business or a discipline that won't be touched by some level of change. The degrees of change will be different, so the second story was really created, of course there's a play on words.

We've got the logo that shows a house and a book. We talk about having a solid foundation, which is really our people, and our first floor consisting of excellent product, core locations, and the foundation and the first floor have to be sound, which here at Taylor Morrison they really are.

Chuck: Let's close this line of questioning with something you did that looked like a lot of fun. I love seeing communicators copy, imitate, steal things that they see externally and then bring them internal. Especially if it even might seem a little silly or take people out of their comfort zone. You did your own version of carpool karaoke. Talk about some of the background on this, how it played out, how you shared the videos. All that kind of stuff.

Stephanie: Yeah so we did Taylor Morrison carpool karaoke. One night Dara Silverstein and myself, we were talking, we were brainstorming ways to really engage our leadership team in different ways. We knew we wanted to incorporate video throughout the conference. It was the carpool karaoke, I think Adele's episode had just come out and it was being shared everywhere. I was in a meeting, I believe with Sheryl and our CFO, Dave Cone, and I was like, "We need to do a carpool karaoke." Admittedly both of them were like I don't know what that is. We watched a few episodes, a few minutes of each, and I got a no across the room from I'd say four or five of our executives.

I was like, "Come on, come on. It's a very creative, fun way to get some messaging across." Of course when you put four executives in a car, you don't have a reason to be singing, so we did have to script and be very strategic in the songs that we sang, but we sang "Highway to Hell" and we made up a scenario where we were talking about a plot of land that came into our investment committee and why it didn't get pushed forward into development, and then broke out in song. We chose Tom Petty "I won't back down" and our CEO sand that in regards to leaders wanting to see more changes to the bonus program. We added in a little bit of humor there.

We did "Shake it Off", the premise to carpool karaoke was we were on our way driving to the venue where our leadership conference was and we were really excited about it. We were able to have a lot of fun. We weren't really sure how people would feel about it, but we played it the first day towards the end of the day, and then the second morning they asked to watch it again. The video was actually played twice in a two and half day conference. Now we try to sprinkle in other ways to continue to that pop culture way of sharing important information or messages that we think if we don't portray it, or display it, or send it in a creative way might not get the same traction that we know it should. We're also looking for creative and fun ways to reach our audiences.

Chuck: Can I recommend on a future episode of carpool karaoke perhaps maybe "Brickhouse".

Stephanie: Brickhouse.

Chuck: That might be a good one.

Stephanie: You're done with your home building puns.

Chuck: There is one thing I have to get off my chest. You're, I saw you shared this on LinkedIn. Your CEO is known for walking around with no shoes on. Is that correct?

Stephanie: That is correct.

Chuck: Yes. Okay. That's cool. You have to just tell me one thing. When she flies, does she keep her shoes on?

Stephanie: It depends on the time of day.

Chuck: That's a wrong answer. That is the wrong answer.

Stephanie: I know your thing about shoes off on planes, but you know Sheryl is known to kick her shoes off any time of day. Certainly in the office. You're hard pressed to find her with her shoes on. I have flown with her a handful of times so I'll let you know the truth, she does keep them on on the plane. You're safe flying with Sheryl Palmer.

Chuck: Let's move along now to the lightning round of the interview Stephanie. This is a chance for listeners to learn a little bit more about you. Are you ready?

Stephanie: I am.

Chuck: What is your number one traveling pet peeve? If it's somebody that takes their shoes off that's going to be really funny, but carry on.

Stephanie: Yeah. I think I can't say that. Number one traveling pet peeve, I have a child, so I can't say loud, obnoxious children either. I think it's moreso when you're on the plane, and people use your seat as leverage to get up and get down. I actually try really hard not to touch anyone's stuff while I'm getting in and out of my seat, but apparently that's not a widespread courtesy. I'd say that's my biggest pet peeve.

Chuck: What's a book that you recommend every communicator should read?

Stephanie: There's so many. I would say to my female counterparts and colleagues out there to read "The Confidence Code". There's so much out there about women in leadership roles, regardless of the craft or the function, but I'd say a lot of times we get in our own heads and sometimes are self critical of the work that we do. I think we need to empower each other to not only be proud of our successes, but empower each other to achieve more. I learned a lot, a great deal, from "The Confidence Code", and it might not be about the craft itself, but it makes you show up at work a little bit differently. That transcends across all of our work. I think really the outputs that we do every day.

Chuck: That's a great recommendation. What's a tool that you rely on to make sense of your world? This could be an app, this could be a website, possibly even a hammer. There's another home building joke for yeah. Could also be some past guests have said Spotify, or yoga. What's a tool that you rely on?

Stephanie: I rely on the purity, the innocence of my toddler. If I need perception or if I need a reminder when coming home from a really long day and I need a reality check, it's really seeing the world through her eyes. Because that's lost. Becoming an adult you lose that view of the world. I always try to see things through her eyes and I've only been a mother for 19 months now, and I'm grounded. Because we all have really hard days and I take work home with me all the time. I'm grounded every night when I come home to her. There's your cliched mother response.

Chuck: I was going to say that's a really sweet answer, other than you just called your daughter a tool, but that's fine.

Stephanie: Hey you know. Not in that sense of the word.

Chuck: What is the best piece of advice you've ever received and do you remember who gave it to you?

Stephanie: I would say the best piece of advice, I actually just received in the last couple of months here at Taylor Morrison. We have a new Chief People Officer. His name is Jess Terry and he came from, he just came from Roundy's. They were recently acquired by Kroger's. He's phenomenal. He walks around he tells everyone to be the CEO of their career. I think when you actually show up to work and you know that you are in control of your own destiny, I think you take a different approach to the work that you do. I know that I've shown up differently every day since receiving that little tidbit. I think it's pretty powerful. I have shared that with me team and I think that everyone is the CEO of their own career. I think that's something that I keep with me every day, especially when I'm feeling a little down or not really sure what I should be focusing on, or how I align to the business, or how I align to Sheryl's expectations for the day. I think that's a powerful piece of advice.

Chuck: Now's the chance for you to share a piece of advice for listeners. Obviously there are a lot of communicators who listen to the podcast. There's also just a lot of people in business that want to get better at communication. What's a piece of advice you'd want to share with them?

Stephanie: To really get better at communications, a lot of it starts with reading. Read as much as you can. Be informed. I think I ask a lot of questions. I'm really curious. I think that served me well. I think in communications too you have to understand every part of the business. You can't really be a true partner to a business, or an operation if you don't ask all the right questions and you find the mentors within your organization that maybe you built a good relationship with and you're not afraid to sit down and ask some questions. I don't know how to build homes. I can barely swing a hammer. I cannot hang curtains. God bless my husband.

Having the humility to sit down with our VP's of construction, and have them walk me through what a blueprint, how to read a blueprint, and how to understand the challenges and obstacles that they face every day allows me to be a better communicator and to serve them more meaningfully. Ask more question, read a lot, and really immerse yourself into the business.

Chuck: That's a great piece of advice. There have been times, I would consider myself a somewhat inquisitive person, and there have been leaders who have responded to that sometimes not so favorably, and I've had to explain to them I'm questioning to understand, not questioning to question. I want to understand your business. I'm not asking because I think you're doing something wrong, I'm asking to learn. I think you're right. That does take a little bit of courage, and confidence, but also some humility to not be afraid to sometimes ask a question that to somebody else might be blatantly obvious. We're not talking about asking dumb questions, we're talking about asking questions to help you understand the business.

Stephanie: Absolutely. I would hope that with any communicator you found the right organization, and the right fit for you, and that your leaders won't look at you that way, and they'll understand that you truly are seeking to understand so that you can provide a better service to them, which means the outcome of the work will be more meaningful. It'll be thoughtful, deliberate, and resonate with their audience. They need us. We're not a nice to have, we're a need to have. If they're not forthright with sharing some of that information and teaching, it impedes our success.

Chuck: Stephanie I want to thank you for finally agreeing to appear on a ICology, and taking the time to do so. I know that one of the things, internal communicators by the very nature of the business, are internal and yet they always want to seek out externally what peers are doing. I think you've provided some great stories, some great insight into what you're doing there at Taylor Morrison, and I'm sure people will reach out probably to learn more about some of the things you've accomplished.

Stephanie: I hope so. Again, thank you for having me.

Chuck: Visit learnICology.com to catch up on all the episodes, get to know guests better, read blog posts, check out events. All episode transcripts are available there as well. Please check out the new and refreshed periodic table of internal communication at elementsofic.com. Follow ICology on Twitter @learnICology to pick up show announcements as well as other IC news, and if you're not already a subscriber, listen to ICology on Itunes, Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast. If you enjoy what you hear it'd mean a great deal if you took the time to leave a review. If internal communications is your passion, ICology is your podcast. Thanks for listening in.