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HOW TO MAKE AN IMPACT IN YOUR FIRST 90 DAYS AS A HEAD OF IC

The first 90 days in a new role as head of internal comms might be the most important three months of the whole job. You can make a big impact if you listen, analyse and act, says Leah Bowden. 

26th May 2018

Eight years ago, little did I expect to be where I am today. I’d just started my communications career with nothing more than a belief that ‘I could write’ and a desire to make a difference.

Happily, the desire to make a difference is still there. Only now I know there’s much, much, MUCH more to internal communications than the ability to craft a pithy sentence.

So eight years later, here I am. A very short time into my first head of internal communications role.

I suspect my younger self would have assumed that by the time I had reached the lofty heights of ‘head of’, I’d have seen it all and would know it all. Funny. My present self strongly disagrees.

I’m constantly learning how to do things better – from friends, peer networks and colleagues. That’s what I love most about the internal communications community – our willingness to share. And I suppose this is my attempt to give back.

So, whether you’ve just made the same move as me, are considering taking a similar step, or you think you’re a few more years away, here are some of the things that I’ve learned along the way and I hope will help you when the time comes.

First, the good news…

You’re the boss.

And, now the bad news…

You’re the boss.

That’s right. For the first time, you’re the ultimate decision-maker. You can do things your way, which sounds great. But now the success of the team and the function is entirely in your hands.

It’s an awesome responsibility to have and one I think it’s good to start preparing for long before you get it.


Prepare now for the role you’ll get some day

  • Stay current with best practice. If your professional qualification is over five years old, or you don’t have one, consider refreshing your knowledge and/or attaining chartered status (on my to-do list!).
     
  • Meet other IC professionals regularly, especially those from outside your industry.

 

  • Practice visualisation: what would you do differently if you were the head of internal communications in your organisation? Reflect on it and note it down.

 

  • Start now to be an order-shaper, not an order-taker: pitch for campaigns you believe the business needs but no one has thought of running yet.

 

  • Internalise and vocalise your successes, forgive your failures.

 

  • At the end of a project or campaign, write it up using the SOAR (situation, objective, action, result) model so you have a book of your own case studies on hand for the day when you interview for The. Next. Step.

 

  • Develop and nurture your personal brand. Practice in-house. If your company doesn’t do one, conduct your own 360-degree appraisal to get feedback on what people say about you when you’re not in the room.


Now you’re there, what are you walking into?

There are a few different types of scenarios you’ll be met with when you take on your new role. Broadly, they fall into three categories:

  • Sustain – The structure, governance and tools are already there. You’ve got the right people in the right places, doing the right things, and the business is looking for a smooth transition with more of the same.

 

  • Turnaround – Internal communications doesn’t have a good reputation in the business. The function is seen as a post box not a strategic partner. The team is not working as a cohesive unit with its wider stakeholders.

 

  • Grow – Your predecessor has done the groundwork. Basic governance and frameworks are in place.  There are pockets of good work. Your job is to take the function from good to great.

 

Identifying which scenario you’re faced with is key, because each has its own particular challenges.

If you’re in a turnaround situation, it might be easier to make a positive impact than if you’re stepping into an already high-functioning team, for example. But where do you start when there’s so much to do?

If you’re stepping into a sustain situation, how do you distinguish your leadership from that of your predecessor?

At this point, I think it’s important to think about your legacy. When you look back on yourself in three years’ time, what‘s the one thing that you’d like to be known for doing really well? This is your focus during your tenure.

You can’t do everything, so do one thing really well and be remembered for that.


Listen, analyse, act: your first 90 days

It’s true that the first 90 days are really important. That said, you have more than just three months to make an impact, but it’s important to plan your time nevertheless.

I’ve broken my 90 days into three stages. Listen. Analyse. Act. These three stages correspond broadly to the first 30, 60 and 90 days.

 

Listen

The first month is a great time to objectively appraise your new employer. Trust your gut-feel, make a note of your impressions. Walk around your offices, floor to floor, and take photos. What’s on the walls? Is everything current? Consistent? Build your ‘as is’ story with evidence.

Culture: how do you feel? This will change quite quickly so how you feel over the first few weeks is crucial. Make a note. If you have an induction within the first month, talk to others in your group about their first impressions of the culture.

Be visible: map your key stakeholders and meet as many any possible. Talk less about communications and more about their businesses, the issues they’re facing and ask, “What would you do if you were me?”

Do you have a team? The question I like to ask is, “What’s your passion project?”  Getting to know what gives each member of the team energy is really important. Sometimes, they’re passionate about something that they never get the opportunity to work on. Look for ways to change that and leverage their passion.

If you don’t have recent insights (by which I mean less than 12 months old) into how internal communications is perceived across your business, now’s the time to carry out an audit.

As a minimum I would recommend doing a survey alongside some focus groups to get both qualitative and quantitative data. When looking at the composition of focus groups, talk to HR. They may have run focus groups post-Employee Opinion Survey (for example) and have already cut the people data for a representative sample that you can follow. 

In the first month, you’re “always on”. Talk to people when you’re making cups of tea, find out what they think about internal communications. Listen for everything.


Analyse

The second month is when you start analysing everything you’ve been hearing, experiencing and gathering together over month one.

Study your key stakeholders: have you identified allies and resistors? How can you turn the resistors into advocates?

What are your survey findings and what themes are coming out of the focus groups? Ideally you want to aim for an overall response rate of 37 per cent for your insights to be “statistically significant”.

You also need to keep an eye out for where your responses are coming from. If you have 500 people in your customer service team and 100 people in your finance team, but only 50 from your customer service team complete your survey compared to 75 people from your Finance team, you’ll be basing your insights on a majority view from a minority and it won’t be representative.

Create a channels matrix: what channels do you have and how are they used to best effect? Do you have the tools in place to measure the effectiveness of each of those channels?

Does your company have an analytics team? Can their lens (and talents) be turned internally to do an in-depth content audit on your intranet / ESN? This will tell you what content is working for whom and when in your organisation – and what’s not.

What governance is in place? What’s lacking?

What’s the management culture of your organisation: do you need frameworks and principles rather than strict governance?

Are there any other sources of information that can give you some insight into people, culture and communications? EOS can typically be a good source.


Act

Now you’ve listened to your organisation. You’ve analysed the information you’ve gathered. It’s time to act.

By now, you should have some rich insights into how internal communications is perceived and has been carried out across the organisation, as well as how aligned it is to your organisation’s shared purpose and business goals.

Depending on what the results of your analysis are telling you, here are some good ways to make a difference:

  • Co-create your own internal communications purpose statement, strategy and objectives with your team (aligning with the business, of course) and share it with your stakeholders.

 

  • Use this to agree some principles for internal communications – both what the business can expect of you as a function and what you expect of the business.

 

  • Present the evidence gathered from the Analyse phase back to your senior stakeholders. Show them a view of the present anchored in reality (let’s call it “the problem”), then show them what you’re going to do to make it better (“the solution”), and how you will measure your impact going forward.

 

  • Ever-used to acting behind the scenes, I also think it’s time for IC to get out in front of the cameras (so to speak) and PR the IC function. Do lunch and learns, webinars, toolkits – make it your mission for everyone to understand what you do, why you do it that way and what good internal communications looks like.

 

  • If your organisation treats you like a post box, consider a blanket strategy like “no random emails’ to get people to think twice before demanding an email go out the very next day with very little thought behind why.

 

  • At the end of ninety days, make time with yourself to review your first impressions. How have your views changed now you’ve started to be absorbed into your company’s culture?

 

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if your 30-60-90 day plan slips. Yes, nailing your communications strategy is important but don’t underestimate the value of getting “runs on the board” with key stakeholders by prioritising something that’s business as usual.

Making a good first impression with a business-as-usual project can cement your credibility and, done effectively, will make landing your strategy much easier in the long run. It can also give you a lot more licence in your licence to operate. And that can only be a good thing.

Good luck!


Leah Bowden is enjoying her first role as head of internal communications, working in the financial services sector. She believes in the power of internal communications to bring people together, get people talking and bridge divides through close strategic partnership. She also likes to find reasons to smile at work, manages rowdy twins in her spare time and is always, always learning. Follow Leah on Twitter: @humanizecomms.

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