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'CULTURE ISN'T SOMETHING YOU CAN INSTRUCT'

If you want to know how to make employees feel valued, you could do worse than ask one of the best companies to work for. Jennifer Thomas, head of internal communications and experience at DLG, tells Voice how openness and authenticity is creating a positive, passionate culture.

12th July 2019

When the CEO sets the mandate for culture, it shows leaders what behaviours are acceptable – but give people space to do something authentic.

JENNIFER THOMAS, DLG

Like many people working in internal comms, Jennifer Thomas knew little about the sector when she graduated – “employee engagement” and “internal culture” perhaps not terms that featured much in her economics and dance degree. When Jennifer started her career in financial services, she discovered she was “good at turning complex information into something people understand – and then I found out, hey, that’s the essence of corporate comms”.

It was in a media relations role with Lloyd’s of London that Jennifer had her first brush with internal comms.

“They were market-focused, and wanted to pay more attention to their people,” she says. “I took on a project to engage employees using our intranet. It was the first time I realised that the purpose of any comms discipline is the same – to connect your audience to what you need them to understand and what you want them to do.”

Looking for a challenge outside of finance, Jennifer joined RBS Insurance, which is now Direct Line Group, in 2006. The insurance company is a place where, she says, “doors open for you”.

“One of the great things about DLG is you have opportunities to explore your career and do different things. I joined in a corporate PR role, and within six months my boss told me about a secondment to work with the executive team in an assistant role. That was someone evaluating my skills and telling me I might be a good fit elsewhere. I hadn’t experienced that before.”


Two-way comms boosts Best Companies listing

Investment in employees’ career development and collaboration with colleagues are key reasons why DLG rocketed into the Sunday Times Best Companies To Work For rundown this year – new at number 3 on the Best Big Companies list, and second in the My team and My manager categories. The survey results cited a “straightforward and less bureaucratic approach to managing performance… based on two-way communication”, with 90 per cent of staff believing managers talk openly and honestly. Additionally, 91 per cent agreed “people in my team go out of their way to help me”.

Jennifer believes that positive culture supports retention, with employees able to build their skill set in a caring environment. At DLG, she has covered all facets of comms – internal, corporate, PR, brand, CSR… Not all moves have been promotions, but all have been valuable for gaining experience.

“People instinctively think they have to change organisations to move up or, if a break doesn’t come fast enough, they feel they need to move,” says Jennifer, now head of internal communications and experience. “Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but you can end up searching for things outside an organisation because you’re not getting it inside, and not necessarily because you don’t like working there.”

 

What makes insurance a rewarding sector to work in?

It’s dynamic, but that’s not always the reputation we have. We fix people’s lives – people who have lost everything in a flood, had items stolen, been in an accident. We get them back on track. It’s a social good. As communicators, we have a responsibility to tell that story internally and, externally, get more people excited about insurance as a career choice, rather than falling into it.

At DLG, we are clear on that purpose of servicing our customers’ needs – it’s why we’re all here, whether we are devising a marketing plan or in finance or helping a customer get their car fixed. Communication brings the business to life so everyone feels connected. I’ve been out on the road with our new CEO, Penny James, and you can feel the energy for what our people do for our customers.

 

Around half of DLG staff are in call centres. How do you support them to be authentic in their conversations with customers?

I remember when calls were heavily scripted. It was done with the best intentions, but you weren’t connecting with the customer. We turned that on its head. We challenged ourselves to be flexible and deal with customers as human beings and not as part of a transaction.

Our Connect programme identifies employees’ flex types and how they can adjust the way they speak, the questions they ask, the pace of the call – so you’re trying to match each customer’s style. It feels tailored, rather than robotic. Obviously, there are regulatory things we still need to follow, but you can go through those points in a way that helps the customer understand and listen, rather than zone out.

 

The Sunday Times Best Companies feedback hailed DLG’s open culture. Has it been an easy journey?

Culture isn’t something you can instruct. It takes time. You can have a vision for the culture, but you have to cultivate it, so people buy into it and it becomes their own. I have seen us evolve into an organisation where you can truly bring all yourself to work. You’re not judged – everyone is welcomed and celebrated.

When the CEO sets the mandate for culture, it shows leaders what behaviours are acceptable. Give people core principles and values, but allow leaders the space to do something that’s authentic. Some are naturally able to do that, but others have to work harder at it. A big part of IC’s role is to be a sounding board for leaders on developing their own style.

Your people need to believe in the culture. If a leader can’t join that journey, I think it’s up to the organisation to question if that’s the right leader.

 

How do you make values more than words on a page?

Pretty much every channel we use – intranet, email, video, face-to-face – has a mechanism for employees to talk back to us. Internal communication isn’t just pushing messages, but listening and getting views.

The majority of our people have met and interacted with our CEO and executive team. We have an open-door policy. They can go straight to the CEO, who will respond.

We have employee representative boards (ERBs). When we split from RBS in 2014, we thought employees needed to have a voice, and that developed into a sounding board for not just structural changes, but everything our organisation is thinking about or going through. Every function has a nominated ERB rep, who gets feedback from their team and attends a UK ERB meeting with me, the HR director and CEO. It has real gravitas – we have made changes and taken different directions based on those meetings.

 

Your CEO, Penny James, has just taken over from Paul Geddes. How do you get employees on board with a leadership change?

Paul understands engagement and is happy to be out there connecting with people. There’s a fear when a CEO like that steps down that your culture is hedged on one individual. You don’t know how ingrained it is with the wider leadership. We did a lot of work around Paul explaining his rationale for going, which I think was important, and then saying goodbye and offering reassurance – because everyone needs closure.

After Penny’s appointment, we had to emphasise continuity, so people didn’t panic that DLG would be a different place. Penny joined us as chief financial officer 18 months ago. It helped that she was already at DLG, so we had a transition phase talking about Paul’s pride and Penny’s excitement for the future. Penny and Paul both share the same passion for culture and Penny is keen to ensure our culture remains strong.

 

How have you ensured consistency?

Penny bought into our culture when she joined DLG, but every CEO has to find their own brand. We want people to connect with her – as Penny, not as a figurehead or the replacement for someone else. She’s doing it brilliantly.

We’ve already started making changes to our comms. Penny puts down her thoughts while on the road, and we share those as blogs, which are going down a storm – people know how she operates and what drives her, and about her family and background. She talks of her excitement about our future, the challenges we may face and the changes we need to make to continue to succeed. People appreciate the candidness and honesty.

 

How have you evolved a positive culture around wellbeing?

From having an open culture, we picked up concerns around mental health in our organisation. So we included mental health in our leadership conference and had external experts talk about it. From that, we have had the most overwhelming and passionate unveiling of how people feel at DLG. Employees have asked how they can support a colleague or family member going through an issue, or how we can make sure our organisation is structured to look after our people.

We created a wellbeing and mental health strategy, and trained mental health first-aiders on every floor of every building at every site. Managers are encouraged to support their teams to work in a way that doesn’t add pressure, so they can thrive at work regardless of what’s going on in life. We are trying to show people you don’t need to leave those emotions at the door when you come to work.

Through ERBs, Q&A sessions and surveys, such as Sunday Times Best Companies, people say it’s one of the best things DLG has done. Colleagues have told me they previously wouldn’t have dreamed of telling people they work with – at DLG or in other companies – that they struggle with depression.

 

What makes your diversity and inclusion approach different?

When we left RBS, which had its own D&I networks, it was a good moment to consider our own agenda. Rather than have separate networks for women, BAME or LGBTQ, we wanted more of a collective. We called it our Diversity Network Alliance – DNA, with different strands. I co-chair the network and lead the gender and working families strand.

It can be hard for organisations to have honest conversations. You can’t crack it in a day. You often start with what’s legal and right, before you move to what’s real, which is where the conversation needs to be. I’m not interested in ticking boxes. What we do as an IC team has to have depth and meaning. It’s about people’s stories – not pushing out a bit of comms.

 

How can companies keep moving the D&I agenda forward?

Start having wider conversations. You need executive level support, but it can’t just happen there. Explain the role of every single person in the business.

At DLG, our next action is to think about how we support people who don’t naturally fit into a well-known diversity group, and who might feel we are not talking to them. Our This Is Me initiative invites people to talk about what makes them who they are. It’s making people think beyond traditional diversity – so they turn to their colleagues and see a different person.

 

What’s your advice for managing stress within an internal comms department?

Volume and pace are always stressful. We are a big organisation and my team services the whole business. We are in demand and you don’t want to damage the reputation you’ve built for good communication.

I take a lot of learning from my time in external comms, where you are faced with short deadlines and trained to think on your feet. Internal communicators used to have more time to think, or to edit or perfect a piece of print comms, but now we are expected to adapt and respond quickly. Go and sit in your press office for a few days. Learn from how they operate.

Our industry is shifting and we’re becoming niche. We have great people coming in with excellent tech ability, but in a specific form of communication. The gap is where people don’t have the breadth. It’s important for IC managers to develop our own and our team members’ experience in all areas – and it doesn’t have to be in a job role. Wherever you can, work with other teams and disciplines. It all connects.

It’s important for communicators to understand the business they are in, because when you have a lot of stakeholder voices, IC has to be an adviser. Diffuse the noise, don’t add to it. You will still feel you’re in a fast-paced environment and that you don’t have enough hours in the day, but, from a motivational point of view, you’ll feel you are adding value and making a difference.

 

What matters to you at work?

I want to feel people trust me and I want to trust the people I am working with. I believe in collaboration, and good ideas come from the people you work with, and you can’t have that without trust. With that comes belief – belief that we can do things differently and try something new, with permission to fail. That’s how to grow. 

 

 

When the CEO sets the mandate for culture, it shows leaders what behaviours are acceptable – but give people space to do something authentic.

JENNIFER THOMAS, DLG

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