With a communication and editorial career spanning over 25 years, Chicago-based James Warda has plenty of wise words to share on the subject of connecting organisations with their employees.

27th August 2019

We need to put more humanity and authenticity into our conversations. And it starts with emotional connection.


James Warda has “always loved words”. The US-based comms practitioner has been writing since he was a boy. He graduated from Loyola University Chicago with an English degree “before there was electricity”, as he jokes to students at that same university, where he teaches now as an adjunct professor. And, like many others before him, he fell into a role that had communication and conversation at its heart.

He started his career as a proofreader at healthcare corporation Baxter. “I didn’t plan that, but it turned out to be a good boot camp for everything else I would go on to do. Proofreading was not just about words, but it meant working with designers and photographers and print production.”

James moved up the chain from there, with a dual career, working also in education and designing training courses at Allstate after serving as a senior acquisitions editor for the Joint Commission.

“The two roles at Allstate were similar in many ways,” he reflects. “Basically, education teaches and assesses skills, so it can be seen as an extension of communication, which often leads to behaviour change. Along the way, I also learned about change management and also began supporting executives. My main goal throughout my career has been to keep learning additional components of communications, so I could build a strong portfolio.”

He later went on to work at Schneider Electric, where he learned video production, and then Boeing, where he learned about merger and acquisition comms and labour relations. Next, at the US-based pharmacy store chain Walgreens (which soon after he joined would become global company Walgreens Boots Alliance), he learned about crisis comms and event management, and was there during the emerging digital world of apps and online communities.

“At Walgreens, we had a social intranet, using Sharepoint and Yammer,” he recalls. “My team there, like my previous teams, really stood out in terms of their execution and innovation.”

Now a communication consultant for a range of organisations, and a speaker, author of Where Are We Going So Fast?, writer and adjunct professor for the School of Communications, James still loves working with words, but acknowledges things are moving quickly.

“Internal communication is very different compared to how it was five years ago – maybe even three. It used to be the case that if you had a major project, you could cascade it out over several weeks. Now, a cascade is a few days, or a few hours – if you’re lucky.”

How is the IC culture and reputation progressing in the US?

Some companies – some of them large Fortune 100 companies – used to focus only on external comms, and didn’t have internal comms representation at the top of the organisation until recently. More leaders, though, now understand that you can communicate outside the organisation as much as you like, but if people inside don’t know what’s happening, that can be a big issue.

There is also a greater emphasis within internal communication on storytelling – about your brand, your employees, your success stories.

In the UK, there is a great focus on authenticity. Is it the same in the US?

That’s the big word. Leaders understand that they need to make an emotional connection with their followers – that they can have all the information and be great operationally, but if they can’t communicate in a sincere way and be trusted, they won’t engage staff. Authenticity serves leaders well during difficult times of crisis.

What matters to you at work?

It’s the basics. I’m a big believer in following Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As humans, we want the same things – to know we matter, and to know that we matter to our managers. Does my manager recognise the work I do and the value I bring to the team? Do I feel like I belong here? Does the team seem like a family and are we connected to the rest of the organisation? You accomplish that by presenting a strong and compelling vision.

As communicators, we need to remember that employees generally want to know what’s in it for them, which is a basic human need. Do they fit in? Are they well compensated? Are they growing in their career? Can they trust their leader and manager? Really, the foundation of everything is trust.

What’s so much bigger now more than 10 years ago is whether the company is doing good through CSR and sustainability. It’s on the mind of the younger workforce coming in.

How do you effectively measure the pulse of the organisation?

Leaders want to know how their company is feeling. At Walgreens, rolling out our social intranet made a difference. That, in addition to several other initiatives, allowed us to really gauge sentiment. Sometimes, communicators have too many metrics – how many views on an article or video, or the number of people participating in an event. It’s important that we create a measurement strategy that looks at which metrics are most important and tied to business goals.

I’m a big believer in combining qualitative and quantitative information. To round these metrics out, a good communicator should always be observing – for example, listen to the comments you get at town halls and be aware of how the audience is responding to the leaders as they speak. One of the most important things you can look at is the conversations in online communities to get a sense of how people are feeling about an initiative. Take those thoughts back to your leaders and then, where you can, provide answers to the community.

What can internal communicators do to support managers?

Too often, we give people the title of manager without considering that communication is one of the most important parts of their roles – and some people aren’t comfortable doing that. A strong toolkit can help. You used to have about 15 things in a toolkit – FAQs, a presentation, videos, talking points… If you give managers too much, it’s overwhelming –they’re not going to look at any of it. Instead, give them something like a five-point presentation and talking points.

I believe there’s real value in having a specific manager publication, too – it could be monthly. In it, let them know what’s happening. Make sure they have key information before employees come to them with questions – and give the managers the chance to ask you questions first.

Then let employees know that managers have that information and will talk to them about it. It applies a subtle pressure on managers to gen up – a pressure that may be necessary for some managers who are not as comfortable communicating.

What problems have you faced as an internal communicator?

There are a couple of obvious areas. One is when you find yourself working with leaders who don’t quite understand the value of comms. For them, you simply need to show them the power of communicate regular, clear and caring communications over time through metrics, improved employee engagement, and so on.

Another area is where you may be working with leaders who are good at the technical part, but people don’t necessarily have an emotional connection with people. With a leader in that situation, you can encourage them to share personal stories and to talk more informally with employees – to help them warm up their image. Over time, this can make a significant difference in how followers follow them.

The other challenge is when jobs are threatened, or there’s a large acquisition, and your workforce is scared and confused, and the company doesn’t feel like it can say much. You know that you need to be careful as to what you say for many reasons, including legal and compliance issues, and to make sure you’re completely accurate. In those instances, you should still say something even if it’s simply to say you don’t have the information at that time, but will follow up when you do.

Similarly, in times of crisis or during a merger or acquisition, that’s where you as a communicator can best support the leader to say something. Again, it’s almost a cliché, but even saying that you can’t say anything can be reassuring.

Remember the phrase, “If you don’t communicate about your topic, someone else will and you might not like what they’ll say.”

How far up the agenda is wellbeing in the US?

Wellbeing is significant, and many companies are promoting it and have been more visible with it over the past five years.

We’ve seen some progress – but need to see more – around mental health. Here, there is still a stigma around it in some places. When people hear “employee assistance programme”, they think that means counselling and therapy, and people don’t typically talk about that stuff. We talk about cancer or cystic fibrosis, where employees are willing to even share their stories, but getting companies to talk about their mental health programmes more has sometimes been a challenge.

It’s definitely more out in the open now. And the most important part is what comes next. Is there a negative impact on someone’s career because they’ve revealed it, or are they embraced for it? If you can get a leader to talk about it, great, but will they continue to lead and be promoted, or will employees see them leave the company? Remember, people are always watching and everything we say, do and are communicates something.

How can companies help employees open up?

[Author and speaker] Brene Brown has talked about vulnerability at work. The greatest courage we can show is making ourselves vulnerable – and people respond to that. I’ve seen some progress,

Organisations are getting stronger at doing health assessments. At Boeing, we talked about physical, financial and emotional wellbeing. It’s important to look at the individual holistically. You might put more of a focus on financial issues – are people saving for retirement? How are they doing with their personal budgets?

You have to tie the three things – physical, financial and emotional – together. They are all connected. If you’re not financially doing well, you’re typically not doing well emotionally. If you’re not doing well emotionally, you’re typically not physically well. And that has a big impact in the workplace.

What does the future look like for internal communication?

We need to put more humanity and authenticity into our conversations. And it starts with that emotional connection.

Communicators need to be aware of how comms fits with organisational psychology. We need to be students of the brain and the heart.

The other trend will be increased remote working. Many more companies in the US are making it mandatory to work from home or another location once or twice a week. As a leader or communicator, if you aren’t managing that well, your people can feel disconnected from each other.

Digital will continue to be huge, of course – and especially with new generations coming into the workplace. Apps will be critical for making sure we are connected to the intranet and to news articles and events we’re attending. Though we have to make sure employees are not going to be overwhelmed with multiple apps.

As the profession evolves, do you have principles that stick with you?

With trends, it’s almost like going back to basics. It’s important for communicators to stay accurate. My background is as a proofreader, so I always consider, is the information right? Are there typos? Are we taking care of the people we are quoting in the stories? With all channels, and how quickly things move, we have a responsibility to remember content is still king.

One of the university classes I teach is public speaking. I tell students that it isn’t really a class about public speaking, that the reason they are really there is to find and use their voice, and everyone has the power to do that. As communicators, we help companies and leaders find their voice and we can help employees do the same and share their comments. The more we can do that, the stronger the organisation we can help create.

We need to put more humanity and authenticity into our conversations. And it starts with emotional connection.


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