Anatomy of Internal Comms & Employer Branding


Lindsey Hornby

The Anatomy of Internal Comms and Employer Branding

Every organisation that employs people has an employer brand, whether they know it, nurture it, or not. It’s what makes people want to work for an organisation or drives them away, so it can’t be ignored. To diagnose your employer brand needs, you need a full company body scan.

Video Transcript

– Thank you. That was a great, short introduction. Nice to meet you all. Unlike Dave this morning, I am not the world’s most natural presenter so I do apologize if I lose my way or if I start to stumble. I need the lectern ’cause it’s my safety blanket. But I will do my best to keep you engaged as we go through this. So I thought I’d start by telling you a little bit about myself and my career-to-date. And I guess I’d describe myself as a bit of a career magpie. I’ve been consistently attracted by new things, not necessarily always shiny things but things that I haven’t tried before. So I’ve tended to go for roles that I thought would stretch me, in terms of growing my skilled, challenge me. And that’s why in the last 20 years, I’ve held various different roles in operations, administration, PR, marketing, brand, corporate communications, internal communications, and most recently, employer brand. The other way that I think I’m a bit like a magpie is my interest in building things. And magpie nests, I’ve learned as a process of putting this together, are incredibly complex constructions that last for years. They don’t just build them for one nesting season, they want them to last so they can return to them. And I’m kind of the same. I don’t really wanna take something on unless it’s something I can see through from start to finish. And that’s one of the reasons I tend to stay in organizations quite a long time. I’m coming up to 11 years at AlixPartners at the moment, and I stay there for a long time ’cause I really like to get under the skin of things, and I really like to build things that last in the long term. And I guess AlixPartners has met my current career magpie needs in the opportunity that it’s given me to grow and challenge myself. In the time I’ve been there, I’ve had five different roles and I’ve lived on two continents. So I guess the other question you might be asking, because we are the world’s best kept consulting secret, is “who is AlixPartners?” The boring explanation is that we are a global professional consulting services firm. We operate in 26 countries, we have 3,000 people. We started out in restructuring, that’s still very much part of our heritage, but now we’re focused on helping businesses manage themselves through disruption. I guess, more interestingly, if I was gonna characterize us as people, I’d say we’re real go-getters with a strong bias for change. We’re people who like to run towards the fire and we don’t stop until it’s been put out. And I think that nature of the type of people that we employ is what’s driven us on this quite extraordinary journey that I was just telling you about. So in the time I’ve been there, we’ve grown three times in employee size, and at least that in revenue. And we’ve reached this critical pivot point now that most consulting firms do when they get to our our size, is that transition from going from a large specialist consulting firm to a more elite firm at scale. And given that our people are our product, we know it’s our people who are gonna have to take us there on that journey. So six years ago, I was asked to set up internal communications as function for AlixPartners. We didn’t have a internal communications practice at all before that. And I love doing that, and it’s been pretty successful, I think. But more recently, on the back of that, I’ve been asked to think about how our employer brand should look and how that can help us drive our growth strategy. I’m not gonna pretend that we are there, we’re still very much on that journey, and we’ve got a lot still to do and a lot still to learn. But I thought it might be interesting to share what I’ve learned so far, and how I feel internal comms plays such a critical role in building an employer brand. So generally, I’m a pretty logical kind of person. If I’m given a new challenge, I try and first think about what success looks like, and then I do a bit of analysis as to where we are now, and then I map out the steps of how I’m gonna get there. And whilst I’ve got zero medical background or experience at all, it occurred to me that it’s probably the same way that a medical professional would approach a health problem. And for that reason, and that reason alone, I’ve decided to go with a bit of a medical analogy for our talk today, hence the “Anatomy Of” title. So up first is the heart. I believe that internal comms has to be very much at the heart, and is the heart, in many ways, of successful employer branding. And I think that because it’s responsible for getting people to feel something, getting people to feel that they’re on a journey together, helping people understand the direction of the company, it’s vision, mission, and strategy. It’s also responsible for helping us understand what makes the organization and its people tick, helping employees understand their values so that they really feel like an integral part of the business, but also helping to break down some of those barriers between leadership and employees. And lastly, I think internal comms really helps to drive that emotional connection to the organization and to their colleagues. So creating a sense of shared values, celebrating achievements, which all drive employee engagement. So with my medical analogy, the heart pumps blood all around the body and internal comms I think helps to pump the culture around the organization. So when asked to think about our employer brand, I started by thinking about our culture, and I brought together a cross-functional group to have a look at what our culture is and what we want it to be for different audience groups. I think we all felt that we have a really strong culture at AlixPartners, but, given the ambitions that we have for growth, we needed to make sure that we don’t lose that strength and we don’t dilute it by adding more people, by making acquisitions, etc, and making sure that we keep it as a defining feature of our employee experience. So we looked at all the different facets, I guess, that make up a culture. And these might be different in different organizations, but for us, it was, “What’s our market focus “and our adaptability look like? “What is our strategy and vision? “What are our systems and policies? “What’s our career development programs? “What are our values and behaviors?” And rated each of those on where we are today. And then, we also looked at who we are as people. Benchmark finger in the air, “Who are we as people?” As well as who we want to hire going forwards. So what are the characteristics that make us different, and what do they mean in terms of behaviors that we might need in the future? Next up, the second part of my anatomy, is the ears, or, I guess more specifically, listening. So again, internal comms is so important to employer brand because it helps with understanding the sentiment: “What does it really feel like to work here? “What kind of people will really fit “and how does that compare to what we think?” It also helps us understand how efforts are being interpreted. So internal comms plays a role of inspiring and motivating employees to give really honest feedback on what’s working and what’s not, which is essential as you’re building out an employer brand. So internal comms, as a function, helped us with some intentional information gathering. So we looked at poll survey data, focus groups, we held one-to-one discussions, we looked at new joiner and exit interviews, for example. And internal comms helped us with the infrastructure and with the connections to do that analysis. So we talked about things like, “What are the elements of our culture “we need to preserve and protect? “What are the things we aspire to? “What’s holding us back? “Are there things that just aren’t good “or places in the firm “where our culture doesn’t feel good? “And what are the characteristics “and behaviors that are gonna drive us to success?” This is the last part of my medical analogy, which is the mouth, or the voice. So internal comms can really help with guiding the employer brand voice. I think internal comms has a good sense of what is the right tone of voice and what are the right words that are gonna resonate and feel authentic. And it can also help us with thinking about how to showcase the employer brand. Employees are always going to be the best source of telling the story, sharing their own authentic career journeys and experiences, and internal comms, again, is gonna help us source those stories. Alongside that, internal comms can help us build ambassadors for our employer brand. Who’s gonna engage with our content across our external channels? Who’s gonna help celebrate their colleagues, and ultimately then make referrals for potential recruits or clients to the firm? So after we’d gone through this whole journey of listening, understanding how things feel, etc, we began to try and define our culture, which is not as easy as you think it is. But we started by thinking about how it is that we do things around here to succeed, and we established four areas of success. So it’s critical, first, that we work together collaboratively, across the organization. Just in the nature of business, we have to do the right thing both legally and morally. Our product is our people, so we don’t have a business without them and we have to make sure we retain them. And we have to make sure that we are the best at what we do. Our tagline is “When it really matters,” and so we have this brand that we have to live up to and make sure that we’re the very best. These four areas then needed to be aligned to our purpose and to our vision, and we needed to break that down by the different audience groups, and, at high level, our society, clients, and people. And then, we also needed to make sure that our longstanding core values that were established when AlixPartners was, more than 40 years ago, the values we live by every day, are gonna help drive success and drive that culture. As I said, we know that cultures never stand still, we know that AlixPartners is constantly evolving and changing, and so we’ll continue to iterate this, but we needed some way of framing what exactly our culture is. And the reason we needed that is that we used it to… As the building blocks, I guess, for working on our employee value proposition, which was the first piece of our employer brand that we looked at. So we wanted a set of messages that we could use to communicate with candidates and employees across all mediums. It needed to be part of the firm’s brand narrative, but it also needed to be a recruitment and motivational tool to articulate how we are different in the market, and also our principles of action. We knew it needed to resonate internally as much as it did externally, so authenticity was really key for us. So again, we began with a bit of discovery. Our talent acquisition team reached out to candidates in the pipeline, our recruitment agencies that we used, to get under the skin of what was most important to candidates and to hiring managers, as well as how we stacked up against our competitors. We also went to around 30 of our internal leadership stakeholders to understand how they currently described AlixPartners to potential recruits, and what they thought were gonna be the most important concepts. And there was a real mismatch. So our leaders, when we spoke to them, they were really focused on the things we used to be, not where we are now or where we’re going. And it really didn’t match at all with what we heard from candidates and agencies. So we knew we had to get that leadership buy-in to be able to implement. And AlixPartners people are generally pretty opinionated and they all think they’re the experts, so we needed to think about how we were going to influence them to the right course of action. So the way we approached it was to do two versions of our employee value proposition. The first, which you’re seeing on the screen here, essentially synthesized and fed back exactly what our leaders had told us was really important. And then, we asked them to take 10 minutes, have a read of it, as if they were reading it on our website, for example, as a potential recruit, and then tell us what they would take away from it, what stood out to them, what they would remember, and the answer was “not much,” which isn’t a huge surprise. So then we showed them this version, which we developed with more marketing-led lens, and went through the same exercise. With just four things to remember, “purpose,” “inclusive,” “success,” “careers,” the leaders then felt that they could develop their own authentic proof points to talk to candidates about what it is that makes us different. And I will say, we have a lot more words than this to describe our EVP that we plug and play into materials, but we needed a really simple, impactful, and effective version that people could embed and memorize. And I think what this says to me is that employer branding really has to be a team effort. You need the people with the recruitment experience, of course, but you can’t do it without people with the experience of marketing, content experience, events experience, ’cause they’re all the people that are gonna bring it to life. And I suppose, if I go back to my medical analogy just briefly, that would be the same in that situation. In any care team, it might include doctors, nurses but also social care workers, case workers, family friends, etc. It’s a team effort. So where we are now is we are thinking about how to bring our employer brand and our EVP to life throughout the employee journey. And again, internal communications, I think is, critical at every stage of this. So if we take the left side, before you’ve joined AlixPartners, in developing campaigns to attract candidates, we knew we needed authentic stories and those need to come from our own people. So internal comms is helping us to source those stories, and we are reusing a lot of the content we’ve developed for internal use externally. At the other end of the funnel, as an alumni, we share employee stories and employee successes with our alumni, but also the other way around to create this feeling that you’re still part of the AlixPartners family even if you’re not with the organization anymore. And they actually… We get a couple of benefits from that. So our alumni are a really great source of client work for us, referrals for client work, but they’re also a really great source of referrals for candidates to join us, and we’ve increased our boomerang employees as well, which is great. And then the whole middle section, of course, internal comms is essential for keeping engagement of your current employees, no matter where they are in their journey. And one of the things we’re thinking about at the moment is this whole “Moments That Matter” series, tied to our “When It Really Matters” brand. So key touch points for employees at different parts of their career journey. So for example, at the end of year one, we have a program with them around building your personal brand because that’s the time when they’ve got under the skin of AlixPartners, they’re settled into their work, and it’s now about “how are you going “to take your brand, and build it, “and go forward?” We looked at where we have real retention issues, and there was a commonality in our mid-levels, between year two and three, that people started thinking about, “Am I gonna stay at AlixPartners? “Am I gonna try and get a promotion “to a new level somewhere else?” So again, we’ve designed this communications campaign to really engage people at that critical point when they’re trying to make the decision about whether to stay or whether to move on. Talking to them about their career journeys, talking to them about development opportunities, and also talking to them about retention programs we have. So they’re about to become eligible for our shadow equity program, for example, so helping them understand the long-term wealth creation as well of staying. And then, another one, we are looking at on promotion to new levels. We are looking at when you become a manager for the first time, again helping to give the tools, at that moment that matters in time, to the employees to help them be successful, but also using that as a way of capturing their stories. “How have they got to where they’ve got to? “Who’s helped ’em along the way? “And what’s got them that promotion “or that managerial role?” So in summary, and based on my experience, which is my experience at AlixPartners, I guess, around this, having a healthy employer reputation is really about having that balance between all aspects of employer brand, all aspects of internal communications, with culture very much at the center. And that means it can’t be the responsibility of one function, it has to be the responsibility of everyone. You need the expertise of those who understand the audiences, those who understand the market you’re operating in, specialist skills to put it into action. And most importantly, you need your employees to engage. And I think taking a holistic approach means that you end up with a strong and positive employer reputation, but additionally you also drive a culture of engagement, collaboration, and innovation amongst employees, and the two things sit really nicely, side by side. And I think if you take that kind of approach, you end up with an employer brand and a group of employees that feel they’re in an authentic and real situation, and and the culture feels like it’s gonna stay healthy for the future. That was all I had to say. Happy to take any questions, if anyone’s got anything.

– Yeah, any questions? David.

– [David] So as you were developing your EVP, where were you as a company on your internal comms strategy? Was it already a mature strategy, you were layering EVP expansion on top of this, or was it ?

– It was, it was. And I’m not sure that AlixPartners has done things necessarily in the most sensible order, but we’ve done it at… We’ve always done it quickly. We’ve done it when it’s become a critical issue. So internal comms became a bit of a critical issue at the end of 2017. We’d been through a number of changes as an organization. I mean, we’ve always grown quickly, but we’d made a number of acquisitions, a couple of which had been quite difficult and challenging. And those suddenly became this realization that we are too big now to keep our employees engaged and and help them feel like they’re communicated with, with what we were doing before, which was largely in local markets, etc. So we built our internal comms function in five months, launched the platform in four months, set the content strategy and direction. And that was going really well, and we’ve always had great engagement on the platform. I was talking to someone earlier, we had a change during the pandemic, which I’m sure most organizations did. And we’d just got to the point where we had really strong engagement across business leadership in all the different departments and functions, with people really engaged and really up for talking about their part of the business and keeping it at a business level conversation, as well as all the personal stuff. With the pandemic, obviously things switched overnight, where it was all about people, helping people feel safe, helping people understand how to remote work, helping people to think about how to engage in a virtual world. And I think we’re only now just starting to get back to that internal comms as a business topic, and a place for people to learn about the business. But aside from that, yes, we were established in internal comms, and it just happened by chance that… Which is how my career has gone at AlixPartners, that someone said, “Oh, we need to hire this many, “X many, people this year, “and we’re struggling to get candidates “through the door, “we’re struggling to get people engaged. “What can you do to help us?” And that’s where the whole employer brand piece came from, and why I’m doing it I guess.

– Yeah.

– [Audience Member] Hi, I just wondered how you measured success, and particularly around, you said, the mid-level managers . It sounds like a really interesting retention strategy But what metrics would you use?

– So internal comms, and part of the reason we have the… Well, we actually have the dynamic signal platform, which obviously is owned by Firstup, but part of the reason we chose that was the really strong data. So all of our internal comms data is measured through that, with the addition then of some poll surveys, and focus groups, and in-person stuff that we do. On the people side, and we partner really closely with our HR team, to review all of the data that we get around a people perspective. So we have access to all of the exit interviews, we have access to all of the new joiner. They have three and six month check-in, etc. . We have access to all of that data. And we partner with them to figure out where are the challenges. And some of it’s in certain parts of the business, and some of it’s with certain levels where we can see the trends over time. You’re able to see the trends of how long people are there, and then… And so, we then partner with them on the comms side.

– Yes sir.

– [Audience Member] You said there that it wasn’t just internal comms’ role. It was everyone’s role, not just internal comms. And you talked also about how AlixPartners’ leaders always have strong opinions. So how easy has it been to get particularly your leaders, your senior leaders, onboard to do what you need them to do to support your wide strategy, or this particular ?

– So there’s a few things about AlixPartners. Everyone is really opinionated but they also really empower people. And coming from big four, which is where I was before AlixPartners, which I frankly found frustrating because it just took too long, there was too much bureaucracy, you couldn’t get a decision made if you life depended on it. AlixPartners is very different and the leadership tend to really appreciate someone who comes along and says, “I’ve got an idea “and this is why I think we should do this idea, “and this is what I think the outputs are gonna be.” And typically they’ll say, “Sounds good. “Go and get on with it.” So from that perspective, it was really straightforward ’cause I went along and said, “We’ve got this challenge around internal comms. “This is the way I think we should address it. “This is what I’m gonna need you to do.” “Great, go and go on with it.” Of course, the reality, when you actually come down to it and you say to them, “Okay, what are your business priorities “for the next six months? “What is it that you want people “in your team to know?” That’s when you start to… It starts to get harder because they don’t necessarily… They’re running at a million miles an hour as well and they’re not necessarily thinking about it, so it’s then having to try and help them unpick that. But I’m lucky, and I’ve been there a long time, and I have a really strong network, and good relationships with most of the senior executives, some of which I’ve built by being really bluntly honest with them, and I think that’s worked.

– We have about five more minutes, so we still have some time if here’s any other question? Yes, please.

– [Audience Member] I’ve got a question. You mentioned that your internal comms function was setup in 2017, it was all in quite established when you started looking at your employer brand. My question was was around how did defining your employer brand, if you know the answer to this, impact your internal comms content strategy?

– And we are still kind of working through that. And this is partly what I was saying, we haven’t always done things in the right order. We’ve tended to do them when they got most critical. And now, having spent the time thinking about our culture, if we’d done some of that work before we launched our internal comms strategy, we might have had a different strategy from the outset. So I think now it’s about going back and retrofitting it. But at the same time, we don’t stand still as an organization, and actually we look quite different to how we looked six years ago anyway. And the pandemic has driven some of that, we all work in a different way. We used to have a much stronger mix of in-person as well as digital communications, which has changed. So I don’t really see a problem with doing that. It’s continual… Continuous improvement.

– [Audience Member] Yeah, absolutely, I was just asking. I just wondered if it really shifted your content to be more aligned with your–

– I think it has, for sure, shifted our content, and I think it will continue to shift our content. But I also think we are gonna have a… Probably in another three years time, we’ll have a whole new set of priorities, and challenges, and issues that we are gonna want to address, so yeah.

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