Three weeks after Ed Watson joined N Brown as director of communications, he broke his own rule. He did something.
Watson recruited television personality Lorraine Kelly as an ambassador for N Brown’s over-50s brand JD Williams, a move that swiftly improved recognition for the fashion retailer by ten per cent while the range she endorsed has since become the most successful in its 140 year history.
For while ‘listening and learning’ for the first 100 days might be Watson’s standard advice to anyone taking up a director of communications’ role, it is also important to have a few early wins to demonstrate to the team that the new recruit knows their stuff.
Guto Harri, director of communications and corporate affairs at News UK, calls it going for ‘low hanging fruit’, such as ensuring a decent piece of coverage or securing an inspirational speaker for a staff event, that ‘will give everybody a boost and start building confidence and a sense of direction’.
‘It might be helping the team cut through an issue that’s been troubling them, because you’ve got that fresh pair of eyes and can see through to the other side,’ says one former communications director.
But, with the exception of some morale boosting initiatives, the general consensus is that the first 100 days in the role should be spent working out who are the most important stakeholders, particularly internal ones, within the business and gain their support and trust.
This support will prove vital to the success of the all-important strategic plan that a new communications director will be expected to reveal to the board, usually within 100 days of their appointment.
‘I think before you arrive, but certainly within the first week, you need to work out your key internal stakeholders and love them and love them again,’ says Charlotte Lambkin, corporate relations director at Diageo. ‘You have to make a good initial impression, but the key is to follow it through and to keep building and cementing that.’
‘The mistake is to go in doing,’ says Alex Gordon-Shute, director at search specialists Ithaca Partners. ‘The key things to focus on are listening, analysing, building relationships and getting a plan together. If in the process of doing that, you can also get some quick wins (in whatever form that takes) then that’s ideal as that builds credibility.’
But as so much of the role today revolves around developing a cohesive strategy, the key point is to really understand the business. ‘One of the great advantages of corporate communications is the ability of people to move between sectors,’ adds Gordon-Shute. ‘There is a chance that you arrive in a new job and are not an expert in its issues or its business.’
Spending time getting to understand these in depth will add credibility to any strategy that is eventually put forward to the board. ‘You definitely don’t want people to say She’s been here a month, and I’ve never met her,’ says one communications professional.
‘This is the time to gather good market intelligence, and develop lasting business relationships.’
Lambkin believes that, either just before joining or shortly thereafter, it is vital to spend time meeting external stakeholders, such as journalists, headhunters and City analysts, and to ask each of them how they view the company, what issues or problems that they have identified and what they think about its current state. It is essential to do this quickly to get an honest, warts and all assessment as within a short period of time, external stakeholders will view the new communications director as part of the business, and will become less candid. ‘It is the only time that a comms director can go out and talk to journalists, politicians and NGOs and get something near the truth about what they really think,’ agrees Geraldine Davies, chairman of Ellwood Atfield. ‘A year in, and they just won’t get that fresh insight.’
She adds: ‘I think the important thing to do is to ask all those obvious questions at the beginning. Comms directors can get too tied into head office and the chief executive’s office, but in order to represent the company effectively they need to understand the needs of all the board. Have coffee with each of them, and then schedule a monthly meeting.’
Others suggest identifying and spending time with those individuals who have the ear of the chief executive, the tricky customers and those to whom others turn for guidance and help.
‘Make friends with the PAs, the cleaners and the canteen staff,’ adds Watson. ‘They’re the ones that know what is going on.’
Davies, a former director of communications at both Lloyds TSB and Prudential, says the best piece of advice she received when taking up a new role was to write everything down that she thought was wrong, but importantly not to share any of her insights. Then six weeks on, to look at the points on the list and ask whether she now understood why things were done in certain ways, for example, or if she still thought they were wrong. ‘It can be quite a shock to realise that there are different ways to do things,’ she adds.
Communications professional Jenny Peters agrees, adding: ‘Try not to start every sentence with In my last company, we used to do…. It’s guaranteed to alienate people.’
But she says: ‘Building relationships and trust is key, and taking time to listen to the comms team, as well as the leadership, is vital. The people at the frontline have great insight, and you can learn a great deal from their feedback. Harriet Green, a leader I hugely admire, always starts by asking employees what they’d change and what they’d keep about the organisation with powerful results.’
Kerry Parkin, head of corporate communications and CSR at Costa, adds: ‘Don’t rush to action. Take your time and learn. Every business is different and doing things your way without considering the culture you have joined can be catastrophic for your long-term ability to deliver.
At Costa, the heart of our business isn’t our head office, it’s on the front line so the most important piece was getting into the stores and learning the business from the ground up.’
She believes that, within 100 days, an incoming director should have gained an assessment of the team they have inherited – ‘their competencies, skills and potential’, an understanding of the core issues and challenges, an understanding of culture and ‘some tactical, quick wins’.
But N Brown’s Watson also believes that an important part of the first 100 days as a communications director is an educational one. ‘One of the biggest mistakes we often make as communications professionals is automatically assuming that, because we have been appointed, the organisation understands what PR is,’ he says. ‘An education piece is crucial as you navigate yourself around your new role.’
Julian Regan-Mears, head of external communications at de Beers, agrees. ‘The biggest challenge in some instances is making the case for communications internally.
‘I was known for answering every question with Why did you do that? I needed to understand why things were done in a certain way. But the benefits of shining a mirror back into an organisation is that you get a very different view of the company than the company thought it had. If you go around the business asking people to describe its strategy, the answers you get are very interesting. But you need to also ask about communications: where people think we are, where they want us to be.’
Inevitably, there will be occasions when the new communications director does not have the luxury of time, particularly when they have arrived with a new chief executive with a mandate to turn around an ailing business in a short period. Lambkin arrived at Diageo with a new chief executive, who embarked on a major restructure of the business that removed regional hubs and, as a result, slashed the number of her direct reports from nine to four.
‘The reorganisation drove the pace. The first few weeks were grim. But everybody was incredibly helpful, open and friendly and got stuck straight in,’ she adds. ‘And within 100 days, I had to present to the board my annual strategy.’
‘When a chief executive is brought in because a business is failing and has to execute a new strategy, then the ability of the corporate affairs director is a key part of how their [the chief executive’s reputation will be viewed,’ says Gordon-Shute. The communications director has a greater licence to make changes, including bringing on board new talent in their team. But she warns that, just because the former chief executive’s strategy proved to be wrong, ‘it does not mean that everybody in the communications team is not very good’.
Spending the first 100 days ‘listening and learning’, however, does not mean being silent. ‘You should make some gentle suggestions or proposals in the first month that anticipates that sense of why you have been hired and what you could bring to the table, and also feeds into what you ultimately want to do,’ explains one recruitment specialist.
News UK’s Harri adds: ‘Be clear with the team who work for you about what you want to achieve, and what your pitch was for the job. Remind them charmingly but firmly that you were hired to deliver that and therefore have a mandate. But make it clear that you like their ideas and that you can achieve great things together, yet leave no doubt about your plans and the top level backing for them.’
Gently reinforcing that, as the new communications director, you have been brought in for a reason is also vital. ‘If you’re an external appointment, then a message has been sent. The chief executive and the board don’t want the same old, same old,’ says one in-house director. ‘There’s no point in dancing around the issue. It’s a given. The status quo cannot continue; you need to take advantage of that.’
When he arrived at City Hall as communications director for Mayor of London Boris Johnson, Harri was swift to gain his new team’s trust. ‘I told 120 people that I’d only ever simultaneously managed a Brazilian cleaner and a Polish builder until that point, so we’d have to knuckle down and just get to the end of the week together at which point I would buy loads of wine.’
He adds: ‘It’s important to have fun.’
When Regan-Mears moved from Centrica, a company rarely off the front pages, to de Beers in September 2013, he found a company that had a fantastic story but had forgotten how to tell it. ‘I still have my 100 day plan in my drawer,’ he says. ‘Much of my time was spent fixing the basics, putting things in place that weren’t there, such as media evaluation services, journalist audits, press cuttings services.
There was no news grid in use or media programme. I had to see where the key executives were in terms of media training, for example.
‘When you are coming into a role that doesn’t have any of the basics in place, then you need to make sure that you fix them fast, otherwise on a busy day you will fall down. But you have to have a plan, or you will end up drifting in those early days.’ It is also important from the outset to be clear about what a new boss will expect to be achieved within the first 100 days.
Regan-Mears ‘realised quite quickly that big things needed to change’ to put the company back on the business pages and other media.
He identified three key things – insight, investment and innovation – that he felt de Beers could talk about and own. ‘I was clear that one of those needed to come through in every part of our communications,’ he says.
‘Giving the team and the business a focus really helped. But everyone is an expert. Everybody thinks they know the best way to communicate things. A large part of my job was unwinding people from that position. I made sure that I was involved in key conversations.’
‘You need to keep explaining what you are trying to achieve and give examples of how it helped in the past,’ adds Harri. ‘Don’t underestimate how some people might struggle to understand or be reluctant to follow.’
Regan-Mears was also careful to ensure that his executive team were completely comfortable with his communications strategy. He took them through a three-year plan. ‘I said the first year would be about re-engagement; you can’t just jump up from not speaking for ten years and expect to be poster boy for the diamond sector,’ he says. ‘The second year was to be about participating and, by year three, we would start to talk about leadership. But the plans were flexible.
Strong financial results from de Beers, coupled with its longstanding history, meant that the re-engagement part of the plan was achieved faster than expected. But the other features that he put in place early on, such as media training and a communication plan, have given a sense of comfort to senior executives. ‘They know when the key milestone communications are, and when they’re required to brief the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal, for example. If they are aware of how every piece fits in, and the consistency of the communications themes, it is much easier.’
Regan-Mears was clear at the outset that implementing, delivering and embedding a successful communications plan would be a three-year project. Gordon-Shute believes that the first 100 days can provide vital intelligence for incoming communications directors on time scales as they put together their first strategy plan, and prevents them falling into the trap of promising too much too early.
A new communications director putting together a strategic plan, which may require a new strategic direction, faces certain challenges. ‘You might need to move around resources that you’ve already got or, in some cases, change resources more dramatically,’ she says. ‘It might be about moving resource from a business unit to the central office, or vice versa, or if you’ve moved into a company behind the game on social media, it might be about creating a new unit that it hasn’t had before.’
This can take time. There are legal implications if individuals have to be replaced or moved within the business, and there is inevitably a long time lag involved in recruiting new staff. There may be plans in place or events on the horizon that will impact proposed time scales.
Early intelligence can also help incoming communications directors to assess whether the business adapts to change easily or whether it resembles an oil tanker attempting to negotiate a new route. ‘Take the first year to get everything into the state you want it, aligned on a new strategy with new outcomes,’ says Gordon-Shute. ‘You then need to put your foot hard on the gas in years two and three.’ Indeed, it can take three years before significant change is obvious.
Being realistic is vital for communications directors, says Peters, not just for what can be achieved but for what this will mean personally. ‘It will be an intense period,’ she says. ‘Committing the time needed to travel, research and immerse yourself in a new role will inevitably impact your personal life too. Set expectations accordingly.’
THE FIRST 100 DAYS OF A NEW LEADER
How TNT UK’s communications team coped with the arrival of a new leader
In January, express delivery firm TNT UK appointed Marianne Culver as managing director. It meant the communications team had just a few days’ notice to announce her arrival and to convey the personality and approach of someone they’d not had the chance to meet in person.
We quickly realised that her style was different to that of her predecessor, and we needed to adjust. It was clear that she liked to move at pace and paid a strong attention to detail. A flurry of emails and some quick phone calls, and her appointment was announced.
All stakeholder groups mattered, but particularly TNT’s 8,500 UK employees and our customers. A capital markets event and senior leadership meeting provided timely and natural opportunities for Marianne to meet those key communities, leaving employees and customers the immediate priority for the communications team.
Marianne set off on an ambitious ‘round Britain tour’ to meet as many people as possible, addressing night shifts, visiting customers and hitting the road with drivers and sales reps. It was an itinerary to challenge the best communications team.
But, after a tough trading period and the launch of a new strategy, employees were understandably anxious about what this next change would mean. With more than 80 locations and around half of TNT’s workforce out on the road, we needed to find ways to introduce Marianne quickly. Social media-style internal communications – lots of pictures on the company’s ‘Chatter’ social media platform and an informal Facebook page – proved powerful. Within days of her arrival, the first of a programme of video communications was launched. These were also produced in MP3 format to enable those employees without access to a computer to at least hear the message.
Some of the TNT tools were different to those Marianne had used in the past and so the need to change and adapt at speed was key. Managing expectations and being realistic about ‘the art of the possible’ was also required on occasion!
Knowing Marianne is a passionate communicator, we needed to explore new channels, such as using the mobile worker devices in every vehicle and becoming more digital and less print-focused, while adopting the right tone of voice to ensure her words sounded authentic.
Marianne has importantly invested time with us to make her key messages clear – an essential for any comms team if they are to deliver on leader expectations. As a managing director driving a turnaround, she views the partnership and role of communications as vital. This is a huge benefit for a team which suddenly finds itself placed at the heart of an evolving business.
For our team, the key lessons of adapting to a new leader have been:
• Don’t assume you know what’s required or ‘do what you’ve always done’
• Listen carefully to the expectations of the new leader
• Be open to new tools, approaches and ideas
• Be agile and move at pace
• At times of change over-communicate – particularly to employees
• Have confidence in your own knowledge and experience of the business – it’s invaluable to your new leader, even when it’s not a popular message
• Communications is a critical partner for a new leader and finding new ways of working is invigorating for the team
• Embrace and enjoy the challenge of a new and different approach
• Learn and remember. Change is good for the soul, and communications teams in particular!