In January, you assumed new responsibilities at Cox, leaving the government relations work behind. This was after several years in public affairs at Verizon and then, since 2017, at Cox.
That’s right. After two decades in Washington working in several roles in telecom, including dealing with policy and government affairs, I joined Cox and recently got promoted to an operations role with public affairs as a subset of my work. My skills as a communicator have been sharpened, and in that sense, I definitely benefitted from my public affairs experience. In public affairs, you have to identify stakeholders and work to engage them; you have to get really smart in a hurry on a range of issues.
So how is communications — especially internal communications — different?
In internal communications, walking the talk is tantamount because your audience is your own employees. You can’t just spin out the message and move on. Employees are watching and listening keenly to you and will call you out whenever you get anything wrong, or your tone is not aligned with the company culture. Here’s a way to look at it: In a government affairs role, you are often the voice of the message, but in communications, you aren’t the voice … you’re the vocal cords. You craft a narrative and give voice to others. In communications, you are in a sense behind the camera. But in government affairs, you are in front of the camera.
Any other differences?
Something important to realize about working in government affairs is that your stakeholders are no longer fixed in their roles for a long time. Election to public office is not necessarily the long-term gig it might have been in the past. The elected official you are talking to and messaging with might not make it to the next election cycle. Another thing: I’m not sure people in government affairs always understand the need to speak the language of the stakeholder. But people in internal communications — and communications generally — do know how important it is they speak in the language of the stakeholders’ needs, not your own.
We talked a year ago for an article on the “Great Resignation,” and discussed the changing attitudes and expectations of employees and how employers are responding. What have you learned as a result of that experience — of working remotely and all of that?
I do see an increased recognition on the part of the employers of the need to understand how employees’ expectations of their work have changed. We’ll not be going back to 2019 anytime soon. I recently read an article in The Economist about how workplaces are becoming more “resi-mercial,” with offices being designed to have a more residential feel. Think more lounges and sofas versus conference rooms and chairs. Employers — and by that I mean leaders — have a better understanding now of how work has to feel more comfortable for employees. Even with inflationary pressures and talk of layoffs, this remains the case — maybe more so because of inflationary pressures and layoffs. And in this climate, with people working in hybrid arrangements, people in internal communications become the glue that holds all these work worlds together. It becomes more important.
You have also left the Council’s board and executive committee as part of that shift of responsibilities. Can you talk about your experience with the Council?
I have nothing but positive memories of my time at the Council as a volunteer leader. The experience broadened my horizons about the impact the outside world has on a corporation. But more important, maybe, is what I came to understand about the impact a corporation can have on the community, on the broader culture — on the world stage, even. This is something I’d not been exposed to until my time with the Council, and now I can connect the dots in a way I could not before about the role we play on the world stage, with Russia and China, for example, and in Brussels. I learned a great deal listening to Doug [Pinkham] or Nathan Gonzales, for example, talk about the political climate in which companies operate.
You have an enviably international background. What about that experience of other cultures are you most grateful for?
I have had to learn to hear and speak in other people’s languages — not literally, but figuratively. I have had to learn where people are coming from, in big ways and in small ones, too. Here’s a micro example. In the U.S., football means football, right? In Europe, it means soccer. In Africa, you cannot address someone older than you by their first name. In the U.S., most of us communicate with one another on a first-name basis.
Tell us something about your experience as a student at the Harvard Business School.
I learned something profound in a leadership development class from a professor named Michael Tushman, whom the students called Tushy. He told us that if you could just stop trying to be a “hard-ass” — his word — and “arrest your ego,” you can be a phenomenal leader. When he said that, he produced a case study called “Gunfire at Sea,” about a naval captain and his subordinate. The subordinate has a lot of great ideas, but the captain’s ego wouldn’t allow him to appreciate and take advantage of them. The subordinate, meanwhile, can’t quite understand what he is up against, which isn’t a technical issue, but a people issue. And to this day, I remember how important it is to check our egos.
Ninety percent (90%) of U.S. adults in the United States say the country is experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a recent poll by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation. At Cox, ensuring the mental wellness of all our employees is top of mind for us. And to do so successfully, it means that we as leaders need to learn to “arrest our ego” and show more vulnerability in the workplace. I think this is the essence of what Tushy was trying to get us to learn at Harvard Business School. And public affairs, as always, can leverage its voice and vocal chords to make this happen in their organizations.