When the headwinds of economic uncertainty blow, focus within

Prioritizing internal comms requires senior leaders’ active and authentic participation.

Sandra Stahl is co-founder of jacobstahl, a Ruder Finn company, founding faculty in the Branding +Integrations Communications master’s degree program at The City College of New York, and author of award-winning, “The Art & Craft of PR”. 

While it’s impossible to know how the second half of this year will shape up for business, it is fair to expect continued headwinds.  For every new opportunity, there will be challenges.  To succeed, companies need high-performing teams supported by a return to prioritized internal communications that include senior leaders’ active and authentic participation.

It was only a few years ago during another, albeit different, tumultuous time, that the spotlight was on internal communications.  Consistent, engaging, reassuring and practically informative internal comms created environments that made employees feel safe, cared for, and empowered.  Not only did employees at many companies continue to do their jobs, but in many cases, they did them better.  During this time, leaders like Albert Bourla of Pfizer and Satya Nadella of Microsoft communicated more personally, more empathetically, creating deeper connections with internal and external stakeholders and encouraging their teams to do the same.

In the current environment of uncertainty, internal comms requires the same attention and urgency.  And, as before, senior leaders will need to play a significant role.  What’s different now are the areas of focus that are critical.  Three priorities are:  creating a colleague-first culture, instilling a sense of humility, and understanding how to help a multi-generational workforce partner successfully.  Here’s why:

  • People working in a colleague-first culture operate with the comfort and confidence that their voice matters, that they are seen and heard, that their ideas are considered. Employees in this environment are better equipped to get through harder times and want to succeed not just for themselves but also for the team and the greater company.
  • An authentic and active sense of humility fosters curiosity, compassion, and sensitivity. Humility is key to creating workforces that value diversity, inclusion, and appreciation that a better idea or more effective solution will emerge as a result.  The freedom to admit when you don’t know the answer provides a safe space for others to admit that too, and then, working together, answers are found to the most vexing problems.
  • Many companies today have workforces reflecting multiple generations. There is a ‘secret sauce’ in the confluence of archival knowledge and deep experience of Boomers plus the technological facility, creativity, and sensibilities of Gen Z that, when cultivated, keeps teams energized, learning and encourages sharing for the greater good.

When our group partners with clients on internal comms as the primary assignment or as part of thought leadership, reputation builds, or change management, I look for inspiration to Hollywood producer Steve Golin, co-founder and former CEO of Anonymous Content, Propaganda Films and Oscar winner (Spotlight). His career spanned film, television, music videos, and advertising. Steve passed away in 2019.

I’ve found the “Golin Rules,” provide infinite value for today’s leaders and internal comms.  For example, he created a colleague-first culture in one move:  he instructed his team to put their colleagues first.  Theirs should be the first calls, emails and texts returned, barring an emergency from family, friend, or babysitter.  He did the same without exception. His team noticed, appreciated, and followed suit. They felt heard and respected when on the receiving end and wanted their colleagues to feel the same.  If the call was an ask and a commitment was made, Steve insisted on follow through, with the residual effect of building a reputation for individual and company-wide integrity.

As for humility, Steve often quoted another great producer, David Brown, who said, “No matter how successful you become, you’re always Willy Loman.” Steve believed there was no shame in admitting unease, indecision or even weakness. He made people comfortable with his discomfort, resulting in a workplace that valued open dialogue and welcomed different points of view and ways of working.   He also made it safe to take responsibility for failures as well as successes and encouraged people to take on projects and causes they were passionate about, “If you fail, you’ll know why it was worth fighting for.”

Instructive for today’s multi-generational workforce is Steve’s constant reminder to every person on his teams regardless of age, skillset, and experience to share their knowledge on the basis that, doing so “helps the greater good and helps you in return.”  He encouraged people to find time to listen and support each other, ultimately creating a work environment people “wanted to be in, not escape.”

There will always be cycles of headwinds in business.  Companies are in a better position to take these on and triumph when there are strong teams in place and an internal culture that recognizes and delivers what’s needed in the moment but always nurtures what’s needed.


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