Faces of HR

Change Can Only Be as Successful as Engaging Communication

What do crystal-clear communications, awareness of a company culture’s direction, and massive change have in common? They all have to happen at the same time. So many organizations have rapidly changed in the wake of the pandemic, and they will have to continue to evolve. How do they get it right? How do they make sure their culture survives and thrives? How do they communicate the bad news when it arises? These are the topics I tackle with this week’s “Faces of HR” guest.

Meet Elisa Gilmartin, Chief People Officer at Fuze, a global cloud communications provider and video conferencing company.

So, how did you get into HR?

After I graduated from college, I got into HR to better understand how companies worked. I knew the words around marketing and finance, but I didn’t know what they meant. So, I joined HR thinking it would be an opportunity to better understand business. I’ll get to understand companies. I’ll get to understand other functions and then really figure out where I fit. I started doing data analysis in HR. Quickly, it led me to some compensation projects, and I started specializing in compensation, which I really liked. Again, you get to understand your business, the marketplace, etc., and ground it in analytics. My career in HR just took off from there.

I think most of my career was formed by two companies. Early on, Fidelity Investments was very much a meritocracy. There, I joined an executive compensation team and was quickly asked to be a generalist in the fund management group. At the time, Fidelity strongly believed that to develop in HR, you should rotate through every function in HR. I had a discussion with the head of HR about moving out of compensation and into a generalist role with the fund managers because I was happy where I was. Why move when you’re happy? It was a very foreign concept. He came back to say, “This is the time in your career to learn all of Human Resources, so sit in that seat, sit in the recruiting seat, and take an international assignment at some point. You should learn all of that, and if you decide at the end that executive compensation is your specialty, come on back.”

So, after really learning to sit in all of those seats at a company like that, my career just grew, and I never wanted to leave HR. Each role allowed me to touch upon and impact every single part of the business, requiring a strong understanding of the business.

At Fidelity, you were also expected to have a well-informed opinion. For me, this was sort of a playground where I got to learn all the skills of HR. I was never bored. I worked with bright people. I worked with a business that was changing. I earned a seat at the table and was expected to use my voice and add value.

It’s a very healthy environment for any HR person to be in. When was that, if you don’t mind my asking?

It was early-to-late 90s.

That was pretty progressive of them.

It was very progressive.

Just curious—going back a little bit, when you were doing all those different HR roles, was there something, a specific role or data management, you really enjoyed, or did you find there was something else that was even more enjoyable for you?

I spent the bulk of my career being a business partner to different parts of the business, and that’s where it all came together. I am a change junkie. I’m an OD (organizational development) geek, so for me, it’s all about understanding the underlying principles around organizational change and transformation and then aligning the different pieces to enable that and scale within an organization. I realized for me, it’s all about change management, and really helping employees and leaders navigate through change effectively. This inspired me and drove me.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of experts in that particular field, and they’ve all been very tough because it’s like the extreme sports version of HR, right? I mean, everything’s on the line, and nothing’s hidden. You have all of that data in front of everybody—the finances. You have Dave over there who hasn’t been doing his job for five years; well, now you know, and you can’t hide it any longer. I mean, you get all the skeletons out of your closet, too. Then, you have to keep people interested and engaged when they might be afraid for their jobs. You have multiple cultures mixing together. It’s really crazy.

You have to take risks, and you have to be comfortable with taking risks. The hard thing about OD is you can’t articulate the whole scope of change. When you begin to think through a change strategy, some of it is very subtle. Some of it is changing the language, changing how we talk about things, and educating people. You’ve got to be able to go through the process of critically understanding the desired end state and where we are today. Then, ask “how do we start embedding the required critical elements of change into our culture so people get it?” Everybody learns differently. You have to start small, and it’s subtle. From an HR perspective, you have to be able to ensure there is an overarching strategy to get the desired results, and then there are nuances to how we start talking about change, how we start talking about our goals, and how we start connecting people to them.

EMC was the next company I was at for 7 years, and when I was there, it was all about change. We went from a hardware company to a hardware/software services company. I got to work on transformational elements.

A lot of it is subtle, and you have to educate leadership in the organization around change, and embed that change and have it be part of how you run the business differently. You’ve got to build through the change very intentionally. My model is:

Take a look at what’s going on in the industry, why is this important to our company, and how do I take this down to the employee level and say, “What do I need to do differently to be able to impact long term objectives?” There’s a communication strategy that’s consistent around that change. There’s a skill and competencies analysis. What skills do the change require? Do we have those skills? Do we buy them, or do we build them?

Then, lastly, integrate required change elements into the company’s core business processes and implement key change elements into how we run the business every day, and the change becomes part of the fabric of running the business, extending into the culture of the company as well. When driving change this large, you need to ensure you get full buy-in from executive leadership and the understanding that with organizational transformation, you may not see the full results immediately. Rather, gain an understanding that this is what we’re going to look like in 18 months.

It’s definitely something that, if you have a bunch of stuff wrong, in 18 months, you’ll know, and it’ll be way too late, right?

There are definitely milestones along the way to ensure you are on the right path. You plan in the quick and small wins that enable the organization to learn and celebrate new changes that are taking root, and the benefit of those changes. You also are constantly checking in to ensure you are driving success, and if it is not taking hold along the way, there are plenty of opportunities to adapt. By managing transformational change as part of the business, there is the normal business cadence; QBR’s or other planning sessions, to utilize to see if the change is taking hold and becoming effective, or if you need to pivot.

I think that, given what a multifaceted process it is, how many people have to be involved, and how many different moving things there are, it might be easy to forget the importance of good communication. It’s how you communicate to the employees because they are not only your largest cost, but also your largest asset, and if you mess that up, people don’t believe you when you say things.

I think you’re right. I don’t think of communication alone; it’s communication and engagement. One is to educate, but the second is to engage with how we communicate because we’ve got to make sure everybody’s connected. COVID has brought the communication strategy to the forefront; you now have a burning platform for everybody saying, “Yes, this is important,” and we need to dedicate our time to it because, to your point, it’s not just HR.

An organization’s communication strategy overall is the truth in the business. What do we need to achieve? Then, starting to boil that down into consistent messaging is how I look at the business. How do we clearly and succinctly outline the high-level goals of the business? It’s coming up with your platform messaging that you’re going to be consistent against, as well as the “how.” This is how we do it. And show and articulate examples along the way.

Teaching leaders what is that platform messaging is also important. These are the words that become our common vernacular These are why these words make sense. This is what we mean when we talk about accountability and examples of how we’re driving that within an organization. hen, you also need to have consistency—what and how are you going to communicate and when? Having a regular cadence of communications within an organization is important. We do monthly all-hands meetings at Fuze. Initially, we had them quarterly, and thought monthly was going to be too much. Each meeting has a similar cadence, so in every all-hands, we go through the financials and review how we are tracking against goals. We have begun using hashtags around our five key goals to be able to tie back achievements to the things that have an impact on the organization and link back to our strategic initiatives.

When we link achievements back to our business goals, we celebrate key successes and milestones in the business so people can see it and learn from it. It starts to build the momentum of success within the business. We’ve also started conducting “ask me anything”sessions. Our employees, Fuzers, have a forum to ask open and, oftentimes, difficult questions. Our leadership team is very transparent and has become comfortable in answering hard questions.

When people ask questions, are they anonymous?

They can choose to be anonymous, or right now, they’re on video sitting in their homes with kids, dogs, or chickens (yes, chickens!) in their laps asking, “If our customers don’t have the ability to pay right now, what’s going to happen to us? Will we have layoffs?” Or they’re asking, “How do I keep my 3-year-old engaged, while I’m trying to have a meeting?” Really, when we said “ask me anything,” we meant “ask me ANYTHING.” So, we had to take time with leaders to show them how to talk about difficult things.

Lawyers are the kinds of people who I think lead leaders down the wrong road of thinking about liability before they think about engagement with their employees. I’m sure your employees appreciate the ability to ask those things without fear of retaliation or retribution and to know that they’ve been heard at least.

It’s a good point. We’ve also learned to say, “Here are the things we’re considering; this is what we’re seeing,” in terms of how we’re answering. We’re also comfortable saying, “We’ll have to come back to you on that because we’re in the middle of developing a strategy around that.” It’s OK to not have hard, definitive answers all the time.

Again, it goes back to helping your leadership team go back to platform messages that are true and authentic. And to ensure the communications are engaging—two-ways. As an example: we’re worried about employees’ mental health during COVID, so tell us what you need. I can put together a lot of things, but you’ve got to help me to understand what is useful to you.

We certainly are seeing a ton of change across virtually all organizations. Those that are overtly aware of that change and can communicate it to their employees will be best off.

I think there are a couple of things with that. One, you do have to be very intentional, but you also have to have a learning organization, one that you foster this feeling, belief, and expectation that the organization has to grow, learn, and evolve. We have to get away from the idea of “Well, that’s what we used to do here.” This is what our clients need today. You almost have to break it to change. I think a large piece of it is that we have to be a learning organization continuing to evolve. It’s not static. We often know what needs to change and that there are things that we do not want to change, so how do we start to align around those commonalities and then address what is required to change quickly?

We’re trying to get much better at iterating fast. Think about what’s not working and how you change it rather than thinking that what’s not working is going to expose someone’s or some team’s failure. We keep trying to say, “We are not the Fuze of 2019. We’re a totally different company now, and here’s where our focus is.” You move on from those decisions that were made in the past and the leaders who made those decisions because they made them for different reasons, and that was their focus. Now, let’s all look forward. What do we need?

It’s a real challenge. They’ve done studies on the ability to transmit information in-person versus video versus over the phone and then versus e-mail. As you get farther down that list, the ability to communicate accurately is drastically dropped. Words have always been imperfect.

I remember hearing that the most commonly used 500 words have over 2,500 definitions. Everybody is interpreting them very differently. Therefore, it’s much more important to be very intentional with your words, and sharing your thought process or asking for clarification in writing like you would video or live conversation. Take the example of someone who writes curt emails. They are most likely in their mind wanting to be responsive, answering quickly, and efficiently.

However, there can be ripples to that potentially “overly efficient” response. Without explaining reasoning or “color,” a curt and quick response has the potential to shut down discussion or the sharing of opinions. So, when communicating in writing, it is important to take a minute, take a breath, read the email, read it twice, and go back to explain your understanding of the subject, your thought process as well as your opinion. Seems like a lot of work upfront, but will ensure you are aligned and not “mis-communicating” in writing and will save time in the long run. Or even better yet, if an answer is not straightforward, perhaps it is best not to respond in writing—call the person instead, and talk through and come to a solution together.