Spreading the vision of business transformation.

Webber Kerr’s President Adam Lloyd meets with Jennifer Williams, former VP and Global Head of Internal Communications at AECOM, as they discuss business transformation, navigating through change and getting the word out.  


Jennifer is a communications executive who has spent over 20 years leading employee communications, employee engagement, public relations and marketing, in both corporate and agency settings. She most recently led Employee Communications for the global engineering services firm AECOM, which included oversight of Communications for the acquisition and integration of URS, a major AECOM competitor.

AL: Jennifer, you have worked through multiple transformations, how do you know the right time to communicate the vision to the employee population and how big of a factor is timing?

JW: To capture the heart, a vision needs to be bold. But it also must be credible – employees need to be inspired by the vision but also believe that it’s achievable.

 Credibility is built at the local level. Business line leadership and the employee’s own managers are critical sources for the credibility of any corporate initiative. So timing is crucial: A vision must be socialized with leadership before it’s broadly announced, and leaders also must understand how the business strategy and related transformation activities align with it. Once the CEO shares the vision with staff, the company's management needs to actively support the vision by incorporating it into all of their own communications, ideally sharing a sense of excitement about where the company is heading as well. This means they’ve heard the vision, understand it, and have bought into it. And this all needs to be communicated in tandem with any announced business transformation efforts that are being implemented to support the strategy. So timing of all of these related activities must be carefully planned.

AL: Employee engagement is a critical element to success in transformative movements. What are the keys to successful engagement?

 JW:  A few years ago I heard Karen Hughes, counselor to George Bush, speak on leadership. She believes a true leader successfully communicates three things: vision, clarity and optimism. These three elements are also key to successful transformations. The employee needs to understand, and be inspired by, the vision; there needs to be a clear and cohesive narrative on how the company will achieve its goals; and the employee needs to believe she or he can contribute to the transformation. As communicators, we need to align everything with those three elements. All communications must tie back to the vision and the narrative, and by helping employees to understand how their jobs support the vision, and by charting progress made, we help build optimism and engagement.

A critical element is also what we don’t communicate. We have to eliminate noise. Keeping the narrative clean supports employee understanding and helps them to focus. That’s not always easy. But it’s just as important.

AL: Four months following AECOM’s acquisition of URS, which had been one of its largest competitors, you launched a global employee survey which concluded that most employees were optimistic about the integration. What led to their positive response?

JW:   Understandably, there was anxiety among employees about the acquisition, as we were bringing together two large, mature companies, each with its own history and strong culture. We communicated in numerous ways – a CEO video, emails; an employee guidebook to provide an overview of the new organizational structure, and an outline of what was changing and what would stay the same; multiple FAQs – and a microsite to house all of these materials. But most importantly, staff needed to hear a consistent “story” of the acquisition and the new company – the vision, the benefits, and what it would mean for them – from their own leaders and managers. So we used a cascade approach: the CEO briefed senior leadership globally, and these leaders shared this story with staff in local town halls. And we provided these leaders with more detailed information, which they in turn used to brief their own management teams. Managers were then asked to hold team meetings to further “connect the dots” for staff. We followed these activities with announcements of new leadership throughout the new organization, framed by messaging consistent with the acquisition story. Anxiety is fed by a lack of knowledge, so we tried to provide as much information, as soon as possible. 

We were very pleased with the outcomes: the employee engagement survey showed that a large majority of employees had positive awareness and understanding of the benefits of the transaction, the CEO’s vision for the new company, and the employee’s role in our future success. This was a real win, considering the amount of change the employee was facing.     

AL: What qualities do you look for when hiring for your team and how does the evolution of communications play into it?

JW: When I started, there was still a great deal of focus on cranking out newsletters and memos. Those things can still have their place, but good writing skills are just the basics now. Our internal clients look to us for strategic thinking and counsel, for strategies that reflect their business imperatives, for deft implementation. So during the interview process, I’m looking for evidence that the individual is client-focused, solutions-oriented, and creative. And they must have project management skills. An entry-level professional probably won’t be able to demonstrate all of these skills and orientations, but you can judge if they have the right potential. I think these are four key competencies for our profession now.

AL:  From your experience, as it relates to communications, what could organizations do better when making big organizational shifts? What have you seen gone well? Maybe not so well?  

JW:  Effective change can only happen when employees are fully engaged, so it's necessary to view the change through their eyes. You need a strong "change story" a compelling narrative on what is happening, why, what the ultimate benefit is and what the employee needs to do to support, or comply with, the change. So all changes need to fit into the narrative, and be coordinated. This is where I’ve seen organizations struggle: coordination of the changes. In large-scale transformations, change can be coming at the employee from everywhere:  HR, Legal, Compliance, Finance, IT, etc.  If there is no central function that has some coordinating authority, tied to the Communications team, you risk employees having a disjointed and demoralizing experience, as they are asked to comply with multiple changes without regard to all of the demands on their time and without a true understanding of how it fits into the organization’s goals. More and more organizations are incorporating a central change function into their structure.

If local agents are given a strong role in influencing how change is rolled out in their areas and have a say in local messaging and channels, a central change function can be a great support for successful organizational change.

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