Keith Burton on how to turn employees into company ambassadors

10 min read
Vlad Kovalskiy
July 24, 2014
Last updated: April 5, 2023
Keith Burton on how to turn employees into company ambassadors
Over the past 20 years, Keith Burton has been the leading industry practitioner in employee communication and change management. As partner at Brunswick Group, Keith leads a global group of counsellors within The Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG) who are focused exclusively on improving organizational performance by building employee trust, improving internal communication and affecting overall change at many of the world’s leading corporations. We talked to Keith about what internal communications professionals can do to improve employee engagement and collaboration inside their companies.

Let’s start with the beginning – employee onboarding. What resources should internal communication and HR specialists make available to new hires in order to speed up onboarding process?

Employee on-boarding is one of the bigger issues companies wrestle with today – in large part due to the fact that a new generation of employees have a greater need for involvement, building communities inside an organization, and knowing how things work, who leads certain areas, and how the organization is structured. They want information and clarity. So companies have to do a better job in creating an induction process that tells the story of the company, helps supply information and resources that employees can use right away, and in connecting employees with a buddy or a mentor who will show them the way early.

Companies have done a poor job, on the whole, in adapting social and digital media internally. This is because some are reluctant still to permit access to Websites and communities while people are working. Others can’t overcome the difficulty in creating social and digital resources that truly work within their culture and IT systems. With mobile technology today, we can’t keep people from accessing the very resources they need to build communities inside, find people and departments to help them and support customers, and get answers to questions they have about the business strategy, the company’s performance and others.

I’ve gotten many requests in recent years from client and prospective clients wanting to create a new onboarding program. The enlightened companies see onboarding as a critical part of their recruitment, retention and employer branding.

A lot of internal communications used to be email/memo based. They are now decentralizing and migrating to social intranets and enterprise social networks. How do you view this trend?

It is still heavily email- and memo-based in virtually all companies, and I suspect it will be so for another two to three generations of managers – until the Millennial Generation ascends to new leadership levels. I lead studies regularly inside companies to assess the effectiveness of internal communication and employee engagement. I look at all channels and vehicles company use. Face-to-face is the number-one preferred method in every organization. Company meetings, Town Hall sessions, floor walk-arounds, team meetings, Webcasts – these are all preferred. Companies in disruptive industries may, in fact, tell you that they are driving engagement through social and digital channels and working to render email obsolete; however, the truth is that even in these companies, the pendulum can swing too far. I know of one Fortune 200 company that is a leader in technology that has directed its corporate communications team to go out and hire 28 new speech writers. They want these people to help support, equip and prepare leaders to engage their people more effectively because they’ve lost the personal touch in the digital age. High tech can’t replace high touch.

Email, by the way, is still rated second among the top preferred channels in companies throughout the world. Employees tell us they like it because it is always available, provides timely details (for the most part) and information they may need, and can reach broad employee groups in global organizations in a consistent delivery.

While I don’t like email, I believe it will always be with us. Our job as employee engagement strategists is to use email as a bridge to new methods in the future – as HTML to package in a more aesthetically appealing way; or hyperlinking to videos or portals or communities where people can find what they want or need. The new generation needs “pull” more than having information pushed to them.

And less is more. I’m finding that companies in change are driving complexity into simplicity. It’s not War and Peace that we need. But it’s more than 140 characters, too. It’s the right amount of context and detail, often set within a story or anecdote that illustrates or informs our point.

What the most typical internal communication mistakes that you see companies make over and over again without even realizing it?

The biggest mistake is failing to understand our real purpose with internal communication and employee engagement is to improve the performance of people in the organization. Too many companies spend time pushing information out without regard for what employees really want and need. The same goes for creating channels and vehicles. Some companies literally have two dozen or more ways to reach their people; yet they’ve never stopped to ask the question, “What does the audience need?” This is why we spend time up front assessing the effectiveness of the function, asking managers and their reports at the front-line what they need most to be effective in their jobs, seeking to understand the credibility of leaders and managers in their communication and engagement, and discovering how the company honors its commitments and corporate values.

Ask what the audience needs.

Improving collaboration and employee engagement are central to IC. What tools, services and techniques do you recommend to help IC specialists with these two goals?

I’ve written extensively on this topic and have counselled hundreds of companies on it through time.

When leaders see those who lead internal communication as focused on business and performance needs – in other words, acting as business strategists first – then they become an asset to the strategic focus. When aligned with leaders working to make the right decisions, internal communicators then can drive collaboration because they have the endorsement, support and commitment from the executive leaders.

Of course – there will always be those organizations where reporting lines and internal politics will make collaboration incredibly challenging and even impractical. Add to this the growing globality of companies in geographies such as China and Peru and even the UAE – where culture, society and history further cloud the collaborative model. That’s a different topic for us.

IC specialists are increasingly taking on the role of community management as well. What skills and expertise should internal communicators be pursuing in order to adopt to the ‘new reality’.

Now you’re getting into the real future. I’ve had this conversation with some outstanding chief communications officers about the skills and competencies they want from the next generation of employees. Some are working to train and develop their people in the social sciences, for example. Others are working to ensure that beyond sociology of people, the anthropology of how cultures and people in corporations have engaged through time, and the psychology of why people do what they do in the workplace – we develop new leaders. Johnson & Johnson has the Credo Champions. A global bank I work with in the UAE has a new generation of men and women known as Service Ambassadors. Groups like these exist in many companies large and small. Some take on community leadership and management inside a company. Most become the connective tissue linking their peers with leaders, customers and even third parties in the community. Many go on to become executive leaders.

Thank you, Keith!

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