By Julie Ford on January 18, 2023
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Listen to this episode to learn:

  • How to deliver simple, yet effective internal communications 
  • Why creativity and efficiency are so important in internal communications  
  • How to develop an engaging, holistic approach to employee engagement 
  • Why psychological safety and employee loyalty are so important 
  • How to advance your career in internal comms 
  • And more! 




About the Speakers

ICON Podcast - Ep 4-11-wepg


Julie Ford
Deborah Speed
Executive Communications Manager
Intermountain Healthcare
Julie Ford
Head of Content
Sparrow Connected
"A big part of communication is maintaining a sense of calm in the middle of the storm, everyone around you is going to get worked up about things going on. Your job as the comms person is to be that steady force amid the storm. 

Julie chats with Deborah, an internal communications leader, about her experience and perspectives on everything from what employee engagement is, to keeping internal communications simple, creativity, and the essential skills that helped her reach a leadership level in her career.  




Julie Ford 0:01 

Welcome to the IC connected or icon podcast. This podcast will challenge conventional thinking about internal communications. It will force you to think differently. Consider bold ideas and step outside your comfort zone, through real unscripted insights from some of the best internal comms pros and subject matter experts in the world. But most importantly, this podcast will help you elevate your career, and together will elevate the internal comms profession to the C suite. Hey, everyone, today, I have Deb speed with me on the icon podcast. Deb is a communications and marketing professional with experience in developing and implementing strategies for branding, content management, internal and external communications, public relations, social media engagement and community outreach. Deb has recently made a bit of a transition, she spent quite a few years in the financial services industry and now has made a jump to health care. So we're happy to have Deb here. Today we're going to talk about quite a few interesting and trending topics in internal communications, including employee engagement, creativity, and how to execute quickly for your campaigns. So Deb, nice to have you today. Thanks for joining us. Yeah

Deborah Speed 1:13 

it's lovely to be here. Thanks, Julie. Yeah, 

Julie Ford 1:17 

no problem. So if you wouldn't mind, before we jump into the questions. Can you give our listeners an overview of your recent job change? 

Deborah Speed 1:26 

Yeah, absolutely. So I recently accepted a new position, as you said, in the health care industry with an organization known as Intermountain Health, one of the largest health care organizations in the United States. And I will be supporting their Chief Clinical Officer and their chief, nursing executive, they are big titles, mouthfuls, I'm still learning. I'm really looking forward to it. One of the things I'm very passionate about is helping our executive C suite team members really reach the people that they need to reach in a way that shows more compassion, empathy, you know, all the things you want from a good leader. So I'm definitely a challenge, kind of scared. But 

Julie Ford 2:18 

congratulations, that's a really exciting move. And I see that you've gotten, you know, a great title, executive communications manager. So all very exciting. And I hope that you enjoy your new role and all goes well. So jumping in, one of the topics that I'd like to chat about today is employee engagement. You know, we see a lot of chatter online about employee engagement. And I'm just curious to know, how would you define employee engagement? Because there are many, many different definitions out there? 

Deborah Speed 2:49 

Yeah, there are. This has actually been top of mind for me recently. I mean, it doesn't matter what industry you're in, right? Employee engagement seems to be at the top of everybodyVs list. And I thought about this a little bit. How do we define employee engagement? Some people think it's just, oh, these people are reading my communications. So they must be engaged, or we have a lot of company parties and people seem happy. So they're engaged. But I think that the way that I look at employee engagement, is how invested are our team members in the company mission? And what do we mean by that? My husband used to have the saying that you can't pay people enough to care. Meaning, you ge people who are invested in the organization, typically those who launch new companies, or have passion projects that they're working on, and really are invested in what's happening. And oftentimes, when you sort of get bigger, and you have to bring on more employees, you're not getting that same level of commitment, loyalty, and investment that you get maybe from your core team. And so for me, a successful employee engagement strategy would be one that gets people to care, no matter what level of the organization, you're in, you care. And I think it begins with creating a sense of, I think you have to have a foundation of psychological safety within your organization. And that has to be present at all levels of the organization. And so it starts at the top and it kind of trickles down and that's going to look different for every organization. You know, how do you create that psychological safety but once you do that, and you get to a place where people can start building trust, building rapport and actually investing in the mission of the company. That's when I think you truly see The real, sustainable employee engagement beyond just reading your emails, which don't get me wrong, I would be thrilled if everyone read every email. 

Julie Ford 5:12 

Yeah, exactly. But your what you're saying is it goes beyond, you know, your email open and click through rates. And you know how many people are reading? It's far more complex and deeper than that, which makes it a little bit tricky to actually measure. So how would you measure employee engagement in the way that you've defined it?  

Deborah Speed 5:37 

So I think that to your point, you do have to go beyond open click rates, all of that, and you have to look at the full sort of lifecycle of your team members. I think retention is actually a huge metric for employee engagement, that maybe in communications we don't necessarily think about, it's typically a, an HR kind of thought, and, and maybe for your development team. But I think that people don't leave places where they're happy, you know, they don't leave people they enjoy. We leave when we're unhappy when we feel unappreciated when we don't feel connected. And I think it's the responsibility of the communications team to really find those opportunities to build those connections. So I think retention is really important. I also think measuring participation, participation in different initiatives, you know, you're always, you may have wonderful ideas, but if people aren't getting in there and leaving their feedback, leaving comments, maybe you're doing some sort of social campaign where you want people to use your hashtags. And if you're not getting people to engage, it's because they don't care. You know, and and I think that you can really measure engagement and satisfaction by how much people are participating in an active role, not just reading your communications, but really taking action and getting involved in that way. So again, that's going to look different for every organization, depending on what it is. But I think we need to look beyond those sort of traditional metrics to really gauge that and look at it more as a holistic issue and not just, again, open my email. 

Julie Ford 7:34 

Yeah, exactly. That's interesting, because it kind of creates an opportunity for internal communications professionals to collaborate more with teams like HR, or like you were seeing if it's a social media campaign, more with the marketing team. And I don't know that employee engagement should really fall only on internal comms, that doesn't seem fair, right. 

Deborah Speed 7:58 

Fair. And it is, that is why it's, I think that that you've hit on something, that's why it's at the top of every organization's priority list, because we think of it as sort of this like, isolated issue, and we want to assign it to one team, you know, K, Chief People Officer, you're in your, you know, in charge of employee engagement, but it really does have to come from across the organization. And I think that's the beautiful thing about communications is you do have the opportunity to be that bridge between all the different departments and teams and leadership, and, and you get to kind of force those conversations, you know, and and figure out that way, too. How can we all be rowing in the same direction? Let's all define employee engagement together, let's get our leaders, you know, again, it's starts top down, but you have to all be on that same page in the beginning and know that it is an us problem. Not a not of them problem. 

Julie Ford 9:02 

Yeah, yeah, exactly. great. Um, so have you seen any or ran any initiatives that you've seen, really have an impact on employee engagement? And, you know, the participation particularly, what are those initiatives that that really drive that in your experience? Yeah, 

Deborah Speed 9:24 

I would say so one of the things that I think we as communications professionals, we all know, video is really important because you you get to feel like you know, someone you know, I think before COVID If you were in the office, great, you got to know people then we all went home, but then everyone started talking on camera and it became more and more normal to talk face to face than even to pick up the phone or send an email and I think there's so much value in seeing in someone's face. And so any project that was really important that we wanted to kick off, we, you know it with my teams, I like to start with video. And I like to sort of build that foundation of emotion within a message from the very beginning. And, and I think that that's really important. I've seen a lot of positive feedback from video projects, whether that's just a straight to camera video message, I prefer more interview style round table. But then I would say the other things that really have increased employee engagement are running campaigns that maybe don't even have anything to do necessarily with your day to day business. I think that employees when they feel like they're part of an organization that speaks to a greater good, or maybe there's some philanthropic work that they can get involved with, one of the organizations that I was with, we did a campaign called the year of service. And we had happened to have physical brick and mortar locations in just over 50 states, you know, over 50 locations throughout the United States. And it just worked out that every single location was able to adopt a week out of the year, to do some sort of service in their community that really meant something to them, right, it wasn't coming down from corporate, we weren't saying we're all going to adopt pets, you know, volunteer at the food bank. And instead, it became about leadership in each of those organizations, talking to their people, finding out what mattered to them, and then going out and doing something positive. And then what we did on the con side of things was, we created a weekly newsletter that had video snippets and pictures and stories where we got to highlight and then we were also tracking hours and, you know, in different organizations, and so it was kind of fun. Throughout the year, we were building, every team was building on what the team before it did them and, and did before them. And we were able to sort of see what started from zero. By the end of the year, we had done this many volunteer hours. And we knew in other places that we didn't know we recognize faces. And all of a sudden, people were kinder and more committed to the organization and referring their friends to come and work for this place that was more than just the bottom line. So I do think you just have to get creative and sort of find those opportunities for people to connect on a human level. And, and great things can happen. And that sounds 

Julie Ford 13:15 

so amazing, and like so much fun, but also, you know, impactful in the community and, and, you know, showing employees that the company cares about the causes and initiatives that they care about. So that that sounds like it checks all the boxes for a really positive campaign and great employee engagement. So you mentioned creativity, obviously, that is a very creative strategy and campaign that you came up with. How important do you think creativity is for internal communications pros? 


Deborah Speed 13:47 

I think we're constantly being pushed to be more and more creative. I mean, short of like sending singing telegrams and carrier pigeons to get people to get the messages. Like, you really have to think out of the box. And, you know, we live in an attention economy. And we're fighting against a million different places that are vying for the attention of our colleagues or team members or employees. And, you know, you've got to come up with that hook, you've got to come up with that catchy headline. I mean, I know it sounds so basic, kind of but if you can't catch someone's attention in this world we live in then all the effort, you can put all the effort in the world into the most beautifully crafted message. But if you're not hooking someone from the beginning, I don't know you know, you're kind of dead in the water. And so I do think that we have to constantly be thinking outside of the box, which is one of the reasons why I love collaborating with different teams because sometimes When you're seeing the same people every day, and you're doing the same things, we get stuck in our in a rut, and it's great to get new blood on a team, it's great to go to a different department and find out, you know, something that matters to them, and then figuring out ways to include that in your overall strategy. And honestly, there's a level of getting creative with your executives. You know, you can have all the ideas of the world, but if your executives don't sign off on it, again, you're sort of dead in the water. And so I think, finding ways to get creative with your C suite and helping them see the value in and seeing employee engagement as a holistic issue. And not just did they read my email? Did they read my message? You know, so? If you find the secret sauce, please let me know. 


Julie Ford 15:56 

Yeah, for sure. I think that's what everyone's searching for. Right? So have you, we're gonna go off a little bit off script. Have you found that reaching employees on channels and devices that may not be you know, your typical Microsoft Teams or slack or corporate channels? Has that helped you at all? Have you had experience with that? You know, mobile apps, SMS, social channels? What are your thoughts on on reaching employees where they already are? Yeah, 


Deborah Speed 16:30 

I just believe we have to be everywhere. I don't think that there is one really great channel that everyone prefers. And I wish that we could find that, again, that special golden channel that everyone thought was the most convenient. For me, I have to say that finding a technology partner, a software solution that helps streamline that process, because you do have to be on so many different channels. And getting that message out in as many ways as possible. I think, the more streamlined, we can make it for communication professionals, the more successful we'll be, because, you know, oftentimes, and you know, how it is comms teams are small, they're not the typically the large parts of your organization, and you have to do a lot with less. And so I think that finding that right tech solution, that right partner in helping streamline those messages and identifying what channels really do matter to your people. For example, when I was in the finance industry, we've worked a lot with loan originators, loan originators, are never sitting down at their computers, they're not sitting at a desk, they're on their phones, they're out and about, they're going around and drumming up business. So whatever we did to them, we had to make mobile friendly, you know, we had to make sure it was optimized, and that they weren't getting error messages, and that it was quick and easy, or that they did get push notifications on their phone when it was something really, really critical. But then also balancing that with not inundating them with push notifications, because it too much noise. I mean, too many just becomes noise. And then people don't pay attention to that either. So I think it's important to identify sort of priority levels of communications, what what escalates to a push notification versus just an email that if they see it great if they don't, or on the Internet, or a banner on your homepage? Or? Or is it important enough to engage with your video production team and do a whole thing you know, you have to, you have to be kind of savvy when it comes to that and really figure that out for yourself and know your and that comes down to knowing your audience. And that's really the biggest key is knowing who they are and how they like to receive their messages. And the bigger the organization, the more channels that's going to be. And so again, that tech partner is super important.

Deborah Speed 19:04 

Yeah, definitely. And getting those. The only way you can really know where people want to receive content is, you know, by having the analytics, so that's becoming more and more important. Otherwise, you're just you know, or you're using multiple different channels, built in analytics, trying to get a clearer picture of what's happening, but you just can't. Unless you're going to spend hours and hours piecing it all together. It's really similar on the marketing front to right. So the analytics are super critical these days to getting the picture of what people like and their preferences for receiving communications. Yes, and that's where 

Julie Ford 19:39 

Having that right partner is really important, someone who has a product team that listens to their clients and that you can help influence how those products are being developed. I think that that was critical and key to the success that we had in improving in Korea. Seeing our employee engagement at the last position that I was in? Yeah. 

Deborah Speed 20:05 

So one of the things that, you know, I think you've done really well, based on, you know, the conversation that we're having today in our previous conversation is that you really need to make your content your communication, sticky engagement, engaging, relevant, but they also don't need to be super complicated. I think, you know, working in marketing, not that it's the same as internal comms, but there are some sort of consistencies between the two, like, we get caught up in, you know, maybe overthinking and rethinking, and planning, planning, planning, and then we don't actually execute anything, right. So we, I'm just wondering if you have any tips for internal communications professionals, on you know, how to kind of keep it simple, yet effective? With what's your experience in that? Yeah. 

Deborah Speed 21:00 

So the head is so tricky, especially because we love our words. And we tend, I think human nature is we tend to over explain, and I just think it's important for us to remind ourselves, to go back to the basics, who's my audience? What's my headline? And if they're, I only have five seconds, what do they need to hear from me? You know, and yes, you can doll it up and fancy it up and do all the put all the bells and whistles and do all the things and sometimes there is a need for that. But I think we forget that sometimes we just need to get that message across quickly. And in comms a lot of times you don't have the luxury of doing all the bells and whistles because you have crisis communications or reputation issues or things that have to be addressed almost immediately. And so I think you just need to be flexible, and, and willing to, again, go back to the basics. When I've been when I've worked with on projects in the past, something that's been super helpful to keep my teams on focus is to create that strategic brief or that project brief beforehand, because it is easy to kind of get further down the road and forget, what were those main points that we wanted to get across? And having that guiding document, so to speak, really can help remind you what your what's our objective? What's the bottom line here? Yes, that sounds like an awesome idea, Mr. CEO, that you want to do this huge thing. But remember, this is what we're trying to do. And that helps kind of guide those conversations and keep things again, on message on point. really succinct, unlike my answer, which was very not sustained.

Deborah Speed 23:02 

But the point is, have that plan, like putting the time and effort yet to documenting and documenting your plans and your goals and objectives and how you're going to measure them? I think that's the ultimate point. To keeping it simple and focused. Yeah, 

Julie Ford 23:22 

yeah. It's it's easy to get distracted and no marketing comms people we love to, we love to make pretty and sound great and perfect. And sometimes you just have to get something out, you know? 

Deborah Speed 23:35 

Yeah, it but at the same time, it's interesting, because we're talking about how important creativity is. And then we're talking about toning it down and making it simple and effective. So there's just this magical balance between the two, I think, yeah, you have to find 

Deborah Speed 23:51 

you're gonna have all cases, you know. And that's kind of the beauty of communications, though. That's what I love about it. It changes every day, there's a new challenge. And at least for me, that kind of keeps me going, that keeps my drive going. And so I was, like I say, sometimes I wish there was a secret sauce. And we could just plug in our little formula and spit it out. And we would get perfect engagement every time. But yeah, you just have to know that balance. And again, that goes back to who's your audience? What's your hook? What's the message? You know? 

Julie Ford 24:29 

All right. So moving on. As we spoke about earlier in the conversation, you've grown your career significantly, starting out as a coordinator, to a vice president and now executive communications manager. What would you say? If you look back over the years, were the most significant skills or traits that helped you progress throughout your career? 

Deborah Speed 24:52 

Well, I took about a decade off to have kids and raise kids and coming back into the workforce was very intimidating for me. I felt like I didn't have a resume to support what I knew I could do. And that was challenging and overwhelming. And I certainly have felt the imposter syndrome. Throughout my career, you know, but I had a mentor early on, tell me that there's something that has stayed with me, which is, skills can be taught qualities are what you hire. And what she was saying to me is I had the qualities and I could learn the skills as I went along. And that has stayed with me, it's been a really great guiding principle for me, as I've gotten into the position of being able to hire team members to remember that some of your best diamonds in the rough, you know, are those that you wouldn't necessarily think of that maybe they don't have that resume, but what are the qualities that you are looking for? And so I've tried to focus on that when I've gone into rooms where I felt intimidated or just, I don't know, I don't know why, as humans, we do that. I don't know why we don't think that we have the skill set. I just have to remind myself that those things can be learned. I would say the other thing that really has helped me, though, is my network, I was at a place when I was going back to work where again, I had been a stay at home mom, I wasn't in a great financial place. And I got hired at a financial institution. And all of a sudden, I needed a wardrobe that was not anything close to 


Deborah Speed 27:02 

When I had a really good friend, who was a very successful Emmy award winning reporter, and she was stepping back a little bit and she was helping me through this transition back into the workforce. And one day, she said, she called me and she said, You can't work. I have all of these clothes in my closet that I'm just not going to be using. And I know you're going back to work, will you come come over and basically like go shopping in her in her closet. And it meant so much to me to have someone in my corner who believed in me, who understood that I was feeling overwhelmed and intimidated and was able to do this gesture that probably didn't mean wasn't too big of a deal for her, but was a huge deal for me. And that launched my, the next decade of my career. And I committed to myself at that time that I wanted to be that person for other people. And so it was very singular in my goal to network and find people that I could learn from that could open doors for me, because I knew I had the qualities. And I knew I could learn the skills, I knew I just needed to get in the door. And not was what was most important. So it was it's it's, you know, who you know, gets you in what you know, moves you up, you will move yourself up in your career, but you do need to have that network. And that's been really, really important to me. And like I said something that I've committed to is being that network for other people. I just don't think that any of us can move ahead without that. I don't know if you're familiar with the Company L vest but the founder, her name is Sally Krawcheck. She's written a book called own it. And in her book, she says that the most important decisions about your career are made when you are not in the room. People sit around a table they decide whether or not you're going to get that raise whether or not you're gonna get that promotion whether or not you're gonna get hired whether or not you're gonna get fired. And she follows that up with saying that if you don't know who in that room is fighting for you, then nobody in that room is fighting for you. And so I always make sure that I know who's in my corner. Have I made the connections with the people who are in the room? And when I get to be in that room? Will I fight for the people that I know deserve it and that's really how I've modeled my whole career is just paying it forward and continuing to as my One of my former mentors called grim my lily pads, because you never know.

Julie Ford 30:06 

Wow, that's amazing. That's so such a good story and so relatable to so many people, I believe in great advice, you know, but the networking and about focusing on the qualities and not the skills, and you know, the confidence and you know, giving back and paying it forward. I think all of those things are, you know, so important and perhaps overlooked. When we think about careers and career growth, you mentioned your Lilit, your lily pads, are there any specific qualities that you look for, in the people that you bring onto your teams, that make them really great for internal communications? 

Deborah Speed 30: 50 

Yes, for me, I need people who are positive, who can set their egos aside, because a big part of communications is that I mean, I feel like a really successful communications professional has to maintain a sense of calm in the middle of the storm, everyone around you is going to get worked up about things going on. And you're going to be pulled into all sorts of intense meetings with a lot of tempers flying and passions going back and forth. And your job as the comms person is to be that steady force amid the storm. And so I like to look for people who have that quality that can go through the storm, and know that they're not being personally attacked, that when we have to make edits or changes or things on the fly, that's okay, that's just part of the job. And then, and through it all, that they're also a team player and supportive of one another to because I have no time for drama. Your entire job is dealing with people's stuff. The last thing I want to deal with, in my comms team is interpersonal drama there. And so I like to look for those who believe in supporting others and lifting other people up and being cheerleaders for each other. I'm a big believer in positive feedback and reinforcement. And I think that that builds that psychological safety that we were talking about in the beginning. And that eventual loyalty, when you feel appreciated, and you feel valued. That's when you're fully engaged in what you're doing. And you don't want to leave that people leave unhappy jobs. They don't or they leave unhappy and miserable bosses. They don't. They don't leave pieces where they feel safe, you know, and appreciate. Yeah, 

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