Listen to this episode to learn:

  • How to become a trusted advisor to the C-Suite 
  • The challenges internal comms teams face when working with the C-Suite 
  • Why focusing on impact and outcomes is crucial for internal communications success 
  • How to effectively measure the success of your internal communications initiatives 
  • Tips for cultivating networks and speaking the truth 
  • And much more! 




About the Speakers



Julie Ford
President and Founder, Corporate Executive 
Prospect Strategies 
Julie Ford
Head of Content
Sparrow Connected
"Internal Communications is a business function. It influences, articulates, and enables corporate strategy, and we must represent it that way."     

Julie Ford talks with Sarah Robertson, an award-winning and published corporate executive with over two decades of experience in strategic communications. As President and Founder of Prospect Strategies, Sarah is passionate about helping internal communications professionals elevate their careers and align their work with business outcomes. In this conversation, they discuss the keys to transforming the conversation with the C-Suite and the essential skills needed by internal comms professionals.



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. Today on the ICON podcast, I'm joined by Sarah Robertson. Sarah is the president and founder of Prospect strategies and an award winning and published corporate executive with more than two decades of successful strategic communications programs in her arsenal. She's also a certified member of the Institute of Internal Communications. Thanks for joining me today, Sarah. 

Sarah Robertson 0:46 

Thanks, Julie. I'm excited to be here. 

Julie Ford 0:48 

Today, we're going to talk about changing the conversation in between internal comms and the C suite. Let's jump into our first question. What is it the C suite actually needs from internal communications teens, 

Sarah Robertson 1:00 

What the C suite and internal communications professionals need is to change that conversation about internal communications. When communications leaders act as business advisors, as strategic thought partners, and talk about solving business problems, doors open, including more opportunities to contribute to overall strategy. And that's what we all really want. When we're in the internal communication seat. Internal Communications is a business function, it influences it articulates, and it enables corporate strategy, and we must represent it that way. Now, how do we do that? It's not as easy as saying that that's what we must do. But here are some thoughts. We have to resist the urge to talk about things like event attendance, open rates, click-through bounce rates, and unique visits, because the CEO, the CFO, the Chief Operating Officer, don't care about any of that. And aside from valuing you as an employee, they probably don't care how hard you work to achieve it. So, what they do care about is revenue profitability EBIT, da, so we need to talk about how communications help them achieve those things. So what they do care about is connecting employees to purpose, closing trust gaps, achieving alignment, driving accountability, and managing risk. So what they do care about then is how the content and the dialogue that your team is generating, keeps people aligned on those top priorities, helps them take accountability, helps them be responsible with their spend and make good trade-off decisions. So in short, they care about your effort, priority being solving business problems, and that is just That's great news for internal communications because there's absolutely no shortage of business problems to solve. I was recently reading the Grammarly state of business comms survey, which said nine out of 10 business leaders have experienced increased costs and eroded brand credibility or reputation because of poor communication. And one in four business leaders see decreased customer satisfaction when there's poor communication. I think we also need to consider the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, which talks about severely declining trust in institutions and increasing polarization. Originally, Richard Edelman summarized it this way, he said, without intervention, we will see a continued move from a crisis of institutional trust to a crisis of interpersonal trust. That statement is just highly disturbing for many reasons. But what a great time to be in internal communications because we can solve these issues. With the right focus, the right discourse, and the right mix of skills, skills, and chemistry, we can absolutely be that trusted and valued adviser to the C suite.

Julie Ford 4:04 

Thanks, Sara. That was really insightful. I've heard again and again from our podcast guests about the need to focus on solving business problems. And you also mentioned the concept of becoming a trusted advisor. Can you explain what is involved in becoming a trusted advisor and how internal communications professionals could do that successfully? 

Sarah Robertson 4:24 

I can talk about my experience, certainly, just being a trusted advisor, it's that it's that the ingredients of skill and chemistry and the internal communications leader needs to be really good at three things. So obviously highly skilled and experienced in developing executing, measuring communication strategy number two, emotionally intelligent and number three, proficient in overall corporate strategy and leadership. So here are my top fives on how to how to achieve that. At number one, learn the business. whatever business you're in whatever business you're supporting, work in it, not beside it. And this means you have to cultivate your business acumen. I've done this by taking a shift in the packaging suite, attending the market research focus groups, reading the trade pubs, observing the ad boards, go to the sales training, do the roleplay go on the ride alongs buy copies of whatever books it is that they read when I was in the pharma industry. Looking here at buy shelf, I've got copies of the DSM five, the CPS, the Dorland medical dictionary, go to the warehouse, learn to read the p&l. And really importantly, put your hand up for cross functional operations projects, especially those that are about org design, or go to market strategy. So that's tip number one, learn the business. Tip number two is cultivate networks, you have to collect people, you have to understand what motivates them to learn to read what they don't say, you need to talk to people who are very unlike you both from an energy perspective and a skills perspective, because the more diverse the perspectives you gather, the more useful you are to the to the CEO. Thirdly, this can be a tough one, speak the truth. If you're giving your opinion, you have to call it your opinion. Tell them how you formed it if you're presenting a hard truth, which is actually the best kind for us. If you're presenting a hard truth back it up with multiple credible sources, because whether they know it or not, there's a reality gap between the C suite and their employees and you need to fill it for them. My next tip is build coalitions. The CEO does not want to hear about your turf wars with HR and marketing. They do not want to hear how legal will not let you write this or implement that. So for internal communications, HR and legal are particularly important allies. So show them that you stand on common ground, you actually share their role of protecting and building the reputation of the organization and its products of managing risk, and protecting the CEOs credibility and leadership. And then take the solutions you've built together to the C suite. Show them where you've already incorporated HR legal or marketing input and created the alignment makes their job easier, makes you more valuable. And here's my final tip. See the whole board. The West Wing is one of my favorite serials of all times for many reasons. Lots of brilliant acting for Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe, the late John Spencer, brilliant writing by Aaron Sorkin, one of my favorite episodes aired in season three, which was somewhere around 2008. It was called Hartsfield's landing. So in this show, the Chinese are threatening to turn war games in the Taiwan straight into an actual war. And Sam, who's the Deputy communications director, he is really frustrated with the president for some of the decisions he's made. And he decides to tell the President this well, the two of them are playing a chess game. And what happens is the President simply encourages him to look at the whole board see the whole board, that meaning to step away from the emotions, the emotional roller coaster to stop looking at individual pieces and decisions and circumstances and see the entire picture. And when Sam does this, he actually correctly figures out the President's strategy. So if you can harness that power, which is the power to listen, see the whole board, you're going to be able to call the play in sync with the CEO. And then not only will you be able to anticipate their needs, but you're actually going to be able to advise them on implications of steps and solutions. So aside from my love of Sam seaborne played by Rob Lowe, see, the whole board is probably my biggest tip out of those five 

Julie Ford 9:26 

excellent tips. So just to recap, Sarah's five tips for becoming a trusted adviser to the C suite are one, learn the business to cultivate networks, three speak truth and speak facts for build coalitions and five, see the whole board. One of the common threads through all of your tips, Sarah is you know, it sounds like what the C suite really cares about is impact and outcomes of internal comms, is that correct? 

Sarah Robertson 9:53 

Yep. I would say that is right. And I would maybe frame it this way. I will I was talking to a former colleague Josh Matheson recently and he said something that just really keeps sticking with me. And it was this, no CEO or company pays its employees to read internal communications. Now, with both of us coming from any internal communications world, when he first said it, I kind of did like, Huh. And then as I've thought about it more, I just realized how right he is CEOs, and companies pay employees to drive revenue, deliver profitability, achieve customer satisfaction, affect policy change, produce, invent, innovate. So, therefore, our internal communications have to be purposeful. And the purpose of every communication must be to generate an environment in which they can do these things well. And while it might be fun for us to applaud ourselves on beautiful creative or high production values, and excellent writing, I mean, I love words, I agonize over them. What really matters is whether or not our communications caused something good to happen for the organization. And I think there are lots of metrics and methodologies you can dive into that are highly valid and important. And really, the guy you should be reading on this topic is Mike Klein. But I'm gonna boil it down to some things that I think are fairly simple and fundamental. And that that's this, did our materials or events or efforts cause employees to say, I know what the company's priorities are, I believe in the company's direction. I know the company has a positive future, I see how my work creates that positive future. And I have the information I need to align my work and my team's work to the company goals. And arguably, then the ultimate question when we say, what are the top three things on your desk? Do they match the company's top three stated priorities? 

Julie Ford 12:06 

Great. Yeah, I think, you know, we know Mike Klein very well at Sparrow connected. He's one of our strategic advisors. And I totally echo what you're saying he's, he's the one to dive into the measurement more deeply and has some amazing strategies that he can share on that topic. But I think, you know, what I'm hearing from you, Sara is very much in alignment with everything that I've heard Mike speak about over the past year or so. And I really do think that if we can get to the point where employees know what the company's priorities are, believe in the company direction, all of these things, it's really gonna change, change the employee experience for the better. And also, the companies will have better outcomes, which is, at the end of the day, you know, what we're all what we're all looking for. So that's great. Now, I wanted to kind of flip the script a bit here and talk about, you know, what are some of the challenges that internal comms teams face when working with the C suite, I'm sure that you've experienced, you know, many different challenges over your own experience, and also the experiences that your clients have. So I would love to hear what your thoughts are on this. 

Sarah Robertson 13:11 

Yeah. When you've been working with corporate executives for over two decades, you've got a solid list of stories in your, your little, your little file drawer. Here are think four of the more common ones I've experienced. So first, they don't know what they want, but they do know what they don't want. When I was thinking about this topic, it's funny. What popped up into my LinkedIn feed was an article by Carolyn Keeley this morning, called the Goldilocks effect where she talks about the same thing. And so here's, here's my take on it. Probably when you're asked to do something by someone in the C suite, your first reaction is just go do it. And every time I do that, I end up with draft after draft after frustrating draft, until what was supposed to be the drawing of horses. Now the drawing of a camel. And that's a waste of everyone's time. It's a waste of your skill as an internal communications professional. So here's the antidote, have the discipline to pause? What problem are we trying to fix? What do we want to achieve? Uncover root causes, discuss solutions, and then execute. The second challenge I want to talk about is that time when they tell you they need to comms plan, but nobody's got the business strategy. And one of the most frequent examples where I've experienced this is or chord structure changes or reduction in force. So they'll say hey, we've made a decision where We're gonna cut some positions, give us a comms plan. So there are multiple ways that I like to tackle this when I use them in combination. So first go to the project owner, likely the head of HR, and have a strategy discussion, you can try asking for the strategy, they may not have it. So have some questions in your back pocket like are we doing this all in one day? Or over time? How many? Are we affecting roles or individuals? Are these going to be performance related exits? Are we triggering any government notifications? And why? Why was the decision made? Second place I like to go is if there's a Chief Operating Officer, Chief of Staff Project Management Office, go there and ask them for the tactical plan, the project milestones, the timelines, the analysis that resulted in the decision. And then finally, in in parallel, just write the communications plan and the materials, but do it this way. My favorite tool in though in Word, aside from track changes, is the little highlighter. My first and second drafts are just filled with X's highlighted in yellow to show I don't have the information to finish this sentence. I also like to kind of do a use this message if or use mass this message, if so kind of a choose your own adventure, to point out that a strategic decision has to be made before I can finish the comps plan. Importantly, document your planning assumptions while you're drafting. Usually, those bullets of planning assumptions turn out to be the business strategy. Thirdly, these executives do not keep track of what they have told whom. If you've ever received an email saying, where am I talking points, and wondered what the heck you're talking about, you are a victim of this particular challenge. And here's the thing I didn't kknow,or I don't know, is never an acceptable answer for an internal communications professional. Because if you were looking at the whole board, and if you were cultivating ccoalitions and if you were networking, you would know because someone knew, and it's your job to know what they know, and anticipate their needs. And here's my final example, out of my out of my top four, if you are truly a trusted advisor, they will tell you things you wish you could unhear they will tell you, they're highly frustrated with your peer or maybe someone you admire in the organization, they will tell you the board isn't happy with operating expenses, they will tell you, they're going to have to sell the building or divest the product or terminate your mentor. They'll tell you they're being transferred, and the person who's going to be your boss is someone you don't like. But what's really important is to remember, it doesn't matter how any of that information makes you feel, not in that moment, because they're trusting you to be objective and professional, especially if they themselves are emotional. So you need to keep your balance. And something a mentor said to me that might help you that I have taped up in front of me is this things are never as good or as bad as you think they are. And I've found that if I stop and remember that line, I realized that they are somewhere in the middle, and then I can carry on with the job I need to do. 

Julie Ford 18:46 

Well, that's great. That's a great advice for helping balance. If you keep that in mind. As you were talking, I couldn't help but feel like some of these challenges that you shared are, you know, very relatable for me as a marketer. And I can relate to a lot of these scenarios. You know, especially, you know, where they don't know what they want until they see what they don't want. hit home for me. It definitely. So there is a bit of crossover, I think into the marketing world for a lot of these challenges. It seems to me that the skill sets that internal communications professionals need to have in order to be able to work well with the C suite go far beyond being able to deliver communications and I believe you touched on that earlier on in the conversation. But I wanted to ask you what specific skills do you believe internal comms professionals need today to be successful? 

Sarah Robertson 19:36 

Yeah, I think that's absolutely true. Julie the skills go way beyond you know the important aspects of planning and logistics and critical critical timelines and writing all important still very important the ability to write. And this comes both from my experience but also from I like to read the annual column firm's board, communications practices, reports that come out of the US. And they, over the last couple years have talked about how the responsibilities of communications leader continue to expand into areas like human resources, marketing, sustainability, social impact corporate and public affairs, and how more and more communications leaders are participating directly directly in the creation of corporate strategy. And throughout my career in corporate life, that was absolutely my goal, every company I went to was, how do we get the communications function into those rooms where strategy is being discussed and developed and decided. So the skills to make sure that you can do that, get that seat and then use it well include things like business acumen, business management, problem solving, collaboration, you have to be able to articulate and debate and informed independent opinion. So you have to be able to find data and turn them into insights. So what you have to be resourceful enough to find and articulate contrarian views. You have to build relationships, you know, we talked about the importance of those coalition's and the networks, both inside and outside the company, you have to be able to anticipate needs and reactions. So critical and integrative thinking, seeing connections and patterns, really important strength. And you absolutely always have to be purposeful, 

Julie Ford 21:43 

amazing, yeah, that's great. It's it's, there's a lot of skill sets that you covered in there, and a lot of traits that people need to have in order to be successful and be able to work well with the C suite. And I think you've shared some incredible insights and advice and tips throughout this episode that our listeners are, are going to benefit from profusely. You know, and I want to thank you today, Sarah, for your time, and for sharing all of this really valuable insight with us. And I'm sure that our audience would love to hear more from you. Where can they go to connect with you after this episode? Well, I really do hope that people will connect with me. So we can talk more about changing this conversation and the value of internal communications. So you can reach me by email, Sarah at Prospect strategies.ca at Sarah with an H. You can find me on LinkedIn under my full and very official sounding name. It's Sarah L. Manley Robertson on LinkedIn. And our website is prospect strategies.ca. I look forward to talking with you all about creating capacity, uncovering possibilities in your purposeful communications practice. And I want to really thank you, Julie and Sparrow connected for this great opportunity. 

Sarah Robertson 22:16 

Well, I really do hope that people will connect with me. So we can talk more about changing this conversation and the value of internal communications. So you can reach me by email, Sarah at Prospect strategies.ca at Sarah with an H. You can find me on LinkedIn under my full and very official sounding name. It's Sarah L. Manley Robertson on LinkedIn. And our website is prospect strategies.ca. I look forward to talking with you all about creating capacity, uncovering possibilities in your purposeful communications practice. And I want to really thank you, Julie and Sparrow connected for this great opportunity. 

Julie Ford 22:57 

Thank you so much, Sarah. It was so great chatting with you and I hope that we can connect again soon. Thanks for listening to the Icahn podcast. This podcast has been brought to you by Sparrow connected head over to Sparrow connected.com To learn more about the internal comms platform that is elevating the internal comms profession. And be sure to follow we lead comms on LinkedIn. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcast channels and tune in for the next episode. 

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