Heather Wagoner is Director - Internal Communication and Engagement at the BBC in London, UK. She is one of the vocal leaders in the IC world and has previously worked in communications at large organizations like Rolls-Royce and the London Underground.

 
Chuck Gose: So what’s a girl from Mount Vernon, Ohio, doing as the Director of Internal Communications and Engagement at the BBC?

Heather Wagoner: Can’t we start with an easy one? Just kidding… Living the dream, Chuck. Living the dream.

CG: Did you always want to end up in London or is that just simply where your path led you?

HW: The path led me here - but I always wanted an adventure. To work abroad, to take on exciting challenges - to feel part of the world. No better place than the BBC for all that.

CG: That really is a great point. I only know the BBC through the cable television channel so I did a bit more research. You may know this but I didn’t. The BBC is the largest broadcaster in the world.

HW: It’s stunning isn’t it - the breadth of the BBC footprint. For instance, in World Service, we’re adding 11 new language services for News. Including service in North Korea. There’s a heritage of soft power, and a lot of responsibility that comes with that. There was a lady I spoke with in the BBC, working in News, and she originally joined from the Tehran bureaux and she wanted to work at the BBC all her life, because her grandfather listened to the World Service and it meant so much to him. The BBC was part of their lives - the very fabric of their lives, historic moments, global moments - and because of the BBC, those moments were shared within the generations of their family. Many beautiful stories like this one, at the BBC.

CG: Having been in the UK a few years before coming aboard, were there any surprises -- pleasant or not -- about the culture or the business of the BBC?

"If you go to BBC.co.uk, you can comment on the articles. Our employees can also do that on our intranet."

HW: It’s an organisation that is fundamentally built on creativity and change. It’s always moving forward. And, again, the BBC is really part of people’s lives in the UK. Colleagues within the organisation take that incredibly seriously -- there’s enormous pride in what we do. Whether it’s creating shared moments in a traditional broadcast sense like big sporting events or sharing moments as history is being created as covered through our News teams . But there's more than that, we’re re-inventing - there’s an evolution in Radio - both in speech and music - the expansion of online, mobile, social - and the arts and entertainment across television and the creation of programme formats that are loved the world over. I actually didn’t realise until I came to the UK that Dancing With the Stars was based on a BBC show called Strictly Come Dancing. And The Office, that was a BBC show - so many more global favourites have started here at the BBC. There’s so much creative IP that comes from the BBC any given day of the week - it’s just a privilege to be part of it.

CG: We (the U.S.) are really good at stealing things and then pretending they were our idea in the first place. I guess like a lot of CEOs. But anyway, you brought up creativity. Does the amount and quality of content BBC is producing put pressure on you as an internal communicator to keep up?

HW: Yes, and it’s a huge challenge. To be across the full scope of our output is, well, it’s impossible! We, of course, cover the big moments, but there are lots of smaller teams doing work that is just as cutting edge, just as transformational as our big moments and we always look to give everyone a voice - and so we’ve opened up our channels. Pretty much everything we do is two-way now.

CG: I’m curious if there’s anything in particular - whether strategic or tactical - that you’ve internalized from what you’ve seen the organization do externally?

HW: There’s a fantastic team in BBC Scotland called The Social and they are creating content with their audience rather than ‘for’ them. (Kilted Yoga, I’ll say no more….) They primarily work with younger people, and I really love their philosophy that these aren’t really a ‘hard-to-reach’ audience, as they’ve previously been described.The audience itself isn’t hard to reach, they’re right there, connected/social/online. But by building a real community of content creators, and managing that community really well and helping to provide a platform for people to passionately tell their stories - they therefore ‘reach’ the ‘hard-to-reach’ audience. We can learn from that in internal comms. My team has in fact created a network of content creators for our channels - employees are passionately telling the stories of their work and their teams. And the content is tremendous.

CG: You mentioned that pretty much everything you do is now two-way, which isn’t how internal comms has always been but probably should have. Can you share a few examples of how two-way has been used?

HW: If you go to BBC, you can comment on the articles. Our employees can do that on our intranet. If you go to social channels for the BBC (Twitter) you can interact socially, we’ve got Yammer for our people. If you want to share your views through face-to-face conversations on topics that are important to you, you do that in your communities that represent your interests outside of work - we have a big face-to-face culture here and we do lots of that kind of communication - we love a good roadshow.

CG: What’s the activity like on Yammer? I know some communicators struggle with getting employees active and using it.

"We want people doing great work - the best work of their lives - while they’re with us at the BBC. We want to help them achieve their own goals, while they’re here."

HW: We have 7,000 users out of 21,000 employees and we add 140 users a week. We work hard to build communities on Yammer and nurture those communities so activity is growing. I think in many organisations, colleagues are conservative about sharing views, at least that’s always been what I’ve experienced, even in organisations where colleagues are described as ‘engaged’ or ‘outspoken’, the social channels are remarkably silent. But something like Yammer really is a nice way to cut through hierarchy and it’s mobile-friendly.

CG: If you could come up with a list, what would you say are the top 3 uses of Yammer? Or the most common conversations happening on there?

HW: We see a lot of people sharing and commenting on their favourite BBC content - so in other organisations you might say that they are ‘product-related’ conversations. We see people using it really well if they want to seek an expert - and usually quite quickly! We’ve had people put out urgent requests, for example, for someone who speaks Hungarian - ‘we need you in 10 mins at x location to translate an interview’ - so there’s a real-time element to it. And we’re working hard on something important which is to really build up our management community. I’d love for Yammer to be a place where managers swap stories, seek support, perhaps even see the humour in shared challenges - that’s what I’d love to see really grow.

CG: Internal comms is part of your title. But so is engagement. How do you measure engagement at the BBC?

HW: We have an annual engagement survey which is run by my team. We’ve just gotten results back and the great thing is that we’ve heard from more colleagues than ever before and our engagement score is up. So, I take the ‘engagement’ part of my job title really seriously.

CG: Do you know why engagement went up?

HW: Based on the last survey, we put together an action plan and delivered on every single point of it. But also, I think communication is an activator of engagement and the comms approach has helped.

CG: Are you and your team talking about the employee experience at the BBC?

HW: Always. But I know this term is gaining traction in the industry

"Internal comms is highly-visible in organisations - when something goes wrong, it’s there for all to see."

CG: It certainly is and this is a bit of a chicken/egg question for you. Do you think employee engagement leads to an improved experience? Or does an employee experience drive improved engagement?

HW: I think that work, jobs and ‘talent’ are more fluid concepts than ever before. I think that we want people doing great work - the best work of their lives - while they’re with us at the BBC - we want to help them achieve their own goals, while they’re here. And we have to create an enabling environment to help make that happen. Making things as simple as possible. Making sure people are recognised for what they do. Celebrating their successes, supporting them through challenges, involving them, listening to them. But it’s an interesting one. Speaking personally, I know that some of my most ‘motivated’ team members, have quite simply shown up that way from day one. Now, I could lose their trust, or disappoint them, frustrate them - and of course I seek not to do that! But they’re very intrinsically motivated. It’s my job to help create an enabling environment for them so they can be all that they want to be. Engagement/experience isn’t about ‘perks’ - in fact there seems to be a bit of a backlash to the Silicon Valley style approach where hot food, gym, ice cream and replacing stairs with slides is part of the employment proposition - people are saying they’re just working longer and some of it is leading to burnout.

CG: My next question to you Heather is as a manager, not as communicator per se. You mentioned celebrating successes. How have you helped do this within your own team?

HW: So this is really important to me. I always make sure I know what people are working on and how things are going so I can support them every step of the way and help them achieve their goals. We’ve promoted from within my team – so it’s clear what’s rewarded. When people have put in mega hours, I give them time off in lieu. When people need to work from home to focus, that’s cool. I name check on all team calls, and we have two Away Days every year – every six months – so that our team can keep focused, but in a fun way. When someone has done well, I tell them that and sometimes copy my manager or other senior stakeholder to give senior visibility to their accomplishment. I’m really specific about what they did well. I make it clear exactly what I have been impressed by. And I buy them drinks every once in awhile! We have done quite a lot of formal training, from message development, to crisis comms, to exec coaching for managers, to social media – I want them to feel like I am giving them the skills and support to meet the standards that we set for ourselves in our team. And that whatever role they go to next, they’re ready to take on that challenge, too. We also have a team Yammer group where people are praised and thanked.

CG: When things simply don’t work out as intended, how do you handle this as a manager? Or if it’s your own project, how do you typically respond?

HW: Again, I’ve got a fairly clear (personal) policy on this. Internal comms is highly-visible in organisations - when something goes wrong, it’s there for all to see. So, when things go wrong, no matter who did it or what happened, it was on my watch and I’m accountable. When things go wrong, I know the person themselves will probably feel quite bad about it and we talk things through and most of the time I’m actually trying to help them feel better about the situation! Afterall, when they’ve made a mistake - they’ve had a bad day at work that day. I really recognise that and can relate to how it feels to wish that you’d done better. I think with empowerment comes accountability. And so when something isn’t quite up to scratch -- I do ask people to have a rethink. When it’s not their best work, they know it, I know it and it’s sent back to them for another pass. When a deadline has been missed and someone has perhaps let the team down, they’re accountable not only to me but to the team. So I really drive a sense of ‘team’ - or at least I try to. And we bail each other out a lot, too!

CG: As anyone who’s read this so far, they can tell you have a very thoughtful voice when it comes to communications and managing people. You were one of the very early guests on my ICology podcast because I believe you have a very intentional voice for the internal communications profession.

HW: Gosh. Thanks Chuck. *embarrassed*!

CG: Now my next question, which is completely loaded. Where do you see internal communicators holding themselves back or their organizations back? I’m not talking about at the BBC, just in general.

HW: Honestly, I talked about this to my team just yesterday (we had our Away Day yesterday so I’m on an Away Day high at the moment….). I think setting your own high standard and keeping that as your North Star is important - but also taking on challenges that you never thought were possible to achieve. Making sure that we’re striving to operate at an elite level, real experts. But, we work hard and we’ve really transformed comms, so in the coming 12 months - I want my team to enjoy the journey a little more. We have had a long list of accomplishments from the past 12 months - from the improved engagement results, channel transformation, new team ways of working, managing soooo much change. It’s time now, to really focus on and enjoy the journey while we continue to evolve and improve.

CG: So what’s on Heather Wagoner’s path in 2017? 2018?

HW: More growth, more deliberate steps toward continued professionalisation of myself and my team - and enjoying the journey a little more everyday.

CG: That sounds lovely. And one final, very serious question. Describe your thoughts on internal communications and engagement in. . . . . . emoji form.

HW: hands-celebration-emoji -- that emoji was described as a ‘Festivus Miracle’ btw. . .

CG: We will get to the airing of grievances and feats of strengths another time.

HW: Thank you, Chuck. Appreciate the conversation. You really do awesome stuff for our industry.