As the current IABC/Toronto president, and the Assistant Director of Brand, Marketing & Communications at EY, Maliha Aqeel brings over 15 years of award-winning professional expertise in strategic communications. She currently leads and develops brand communication programs and specializes in integrating internal and external communications, promoting thought leadership, and advising senior executives in all areas of strategic communication. 
We tracked her down at IABC World Conference 2018 and asked her all about the benefits of internal thought leadership and how it can integrate internal and external communications.



Video Transcript

Chuck Gose: Alright, so now we're here with the next Chuck Chats Live here at IABC World Conference, and have the pleasure of having the guest Maliha Aqeel here with me. Maliha, you're with Ernst and Young.

Why don't you explain your role and title with the company a bit more?

Maliha Aqeel: Sure. I'm an assistant director in the brand marketing communication group. My role is really integrative communication, which means I do internal, external, brand marketing. All three pillars, I do all of them.

Chuck: Okay, good, that's exciting, you've got a nice variety.

Your talk, you gave it earlier today, is that correct? It's about thought leadership driving brand, is the title.

My first question for you is, can we come up with a better word than 'thought leadership'? It's one of those words that I feel like people throw around a lot.

How do you define thought leadership, I guess?

Maliha: For me, thought leadership is about a content strategy that's built around insights.

So you could call it an insight strategy, if you don't want to call it thought leadership or an insight program, if you're trying to build a program. So I think for me that's how I define it, but at a B2B we sell insights, we don't sell products and services, so a thought leadership program helps to really position you as someone who has a unique insight or point of view on the issues that your clients are facing. So yeah, there are so many words we could use.

Chuck: So when it comes to brands and companies, there's an external brand and an internal brand.

So your approach around finding this thought leadership and building it, how can it really help and improve and drive the internal brand? The brand that employees experience ever day? And I'll have a follow up after that, how would you define the internal versus external brand at Ernst and Young?

Maliha: So the first question is, with any kind of program, particularly thought leadership, it has such a huge impact on the culture of an organization, therefore the internal brand becomes crucial. And the reason why it has an impact on culture is that in order to develop thought leadership programs, which are primarily around creating reports and then being able to distribute them, deploy them, getting out to these conferences and talking about it, you have to have a culture that supports you being able to take time away from your mission critical tasks, your day-to-day job and say that I'm going to spend an x amount of time and money on building this program and developing these insights and pulling other people to help me do that.

And so you need to have internally a culture that allows you to do that that says that yes, investing and getting our insights out is important to how we want to be seen in the marketplace.

And then externally, it is about how you want to be seen, it's what you want to be known for, and that's where your insights program can really help you because you're using content, you're using the research that you've done around an issue to say that this is who we are, this is what we think about this topic. And your employees see it both ways because you're giving them permission to do it and your customers are seeing that you actually have something interesting to say that addresses what they are facing.

So I think that's how they come together. Some places like EY, insights and our thought leadership are so important because our clients come to us to solve their problems. And we have to have a point of view on that problem before we can help them solve it.

Chuck: That's a good point.

"You need to have internal culture that says yes, investing and getting our insights out is important to how we want to be seen in the marketplace."

Click to Tweet  Tweet: Worried about rocking the boat? @carrieyoung & @chuckgose give advice for risk-averse #internalcomms via @bananatag 


So they're not going to come to us if we say nothing about what they're going to be facing. And often with us internal and external is hand in hand because these things, the thought leadership, the content, all of it is being produced by our practitioners who have a subject matter expertise.

And so being able to create that culture that allows them to do that and then giving them the resources to put that content out there and supporting them in their efforts to get that content in front of their clients, in front of the industry, all of those things tie into how we do it internally and externally.

Chuck: So when it comes to this point of view, does it need to be a collective voice from the company? Or what if you have dissenting points of view on a topic within a company? How would you manage something like that?

Maliha: I think at the end of the day it goes to your brand values, right? What your brand stands for.

At EY our brand stands for building a better working world. Every single thing we do from a thought leadership, to how we position ourselves, ultimately the goal by which ... sorry, the lens by which we measure ourselves and the lens by which we make those decisions would be does it help to build a better working world? Does it match our mission, does it match or values, our vision? What are we trying to say who we are?

If what we want to produce and put out into the marketplace does not help to advance our mission, then why are we doing it? So I think any brand that you have ... before I was at EY I was at Institute of Corporate Directors.

For them is was about building better doctors, better boards that result in better business. Every single piece of thing that we did, from events to content to our education programs, it was all designed to achieve that vision. So whatever we were doing, if we weren't able to create better directors that could ask better questions and have better functioning boards, then we weren't doing our job.

So I think your brand values, your brand promise, all of those things are ... that's the lens that you apply to make these decisions, to kind of, I guess allow those dissenting voices to have a say, but the decision is really made by the brand values.

"In order to drive your business, you need to make sure that your employees are on board with why you're doing what you're doing." 

Click to Tweet  Tweet: Worried about rocking the boat? @carrieyoung & @chuckgose give advice for risk-averse #internalcomms via @bananatag 

Chuck: Do you see it where ... does the internal brand drive the external or does the external brand drive the internal? How do you see that balance happening?

Maliha: I think sort of both.

Chuck: Okay. That's kind of a wishy washy answer.

Maliha: It is, but the way I see it is there are things that you as an organization have to do externally to drive your business.

In order to drive your business, you need to make sure that your employees are on board with why you're doing what you're doing. And particularly now as we get more younger generations in the workplace, they need to see the impact that you as an organization are going to have.

So if you only focus on the external without really thinking about the impact and how it will be seen internally, then that's where there's a disconnect. So that's why I say it has to be a little bit of both because you can't focus more on one, less on the other.

When you're building out your programs you have to think about how it will be seen internally and how it will be seen externally by your customers. And often the audience segmentations are very different for internal and external audiences, right? Their needs are very different.

And so I think that's where you almost have to do very targeted messaging for the same program on both sides of the aisle. And you can't be like I'm only going to focus on my internal and my customers will get it because my employees are my ambassadors. In the meantime, your customers will feel neglected because you're not focusing on them. So it can be wishy washy I will say, like sometimes I'm like yeah could be one, the other, but the end ...

Chuck: I'll take both as an answer.

Maliha: I'll say this, it's a balancing act.

Chuck: Right, yep.

Maliha: There are times, as we do in our work life balance that you do more of one than the other, but at the end of the day it has to balance out.

Chuck: Right.

So another question I have for you is when we talk about behind thought leadership there has to be thought leaders.

Maliha: Yes.

Chuck: How do you identify who these thought leaders are? They can't just be somebody saying, hey I'm a thought leader.

Maliha: Oh, no.

Chuck: But how do you identify who either contributes to this thought leadership or who is a thought leader inside your company?

Maliha: Right.

It's a little bit easier at EY because it's primarily consulting, right, so we have people that are true subject matter experts in what they do.

In other organizations I've worked at, that's not always the case and you have to find them or you have to coach them to become thought leaders because sometimes they have great ideas, they just don't know how to actualize those ideas in a way that someone outside of their core group will understand and value.

So I think in some ways the way to identify them is to first start having conversations, and the conversations are around what does our brand stand for, what do we want to be known for? And then individually, what are the points of view that our practitioners have? And then applying that lens of the brand values to say this is where we'll prioritize our efforts.

So when you are trying to find your thought leaders, in some cases they will come to you, in which case you ask the probing questions. There's so many methods of asking questions to understand do they really know what they're talking about?

And often they do, but what they're saying is not unique enough to help break through the noise around them, right? And those ways, I think marketers, communicators, we can help them get past the noise. We can help them develop those individual points of view.

And often that means that we have to coach them through it, but that is our job. We're mentors, we're coach, we're cheerleaders, we're the doers. We wear so many multiple hats and our job is to help them.

But if someone ... I think not everyone can be a thought leader, but I think everyone does have a point of view. And our job is to get our brand's point of view across. The people that we use are often the vehicles to help get that across.

But at the end of the day for me, it's about our brand. And it should be about our brand, not about the individuals.

Chuck: And then last question for you, this is around sort of the topic of executive communications and thought leadership.

There's a lot of people that would think the executives should be the thought leaders, and maybe executives thing they're the ones that should be the thought leaders. How would a communicator overcome the barrier when maybe their executive isn't the thought leader and is actually maybe a layer or two below them is where that thought leadership has come from? Is that part of the coaching?

Maliha: It's part of the coaching. And I think part of the coaching is you work with them to identify the next level of senior managers, managers in the organization that could be potential thought leaders. And you work with them to say, you may not be the right face...

Chuck: Or the right voice.

Maliha: Or the right voice.

But work with us to identify who you think are the high performers below you that can be that voice. And so I think this way you involve them in the solution rather than minimize their efforts. And I think by having them contribute to developing that solution, they actually will get the buy in because if they're great executive leaders, and they are leaders not managers, to them it is about advancing the organization and not always about advancing themselves.

But you involve them in helping to identify that next level, the luminaries that we can help really get behind that they can get behind. And I think by doing that with them they will feel like they've had a say in who actually gets to be the voice, and we've identified the next layer that we can build, the next set of leaders that we can build. And therefore we start the coaching early with them rather than towards the later part of their ...

Chuck: And I like that word luminaries that you shared.

Maliha: Yeah. It's a word that we use a lot in EY.

We truly believe that we need to build our luminaries as not always someone with a leader title. And it doesn't have to be. But it's someone that can really be passionate about our topic and really be out there speaking about it and want to build their brand around it as well.

Chuck: Alright, well thank you Maliha for being on Chuck Chats.

Maliha: Of course, thank you.

Chuck: Thank you.