During the 2019 IABC World Conference in Vancouver, BC, Bananatag had the opportunity to get face time with some of the industry's brightest minds for our second annual Chuck Chats LIVE series!

In this interview, our host Chuck Gose picks the brain of internal communications expert Mike Klein, Principal of the consultancy, Changing the Terms. Mike and Chuck chatted about internal influencers, terminology and technology, and most importantly, great advice on how communicators can advance in their careers. 

Watch the video, listen to the audio interview, or read the transcript below!

Video Transcript

Chuck Gose: Welcome everybody to Chuck Chats. This is our video series that we started in our World Conference last year.

Now we're back here in the Bananatag office. I'm joined today by industry veteran Mike Klein.

Mike, thanks for joining us on Chuck Chats.

Mike Klein: Pleasure to be here.

Chuck: So in case for those that don't know who you are, give us an introduction of who Mike Klein is.

Mike Klein: Sure.

I've been in and around internal comms for about the last 20 years.

I got my start as a political consultant in the U.S., I worked on campaigns all over the United States, mostly in the deep south, mostly for Democrats.

In the late '90's I realized I needed to do something else with my life. The life of a political consultant was just a bit much for my then wife and just for me in general. So I went to London to go to business school.

And I stumbled into a career field called Internal Communications, which I had never heard of before. I read a brochure for consultancy that was in that space and was realizing, that's me they're talking about.

I ended up getting a job with that consultancy about a year and a half later. An outfit called Slide Forward Lambert, which was really one of the firms that defined internal communications as a professional discipline.

And I've been in house; I've been a consultant; I've been a contractor. I've worked for big companies like Shell, Cargill, Avery Dennison, the U.S. Federal Government.

And I now have my own practice. I live in Delft in the Netherlands. I'm a British citizen, so I'm living in the EU on a British passport, which is a very interesting occupation in and of itself these days.

And I'm just really deeply passionate about the power of internal comms and communication professionals in the internal space to make a difference for organizations and society.

"I'm just deeply passionate about the power of internal comms and communication professionals in the internal space to make a difference for organizations and society."

Chuck: Well, I think that passion certainly does come across as we see the blog posts you write, your social media activity; that passion is very evident.

What I'm curious about too, you talk about that interesting career path that you've been on. Is there one thing that you're most proud of?

Or what's that one career highlight, one you look back and reflect on very positively?

Mike Klein: I made a small group of people an awful lot of money back in 2003.

I was doing the internal communication, the merger communication for the merger of two airlines in the UK, one of which is easyJet, and one of which was Go Airlines.

And it was the most fun, the best job that I ever had.

And, a lot of what I do today; a lot of what I talk about today had its genesis in some of the things that the people of easyJet allowed me to do. Including, for example, when there was bad news, because there's often bad news in mergers, the idea of having the Go managers deliver the bad news and the easyJet managers deliver the good news.

What it did was it drew on the credibility of the Go managers, and it gave credibility to the easyJet managers.

And one of the biggest mistakes that's made in corporate communications today is that there's not enough attention that's paid to the choosing the right speaker, the right advocate, the right ambassador for a message that's about to be given.

I base a lot of my work on four rules that were articulated by Abraham Lincoln when he was running political campaigns in the 1840s. Make a perfect list of the voters; determine with certainty whom they'll support support; for those who are undecided, send someone whom they trust to persuade them; and turn out the good wigs--the good party members on election day.

In an internal and corporate communications, all four of those rules are violated routinely.

You don't make any list. You just assume. You just distribute. You don't determine with certainty who people support. You assume that you have their support because you're paying them.

You put the people you trust in front of the microphone, not the people they trust. They have a CFO deliver a hard message, and having a union leader deliver the exact same message would have a completely different impact. But most often the organizations would choose the CFO.

And then the worst thing that organizations do in internal comms, is that they mobilize their opponents. They mobilize the people who are skeptical, who are cynical, who have other priorities, to do everything in their power to sabotage and subvert what their own agendas are. And they do it in the name of efficiency.

"One of the biggest mistakes that's made in corporate communications today is that there's not enough attention that's paid to the choosing the right speaker, the right advocate, the right ambassador for a message that's about to be given."

Chuck: I don't think that internal communicators would ever think, or traditionally maybe think of the naysayer community as their opponents.

Mike Klein: No, and they're not intrinsically oppositional.

Chuck: Right.

Mike Klein: It's just that they don't give any thought to avoiding engaging them.

We want to engage everybody all the time, and we don't need to.

The biggest thing I'm hearing, I'm doing a lot of research for another vendor, an outfit called Happeo, which specializes in digital workplace for G Suite, so it's a very niche but very interesting vendor. They commissioned me to do research on the present and future of internal communication. And I spoke with a bunch of C Suite decision makers for my report which is about to come out, and what they said, the most important thing they'd like to see internal comms do is cut the noise. And we can do that.

Chuck: Often we're in control of that noise.

"We want to engage everybody all the time, and we don’t need to."

Mike Klein: Exactly, or at the very least, we're in control of the distribution of that noise.

And Lincoln's rules are a wonderful blueprint for managing that noise.

You reduce the volume of noise, so that only the people who need to hear something actually hear it. You are selective in how you distribute those messages; how you connect people; how you mobilize people.

And you can align it priorities rather than just letting people sort the priorities out for themselves.

Chuck: You might have just answered the next question I'm going to ask you, but I'm gonna let you answer it again, just in case.

I like to think about the career that communicators can build for themselves, not aligning themselves maybe with a particular organization, but them as a career communicator.

We're now seeing, where CCOs now have a full background in internal comms. It's not just about the external communicator becoming the CCO; it could be the internal communicator now that has the path. What can a communicator do to be more intentional about thinking of their own career?

"The first thing professional communicators need to do is affiliate with a professional communicators community."

Mike Klein: Well, I think the first thing professional communicators need to do is affiliate with a professional communicators community.

I don't care which one it is.

I don't care if it's IABC, PRSA Connect, CIPR, IOIC; they are all great at what they do.

But the main thing is we need to work together; we need to part of a community; and we need to support the infrastructure of that community in order to help move everybody forward. 

We need to recognize that we operate in a discipline. We operate in a serious professional discipline that's every bit as serious, and probably even more important, than a lot of the traditional business disciplines that exist out in the world.

We need to take ourselves seriously, as a group, because it's hard to take ourselves seriously as individuals. It's much easier to take ourselves serious as a group than as individuals.

And another element is really to focus more on the impact that you want to have rather than the paychecks that you want to get.

Chuck: What I see is a lot of communicators seem like their stuck on a bit of a hamster wheel, where they're just kind of doing the same thing over and over again. No changes are happening, so they keep doing the same things over and over again.

What's your advice for a communicator who might feel like they're stuck in their job, or they're stuck in this role at a company? Is there any advice you have, or counsel, for them?

Mike Klein: Everybody's situation is different.

The biggest variable is geography. If you're in London, you could live in a single residence in London and have a career that crosses every conceivable sector of every conceivable strata and never leave commuting distance of your home.

If you live in Indianapolis, if you live in Charlotte, if you live in Saskatchewan, your odds of finding a comparable job in another local organization that isn't occupied by somebody like you for that same 10 years that you're gonna be, is a much different ballgame.

Two pieces of advice: One is, if you can get away with it, do some consulting as side hustle, absolutely. Do thought leadership, write blogs, write articles, be out there. I mean, I had my blog going, Changing the Terms, about 4 years before I turned it into a business. Build your brand.

And also be prepared for something that happens in your organization, because I was talking with a guy in Frankfurt; really, really sharp communications guy. And we were talking about job security - I wasn't in house at the time - he said, “You know, I have much better job security than you. You have one boss; I have four. If I lose one of them, I still have three.”

"We need to work together; we need to part of a community; and we need to support the infrastructure of that community in order to help move everybody forward."

Chuck: That's true.

Other than joining to professional bodies, which you talked about as something that communicators can do, you also mention building a brand, and I think that's, especially on the internal comms side, the voices you hear about are the ones who have invested in their own brand and building a voice.

What else can communicators do to invest in themselves?

Mike Klein: Follow the vendors.

Chuck: Okay, explain what you mean by that.

Mike Klein: The vendors in this space, Bananatag and others, are really the organizations that are driving the agenda in internal comms, I think, for the better; because they've got a platform.

They've got so much at stake that they need to move the conversation along in order to bring people to where they are. If we didn't have the vendors, we'd still be talking about cascades right now.

Chuck: That's a good point.

Mike Klein: The other thing is that the vendors are people who have relationships with other companies that are going through the same stuff.

For example, if you're at the World Conference, you can go to a wonderful presentation on a corporate case study; ninety minutes about what one company did to deal with one problem.

Or you can spend ten minutes talking to a vendor and get ten different perspectives, ten different case studies, ten different alternatives, in a one-to-one conversation. And it doesn't have to be at World Conference, you can just get on a phone and say, “I'm looking at an email solution, or a digital workplace solution.” And you can really advance your own thinking, because the vendors are at the cutting edge.

Consultants like me aren't even at the cutting edge to that extent.

Another thing is if you're gonna be in house, find sponsors who aren't your boss. The most important thing you can do. Where I did that; I succeeded. Where I didn't; I failed.Chuck: Define what you mean by sponsor.

For example, when I was in an oil company in Denmark, my reporting line was into HR. But my agenda and the organizations agenda was not focused on HR stuff. So, I became very friendly with the CFO. I became friendly with some of the country heads who, provided me with a lot of information, a lot of content to work with, but also spoke up on my behalf at the mythical table that they all talk about.

It's great to have a seat at the table. It's much better to have seats at the table.

"The vendors in this space, Bananatag and others, are really the organizations that are driving the agenda in internal comms..."

Chuck: Then I'm glad you mentioned that, because it's exactly where my mind went when you hear communicators, much of the mantra is “We want a seat at the table. We deserve a seat at the table. We don't have a seat at the table.”

Something that you just described is building your own table of allies. People there that support you and believe in what you are doing.

Mike Klein: Exactly, I mean the best seat at the table is an invisible one but where your presence is always felt.

Chuck: Right, and you've got those allies in place.

So, where would you like to see communicators step up their game?

As being somebody who's been in house, as being somebody now on the consultant side, what are some very easy things that you've thought, man, if they just did a little bit more of this or thought a little bit more about this, or pushed a little bit more here?

Mike Klein: We have to rethink how we approach the constituencies with which we engage.

That's the talk of my section at World Conference: the four dimensions of internal influence. We focus too much on the formal role of communication in organization, which I call the ambassadorial role.

And the word ambassador is a lousy word in the business comms context, because organizations try to deputize people as ambassadors. Ambassadors are a formal role. In the real world, an ambassador is a formal representative of one country to another.

Similarly, a manager is a formal representative of the organization to their employees. It's different from being an advocate, who's just somebody who's supporting the organization's agenda on their own initiative.

Chuck: I think some people use those terms interchangeably.

Mike Klein: Exactly, and that's the whole point of my session, is to try to recreate the vocabulary around influence.

In fact, that's the most important thing that communicators can do to step up their game. We've got to be much better at using terminology. We need to be at least as good at using terminology as we are at using technology.

Chuck: That's a nice little sound bite.

Mike Klein: Thank you. That's my job.

Because the less clear we are about what we're doing, why we're doing it, how we're doing it, and what we're trying to achieve; the more ammunition those who are skeptical about us have to say that we're not professional, we're not rigorous, we're not real business people.

The more specific, the more clear we are, and then obviously the better data, both qualitative and quantitative, that we can use to underscore very specific points that we're making. That could propel us forward much more quickly than pretty much anything else.

Chuck: A word that just popped into my head as you were talking through that, I think communicators do at time struggle with the ambiguity of their role, within an organization.

Mike Klein: And inadvertently create more ambiguity.

Our job is to clarify ambiguity. It's not to destroy ambiguity. Part of the reason why we exist is because there's ambiguity, and because organizations need us to help their employees navigate the ambiguity.

If there was no ambiguity, if everything was crystal clear, the CEO could just stand on a table and say “This is what it is.” And everybody would implement it perfectly at the end of the day. The fact is, is that there is ambiguity. Our job is to help navigate it. What our job isn't is to unintentionally add to it.

Chuck: Right, and I think they're doing that.

"We need to be at least as good at using terminology as we are at using technology."

Mike Klein: And also, we don't show proper respect to the ambiguity that exists and to the reactions that people have to it.

Chuck: So you mention these roles of ambassadors and advocates.

Mike Klein: Influencers and followers.

Chuck: How can a communicator truly, on the internal side, leverage that influence? Or even identify who those influencers are?

Mike Klein: There are a number of established approaches and methodologies that work.

The one that's absolutely ninja is called organizational network analysis.

And I do a bit of work with a company in Copenhagen called Innovisor, which has kind of almost perfected organizational network analysis to the point where you can do an ONA survey in an organization, they can do organizations well under the six figures, and come up with a pitch perfect roadmap of how relationships connect within the organization.

From that, you identify the hubs, the spokes, the connectors; and you can also get underneath through the survey to the motivations that drive the connections.

And that's a commitment. It's a commitment of money. It's not the most expensive thing that an organization can do. Management conferences are about the most expensive thing an internal comms organization can do. And ONA is piss cheap when it compares to management conferences.

But the other thing is if you've got a money issue, or a political issue about exercising the whole organization, there's also an approach called Snowball analysis that you can do yourself. It's time consuming. It's laborious. I just did one for a big London law firm, looking at their global leadership community.

But out of an organization of 700 people, I was able to find the five percent that drive all the conversations.

Chuck: In that case, was that the five percent that you found, do you think that was the same five percent that they thought that were the influencers?

Mike Klein: It was about 50/50.

About half were there and about half were surprise. And there were a lot of surprise.

Some of the people who weren't there were an even bigger surprise.

And that's the thing. The one way to not find influencers in an organization is to ask the managers in the HR department, because they'll go to the people who are most cooperative.

Chuck: Or the most vocal.

Mike Klein: Exactly, and they're not necessarily most influential.

The people who are most cooperative and vocal are advocates; they're not influencers.

And by influencer, I don't mean Kim Kardashian. I mean individuals who have credibility and respect from the peers within the organization. You don't choose to be an influencer. You are chosen to an influencer.

"You don’t choose to be an influencer. You are chosen to an influencer."

Chuck: I think that's a great lesson learned there. There are people who want to be the influencer, and they might in fact be the influencer, but it's those that other people look toward.

Mike Klein: Exactly.

People who want to be influencers should be really good advocates. And if they're really good at their jobs as being advocates, they can move up the scale. Either into the management court, by the way they demonstrate their competence and their confidence; or the way they build credibility and they'll ultimately become an influencer within the organization.

But you don't sit up and think “I'm an influencer” or “I want to be an influencer.” Conversely, corporations can't just choose 50 people in the business, say “You're the influencers now.”

Chuck: And I think that happens a lot of times. Or they self nominate themselves as -

Mike Klein: Either self-nomination or hierarchical-nomination creates a group of advocates or ambassadors. It doesn't create a group of influencers.

Chuck: Right. Well, Mike thanks for joining us on Chuck Chats. It's always great seeing you. Thank you.

Mike Klein: My pleasure.

Chuck: That was awesome.

Mike Klein: Thank you.

Chuck: Yeah, that was good.

Mike Klein: I'm glad. I was on good form this morning. It's amazing what I can do with no sleep.