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 Trudy Lewis, Founder and Director of Lewis Communicate Ltd. In this episode, Trudy and Chuck sit down to chat about to working in-house vs. for yourself, building trust with leadership, the benefits of professional associations, 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: All right. Welcome to the next episode of Chuck Chats here in Vancouver. Now I'm joined by Trudy Lewis. Welcome to Chuck Chats.

Trudy: Thank you.

Chuck: First visit to Canada?

Trudy: No, I've been to Canada many times.

Chuck: Okay. How about Vancouver?

Trudy: No, first time to come to Vancouver. Yeah, absolutely.

Chuck: Very good, very good. For those that aren't familiar with who Trudy is, explain to all of us who you are.

Trudy: Right. So, I've worked in internal comms or communications for about 20+ years, 25 years. I'm an independent practitioner, work for myself, so set up to do internal comms about six years ago. Previous to that, I was working with transport for London doing internal comms. I started from a background of marketing communication, studied PR, and ended up in telecoms.

Chuck: So what was the spur to go from in-house to now being a consultant?

Trudy: I think a number of things.

So in-house, I learnt a lot and I did some really fantastic projects, but I found it still restrictive. So in terms of learning about the industry and what was going on in the industry, what we were doing, what was advancing, I found it quite limiting within house. You focus mostly on what you were doing and that was it, so you didn't know about what was going on outside.

So that was one of the catalysts, I've always wanted to work for myself as well, so that of kind of was great too. So it was kind of, yeah, expanding my career, really.

Chuck: For those that might be curious about working for someone else in-house as an interim communicator, but they still love that world and now they want to be a consultant.

What's a really great thing about that? And then what's kind of a scary thing about that?

Trudy: I'll tell you a little story.

So the first time, my first assignment after I left permanent employment, was with a construction company doing internal comms for them. At the end of the first day, I didn't feel any, that kind of politics kind of feeling. So I felt like I'd done my work, I'd done well, had great meetings, but I didn't carry any of it with me when I left. So that was a really good feeling of kind of enjoying the autonomy then of kind of working for yourself.

Also, kind of building your own destiny, advancing any things that you really were interested in, rather than being told, "This is what you have to do, you have to do it this way," and so on and so on and so on. I was then able to kind of explore and play and do things a bit differently in my career.

One of the most challenging things was when I first started out.

There were a few months of no work, and that was quite fascinating, because I just assumed that I would just get something quite quickly. When it didn't come quite quickly, I started to panic. I think the second month I panicked, and I'd met with another person who had already done it and she said, "Don't worry, when you reach month three and there's nothing, that's when you freak out."

Chuck: Well, as people that I know that have been independent for a long time, they always say that first year is the scariest, it's the roughest.

Trudy: It is, it is.

However, once you get into it, and I think it really is a thing for a lot of people say, "Oh, I want to go and contract or I want to go and work for myself." But it is that kind of fine line. If it's not in your personality to do it, it would be a bit more stressful.

I think I was 100% ready to do that and be a bit risky and so on, and have days when you weren't quite sure how to do things. Plus working at that level, it does stretch you, so you have to learn more instantly. So it was great.

Chuck: Thinking back, because we've both been in communications, it sounds like about the same number of years, what's one of the biggest changes you've seen or something that really comes to mind as a great thing that's happened in communications in those decades plus work that we've both been a part of?

Trudy: I think how it's opened up more and it's becoming a bit more professional.

When I started out, one of my first roles within internal comms was as part of a corporate comms unit. It was myself, the director and that was it. So we did both, and the understanding of what internal comms was and what it could do was very limited. We were doing, at the time, loads of acquisitions. So all of the things that you do from a strategic level, where you go in and you talk to leadership, you come up with a plan based on their priorities and their objectives-

Chuck: If they come up with a plan.

Trudy: If they come up with a plan! All of that wasn't really open.

It was very much about broadcast, very much about kind of just get these letters out, do that, so there was no investigation.

When you work for yourself, you kind of start with the insight and then develop the comms from that, but there was no opportunity for that. So I think it's lovely to see how it's kind of transitioned to something that's a lot more exciting, a lot more involved, and being taken seriously as your career goes off. It's great.

Chuck: I think it's fascinating to see that when I started out in communications, employee comms, internal comms, whatever you want to call it, was something somebody did as part of their job.

What I love seeing now is that there are CCOs at companies who have only had an internal comms background.

I think that's refreshing and it should be inspiring to someone who really does enjoy that internal side, because you said you've had that mixture of both. What is it about the internal side of comms that you enjoy, that really drives you?

Trudy: I think for me, it's when you can see a CEO or a leader and kind of coach them through some, "Here's how you need to speak, here's how you need to present." Getting them to articulate the strategy, for instance, and seeing them take your advice and it comes across really ... no seriously, it just comes across really well. Or you go through a change program, you've informed and advised and planned all the comms, and it actually happens.

For me, I love to see that result element of it, to say, "What I actually put down on paper as a plan actually happened, and it had an impact on people."

I think that's kind of one of the most exciting bits of it. I like the creative bit, I love planning bit, I love it.

Chuck: I see where a lot of communicators struggle building what I think are really strong relationships with their leaders, to stop being the order taker and being more of that coach, like you just said. Working with them on communications, not just waiting for them to tell you what to do.

How does a communicator begin to make that transition? Because I see a lot of them stuck in that order taking role.

Trudy: Yeah, definitely.

I mean, in 2017, I did some stuff with CIPR on the side as well. We did a report on the value and effectiveness of internal comms, and that was one of the things that came up.

We interviewed CEOs, so that meant that, we found out what they thought.

Actually, one of the answers was to build dialogue with them a bit more. It's one of my bugbears that, as communicators, a lot of people say, "Oh, I want to be in the boardroom." I think we have a lot more influence if we just become a trusted advisor to those leaders. The term is used a lot, but it is simply having dialogue, simply being available and giving good advice and understanding their business.

So, if you go in and you have no understanding of the business that you're in and how it works and some of the challenges that that leader has, he will just treat you like a postbox, to be honest.

Because he'll say, "You don't really get why I'm having-

Chuck: Or you haven't invested the time to learn from me.

Trudy: Exactly. So there's a real importance around or advantage to getting to know the leaders, to the point where they start to come to you for advice, and they'll think, "Wait a minute, I'm not going to implement this until I call Trudy or whoever, to actually have a chat with me about comms."

When that starts to happen, that's when you really start to see the value of internal communication, because you as the communicator, can give that advice, can put together a plan that's going to make his program successful.

I think as a communicator, it's being bold to do it as well. Because we sometimes have the assumption that people don't want to hear us speak, but actually people want to hear our opinion as well.

So they think, especially coming from that communications background, they're like, "Well, you did communications, tell me about this, tell me how that works." You get a lot of that as well, when you start to talk to them more, because they open up to you about what they're challenged with.

Chuck: The topic that comes up or it seems like it comes up at every Chuck Chats interview, it seems like it's at every communications conference, is this 'having a seat at the table'. I think this might be the last time I say that phrase, because I'm so tired of hearing that.

Trudy: Please say that for the last time.

Chuck: But are communicators getting it wrong by thinking that they need to have that? Ot should they be building their own team, their own group of allies, to help them accomplish what they want to get done?

Trudy: I think it's a bit of both. I do not think, as a communicator, you have to be in that boardroom.

I think the biggest question you have to ask yourself is when you're in that boardroom, what are you going to be saying of meaningful value? Because you're not necessarily going to be talking about the same things that they are. In those meetings, it is about checking about targets, and have you achieved your goals and so on.

I think there's a better position that we can be in when we say, "I am going to come alongside the leader." Perhaps it's the most senior leader as well, "And I'm going to be close to the leadership team, I'm going to regularly meet with them and influence them that way."

I think that's where you get a lot more done, because within that boardroom it's great, but if I know that that CEO is not going to make a move, in terms of certain elements of communications, unless he's had a conversation with me, that's what you want.

So I think it was the other day, I worked with somebody who said, "Oh, we want to have this great app." It was a leadership team and everybody was thinking, "This app is great." I said, "Is it?" It was, it was absolutely fantastic. Then the CEO, when we had our one-to-one, he said, "Could you tell me what you really think about that app? Would it really do anything for us?" I said, "Fine, I'll go away and look at it."

And was able to go back to him and say, "Yeah, actually, it's really good."

So it's that kind of voice, in a sense, you want to have as a communicator, that can influence, rather than, I'm just sitting in a boardroom and doing something. You need to be that go-to person, that they're kind of saying, "I have to speak to that communicator. I have to speak to Trudy before I make a decision about comms."

Chuck: Mm-hmm. So we're in Vancouver for IABC World Conference. You mentioned you volunteered with CIPR.

Trudy: Yes.

Chuck: This will be a two part question. How important is it for a communicator to be a part of a body, of an association? And then, what have you gotten out of by being a volunteer for that association, versus just being a member?

Trudy: Right. I joined CIPR a very, very long time ago. When they played it back to me, I was like, "I'm not old." I'm not really.

But anyways, yeah, so I joined CIPR a long time ago, and for a long time within that I was in-house and I didn't do anything, so I was just a member. When I was contemplating going out on my own, I thought, "Do you know what? I'm going to actually get involved and do something." So signed up to be a part of the internal comms group and to be on the committee.

It's probably one of the best decisions I made, in that it kind of opened up for me, working with a group of people who are like me, learning an awful lot more, kind of understanding what it meant, what best practice meant, you know? How to really kind of elevate that a bit in my own career and become more professional.

So it stretched me. It encouraged me to get more and more involved in communications as a discipline.

I'd say to anybody, that it's invaluable, just the community alone for me.

You've probably seen it on Twitter, we help each other, we give each other advice. I'm not saying you can't get that if you're not a part of an industry body, but an industry body for me, it's a great thing for your career, and I don't think people should avoid it. I've worked with some who say, "Oh, I'd never become a member of that." But when you think of it in terms of the education, what it adds to your professional credibility and all of those elements, I think it's been great.

I'm now a chartered practitioner, and through CIPR Inside, I've been able to work on two reports. We did two pieces of research. We just launched one recently on measurement and ROI, and I've worked on their conferences and so on. I could have done conferences anyway, but it's just the fact that, across the industry, we're helping other communicators to do their job better, to understand it better, to improve their skills. I look at it as a way of giving back as well as getting, so I really think it's an important thing to do.

Chuck: A new term that I've learned recently, which you used was bugbear. That was a new one for me, I did not know that. So one of my bugbears is the term best practice.

Trudy: Yeah.

Chuck: Because everybody wants to know, "Well, what is the best practice?" I said, "Well, the best  practice is your best practice."

You can't just duplicate somebody else's success of what they deem to be their best practice, but your practice might be better than their best practice, which would make theirs not a best practice.

So I struggle with communicators who always look to comparisons, but I think that's natural for them to want to know what others are doing.

I think this is where those associations can level set some of those, to make sure that you are comparing as much as possible, versus hearing about something that another company did that was allegedly wildly successful. You try to duplicate it, it doesn't work, because there's just too many different mechanics at place.

Trudy: Yeah, that's true.

I mean, as I said, I led a project to do the measurements research recently, and when we started, we were going to put together a framework, a toolkit. "Here you go, go off and do your measurement." As we started to look at the research and stuff to look into it, we thought, "Hang on a minute, we're not going to do a framework, we're going to challenge communicators to say, here's the information."

So to your point of, it's your own, challenge them to go off and use the data that's there and apply it to their own organization and how they need to use it.

So we've, in a sense, supplied the right amount of material, so they can go and do it themselves. So I think the point that you just made as well is about communicators stepping up and becoming more interested and involved in the discipline that we say we do, and then delivering it because of that.

So, best practice isn't really best practice, it's how I practice, based on standard industry standards and how the industry are doing things. But it's also about applying it and not being lazy, really. Because I think to a certain extent, many of us say, "Oh, I just want to be told-

Chuck: People want that magic sprinkle

Trudy: Yeah, "Just tell me what to do. Tell me how to do it," you know?

That's fine. Within certain settings that's okay, but I think the way how we make an impact is when we say, "We're not just going to settle for somebody telling me what to do, I'm going to explore and investigate and see how I can do it even better or make it my own."

I think that's hugely important, really.

Chuck: When you think back through your decades of experience, and that's not meant as a slight, that's a compliment.

What are you most proud of? What comes to mind as something you're really proud of?

Trudy: I'm proud of some of the things I've delivered, and the fact that it's made changes.

So, some of the communications I've worked on relate to change, and it's helping leaders be the right person in that setting through communication. 

I'm most proud of kind of the products that have come out of some of what we've done, but also the influence I've had with peers and with people I work with. So it's kind of raised my own confidence, in terms of how I take on my role, how I do comms and so on.

I think I'm really happy and proud about that.

Chuck: What's something out there that you still want to accomplish? What's that next thing you want to grab for?

Trudy: I think it's just doing more of what I do, but do it even better.

So a few years back, I'm sorry, last year. Sort of getting in a muddle. Last year I trained to be a coach.

Chuck: Okay.

Trudy: For me, it's kind of exploring how you then join the two up and kind enhance your communications career, because you can now coach and you can coach professionally. So it's just advancing it all and seeing how much more we can do.

A lot of people say things like, "Oh, the internal comms manager role isn't really that significant anymore, because people are saying, let's go to the tactical. We don't really need the people who are doing the strategy." But in a sense, we do.

I think our role within doing the strategy element is changing and it's going to bemore aligned to supporting leadership, coming alongside them and advising them. Asking, what is the content? What is the value of the content that you're putting out? Rather than just, "Oh, here's an app and here's this," and using the tactical methods to do it. But what are you trying to say? So do you have something sensible to say, rather than just churning stuff out?

I think that's the role that we're going to have more and more, where we're going to have to become more business-minded. We're going to have to understand some of the issues that are going on, some of the problems and how communication can fix that, and we might have to work a bit faster.

So all of that kind of says to me, "Oh, wow, there's a lot to look at as we advance for the future."

Chuck: When you talked about looking to become a coach or a better coach, that's a great example of investing in yourself.

I see a lot of communicators fail themselves by waiting for others to invest in them. So how do you feel, or what would be your recommendation for a communicator out there to tell them that, "Don't wait for your company to send you places or to do things for you, you need to invest in your own career."

Trudy: Yeah, yeah, it's hugely important.

I think a lot of people assume that by investing in themselves, it's going to cost a lot of money. It doesn't have to, I think at the very least, you should start by going to conferences, reading what's out there, kind of checking out some of the podcasts and so on. So that's kind of the basic level, the easiest thing you can do.

But in terms of the investment, it's hugely important. If you don't care about your career, it's not really going to go very far. You probably would just be mediocre. It does limit you.

The minute you step out and say, "Right, I'm going to invest in this, I'm not going to wait on my company." Because, for instance, I worked somewhere that invested in helping me to get my Master's.

However, when I got back, it did nothing for my career, because there was no scope for that. I think just that alone made me think, "Hang on a minute, I'm not going to do it just because I'm in that job and they're sending me, I'm going to do it for me, because I really want to do this and I want to move forward."

I think if you go with that mindset, that you're doing it for yourself, not necessarily just because the company's sending you, I think you should explore the areas that you want to work in and learn as much as you can.

As I said, it's two different things you're looking at, the basic stuff that you can invest in quite easily, and maybe the stuff that you have to invest in that's going to cost you a little bit. Some of the cost isn't just money, it's time, you know? So I do think it's an important thing to do.

Chuck: Yeah, I see where a lot of people, if they've never been a member, it's because my company won't pay for it, or if I drop out, it's because my company stopped paying for it. I think that's a huge indicator that they don't value it, if they aren't willing to invest in it themselves.

Trudy: Yeah.

Chuck: Did they get anything out of it before? If their company paid for it, was just nice to have, versus really investing in and learning from it.

Trudy: Again, and it comes down to, if you become a member, and when I was a member just sitting there and just being a member, I didn't do anything, didn't pull anything from it. Then yeah, I could've just said, "I'm not going to invest anything in that."

But the minute you start to say, "Well, actually, let me have a look at what resources are there." I got involved in CPD, it's a development, every year you do it. That in itself says, "Wait a minute, I am going to go to that event, I am going to sign up to do that, I will go to this, because-

Chuck: Because that all counts towards something then.

Trudy: Exactly. So as a member, those things are hugely important. I think to grow within your career and in yourself, you have to do it, it's really important.

Chuck: Well, thank you, Trudy. When you get into a real conversation, you don't need a cheat sheet.

Trudy: But that's why I like it, because I like the conversational bit, because it's much more interesting.

Chuck: Me too.