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Mar 02, 2020

Approx. 11 min. read

8 Women Leaders in Internal Comms Share Their Professional Journeys

"People don't spend their childhood dreaming of becoming communication professionals. I mean, they don't collect trading cards with comms legends on...

Rachel Miller, Kayla (Brandon) McClelland, Pauline Foster, Advita Patel, Amy Sands (Hadsock), Janet Hitchen, Monique Zytnik, Naomi Sayers

"People don't spend their childhood dreaming of becoming communication professionals. I mean, they don't collect trading cards with comms legends on them," — Mike Klein.

When I first heard this comment on the podcast, it made me smile. I started imagining how cool and geeky those IC trading cards could actually be. But then I realized how accurate this statement was. At least I couldn't name a single comms professional from my network that hadn't entered the world of IC by some lucky accident. There’s nothing bad about it, don’t get me wrong. Employee communication, in one form or another, has always been there, but the profession per se is still relatively young and continues to evolve.

After sharing these thoughts with my colleagues, we decided to turn this sentiment into a challenge. With International Women's Day approaching, we wanted to inspire and motivate the next generation of women leaders in the internal comms space. And here are our first steps on that mission:

  • With more than 130 million girls out of school today, we want to help break down barriers that hold back future comms leaders. That’s why, from March 2nd to March 8th 2020, Smarp was making a $100 donation to Malala Fund for every meeting booked with us. Malala Fund is an international, non-profit organization that fights for girls' education.
  • We've reached out to 8 women leaders in IC and asked them to share their professional journey and advice. — How did you get to where you are in your career? All of these eight stories have something in common, yet each of them is unique and empowering. We might not have trading cards with the comms leaders (yet), but I hope that these stories, along with many more to come, will highlight the value of the IC profession and its strategic role in organizations. I want to personally thank these eight amazing women for sharing their valuable stories and contributing to this mission!

Rachel Miller, Director, All Things IC

I discovered the wonderful world of internal communication in 2003. I’d been working as a Journalist for four years and was looking for my next career move. I stumbled across an IC job description via search engines and learned about the profession for the first time. It detailed everything I loved doing and provided the chance to learn new skills. From that first in-house role, I was hooked.

Working in this field is a joy and privilege. My consultancy business, All Things IC, exists to increase practitioners’ skills, knowledge and confidence. I love nurturing my clients and Masterclass delegates and seeing them succeed in their roles.

There are plenty of opportunities for everyone in IC. You have the power to create your own success and overcome any challenges and barriers you perceive to be there. Be curious, ask questions and strive to be the best you can be to benefit not only yourself but the people you are serving.

My advice to anyone who is studying is if it feels like the right career choice for you, then go for it. I believe what happens inside is reflected outside. Trust in your own abilities, invest in your professional development, grow your network and be kind. When you learn, give back to others so they can develop themselves too.

Rachel Miller_smarp

Kayla Brandon, Senior Communication Specialist

My career began in broadcast journalism, so my path to internal communications has not followed a traditional route. After two and a half years working as a reporter, I realized I wanted more opportunities for growth, strategic thinking, and leadership development, as well as a more structured work week. News will forever be my first love, but the lifestyle was not sustainable for the personal and professional goals I set for myself.

Internal communications – at least in my experience – is largely dominated by women who report to male leaders. I don’t identify as a traditional feminist in the sense that I disagree with elevating more women solely to have female representation at the top of the org chart. I believe the most qualified candidate should get the job – whatever their gender, cultural background, age, etc. – might be. That said, there have been instances where there is a perceived ceiling for women in this space to always work as “supporters” or “subordinates,” rather than leaders. I hope that changes in my lifetime.

Don’t discredit your worth because you are simply a “good communicator.” Without strong communications, your company wouldn’t operate effectively, if at all.

Kayla Brandon_smarp

Pauline Foster, HR Services Communications Leader, EY

My career in comms began in the early 80s. I was offered a temporary admin role in a film and video company. After a few months, an opening for a publicity coordinator came up (with the added attraction of a video recorder - equivalent to streaming - and free access to a library full of movies!). I had to get this job. 

I was interviewed by Margaret Hemus (Beveridge at the time), head of publicity and PR. She was inspirational, full of energy and passion for her work. I knew, there and then, that I wanted the top job one day. I had finally found my niche. 

Having no formal qualifications was always a bugbear, so I remedied this by self-funding a Chartered Institute of Marketing Diploma in Marketing and a Kingston University Masters in Internal Communication Management. With nearly 40 years in comms, 20 of those as a freelance consultant, I have had the pleasure to work with, and meet, many fabulous women leaders like Margaret. Some really kind and some not so. 

In January this year, I put my freelance work on hold and committed to joining EY on a full-time basis for a year, in the role of HR Services Communications Leader. Why? Because I’ve been given the opportunity to work with so many inspirational women in a global organisation that has real purpose and is dedicated to supporting and nurturing the next generation of communication leaders. 

You could say I did it the hard way, but not everyone is suited to the linear route from school, to college, to university to work… So, my advice to all those girls, and women of all ages, is to find the route that works for you. Never stop learning. Don’t be afraid to take a sideways step and make a deal with yourself when needed. But most importantly, be true to yourself and be happy in your work.

Pauline Foster_smarp-1

Amy Sands Hadsock, Senior Director, News Channels, American Cancer Society

Throughout my career, the internal communications challenges I’ve faced have been largely the same – breaking through the clutter and getting budget and prioritization for new tools and projects. Having strategies at my fingertips to overcome these challenges has made my communications more impactful and propelled my career forward.

So how can you break through the clutter and make your messages stick? One word – storytelling. Incorporating a great story will engage your audience, demonstrate the “why” the message is important, and generate emotion that can drive them to complete the call to action.   

As an internal communicator, I pride myself on being an early adopter of the latest technology and tools. A great example is developing a mobile-first communications strategy with an employee app. But getting budget and staff resources can be a challenge. The key is incorporating ROI into your business case and showing the impact on organizational goals. Leading the launch of new, innovative concepts, and navigating the organizational roadblocks that come with it, can really elevate your career.

My best piece of advice is to focus on building your peer network. Join a local communications association that offers a sub-focus on internal communications and attend monthly events. Make sure you also connect with fellow internal communicators on LinkedIn and Twitter. Your peer network will be a great resource when you want insight from someone who has been there, done that. It’s also a really great way to keep your skills fresh and relevant. And who knows, you might find your next internal communications gig through your peer network!

Amy Sands Hadsock_smarp

Monique Zytnik, Internal communication leader, Australia

Communications as a profession has something for everyone and is at the core of successful leadership. I’m fortunate to have found internal communications as my niche as it fits with executive communication and branches out across an entire organization, focusing on the people.

After finishing school I completed a Bachelor of Physiotherapy. Once I started treating patients I very quickly realized that half of my job involved persuasion. This inspired me to do a Post Graduate in Public Relations and later a Masters in Communication (PR). Today, as a senior comms professional, I realize that my background in physiotherapy has given me a focus on measurement and results, which is an invaluable component of a good communication strategy. 

Having a good mentor has also been invaluable to me. Your boss is not your mentor. Get someone you respect, who knows communications and marketing but is outside your team, so that you can have frank, open conversations with them and listen to their insights. Throughout my career, I’ve always had one or two mentors at any point in time and have found they value the exchange as much as I do. Be generous and mentor others.

Like any leadership role in an organization, I think there are still challenges for women. Remember, it is still in living history when women in Australia had to resign from public service when they became married – the ‘marriage bar’ was dropped in 1966 in Australia. Social norms are changing rapidly at varying speeds in different countries and this is fascinating to watch. I’ve enjoyed reading books such as ‘The Wife Drought’ by Australian journalist Annabel Crabb, ‘Leading Lines’ by Lucinda Holdforth and Michelle Obama’s book ‘Becoming’ to understand why things are the way they are, be inspired and see opportunities for change. From a leadership perspective, I know women can play a large role in changing the game – and we still have a way to go. There is such an opportunity right now to re-define female leadership, especially since qualities such as authenticity and vulnerability are more valued in leaders.

My process of becoming a leader was gradual. I was that shy girl in the library at primary school so I’ve had to fight to find my voice. Be brave and push boundaries. With experience and age, it becomes easier to know who you are and what kind of leader you want to be. Observe and learn from every leader you encounter – even if it means being aware of the leader you don’t want to be. Being a parent has also confirmed to me that it is possible to care for your employees, build trust and show empathy, and at the same time hold a position of respect and authority, and be able to make hard decisions. 

monique Zytnik_smarp

Advita Patel, Director at CommsRebel, CIPR U.K. Board Director 

Three key lessons every woman should take onboard:

Lesson one: Don’t listen to naysayers
Before I entered the internal comms profession, I was determined to carve out a career in IT. At university, I was one of four women who studied the subject in a class of 80. But in one of my first lectures, a tutor said: “It’ll be highly unlikely that some of you will succeed in this career, particularly the women!” I was taken aback. Did he say that out loud? Within minutes my confidence shattered and my dream of becoming the next female version of Bill Gates disappeared.

I finished university and headed into the real world - it was tough, the tutor’s words kept reminding me that he was right, which shattered my confidence. I stopped believing in myself, so I ended up in a job I hated, and I struggled with my mental health. All because some bloke wanted to be controversial and create a reaction. I wish I could go back in time to my 18-year-old self and convince her to stand up for herself more and not allow the naysayers to destroy her belief.

Lesson two: Find your people
I knew that if I wanted to make a difference in the industry I had to go beyond the city of Manchester. So, I became a volunteer for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. This changed my life in more ways than I could have imagined. I met people who believed in me, pushed me to succeed and gave me reassurance. I’ve met some of my best friends through this network and without them I wouldn’t be who I am today. If I hadn’t have pushed myself out of my comfort zone then life would have been very different.

Lesson three: Be the change you want to see
There’s no denying there is a problem with ethnic diversity in the comms industry. Every time I walked into an event, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. I didn’t see people on stage, or in the industry magazines. As uncomfortable as it was at the time, I knew I had to do something. I put my head above the parapet and started to put myself forward for opportunities. I started a blog and share my thoughts on the profession. I became vocal on social media. I basically made some noise because if we don’t become the change we want to see, then nothing will ever change. The generation behind us will continue to face the same challenges and people like my old tutor will continue to be proven right.

Advita Patel Smarp

Janet Hitchen, Internal Comms Advocate, Apple Alumna

I was asked if I’d like to create the Internal Comms function for the UK branch of an Investment Bank. From the moment I said yes, I loved it.

A couple of years later, and inspired by a presentation by the Creative Director of Innocent, I decided to look for a new opportunity. My search led me to Apple Retail where the Internal Comms function was being created. After 16 interviews I got the job.

The best bits of my career have also been the most challenging. Creating a function, leading global projects and product launches, leading and developing teams, creating new ways of working have all been crazy fun. An ex-colleague described it as building planes in the sky, she was right.

My advice? Never be afraid to look for new and creative ways of doing things, be curious and ask questions. Learn as much as you can, understand your business, your partners, and your audiences. And place employees at the heart of what you do.
And one more thing, enjoy it.

Janet Hitchen smarp

Naomi Sayers, Senior Community & Capability Manager, Sainsbury's Tech

The job I do now didn’t exist when I joined Sainsbury’s 24 months ago – and it certainly didn’t exist when I was at university. A degree in languages and early career as a journalist got me hooked on words, but it wasn’t until much later that I even realised Internal Comms as a profession existed.

The work my team does now is about 40% internal communication (channel management; events organisation; engagement measurement) with the other 60% made up of lobbying on behalf of colleagues across a broad spectrum of issues that are important to them. We’ve just started to look across the colleague experience as a whole, as we know that’s the best way to attract and retain tech talent in a competitive marketplace.

One piece of advice I’d give any woman is – know who’s got your back. I’ve really benefited from having some great leaders who supported me no matter what. That’s something I try really hard to do for my team now - they need to know they can trust me. Find someone who will speak out in favour of you in every meeting and then pay it forward.

Naomi Sayers Sainsbury Smarp


Final Notes

First of all, I want to thank every woman leader in this article for sharing their priceless career experiences and advice! 🙌

Also, I want to thank you, the reader, for getting this far. I know it was a long read, but I hope it has made its impact.

Before you close this tab, join us on a mission to help Malala Fund amplify the voices of young women fighting for change. Find more info at malala.org

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Written by

Oles Datsko

Oles Datsko

Marketing Manager

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