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Millennials take the Lead - Are They Changing Internal Communication?

Conversations with emerging IC leaders

about 2 months ago   •   5 min read

by Mike Klein

Principal, Changing The Terms: Internal Communication Consultant and Author

by Mike Klein, Changing The Terms



Will millennials be different to their predecessors as leaders in the Internal Communication field? And are their views, skills and intensity tangibly changing the world of IC?

We are starting to find out. As a new generation of leaders emerges in-house and in consulting capacities as well, there is an emerging fusion of traditional strengths, diverse personal outlooks, and clear generational affinities towards collaboration and organizational purpose.

Are their backgrounds different?

Of the seven interviewees, five began in other communication disciplines, while one came from a “pure” marketing and sales role, a demographic not unlike that of earlier generations of “IC Folk” who began their careers in other fields. But unlike predecessors who mostly “stumbled into internal comms”, a majority of this group sought out internal comms roles and career paths.

“I thought intrinsically that IC was more valuable than external communication,” said Veronique van Ede-Lefel of the Netherlands, who has just moved into a new manager-level IC role with a US-based industrial company. “Internal comms drives reputation and reputation management.”

“IC has a really special place where it exists,” adds the UK’s Andrew Holland: “it’s the thread that really ties the place together, connecting everything across the board.” Andrew recently became the sole IC practitioner at a new London-based fintech company.

Roles and ambitions

How the millennial IC leaders I spoke with see their roles and ambitions is marked by a number of common traits. The first is a sense that their role is more about organizational impact than it is simply about taking and fulfilling orders well.

“We can change the news before it happens,” says Betsy Jorgensen, who leads IC at Utah-based software company Workfront.

“People need to know what to focus on. We help drive prioritization and alignment,” adds Lydia Tay, who leads IC at Canada’s Purdys Chocolatier. “How can you have a high-performing business when you have low-performing IC?”

The content IC people focus on is also seen as a point of distinctiveness. “We’re interested in what impacts business performance - which is something that PR practitioners don’t necessarily deal with on an intimate or regular basis,” said Fa Mafi, who oversees Workday’s internal communication in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

At the same time, some participants note there is still some distance between having a recognition of what IC can do and having driven a universal acceptance of that recognition among leaders and other stakeholders.

Edward Ulrich, a Dutch-British pro who leads communication for a project within Shell for Fifth Business, notes a “continuing challenge of being taken seriously by key stakeholders. Some see us as social media management.” He adds that “there’s a constant battle to convince project managers of our value and usefulness.”

Other participants noted similar struggles, manifesting themselves as budget and resourcing issues. “Our budgets reflect a certain under-prioritization, pennies compared to marketing and PR. IC is often seen as an afterthought - under-strategized and under-resourced,” comments Veronique.

Generational tensions

Another point of challenge mentioned was one participant’s experience working with longer-tenured colleagues on areas of organizational change, In Betsy’s case, “older colleagues will often assume that you had to have done something before to be able to do it. Being a millennial, sometimes people will pull rank by saying ‘I’ve been here longer and I know.’ "We also often find ourselves battling against what has always been done." .”

Multidirectionality

Another major generational difference is the extent to which Millennials see one-way and even two-way communication being eclipsed by the kind of networked, multidirectional conversations that have driven their own development as communicators.

“We’re used to integrating information from lots of different sources and directions,” said Veronique, who has held IC roles at Dutch and US-based companies. “We can leverage opportunities quickly and innovatively.”

“We’ve only known the social and digital world,” adds Edward.

Employee voice

One thread that connects all of the millennial IC leaders interviewed is a shared belief in the importance and value of “employee voice” and feedback.

Fa continues: “In this role, you get great insight into employee sentiment and that’s something we bring to the table. We have our finger on the pulse and we are with the people who make the magic happen.”

Andrew adds: “Employees want to be heard - they have an understanding of how things work and they have opinions, and there needs to be more listening and more action. This is massively important.”

Millennial IC leaders see the adoption and acceptance of employee voice as a top priority. “I’ll take meaningful feedback over beer cans and ping-pong tables any day of the week,” says Fa.

A Millennial builds her own platform

In Alisa Gorokhova’s case, the desire of leaders to have a more coherent approach to managing feedback not only led to a greater embrace of employee voice on leaders’ part, but ultimately to her launching a new platform to better facilitate feedback and participation.

“The leaders I was working with were totally interested in collecting, reviewing and taking on board feedback, but they found the collection and monitoring process ad hoc and messy. So I developed a platform that integrated it all.”

Alisa sought inspiration from her academic career - which focused on international politics - to develop a common approach for raising issues and resolving them through employee participation. “The approach involves having people prepare ‘position papers’ addressing problems and proposing solutions, and then stimulating some constructive debate that moves these ideas through to workable solutions.”

Her platform, Polder, is currently being implemented in a number of pilot organizations.

What’s in this for the rest of us?

We can't all be millennials. But if the participants are any indication, they bring quite a bit to the party. Their view of where IC fits in today’s organizations fits with our reality, but their insights about moving beyond one-way and two-way communication to a multi-directional approach will be a game-changer. We can benefit from their insights, embrace their enthusiasm for employee voice, and support them as they seek a more strategic approach. And, as Edward suggests, we can all look forward to what the “Zoomers”, or Generation “Z” is increasingly called, will soon bring to the party.

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Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms and is an internal communication (IC) consultant based in the Netherlands. Author of “From Lincoln to LinkedIn”, Mike has been writing and researching about IC practice and trends for approximately 20 years. Mike is a consultant to Polder.

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