The Gatehouse Blog

“COVID-19 has taught me to make decisions quickly and with conviction”

While it’s difficult to imagine for many of us, some organisations have found themselves in the enviable position of shouldering very little operational impact as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But even if you’ve been experiencing ‘business’ as usual over the past six months, it’s safe to say that it probably hasn’t been a period without its own unique challenges.

As a global management advisory firm specialising in the relatively stable infrastructure sector, the key focus of Canada-based CPCS’s COVID-19 comms strategy was to keep its people informed, reassured and motivated, but most importantly rebound stronger by keeping the team intact. And so they did. We talked to Global Marketing and Communications Director, Benoit Laplante, about embracing the opportunity that the pandemic presented to shift the strategic agenda and elicit real, people-first, IC-led change.

It feels strange to be discussing the impact of the past six months without reflecting on tough times within an organisation. What role have you played in relaying the ‘business as usual’ message at CPCS?

“My role as a strategic communications management professional (SCMP®) has been all about shaping the messaging and connecting the dots. It’s been a very intense period, but also – very surprisingly – somewhat smooth.

Managing COVID-19 at CPCS has been enlightening, because the theme that has come out of this turmoil is that ‘we were going to share the burden together’. We’re a very close team of about 115 CPCSers; the pandemic has just amplified that.”

So, it’s been all about communicating with clarity then?

“Yes. It’s been a constant priority, and for a big reason. Even before the pandemic hit, and still to this day, we’re going through the biggest communication transformation this company has seen in 50 years – and, by transformation, I mean rewriting the comms and marketing playbook from scratch: process, tools, governance, persona, brand, everything.

“And because our employees were already receptive to our new transparent dialogue and our ‘cleaning house’ in terms of communication management, they were also very receptive to getting weekly newsletters and personal emails from the firm’s managing partner Marc-André Roy about COVID-19 – as well as being invited to weekly town halls.”

I love that phrase ‘transparent dialogue’. When you’re working in a global organisation, the power of language is hugely important. And yet the value that communications brings to a business is often overlooked and underplayed…

“Caroline Kealey, an internationally recognised communications strategist, change facilitator, trainer and author, taught me that conversation is the smallest unit of change – and I believe it. I’ve always kept that in my mind during COVID-19. My stance is ‘let’s talk, but let’s use the right words’. For example, initially, our narrative was: ‘We’re going to share the pain’. But that got me thinking that ‘pain’ is maybe not the right word. It’s more about sharing the burden – because that’s what it is, it’s a burden. And, so, I became very deliberate in how we use more thoughtful language and our management team is doing the same now.”

It’s reassuring to know that organisations are now taking a step back, taking their time to put things into perspective and to look at people-first initiatives in particular. Internal comms teams need to be the flag wavers for that – is this a key focus for your team?

“Yes. The whole COVID-19 situation has really raised people’s consciousness in terms of, ‘it’s okay to slow down’. By its very nature, CPCS is a flat and a hugely productive organisation, and we’re hardwired to work fast. However, the work we’ve been doing around inclusion has taught us that people don’t all process information at the same speed – and that’s okay. That’s what I deal with every day. I try to manage the pace of change.

“The whole working from home and mental health focus has led me and our HR team to talk more about work-life synergies at work, because I think work-life balance is an ideal that you’ll never reach. It’s more about finding a synergy between the two, right? It has to work for you as an individual. And, because it has put the employee communications function in a position to drive the business agenda, this has really brought the team closer together.”

Do you think you’ll take what you’ve discovered during the pandemic into your future IC strategies?

“Definitely. Change communications is a new lens through which the business looks at strategy execution and employee experience. Now, there’s intentional preparation up front; that’s the mindset that we’re implementing. And the impact has been incredibly positive.

“A good example of this is the way we’ve managed our leadership comms. In the past, messages from the firm’s leaders were infrequent. It wasn’t a habit. To help Marc-André lead through change, we worked on this and it became a bit like his personal blog – he is a creative person who loves to write, and he got so much joy out of it. Plus, he has seen the value in it because people have been replying to him directly, in addition to sparking global conversations – he’s been connecting with individuals on a personal level and building that trust, which is essential as we’re re-engineering the company’s culture.”

It’s really helped bring a sense of authenticity to leadership comms, hasn’t it? It’s about putting people’s minds at ease, it’s about listening and responding, and showing that you are a human being going through the same experiences as everyone else – and people really need that at the minute.

“Absolutely. And, because of this, our top leaders have seen the real value of managing internal communication strategically, just like Finance is. They now know that people are using our channels and expressing their ideas; they know that people are talking, that people are vocal – and that people are helping each other.

“I’ve realised how much process influences behaviours and mindsets – and it’s been extremely rewarding to see the impact of change here. For example, don’t underestimate the quiet force a simple and predictable internal newsletter can have in making sense of change. Also, before the pandemic, our content was a bit disorganised and not real-time. We also had to have everything right before we sent the message… Now, we focus on the context and the visibility. We don’t have all the answers, but so what? Just be humble. Just be honest.”

And on the subject of honest reflections, what is your key takeaway from the last six months? This is Lockdown Learnings – what would you like to share with the IC community?

“COVID-19 has been a real lesson for me – it has taught me to make decisions quickly and with conviction.

“I’m experiencing how gratifying it is to structure and elevate a communications function into a powerful engine of change. I’ve also realised that it’s better to have an imperfect decision or communication, than to wait for the perfect plan.”

“Sometimes people think your only skill as an internal communicator is wordsmithing. We know this is not true, and the pandemic has offered us a real opportunity to show that internal communication is much more, such as having a transversal role in igniting and driving change – particularly by showing my leadership team how internal communication professionals can use their skills to influence behaviours, mindsets, and processes.

“I now occasionally find myself described as a ‘purposeful troublemaker’ – and I like it. CPCS really values that, and so I’ve found my groove in challenging conventional wisdom while looking for the natural energy flow in the workplace.

“As internal communication professionals, we bring a conscience to the organisation. You have, in part, to trust your instincts.”

Biography: Benoit Laplante

Benoit Laplante is a certified strategic communications management professional (SCMP®) who solves business problems through strategic communications, and is responsible for the growth and evolution of CPCS’s global brand and marketing program. Fluent in both English and French, prior to joining CPCS, Benoit was involved in strategic communications and change as a member of the Program Management Office at the Royal Canadian Mint.