What do new companies need to know about internal communication?
When is the right time to make your first Comms hire?
This episode of the Candid Comms podcast is for you if you’re interested in joining a start-up, are thinking about hiring your first Comms pro or want to know more about the world of internal communication.
You’ll leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about.
The episode has just been published and is available to listen to now. You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean. Or you can listen below.
About Candid Comms
The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It is a weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the advice and guidance, to help you thrive in your role.
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Thank you to my Producer, Debbie West of Seren Creative.
Do you know the language of startups? Here’s some to get you started. You can read more via this Forbes article.
- Bootstrapping: when a company has just launched, this stage typically sees investment or funding from family and friends.
- Seed funding: this comes after bootstrapping and is when “angel investors” put money into early stage companies.
- Funding rounds: these may have letters against them e.g. Series A, B etc. This is when venture capital firms invest.
- MVP: Minimal Viable Product – a basic prototype of a design or idea. Think about Dragons’ Den/Shark Tank style pitches when people have a prototype of their product or service – this is an MVP.
- Public company: this is when a business is open to public money, and could list on a stock exchange via an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or be a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).
Transcript: What start-ups need to know about internal communication
You’re listening to the Candid Comms podcast with Rachel Miller. Join me every week for practical advice and inspirational ideas to help you focus on all things internal communication related.
Hello, and welcome to the show. On this week’s episode, you and I are going to be focusing on what startups need to know about internal communication. And it’s also applicable advice if you are an organisation about to hire your very first internal communicator. You will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about. Let’s get started.
I wonder what position you are in as you’re listening to this episode, maybe you are an internal communicator who is thinking about joining a startup, or perhaps you are working in an organisation that has got to the point where it feels like we need to have a good way of communicating. In my experience, when an organisation is formed, it often starts small. The company is known as a startup and it’s in its first stage of operations. And then over time founders or the owners of the organisation start to expand the number of people that they hire.
They recruit teams, services grow, and processes and systems are created. However, there comes a point in the life cycle of an organisation where a lack of structured communication becomes evident. Owners realize that information and communication isn’t flowing effectively and suddenly they don’t know who everyone in the company is. Maybe you’re not all fitting around one table or on one screen anymore. I see this a lot in my work at All Things IC, I mentor comms professionals around the globe, and I’ve been increasingly working confidentially with startups over the past few years.
I’ve also been advising companies as they prepare for their initial public offering, the IPO, which is where you float on the stock exchange, which requires concentrated effort and attention to detail from an internal communication perspective. As a company scales, you also need to scale the culture and communication. So what you need to know, if you are working inside an organisation that’s thinking of hiring its very first internal communicator for the very first time, is understanding why. What is the business problem that you are trying to solve?
And if you are an internal communicator who’s thinking about joining a startup, or you’ve been approached to join a startup or a new company, what is the problem that they are hoping that you will solve? And that’s really important to know because in my experience, typically, people who join startups may have been really senior somewhere else. So maybe if you are working as a head of internal communication somewhere else, you are used to managing a large team, for example, you’re used to having lots of different channels, so methods of internal communication inside an organisation, and then you get approached to join a startup.
The offer can sound great, and sometimes it can be, don’t get me wrong. However, from the confidential conversations that I’ve been having particularly with my mentoring clients over the past few years, there’s often a gap between expectation and reality. Being part of an organisation at the very start of its journey can be exhilarating. You help define, refine, and shape the way communication happens and the way things are done. However, I’m going to be really honest with you and really candid as you would expect from the Candid Comms podcast.
I joined an organisation, one of my very last in house roles was joining an organisation that had been in existence for 18 months. And I was brought in to oversee the internal and external communication, and it was a really steep hill that this organisation had to climb. And in honesty, it was a really steep hill for me to climb too. I was used to working at a senior level. And when you suddenly join an organisation and you are a team of one, particularly if you’ve been working at a senior level elsewhere, you may find yourself working really tactically.
So if the business problem that you’ve been brought in to try and solve inside a startup or inside an organisation, which is maybe new or maybe has never had an internal communicator before, you may think that you are going to go in there and set the internal comm strategy, and develop lots of channels, and build a team, and create standards, and you may well do that. However, from experience, that’s not what you are going to be doing straight away.
Straight away, you are going to be working very tactically and firefighting. Now, you’re never too experienced to do that. I think it’s good to keep your hand in if you’re working at very senior level, it doesn’t hurt for you to get your hands dirty and get stuck into the tactics. But if you’ve joined an organisation to set up a function, you need to be really, really clear in terms of what’s the future for internal communication in this organisation. What you need to know is the resourcing plan. So, conversations I’ve been having with some of my mentoring clients, in particular, are helping them build a business case.
So somebody somewhere in the organisation has created a business case to create a role. And startups, what you need to know about internal communication is if you’ve brought in a senior level internal comms professional and all they’re doing is tactical and reactive work, there’s no talk of future plans, there’s no talk of increasing their resourcing, there’s no talk of giving them a budget, for example, then very, very quickly they’ll become isolated, they’ll become frustrated, and you’ll probably lose them. So we don’t want to do that.
So this is what I think startups need to know about hiring an internal communicator. You need to be clear about the level of person you are recruiting, and what your resourcing plan is for that person, that department, that function. You need to be really mindful of their advice. So when an internal communicator joins an organisation and spends particularly the first three months really getting to understand the culture of an organisation, and I have an online masterclass for this, I have, How to Create a 90 Day Plan, which supports internal communicators, whatever level you’re at. When you join a new organisation or you start a new role, ideally in a new organisation, this course guides you through every single step to help set you up for success and refine and deepen your capability so you can hit the ground running.
When you are brought in to an organisation as I found from experience, people are very often been waiting for you to start. And therefore, they overload you with information and they overload you with things that are urgent because they’ve been waiting for you to come. We need to pause, reflect, analyze, and we also need to make sure that we’re listening. So if you’ve brought in an internal communicator into your organisation and they spot a problem, you need to trust their advice. The conversations that I have with some of my mentoring clients are when they’re incredibly frustrated because they’ve been brought in as the communication expert, and let’s be really candid here comms friends, communication has been happening inside the organisation to date, even before you arrived communication happened.
Now, it probably hasn’t happened in a very structured way, in a very rigorous way, in a very ordered way, because it didn’t have a comms probably in place to oversee things, set standards, create channels, but communication would’ve been happening. So when you bring in an expert and you ask them for advice and guidance, you need to listen to it and you need to act on it. I know how frustrating that is from someone who’s experienced that. And also now in my role, advising internal communicators who are finding themselves increasingly frustrated at being brought in to be the comms expert inside organisations, inside startups, in particularly, and then not being listened to.
If that’s you, I share your pain. I know how that feels. Something you need to do if you are an organisation who is creating an internal communication function for the first time, or if you are a startup inviting a professional communicator to join you for the first time, is there needs to be boundaries. This is super important. And I say this to someone who is a founder of my own business, I’ve been running All Things IC since 2013, I think about my business constantly. I live it. I breathe it. I’m surrounded by it constantly. I am constantly innovating and coming up with ideas at all times of the day and night. I’m a typical entrepreneur in that regard.
However, the people who work for you and with you and around you may not think in that same way. And I’ve had a conversation recently with an internal communicator inside a startup who is receiving messages from the founder in the middle of the night. And I’m talking 2:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning, with a bright idea that they wanted them to action at that time of night. Now I don’t do that. I’m very conscious of that. I may have thoughts in the middle of the night, but I will message them to myself. I wouldn’t share them with my PA, Louise, in the middle of the night. When you work in a startup, if you are so immersed in the culture, if you are surrounded by the founders or the owners of the business, if you work as a trusted advisor, there’s that phrase that we love comms’ friends, if you’re working as a trusted advisor, then we like to be brought into conversations early.
However, if you are, particularly if you are, I should say, a team of one, you need to set the boundaries. Unless you are being paid to be on call, so some people are, they are crisis communicators and they’re on call 24/7, their salary reflects that. If you are the first person that your organisation has hired and you are expected to respond to messages from the CEO in the middle of the night, then that needs to be built into a contract and the way that conversations happen about internal communication. If it’s not, it’s completely reasonable to draw the line, create that boundary about when your downtime is. If you are always on, you will burn out.
So we need to make sure, if you are joining an organisation as a professional communicator, or you are hiring a professional communicator, what are the hours that they’re expected to work? And if there’s additional above and beyond, and there’ll always be, this comms friends as we know, in a crisis, for example, where it’s all hands on deck anytime day or night, that is a conversation that needs to be had upfront. I’m going to share some advice of something I think you should do if you are an internal communicator who loves the idea of working with a blank canvas, with an organisation that’s never had internal communication before or a startup.
These are things that I think you should think through. You need to do your research. So, research the company that you want to work with. If there’s one in particular, really, truly get to know them. Who are their competitors? What makes that organisation stand out from what you can glean about them online? See if you can gather information from current employees. So I’m searching LinkedIn or Twitter, for example, this is sorts of places to search. Look at social platforms to see how who is working there already and spot any clues or cues from what they’re saying about the culture, the way things happen in the organisation.
Think about your own skills. So what are your transferable skills from your current role or area of study? What is it that makes you think you’ll be a great fit for that particular organisation? What are those transferable skills? And that’s important, because if an organisation has never hired an internal communicator before, it can sometimes feel like a leap of faith. So you need to understand how you work, and how you could apply what you do to benefit their organisation. If you are working in a large company at the moment, how will those skills work in a smaller organisation or conversely the opposite.
If you are working in a tiny organisation and you’re applying to a large organisation and a much bigger environment and a global scale, for example, what can you offer? Be really, really clear about that? Another thing to think about, is what the life cycle of the company looks like from what you can see. So if it’s a startup, for example, I mean, comms friends, there’s a whole glossary around startups. A whole new set of language to get your head around. So things like, are they seeking funding? For example. Are they acquiring other companies? Have they acquired other companies already? See what you can find out from online.
So, how well versed are you in commercial issues like IPO, Initial Public Offerings, when people launch on a stock exchange, for example? Because you may find that you’ll join an organisation and suddenly you need to be overseeing IPO comms. And that is a whole new topic in its own right. I hope that’s really helpful. I’ll include a glossary within the show notes for this podcast episode at allthingsic.com/podcast. And I’ll include terms in there for things like bootstrapping and seed funding and funding rounds and minimal viable product, MVP. These sorts of words are important to understand, particularly for people who are looking to join entrepreneurs and looking to join startups.
If the founder is interviewing you, the person who founded the company, who created the company, they will expect you to have a handle on these terms. The worst thing to do would be to apply to a job and then find yourself in an interview, people are talking about seed funding and it doesn’t make any sense to you whatsoever. So I will help you do your homework. I’ll include some of these words in the show notes. We are going to take a short break, and when we come back, I’m going to leave you with something to think about. See you in a moment.
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Whether you are just starting out, whether you’ve got years of experience, whether you are thinking of becoming a comms consultant, or maybe you are about to start a new job, whatever your situation there will be an online masterclass for you.Head over to allthingsic.thinkific.com, and don’t forget to use the code Candid Comms at the checkout to save 10%. And I hope to see you inside one of those masterclasses very soon.
Welcome back. In the final part of today’s episode, I’m going to share something for you to think about. What I want you to think about is the maturity of internal communication in the organisation that you are planning to join, or the organisation that you’re in that’s planning to recruit. The reason being, I believe internal communication is too important to be left down to one team, one department, or one person. It is everybody’s responsibility. Now when an internal communicator is hired and they’re the very first comms professional inside an organisation, they are not suddenly responsible for absolutely everything to do with internal communication inside the organisation.
So what I mean by that, and I can tell you from experience when I joined the role that I mentioned earlier in the company that had been going for 18 months, when I arrived, I got asked about the team brief that was in place, which wasn’t great, Comms’ friends, to be honest with you. But I remember speaking to one of the directors about the team brief and saying to him, “Tell me about it. What do you think about it?” And before I got a chance to even say that, he said, “Oh good, you’ll be doing that team brief thing for me then will you?” And I thought, he doesn’t mean writing it. He thinks I’m going to be delivering it to his team. And I remember thinking, “mm, okay, that’s an interesting perception on what I’m here to do,” which spoke volumes in honesty.
And I remember saying to him, “Who knows your team the best in this organisation?” And he said, “I do.” And I said, “Why would you possibly delegate communicating with your team to anybody else because you know them way better than anyone inside this organisation.” And he looked at me quite grumply because clearly this wasn’t the conversation that he thought we were going to have. And he thought he would quite merrily hand over responsibility for communicating with his team to me because I was the head of comms. I put him right. Because internal comms is too important to be left down to one team, one department, one person, because I do believe it is everyone’s responsibility.
My role as the internal communicator inside the organisation was to help everybody else understand that. If one person has been brought in, I spoke right at the start about the business problem that the internal communicator has been brought in to solve it. If that business problem that you are there to do is to be the only way the company communicates then we will fail. Because it is too important to be left down to one person. Now we can encourage them. We can put amazing channels in place. We can set strategies. We can create standards. We can train people. But if internal communication is just left down to one person, what happens if you’re sick? What happens if you go away?
So it’s really important for me as we close this episode together is thinking about the maturity of understanding inside the organisation. Now, there’s a way to do this. I do this quite regularly. I look at job adverts. So when people are being hired to join a startup, how is that role being described? Is it really senior and really strategic and talking about setting strategy and standards? Or is it that you are expected to come in and sort out the tactical communication, the channels, the tools, methodologies, and tactics, and maybe that you’ll be solely responsible. You can get a really good sense of the maturity of an organisation’s internal communication by looking at the way it recruits its comms people.
Now that’s true of organisations of all sizes and all ages. I have a jobs board at allthingsic.com/jobs, where we share roles around the globe where companies are recruiting to their internal comms teams. So I see a lot of job adverts over the course of a month. Many job adverts come in and I look at all of them, and I look at the wording, and I’m always really curious to have a look at, what is it they say about internal communication. And what’s my impression from what I can see externally about the way the organisation communicates or from conversations I’ve had with people who work there?
Having a look at job adverts gives you a really clear indication, looking at how they talk, how they describe internal communication and who is responsible. I hope you found this really helpful. If you’re thinking about joining an organisation, I hope it’s given you some things to know, some things to do, and some things to think about. I would love to know what you are going to do differently as a result of listening to this episode. What has it sparked for you? Do get in touch. I’d love you to tweet me. You can find me on Twitter @AllThingsIC. You can look me up on LinkedIn. I’m Rachel Miller, or find me on Instagram @rachelallthingsic.
And the show notes for this episode, and all the episodes of the candid comms podcast can be found at allthingsic.com/podcast. And remember, what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.
Post author: Rachel Miller
First published on the All Things IC blog 11 December 2021.