What’s it like to leave an in-house role?

Are you thinking of becoming a Comms Consultant in 2021?

If you’re curious about becoming a freelancer, I know you’ll find this guest post useful. I’ve interviewed Chris Coburn to share what the reality is like so far.

He spent a decade at John Lewis and has just launched Chris Coburn Communications (CCC).

I wanted to discover what he’s up to, what he’s learnt and hear more about his new role. He’s focusing on smaller organisations and I was curious to find out more.

Before we dive in, happy International Women’s Day to everyone marking the occasion today. I’m thankful for the strong women in my life who raise each other up and cushion the falls.

I’m particularly grateful for my wonderful team and our ability to support and advise more internal communication professionals through our work together.

Yesterday I explained to my children what IWD is and why I believe it’s important. They were incredulous at some of the stats I shared with them, particularly my six-year-old twin sons. I recognise the importance of educating them about their role.

I launched All Things IC while on maternity leave with my daughter. I left my in-house career because I wanted to design a future where I could be present for her and work with more Comms pros. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but after a decade of working in-house, the time felt right to move into another season of my career.

It was the best decision I ever made. It was terrifying, but liberating and has been incredibly fulfilling for both my daughter and her brothers, who were born 2.5 years later.

Further reading: Rachel’s story. I discussed this period on Katie Macaulay’s podcast back in 2019: How to thrive in internal communication.

How to know if it’s right for you

Is Consultancy something you’re thinking about? Regular readers of my blog will know my How to be a Comms Consultant – Exploration Online Masterclass exists to reveal all the things I wish I knew back in 2012.

It’s not right for everyone and the outcome of the course could be you decide it’s not for you. That’s totally ok! I’ve written it to guide you through the options.

I was investigating moving from in-house to creating All Things IC and spent months researching. I’ve captured everything in that course to help you make the right decision for your career.

Don’t forget to use the code candidcomms at the checkout to save 10% off my range of Online Masterclasses.

Chris Coburn

Here’s my discussion with Chris…

1. Chris, you’ve just launched Chris Coburn Communications moving from in-house roles to your own consultancy. Why did you make this change?

Big businesses tend to have big comms teams, working on big-picture stuff – and we all know what big difference good communication can make.

But what about the smaller players? The organisations who can’t quite justify having even one full-time communications expert, let alone a team of them…

What do they do?

I’ve been asking myself this for a while now, and I really want to help these businesses access professional comms support when and where they need it.

There are almost six million small businesses in the UK, and while I can’t help them all, I’m aiming to help as many as humanly possible!

2. What value can communication expertise bring to these businesses?

A good comms professional wears many hats – creator, coach and confidant, for example.

So, having this type of person available to you when you’re leading an organisation can help you focus on value over volume when it comes to communication.

They can help you build all the cool stuff such as company culture, employee experience and engagement, but also help you navigate choppier waters such as organisational change and moments of uncertainty.

Having support during tougher times is so important as good communication can help to minimise disruption, distrust and distress.

3. What makes for good communication?

You tend to hear people describe good communication as something that is simple, clear, concise, digestible (whatever that means!) which can lead to people thinking that good communication is easy for anyone to do.

I believe there is one thing that makes communication good, and that is it has the desired effect.

This is where I think comms pros add the real value, as they help leaders focus past the short videos or colourful graphics and onto the things they actually want their workforce to do or to know.

Sure, short, simple messages that are visually appealing may be the vehicle to get to the desired outcome, but defining the outcome is the first, and most important step.

4. How can business leaders improve their internal communication?

Firstly, I think it’s important to distinguish between internal communication and internal communications, and I always turn to the definition at All Things IC:

Internal Communication: the overarching view of how a company communicates

Internal Communications: the tools, tactics and channels.

In many ways, this answers the question: you need to take a broader, more strategic view of communication in your organisation before you start making tactical choices.

Too often I see people start at the tactical level, focusing on ideas or things they’ve seen work in other organisations.

People will say things like “we should do town halls” or “we need a newsletter” perhaps because that’s what they’re used to, but just because something ‘worked’ in another company, it doesn’t mean it will work in yours.

I think this is especially true in smaller organisations who sometimes, might want to emulate what larger businesses do in terms of comms.

So, my top tip is begin with the end in mind and be intentful so that all your communication supports your business and your goals – don’t be tempted by off-the-shelf solutions promising quick wins.

5. Measuring the value or effectiveness of internal comms is a hot topic, is there a simple way to do this?

No. Not if you want to measure it properly. This was one of my major takeaways from my MA with the Institute of Internal Communication.

You might hear people talk about intranet visits, click-throughs on emails or even attendance at town halls all being up. But unless your goal was just to increase these things, they don’t tell you how well your comms is doing.

Ultimately, our value as comms experts is in influencing behaviour that benefits the business we are supporting.

So, while having more people ‘like’ the CEO blog or a longer dwell time on your monthly newsletter or a higher response to your survey is always nice, it doesn’t mean your comms has been effective.

If you’re serious about measuring the effectiveness of your comms, you need to start with some solid goals in mind – what do you want employees to do, to know, to feel?

It’s difficult to measure these things just through quantitative measures alone, you need more qualitative ones too. So, things like focus groups, one-on-one interviews, observations – things that take a bit more effort and time, these are where the real useful insight is.

Of course, you have to weigh up the cost of proper measurement – including taking people away from their jobs and proper analysis of your findings – with the benefit it brings, but that’s just another challenge in the world of internal communication and one I want to help smaller businesses with.

Further reading: How to measure internal communication.

Rachel’s intentions framework:

Setting intentions in internal communication by Rachel Miller

6. So, what’s next for your new venture?

My intent has always been to build CCC out as I go along – I’m more suited to doing and then adjusting rather than months of trying to plan for every small detail.

So, things like a website etc are in progress.

All the clients I’ve supported so far have come through connections and I’ve been blown away with the level of support and encouragement I’ve received – it’s humbling but at the same time a massive confidence boost that I can make this work.

7. How did you know the time was right for you to make the change from in-house?

This might sound a little big-headed, but I feel like I’ve been there and done it all in terms of comms.

Sure, there were new challenges this past year with how people were working/coping with the pandemic, but I felt like I needed a new challenge that was going to stretch me in a different way.

There’s only so many times you can do strategy, values, results and all the other regular comms-related things while still learning and growing.

So, now I want to do something that focuses a bit more on me giving back to a community that could benefit from all my experience.

8. Please can you share some of your in-house experience before launching?

I spent 10 years at the John Lewis Partnership working my way up into more senior and strategic roles while also spending three years on the board.

I supported everything and everyone you can imagine! – that business is special! It’s where I discovered my passion for communication, especially connecting the most senior leaders with the front-line workers – getting those ‘dreamers’ and ‘doers’ to understand each other and connect never gets old for me.

I developed a reputation for being good at supporting transformational projects or complex topics which I took as a good sign!

Then I spent a little over two years with Xe professionalising their comms capability and building the infrastructure from scratch. I loved this, too, as it provided a global challenge but for a smaller workforce.

Involving this workforce, I created a new set of values that people could identify with and that helped support Xe’s strategy and worked closely with the CEO to get everyone behind his vision.

It’s a good feeling when you hear the new CEO’s voice throughout an organisation, I can tell you!

Thank you for sharing your experience with us today Chris, I wish you every success with your business.

You can contact Chris via LinkedIn or on WhatsApp +447733 484590.

Post author: Rachel Miller.

First published on the All Things IC blog 8 March 2021.

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