In2Summit: Levi’s Kelly McGinnis Pushes Communicators To Become Transformational Leaders
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In2Summit: Levi’s Kelly McGinnis Pushes Communicators To Become Transformational Leaders

Holmes Report

In2Summit: Levi’s Kelly McGinnis Pushes Communicators To Become Transformational Leaders
SAN FRANCISCO—Corporate change presents an opportunity for communications professionals to be transformational leaders and to have a real impact on strategic decision-making within their organizations, Levi Strauss & Co. senior VP and chief communications officer Kelly McGinnis told the In2 (Innovation + Insight) Summit this morning. Speaking at a session sponsored by W2O and moderated by the firm’s president Bob Pearson, McGinnis told the audience that companies “are either growing, maintaining or under pressure to transform and turn around their business.” And “no one is satisfied with maintaining.” Having heard from a fast-growth company—Twitter head of marketing and comms Gabriel Stricker—on day one, McGinnis was focused on the other side of the coin: transformation. “When companies are going through a transformation it’s overwhelming,” she told the audience. “The reality is that is tremendously hard work, it’s not linear, it’s incredibly frustrating and exhausting. But it also offers the opportunity for us as communicators to be transformational leaders, to have an impact on strategic decision-making.” McGinnis emphasized five keys to elevating the role of communications in times of change. The first step, she said, is to establish the right team. “You may have a team of good people who are really committed to the organization, but the skills you need for transformation may not be the skills they bring to table. Transformation communications is not for beginners. It requires confidence and it requires people who have the skills to have an influence within the company.” In her previous role at Dell, she said, the communications team turned over 30 percent of its people in the first year, but after that “our influence increased dramatically.” The second step is to align behind a core message. At Dell, she said, the communications department had become an “internal service agency, we were working to support the business, but our collective efforts weren’t adding up to more than the sum of the parts. We weren’t telling the overall company story.” When she first suggested that the communications department focus on telling the company story, her senior team thought that she was being naïve. “They understood that on paper that was the right thing to do,” she said, but they felt that it would be impossible to escape the reality that the function was expect to focus on one-off, individual initiatives. “They thought if we were really lucky, telling that core company story might take up 20 percent of our effort. But we were able to flip that. We were able to get to a place where we said we were not going to put resources—in employee communications, in analyst communications, or even product communications—where that was not the case.” As a result: “We aligned behind a shared vision and we began to increase our influence within the organization. We increased our visibility in the company, we were elevated to be on the marketing leadership team, we started to report regularly to the board as well as the executive leadership team, and our internal job satisfaction scores soared.” Third, she said, it is important to leverage the opportunity that communications has to be agile and flexible. “The work of transformation is time consuming,” she said. “You find yourself in endless meetings, writing reports on reports. But as a function, we are in a unique position. Yes, there are structures and budgets that have to be figure out, but we can be flexible and agile and we have to make that work for us.” At Dell, for example, the communications team saw the lines between paid and owned and earned media beginning to blur and recognized an opportunity. “When we saw an opportunity, we decided to tackle it. We didn’t ask permission, we just hired a couple of people who could do that kind of thing.” Over time, Dell became an acknowledged leader in content creation. Fourth, McGinnis said, communicators need to embrace their role in bringing outside perspectives into the company, to make sure outside perspectives are being heard. “We are charged with influencing and managing relationships with key stakeholders and giving them a voice as decision s are being made,” she told the audience. “It’s easier to do that now because there’s so much data and so many tools.” She says she encouraged her team to spend 20 or 30 percent of their time engaging with those stakeholders. “I spend about 20 percent of my time with stakeholders, mostly with influencers and with dissidents. They can tell you what you will need to focus on in the future and also what the major obstacles are. “Over time, that increases your influence within the organization. We can be the conveners, the ones who pull people together. You can’t be a transformational leader by taking notes, you need to be the one who speaks first. That will make you a leader, not just a helper.” Fifth, and finally, communicators need to “embrace the new.” “There is an opportunity during a transformation, because every process, every investment and every headcount is being examined. That’s an opportunity to ask yourself how you can do things differently, to introduce new and more efficient was to contribute. “The question is whether you are going to let change happen to you, or whether you are going to make change happen.”
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