In this episode, Angee Linsey interviews Michelle Jones, Chief Communications Officer at CH2M in Denver, Colorado. During the conversation, they cover a range of topics around what it means to be a strategic communications professional that delivers a positive impact on the business.
During the interview, Michelle shares how she helps communicators on her team move from being more tactical to strategic. Not only does she identify those people on her team who show a natural curiosity and make an effort to truly learn the business, she encourages communications professionals to get experiences beyond the function to enhance that business acumen. Listen In to Michelle’s advice on how to focus on the business to grow your communications career.
Listen In with Angee Linsey – Episode #1
An interview with Michelle Jones, CCO, CH2M
Announcer: Welcome to Listen In with Angee Linsey, where you can be part of an exclusive dialogue between Angee — an accomplished Executive Recruiter — and a variety of marketing and communications leaders, as they share their stories and advice to help you hire and be hired throughout your career.
Angee Linsey: Hi, and thanks for joining my first episode of Listen In, an interview series where I’m speaking to marketing and communications leaders on a variety of hiring and career related topics. I’m Angee Linsey, owner and founder of Linsey Careers, an executive search, coaching, and consulting firm. Today we’re going talk to someone who I have so much respect for, and have loved getting to know over the years, Michelle Jones. She’s the Chief Communications Officer at CH2M in Denver, Colorado. Welcome, Michelle.
Michelle Jones: Hi, how you doing Angee?
Angee Linsey: I’m fantastic, thanks. I am really excited to talk to you. Every single time we have a conversation, I always leave the call energized, and you always have such great things to say about communications and its importance as a strategic function. And so that’s what I’m hoping to talk with you about today. Let’s just start, for the people listening in, tell us a little bit about your background and your career, because I think it’s very interesting how you moved into communications.
Michelle Jones: Yeah. So, when I began my career, it actually was a computer programmer. And people say, “Well, now the heck does a computer programmer end up getting involved in a communications function?” It was a process, certainly, for me. So, you know, I was a computer programmer, and then I ran some projects, then I was asked to do an international assignment with a client, and then I was running sales. I ran a practice, I ran an operation. And around that time in my career, which was probably about seven or eight years into my career, I was asked to run a branding initiative. And I don’t think I could spell “brand” at the time. But I was asked to lead a branding initiative, and the company I was with had integrated with a number of organizations and was really looking to establish a new identity, a new strategy. And because of my background with the business — all those different factions — they asked me to lead it, and got me some help.
So, some of the help they got me was some people who were investing in the organization, and they had a lot of experience with marketing, and branding, and communications with a pretty big organization named IBM, and they actually knew how to spell “brand.” So anyhow, at that time, I led that initiative, renamed the company, different strategy, established a marketing and communications function in this company, and I guess I would say the rest is history. I kind of never looked back.
Angee Linsey: Well, and what I think is really funny, you didn’t say this exactly but I know your story, is that your first job in communications was really the Head of Communications, of Marketing and Communications.
Michelle Jones: Yeah, yeah.
Angee Linsey: So you really didn’t have the traditional growing up in the function.
Michelle Jones: No.
Angee Linsey: Because you grew up in the business.
Michelle Jones: No. It was literally after we launched the brand. So after the brand was launched, I had been working with a number of the executives in the company around how do we establish the function? Because the function didn’t exist, really. It was a dot-com sort of company, fast growing organization. And I was part of it from when they were about 350 employees. So there was just no need in the early days for that Strategic Communications function to be established. So working with them, you know, we talked about, “Well, what goes into a communication function? What should I be thinking about as it relates to helping the business be successful, and helping the business grow?” And got a lot of coaching, and when we launched the brand I was promoted to VP of Marketing and Communications.
So yeah, you’re right, I didn’t really grow up in that space, but I did grow up in a pretty significant sales role, if you will. Because any company, if you’ve ever been part of a company that’s entrepreneurial and you’re wearing a lot of different hats, at the end of the day you learn that cash is king, and selling is really, really important. And to do that, client experience is really, really important. And so all of the, I would say, the foundation pieces as a leader and understanding the business, were in place. I just needed to understand, “Okay, now how do you set up the function, and how do you actually get it to work for the business?”
Angee Linsey: And that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you about communications as a strategic function, is because I know that you’ve just recently started a blog and this is a big topic for you. Every time we talk it’s all about understanding the business. How do you define “strategic communications?”
Michelle Jones: Well, if you think about what we’re supposed to be doing, it’s about getting people to take action, right? And creating perceptions so that people will take action. And to do that, you really need to understand a couple things. Whether you’re in consumer marketing and communications, or you’re in B2B sort of communications, you have to understand people, you have to understand what motivates them, and what levers you can pull to get them to be motivated to do something. And you also have to know the business.
Angee Linsey: Right.
Michelle Jones: So, strategic communications, to me, is understanding all of that and knowing what levers you need to pull to have an impact. Simply put.
Angee Linsey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, can you think about, because of how you ended up in communications this might not be … I’m going to really talk about people on your team rather than you, moving from being sort of tactically skilled to being more strategically focused. When you are looking at your team, and you’re developing your team, what do you do to guide them from being more tactical to being more strategic? And when does that typically happen in someone’s career?
Michelle Jones: I think it … so, I’m probably not going to answer the question exactly as you might think, but I think I observe people and I observe how they manage their work. And I get a sense of their competency, if you will, around connecting dots with different parts of whatever it is that their work is. Right?
Angee Linsey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michelle Jones: And when I sense that they are: A) very inquisitive; asking a lot of questions about the work that they’re doing and how it connects with the business or whatever the activity that they’re trying to accomplish, is when I really start singling out people that just need development opportunities. And, to be able to kind of round out that picture, if you will. So, moving from something where I’m just, where I’m doing … I’m writing articles for the internal intranet page, and moving them to, “Okay, well now let’s think about other areas … you know, how does this internal document, or this internal article you’re writing actually influence employees?” What is the influence you’re looking for in the employees? Why you want them to be influenced? And just helping them connect the dots between the different activities that they’re doing, and the ultimate impact, which for the communications function should be enabling growth. Right? Creating perceptions and enabling growth. And really that’s when I start developing those sorts of people. And some other pieces that you need to do, I think some other areas for those people, is you need to give them a lot more experiences.
The one thing I have found since I didn’t grow up in this industry, or with this profession early … although I guess, a good 20 years. I could say I’ve been in it for a while now.
Angee Linsey: Yes, yes.
Michelle Jones: But, I think that people who stay in the same position for too long, they will atrophy. They will stop learning and growing. And in this very dynamic, fast moving economy, that our businesses are all having to operate in, you need leaders that are in this function that are able to move and be fast and nimble, too. And if you’ve stayed in one position your whole career, or you’ve stayed in a corporate environment your whole career, it’s really hard to do. So, anytime I can find opportunities, whether it be in due diligence, or whether it be in acquisition integration, or possibly working with the sales organizations in inside sales, those high potentials need those experiences to really round out their ability to be a business leader at an executive level in the function.
Angee Linsey: So, what I’m hearing is, the first place you look is someone who’s naturally curious.
Michelle Jones: Yeah.
Angee Linsey: And I love that word, whenever I’m talking with communications professionals. I think that we are naturally curious, that’s why we’re in this field. But not just being curious with questions, but really seeking out, “How does what I do connect to the business to help the business grow?”
Michelle Jones: Correct.
Angee Linsey: Not just their own career growth, but the business growth.
Michelle Jones: Absolutely, because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s … you know, and we’ve talked a lot about the business function, the communications function, having a seat at the table, and having be respected among the business leaders in the organization. Well, you have to be a business person, and be able to have those conversations, to do that. And I think it’s really difficult if you aren’t thinking through, if you’re not leading your teams, to be driving towards that “what is the business impact”. I think that the “I’ll never have a seat at the table” question will just continue to loom on, and on, and on, and be very disappointing for a lot of people, and has been disappointing for a lot of people. It’s not just about the creativity. Creativity is important in our function, but the creativity needs to have an impact. I remember early in my career, a story, and I probably will get most of this wrong, but it had to do with a particular fast food Mexican restaurant and a particular dog that was really cute.
Angee Linsey: I remember this.
Michelle Jones: Yeah. And the … it was a hugely, seemed to be a hugely successful marketing and communications campaign. I mean, people were buying the stuffed animal dogs, they were, you know, there were toys that were made in its likeness, games that were created. But during that period of time, as you probably remember, sales dropped.
Angee Linsey: Hmm. I don’t think I remember that part of it.
Michelle Jones: So, it was an interesting lesson because it got a lot of awareness. It created a lot of excitement and buzz, but it actually didn’t work.
Angee Linsey: Right.
Michelle Jones: So, when I think people and communicators knowing that and understanding that, it’s got to be effective, it’s got to work. And to work, that means somehow it’s driving sales directly or indirectly, is a really important lesson for people to learn.
Angee Linsey: So one thing that I think sometimes communications people forget is, results aren’t just about your dashboard of impressions, and positive or negative impressions, and how many people clicked through on that.
Michelle Jones: Right.
Angee Linsey: But really, what are the numbers? What’s the ROI? And what are the numbers of the company? One thing I know you and I have spoken about before is, communications people have to understand the financials. They need to listen in on that earnings call.
Michelle Jones: Yep.
Angee Linsey: And hopefully, you can be part of the team that helps create the messaging for the earnings call.
Michelle Jones: Correct, correct. Now, I can’t … well I think, and you and I have talked, and my latest blog talks about business acumen and financial acumen is part of that. You know, you don’t need to be a financial expert to have financial acumen.
Angee Linsey: Right.
Michelle Jones: And by the way, just the process of getting financial acumen will help you understand the important drivers in the business. Right? So revenue, and expenses, and just at its very simplest level will help you understand that for businesses to be successful, they need to be profitable, and plus they need to be growing. So, what are the different components in the business that effect that? And you need to have cash flow, because without cash flow you can’t invest in future growth opportunities. So, you don’t have to be a finance … in fact, the finance people don’t want us to be experts on finance. That’s what they do, right? But we do, when we are able to, once we understand that, provide some interesting insights for promoting a company from an investor perspective, because we are different in the way that we think and how we’re operating, from a communications versus just a balance sheet and an income statement sort of a lens. Right?
Angee Linsey: Right. And that’s obviously where communications leadership really has a positive impact on the business, because you do come at it with a different lens. When you think about your number two person, how do you prepare them to be the number one person? How do you … what do you do to make sure that you have a bench player that could replace you some day? And all great leaders are looking for some … want to develop people so that they can be replaced. Right?
Michelle Jones: Absolutely. Well, there’s a lot of qualities that I’m looking for. Obviously, the people that are my number two have that business acumen, so they’re already, they’re probably already fairly well developed as it relates to understanding the business and kind of how they navigate. But there’s also a lot of other skills required, too. So, are they accountable? Are they leading through example? Do they have empathy with their teams? Are they developing others, as well. So there’s a number of other things that I’m looking for. The number two’s, and I’ve had a few in my career, because I’ve had a few companies that I’ve worked with, they are already usually there. They’re just … so, they wouldn’t have been the number two if they weren’t already there. They just need a little bit more experience with executive teams and leadership. They need a little bit more experience with getting the opportunities to have other experiences, just like what we were talking about earlier. And I said … what I said earlier, I also think that it’s important that those number two’s also have had other experience. So, they didn’t just grow up through the ranks.
And I know that that’s sometimes not popular, right?
Angee Linsey: Well, and sometimes that’s not possible either.
Michelle Jones: Yeah, and sometimes it’s not possible.
Angee Linsey: But they can get exposure to other parts of the business. You know, I think … when I think about candidates that I interview that are at that Director, VP level, they’ve supported different pieces of the business, both internally and externally.
Michelle Jones: Yeah.
Angee Linsey: So maybe they haven’t been in sales, or whatever. They maybe have grown up in the communications function, but they haven’t just done one thing.
Michelle Jones: Right.
Angee Linsey: You know, they’ve supported different pieces of the business, different executive teams, like I said, both internal and external. And I know one thing we’ve talked about before too, is that when you say “experience”, I think I’m hearing “exposure”.
Michelle Jones: Exposure is exactly it.
Angee Linsey: Exposure to those executives. And being willing to volunteer to say, “Hey, I want to step up. Can I sit in on that meeting?”
Michelle Jones: Right.
Angee Linsey: And not sit on the outside of the table, sit at the table.
Michelle Jones: Right, right. I can remember a few years back, somebody was very upset on my team, that he had not been invited to one of the leadership meetings that had happened, that was going to be in headquarters. And it wasn’t like a closed leadership meeting, it was something that all you had to do was ask. You know? All you had to do was ask to be part of that, and he stewed about it for two weeks. And finally I’m like, “Well, what’s wrong?” And he’s like, “Well, I’ve worked so hard with this group, and I can’t believe they didn’t invite me to the meeting.” And I said, “Well, did you ask them if you could sit in on the meeting?” And he was like, “Well, no.” And I said, “Well, unless you ask, I mean, I doubt they were leaving you out on purpose. I’m sure they would have been happy to have you in there and engaged in there. But you’ve got to kind of raise your hand every now and then.” Step up and step out. Right?
Angee Linsey: And you and I both have enough of a sales background. One of my favorite sayings is: “The answer’s always ‘no’ if you don’t ask.”
Michelle Jones: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Angee Linsey: Well, to close out I have one more question. So, I talk to a lot of people that are really motivated in their career, they’re very achievement oriented, and they really want to earn their way into that top job, that Head of Marketing and Communications, or Head of Corporate Communications role. If you were going to give a great piece of advice to people that are wanting to do that, maybe they’re 10-15 years into their career and struggling, what’s your advice?
Michelle Jones: Yeah. It’s interesting because I sort of opined on this when you sent the list of questions today, and it’s never one piece of advice. Right?
Angee Linsey: Of course not.
Michelle Jones: Because everybody’s got their own sort of strengths, and weaknesses, and opportunities, and ultimately, for you to be successful in this role, yes you’re amplifying messages that are aligned with the company’s strategy, and yes, you’re protecting the company’s reputation, and yes, you’re building brand. But to be effective as a leader, you need to really understand in this function that it’s a collection of individuals. And the things that you do … it’s sort of like an orchestra, right? This collection of individuals needs to be able to provide some unbelievable music for the company so that it can be successful. And you can call that dot-connecting, you can call that whatever you want, but you need to understand that to be successful you really have to look at it from the perspective of your audience. But that audience anymore is not just a large segment of demographic, it’s a bunch of people and individuals. So I think, really understanding that is super important.
I think also, understanding that your teams are a collection of individuals. So, while everybody may want to be on the winning team, if you will, for certain parts of the project, you’re going to need … to be able to be effective, to have your team be effective, you can’t just look at them as sort of just one big blob of team. It is, again, a collection of individuals. And to get that symphony playing what you want it to play, and to amplify, that group of individuals needs to be able to work together, too. So good leadership skills is really important in this function, as well. It’s kind of simple, Angee.
Angee Linsey: It is. I said that was my last question, but you just said something. I want to just throw out one more thing. You know, developing those leadership skills, how do people do that? I know there’s some natural ability that comes with good leaders, but also, I think there’s a lot of different programs and organizations that can help with leadership skills. What do you … where do you encourage people to seek out that leadership training?
Michelle Jones: So, I think some of the leadership training is hands-on. I think there’s a lot of tools that are out there, like CEB, from a communications perspective, that helps. It helps you understand what are the competencies that are required in the function, which includes the competency from a leadership perspective, I think are really important.
Angee Linsey: And just for those who don’t know what CEB is …
Michelle Jones: It’s the Corporate Executive Board, I believe. They just got purchased by Gartner, so I don’t know if they’re keeping their name, but over the years I’ve certainly used and leveraged that a lot. In fact, they’ve even got some tools, or at least they’ve had some tools, that will help evaluate the skills and leadership skills, as well. And work with your HR partners, or work with your HR partners who are always sort of got their hands on the pulse of the latest and greatest in communication development skills, whether it be going to courses, whether it be being part of a mentor program; there’s plenty of places to go to develop those leadership skills.
Angee Linsey: That’s great, thank you. Well, Michelle, thanks so much for taking time with me today on this our first podcast for Listen In, and I look forward to continuing our conversations and reading your blog posts.
Michelle Jones: Thanks. Thanks a lot, Angee.
Angee Linsey: Thank you.
Announcer: Thanks for listening in. If you have comments or ideas for future topics, or leaders to feature, please contact Angee at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on services offered by Angee and her team, please visit our website at linseycareers.com.