employee engagement

What sailing around Africa taught our Director of Communications about internal communication

“We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails,” and other sailing lessons we can apply to internal comms.

BY
Samantha McCabe
May 3, 2021

In the early summer of 2003, IC Thrive’s Director of Communications, Karen Johnston, found herself on a sailboat somewhere in the great expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean, off the west coast of Africa.

Karen had been sailing since she was four or five years old, but this was by far the biggest journey she had taken on—a 12-month expedition around the continent on the intimidating Challenger 67, a heavy, steel-hulled sailboat built to go around the world the “wrong way,” or against prevailing winds. Led by advocate Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both the North and South Poles, the trip had been dubbed “Inspire 2041” for its desire to promote awareness of environmental degradation and safety around HIV and AIDs in Africa.

The name ended up being even more fitting than the team initially thought. What Karen knew going in was that she was signing up for a year of adventure, and would no doubt disembark the boat tired, fulfilled, and a lot more tanned than when she jumped on. She certainly got that—from cutting the boat’s lights to dodge pirates, to skirting a cyclone near Mauritius, to getting stuck in the nets of irate fishermen at midnight, the 28,000 nautical miles were certainly not boring. What she didn’t know is that the journey would leave her with several valuable lessons about internal communications.

Perhaps you’re a non-communicator who is now responsible for internal communications at your organization. Or perhaps you’re just struggling with a few pieces of internal comms and working to bridge the gap between you and an excellent strategy and execution. You’re not alone—according to data gathered from ICThrive’s own Internal Communications Assessment, almost half of respondents do not have a clear mandate for their internal communications.

Hopefully, Karen’s top three tips that link back to her journey will give you valuable insight into your own internal comms practices and help you chart a way forward (pun intended).

This blog post is an adapted version of a presentation that Karen Johnston, IC Thrive’s Director of Communications, gave at the recent Future of Work Canada conference. Check out our YouTube to watch the full presentation.

Know where you’re going and set the course

“Every single time we set sail, we were 100% sure of our destination and of where we were going,” Karen explains.

First things first: your internal communications strategy needs to be aligned to your company’s objectives. The second piece of this, which more frequently goes overlooked in organizations, is that you need a mandate to deliver that strategy. Having an internal comms team setup does not equate to a mandate—access and authority are just as important in being able to executive the strategy you put so much work into.

For those operating a junior team, you are the skipper of your ship right now. That means it’s up to you to deliver a clear, simple strategy to guide your crew to your destination. That may sound laughably simple, but the data that IC Thrive is seeing shows that many organizations do not have that crucial foundation in place.

Your communications strategy also needs to link back to the overall corporate strategy, which will help you eventually become more of a strategic advisor to your organization. During Karen’s sailing journey, it was extremely difficult to provision the boat and chart a course without an explicit idea of the leg ahead, which would sometimes stretch for 21 days straight—the consequences of running out of food in the open sea might seem more dire, but the idea is the same!

(Need help creating that strategy? We just launched a brand-new template for bringing direction and purpose to your internal comms.)

Measure and adjust your internal communications

During Karen’s yearlong journey, the six-personInspire 2041 team was sailing 24 hours a day, every day. That meant that the crew had a system of highly organized day and night shifts for each person that had to go smoothly, or it would all fall apart.

After each shift, the crewmates had to chart their progress in the logbook: the distance sailed, the direction, the speed, wind shifts, and more. What was immediately obvious as they put their metrics into the logbook was that if they had to, they could change tactics—they literally had the data right in front of them to make decisions at breakneck speed and adjust their course.

This brings us to the internal communications principles of metrics, data, and reporting. If you simply gather data post-communication—for example, from employee feedback—you are missing a huge opportunity to proactively adjust your tactics, Karen explains, and really engage with employees. In other words, it doesn’t make sense, as internal communicators, for us not to know how people are responding to our messages in real time.

Real-time metrics will also help you attach your internal comms efforts to the bigger picture and report back to your company—something Karen wished she knew how to effectively do earlier on in her career.

(We also have a handy tool to help guide your process of measuring your activities for a more objective and strategic view of your communications.)

Work towards efficiency as an internal communications team

As Karen explains, you have to make sure your system is working for you. “Everything on that boat that we were sailing on had a reason for being there,” she says. “Everything had a place and a purpose, and it was quite marvelous to see the cause and effect of having an ecosystem at work.”

As an internal communicator, you are constantly fighting for the attention of your employees amongst a lot of outside noise. And with the new reality of working from home, it can be even harder to engage with your workforce, especially while toeing the line of not wanting to overwhelm anyone as our collective stress level skyrockets.

So how do you stand out in the right way? According to IC Thrive’s Internal Communications Assessment, 34% of respondents had either “audience” or “channel”as one of their lowest principles—typically an indication of poor processes or technology in place.

Even the best crew can only make an old ship sail so fast, Karen explains. That might mean investing in the technology to help you catch up to 2021 and reach the right people, in the right way, to ensure your employees remain engaged and happy with their jobs.

Keep this in mind as you start looking for efficiencies and supporting technology for your internal comms: if you can’t measure, segment, or target your audiences and stay relevant to them, or if you can’t reach them on a channel that they are using and familiar with, then creating unique and valuable employee experiences is going to be really difficult.

(Stuck on audience segmentation and channel audits? We have tools and templates galore!)

Sail into a world of improved internal communications 

Hopefully, you don’t leave this blog convinced that you need to talk like a sailor in order to get ahead with your internal communications. Curse words and at-sea slang are not what Karen intended you to take away from this.

Instead, consider this quote: “We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails,” from Thomas S. Monson. We’re all in the same storm, and the impact that simple, efficient, effective internal comms can play in the workplace of the future is huge.

As you work to constantly improve and adjust your internal communications, you might need a dependable software to get your messaging out, gather feedback, and create a general sense of community and belonging among your employees. Our internal comms software, Reach, could help you get there. Book a demo and try it out, or head to our technology page to learn more.

Illustration woman looking at the 7 Principles Methodology

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