New CEO – case study in communicating

Ringing the changes at the top – how great internal communication can support a new CEO

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The scenario is a familiar one – your charismatic and much-loved CEO is moving on, only to be replaced with a little-known executive from another organisation. If you haven’t faced that challenge yet, the chances are you will at some point in your career.

That was precisely the task the internal communications team for the Retail division of HBOS, the UK’s fifth largest bank, faced last year. Only add to that the fact that the new CEO had been lured away from their closest competitor and the team was unable to talk to him until he arrived for his first day. By anyone’s standards, quite a challenge.

But that didn’t stop them delivering a highly effective communication programme, one that put the new leader firmly on the map, built employee understanding of business objectives, and boosted advocacy on a number of levels. It also recently earned the team a coveted Communicators in Business (CiB) excellence award. Here’s what they did.

Context

HBOS Retail, the UK’s number one mortgage lender, savings provider and bancassurer, is a complex and diverse business. It includes major high street brands such as Halifax and Bank of Scotland, as well as strong UK mortgage brands such as Birmingham Midshires and Intelligent Finance.

It’s also a large business – there are around 44,000 people working in 1,200 Halifax and Bank of Scotland branches, nine call centres and around 20 corporate sites across the country.

Early in 2006 it was announced that the then Retail CEO Andy Hornby was to become CEO of the HBOS plc, the parent organisation, and that he would be succeeded by Benny Higgins, who until then had held a similar position at the Royal Bank of Scotland.

It was at this point that the internal communications team was tasked with ‘launching’ Benny to the business and, at the same time, driving up employee advocacy around the areas of products, service and employer.

The communication programme was developed and delivered by a team of four led by Retail IC manager Fiona Nelson. The majority of the work was done in-house, with a limited amount of external support on events and publications.

“This was a major communications exercise and the biggest of its kind for the business and the team, says Fiona. “As well as bedding-in the new CEO, we had to continue to deliver all business as usual communications, including our daily intranet news service, monthly online publications and a monthly TV programme. On top of that we wanted to raise advocacy levels in the business, one of our key strategic challenges for 2006.”

Approach

Fiona and the team developed a simple communication programme based around two phases, ‘Get to know the CEO’ and ‘Delivering for Retail’.

The first phase supported an initial ‘listening’ period – an opportunity for the CEO to tune into the business, hear the views and opinions of colleagues first hand and get under the skin of key issues and challenges. The second phase was about demonstrating tangible action.

Fiona explains: “We knew that initially Benny’s visibility and access would be key. Although he was already well known in industry circles, most of our people hadn’t heard of him and so it was vital that they had the opportunity to see, hear and talk to their new leader. But we also knew that profile alone wasn’t enough – colleagues needed to see that things were happening and know that Benny didn’t just talk the talk.”

What followed was a high impact multi-channel campaign that encompassed electronic publications, intranet content, business TV and, most importantly, face-to-face communications.

Tactics

Phase 1 – Get to know the CEO

The first phase of the programme kicked off when Benny joined the business in May 2006. Branded simply ‘Get to know the CEO’ it was designed to create high awareness of the change at the top, to give colleagues a feel for Benny’s style and approach and to capture employee’s views and opinions on what needed to change.

A Get to Know the CEO intranet micro site was launched to provide colleagues with background information about the new CEO.

An electronic publication, HBOS Today was also issued to all Retail colleagues. It contained an interview with Benny and also highlighted the many ways in which colleagues could interact with him – via a special TV programme, an online Q&A system and a series of road shows.

Tell Benny was launched. This is an intranet site where colleagues can share their issues and concerns with the CEO or ask any questions they want answering. The feedback through this channel acts as a useful temperature check on the business.

Get to know the CEO TV was aired at the end of May. The BBC’s Dermot Murnaghan put colleagues’ questions (gathered in advance) to Benny during the programme, setting the scene for the face-to-face events that were to follow.

This context-setting activity was followed by the Get to know the CEO road show. The team organised four colleague events during June and July. Around 1,500 colleagues at all levels attended. The objective was for Benny to listen to people’s views first hand. These sessions comprised a short presentation followed by a Q&A session.

Finally, a number of editionised electronic publications were issued immediately after each road show to all colleagues based in and around that location. This was done to ensure everyone had the opportunity to “feel” the discussion, whether they had attended the event or not. A wrap-up edition of HBOS Today, the groupwide electronic publication, was sent to all Retail colleagues following the fourth event.

According to Fiona, the first phase of the programme was a huge success: “it quickly established Benny as an approachable, hands-on leader and engaged staff in a meaningful conversation about the business”.

Phase 2 – Delivering for Retail

The second phase began late summer and was about letting colleagues know what the key priorities were for Retail going forward, to establish Benny as the owner of the major actions and increase advocacy of the divisions’ products, service and people initiatives.

A series of promises – for customers and colleagues – were launched to give everyone a framework for the future. Importantly, each promise had a series of specific initiatives behind it to make sure it will be delivered. In line with Benny’s direct communication style, the promises were kept simple, straightforward and relevant to all colleagues.

During September and October nine Delivering for Retail events took place across the UK. Around 7,000 management level colleagues attended. Each event had presentations on the key product, service and colleague initiatives that were planned for the coming months. Presentations were tailored to provide a local element to each event to engage all parts of the business. Importantly, a Q&A session was retained to continue the dialogue with colleagues and the top team. Colleagues at each event were also given a card to take away, detailing the promises.

Once again, an editionised online publication, extra online, was published following each event for colleagues in each location. It covered the promises made, key content and a link to the presentation slides and transcript. A wrap-up publication was sent to all colleagues in Retail following the final event.

Another branded intranet site was created to give colleagues all the information about the events. Prior to events, it included information about logistics. Following events, it held transcripts, presentation slides and feedback. It was designed as a useful resource to help managers deliver key messages to their teams.

Delivering for Retail RoadshowThe key initiatives launched at the Delivering for Retail events were also communicated to all colleagues in Retail on a staggered basis. This was done using a variety of channels. For instance, when the Group’s interim results were announced in August, a dedicated TV programme was produced for Retail. This included highlights from the first six months and an interview with Benny. TV was also used at the end of September to give colleagues across the business a flavour of the management events. Credit card-style handouts summarising the promises announced at the events were given to every attendee. After the final event, they were sent to every colleague along with a message from Benny Higgins.

The final strand of the communication campaign was Benny Online. This was an intranet based ‘conversation’ allowing colleagues to email questions to Benny and get an instant response. Around 300 questions were answered during the three hour session. All questions and responses from Benny were published online for all colleagues to see.

Research

One of the hallmarks of a good internal communication programme is research and evaluation and the team identified early on a number of metrics that would help assess the contribution of communication during this period.

The results were impressive. Research by MORI showed that, between September 2005 and September 2006, employee advocacy increased significantly in a number of areas. Advocacy of HBOS as an employer increased from 56% to 69%, service advocacy from 45% to 53% and product advocacy from 62% to 72%. In addition, employee understanding of the business’s objectives leapt from 69% to 81%.

Feedback from the Delivering for Retail events was also very positive – 90% of delegates rated the events positively. Of these, 63% rated them excellent or very good. HBOS colleagues also gave a big thumbs-up to the range of initiatives announced at the event. 91% were positive about them, with 59% rating them as excellent or very good. Furthermore, 89% of colleagues said they felt more positive about Retail’s prospects having attended.

Secrets of success

So what were the keys to the success? Fiona believes that two factors underpinned the programme:

“Face-to-face was absolutely central and we worked hard to ensure as many employees as possible got to see, hear and meet Benny, regardless of their level or location. That worked incredibly well and got us off to a great start. Intranet, print and TV played a part too, but their role was to support the conversation, not to replace it.”

But Fiona also pinpoints the simplicity of the messages and the campaign’s focus on delivering results:

“This was a straightforward, straight talking campaign focused on delivering tangible results. Colleagues really liked that simplicity.”

Following the success of the programme, it was decided that two further road show tours would be held in 2007. These kick off next month with a series of dedicated events that will report on progress and continue the good work.