Andrew Blotky on Communications as Relationship Building
Mixing Board Studio Session
It was announced last week that Andrew is joining Johnson & Johnson as a vice president of communications focused on global employee engagement and communications. Andrew joins J&J with decades of experience as a consultant, coach, internal communications expert and communicator in high-level Washington, DC policy circles.
Andrew is the founder Azure Leadership Group, a consultancy focused on helping fast-growing organizations develop leaders, strong cultures and clear communications.
From 2013 to 2018, he built and led Facebook’s global internal communications function as the company grew from 5,000 to 35,000 employees. His work focused on telling Facebook’s story to a rapidly-growing, global employee population and scaling the company culture from on-boarding through the entire employee experience.
Before joining Facebook, Andrew spent several years working on policy issues and started his professional life working in the White House Speechwriting Office in the Clinton Administration and later led communications teams in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. He is also the author of Honestly Speaking: How The Way We Communicate Transforms Leadership, Love, And Life.
In this Studio Session, Andrew and Mixing Board Founder Sean Garrett talk about why it’s important to create regular opportunities for leaders to interface and engage with employees in a genuine human way, how to help employees prioritize and find information quickly, and why you need to hire for internal comms as soon as you can.
SG: I’d love to hear about the transition you made from working in politics in DC and then finding yourself as the first person doing internal comms at Facebook. How did you get from there to there? What did it feel being plopped into that strange place and with this very large, but also probably relatively obtuse, remit?
AB: Obtuse is the right word. This is a good example of how the best networking in life is done when you’re not actually looking for something. I was in San Francisco for my old job speaking at a law conference.
While I was in town I was like, “Okay, who do I know? Who can I network with and catch up with?” In the course of one of those conversations, I had made it clear that I was open to coming back to California at some point. This person connected me with the guy who ended up hiring me at Facebook, who was somebody that I had worked with on the Hill in the Senate 10 years before. I reached out to him to say, “Hey, I wanted to pick your brain on leaving politics and going into work in tech,” and he was like, “Of course I remember you. I actually have a job I want to talk to you about.” Literally the next day, I drove down to Facebook and met with him and met with his boss and it happened very quickly. It was the right moment, right time.
They liked that I hadn’t done pure internal communications at a lot of different other companies. They wanted somebody who had thought about it in a different way and really focused on the audience — your connection, your constituency. Which is entirely what you have to do when you’re in politics. If you work on the Hill, you know that members of Congress are really focused on their constituents.
It’s really informed how I think about employee communications in particular, but really communications in general. You’ve got to know who your audience is and you’ve got to try to build some connection there. That guiding principle is what has helped me navigate through lots of different types of contexts, because that’s the one major through line. I view communications as relationship building, rather than just messaging or the channels that you use.
SG: To go back in time to 2013 when you joined Facebook, you and I know this but maybe people forget, internal communications was not seen as the hottest job 10 years ago. Did you see it as your leg into Facebook? Or did you see a lot of opportunity with the role?
AB: Many companies have had to rethink the discipline of internal communications and how important it is. It’s more important and more valued now than it ever has been. At the time, I was viewing it as, “Oh, this is a really cool opportunity to exercise some skills that I have in communications, but to get into a different environment and come into an organization whose mission I really believed in.” Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO and COO at the time, were both very interested in and committed to employees. They cared about employees a lot.
From the beginning, the senior leaders of the company really did care and saw value in it. I never felt like I had to argue for influence or argue for why it mattered. Ironically, I did have to make more of an argument to some of the people on my own communications team. In some ways, it may have been because it’s harder to measure the impact. And I started as a team of one. I had to make the argument about how to build, grow, and resource adequately against the rapid amount of employee growth, user growth, revenue growth at the company. I was always trying to balance not being purely reactive, but being more affirmative and telling more of a proactive story for employees about why they should stay there.
It was unique, even at that time, in terms of the senior-most leadership of the company. Without exception, I found that they cared about what employees thought. I never had a problem getting an email returned or getting on somebody’s calendar. It’s actually a good example for many companies — even if you don’t have a huge amount of resources, the amount of attention and care that leaders give to this, is important. That’s at least half of the awakening that so many people have had. They may not even be hiring more people, some companies are, but many leaders are awoken to how important this function is.
SG: Internal communications used to be this thing where it was a broadcast medium out to employees. As more savvy organizations start integrating and hiring people like you, it became more of a listening device. What changed at Facebook as you were able to build this out and implement it?
AB: It was a mix of behavior and tools. We used Facebook at Facebook for Facebook. The whole platform was about giving more people a voice and allowing and encouraging more conversation. It ended up forming the entire basis for what they now call Workplace, the product that many companies now use internally. But there was the idea to use the platform to encourage conversation, but also to almost train people on how to do that in a productive way. Because many people do it in a very non-productive way.
I would rather be in an organization where there are lots of voices and conversation, than where there’s so much apathy that people don’t engage at all. The worst is when people see something going wrong, and they’re silent. There’s silence all the way down and then the company implodes. I’d much rather have a robust conversation. That conversation was just really baked into the ethos, both of the platform and product, but also how the organization evolved.
We tried to help people discern the voice of truth — what’s the information that you should be spending time paying attention to and engaging with in a world of so much information, so many voices, and so much noise.
SG: And obviously there are so many different things Facebook is dealing with around the world at any given moment, right?
AB: Yes, internally and externally. Any company who has thousands of Slack channels, employees have a hard time telling, “What do I pay attention to? What do I not?” They get overwhelmed and they shut down. So we want to try to help people think about, “Well, what do you really need to pay attention to?” If you only hear these three things, here’s who you need to listen to, or here’s what you need to dial in for. We helped people prioritize information and figure out where to get it. That was one of the biggest things we did.
We also tried to help people understand how their every day work related to the broader mission of the company. We did a whole bunch of initiatives around that storytelling. We wanted to make sure people understood that even though times are good, there also may be times when things aren’t as good. You need to be able to fall back on, “Why am I here? What is it that really motivates me to wake up every day and slog through even when times are tough?” People need to feel like they’re contributing, that there’s some meaning behind their work, and that they’re doing work that plays to their own strengths.
SG: You walked in the door at Facebook and you had some colleagues in the communications team that were a bit circumspect about the role of internal comms. That obviously evolved over time. But what happened down the line as you were able to integrate what you were doing with the overall holistic communications efforts?
AB: When I was an early leader of the team, one of the things that I didn’t do very well was promote the work of my own team. That was one of my biggest learnings, making sure people are really aware of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. I assumed the results speak for themselves and just did the work. But when you’re in an internal function like employee engagement, any culture related role, you inherently touch every team and every organization in the company. Whereas a lot of communications teams are organized in a more vertical way. They have a specific area, they’ve got a specific executive or set of executives that they support. For me, I was trying to build relationships with all of them. It was about helping people to see that I wasn’t trying to take anything away from them, I was trying to be additive. The more I could help bring people along and show them what we were doing, the better.
That really helped over time. Early on, when the company was small, it was relatively easy. We all sat in the same little pod and we all knew each other. But as the company grew the team became more scattered and I was traveling a lot more. I wasn’t even at my desk some days because I was out with different employees and different teams. It was harder for people to see and understand what we were doing.
For these roles where sometimes it’s hard to measure and demonstrate results in a concrete way, it’s important to make sure that you’re bringing people along with you so that they know what you’re doing and they see the value in it. When there’s a crisis and things go wrong, all of a sudden people see the value in it. But you don’t want to wait to get to that point. You’ve got to do the work in the beginning to help people see.
SG: In 2016, right after the elections, there was lots of noise about Facebook externally. People were pulling out threads from employees and posting them in news articles, all hands meetings were leaking and broadcast to the entire world. What did you learn through those times? Are there lessons you can apply to your average other company? Or was that just purely a Facebook moment-in-time thing?
AB: Some of the things that Facebook was dealing with and some of the things that Facebook enabled are unique, in terms of the impact and scale that they’ve had on our world. That is both a positive and a negative. So many great things have happened because of Facebook, like facilitating organ donations, charitable donations, and significantly, people feeling they have a voice on a variety of social issues — people that didn’t feel they had one before. But given the scale of impact, there’s also been misinformation around many important issues, not the least of which is COVID-19. And so much more — the impact is just huge. What I learned was the importance of always having regular opportunities for leaders to be in front of employees and to be in constant conversation with them. You’re not waiting until there’s something wrong to be like, “Oh my god, what do we do?” Because then it both feels artificial to the employee and it’s harder for the leader to feel comfortable and confident, and answering questions in an organized, open, honest way.
It’s really important to always having regular venues and opportunities for leaders to be engaged, to be able to share — here’s what’s going on, here’s what went wrong, here’s what we think, here’s what we’re changing, here’s this new thing that we’re rolling out that we’re excited about, come ask us questions. That’s one thing that even predated me, there was already a system in place, we used to call them FYI Lives. We really doubled down on them the whole time I was there and it was 100% the right thing to do. I’m so grateful that when things went bad, we had that to fall back on.
SG: You already had the muscle memory, you had already built it up. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, we have to go do this thing. We’ve never done this before.”
AB: After Donald Trump was elected and inaugurated, he instituted the Muslim ban — that was so hard for so many companies who had a global employee base. It affected Facebook too, because Facebook was an organization of people who really cared. The group of people who work there are very empathetic, kind people — it’s why I worked there for so long. It really personally affected people.
When that happened, we started doing some of these more open conversations, these “listening forums.” Senior leaders at the company would go and they didn’t have a speaking role. It was not their job to speak and it was not their job to solve the challenge. Instead, let’s really listen and help people understand what it actually feels like to be a Muslim employee at this company. Building that muscle memory was really valuable because when it comes to things like Black Lives Matter, it helps everyone to feel a little bit more comfortable talking about, listening about, and engaging with the real issues around DEI.
With DEI, we often talk about programming and numbers often, but you also have to talk about how it actually feels to people of color, to people who are from different areas of the world, different minorities, different genders. That’s really what matters, is how people feel. Helping leaders get comfortable being in the discomfort of those conversations is so important. I do not claim sole credit for it at Facebook, but I’m so grateful to have been a part of that work. When George Floyd’s murder happened a couple of years ago, I was working as a consultant with lots of different leaders, and it made me realize that Facebook was miles ahead on the ability to have these conversations and to listen with empathy and genuine curiosity.
SG: Focusing on that listening, that human connection, the relationships versus, what’s the right messaging. You wrote a book, Honestly Speaking, on this. Can you share a little bit about the thesis of the book, the research behind the book, and how that shapes your perspective now?
AB: The thesis is that communication is far more about the relationships we build than the words we speak. It’s about connecting, it’s about knowing your audience, it’s about trying to meet your audience where they are — whether it’s a person or a thousand people. It’s about trying to get maximal overlap between your understanding of the world and my understanding of the world. If you’re writing a press release or you’re having a conversation with your spouse about taking the garbage out, the root of the communication is the same. How do I maximize the overlap between our understandings?
The reason why I called it Honestly Speaking is because it first requires you to be honest with yourself around what is really motivating me. What do I really want this person or this group of people to know, or to feel, or to do? I wrote the book partly because I’d read lots of books on communications and I hadn’t seen any that really linked personal life and professional life in that way. I always felt like people were thinking about communication in terms of performance or presentation rather than just genuine connection. When you build that connection, it becomes far easier for you to find the right words and to communicate in a more human way, because you’re just having a conversation.
A lot of that was based on the work I did at Facebook, but also from when I worked in politics and with a variety of the clients I’ve had in more recent years. People, voters, constituents can tell when somebody’s being disingenuous or when a politician is not being real. Especially now. We didn’t have Twitter when I worked on the Hill, but Twitter is one of the main ways that members of Congress communicate with the media and with their constituents. People can still read between the lines and figure out if it’s real, or if it wasn’t written by them, and was written by somebody on their team. It’s all about how you build some sense of confidence enough in yourself to just be who you authentically are. That’s what people really resonate with.
SG: And who a company authentically is too, right? That’s my big finding in the last decade. Every company who has friction, who can’t get their message out, or doesn’t feel authentic — so much of it is because people are trying to paper over something. They’re trying to avoid those relationships and those conversations. They’re playing a corporate game where they’re pressing the right buttons, but they’re not having the right conversations. You get closer to this than almost anyone I know, in terms of institutionalizing this in your consulting work, but the role of a great communicator in-house is also the role of a family therapist. And it’s because you are touching every single element of the organization and you’re trying to get people to talk to each other and to connect. Once you can do that, you can build on top of it, but if you don’t do that, then everything’s going to fall apart.
AB: I agree. I used to have leaders come to me and say, “Hey, I’m having a hard time communicating about this. I don’t know how to talk about it.” I’m like, “Well, what’s the it?” We would have to work through the issue and then we can figure out how to talk about it. It’ll be far easier for you to find the words, to know the when and the channel if you have sorted out your issue first.
It’s one of the reasons why I started adding in a lot of coaching work to the work that I do now. I went and got a coaching certification, because I wanted to get a little more robust training in how to do this in a thoughtful way, because it’s 100% like therapy. One of my early comms mentors said to me — the comms person doesn’t always make the decision, but we force the decision to get made. We get the right people into the room.
SG: For companies who don’t have the resources of Facebook, which is pretty much everybody, how would you coach them in how they would build out their internal comms functions? What’s the one-foot-in-front-of-the other process?
AB: Even at Facebook, it started as a team of one. I had to make arguments for resources. For a long time, the team was relatively understaffed for what we were supporting. That’s very common at a lot of companies. As early as you possibly can, hire someone whose job it is to focus on this. Doesn’t have to be the most senior person, but you need somebody who is a point person and who has both a responsibility and a sense of ownership for this. It can’t just be an afterthought. Because usually by the time you realize, it’s going to be too late. Even if it’s just one person.
I would ideally have someone who is not only a really good culture carrier, but somebody who also has some communications experience. And there are all sorts of models around where to actually situate this within the organization — that is more specific to the organization than anything else. It matters actually far less than having somebody who’s really good at building relationships and who’s got really good judgment. As early as possible, like when you’ve got five people or more, you need to start investing in this. Culture does not create itself. And what happens instead, is people start forming narratives in their own heads about what’s going on. I would rather have us be in charge of telling the narrative than people writing it for us in their own different ways.
SG: When you make the leap from 5 people to 12 people, which can happen instantly, it’s remarkable how diffused things can get. And equally remarkable when the founders realize that everything in their head is not just magically in everyone else’s head. Every founder is surprised by that at a certain point. And it’s because no one is facilitating a conversation among people like, “Hey, do we get this? Is this aligned with what we want to do in our mission? This shortcut over here, should we take it?” At that early stage, there’s often not someone who’s making sure we’re living by the principles we set out to do. And that early stage can be even more critical than other stages down the road, because that’s where stuff gets baked in.
AB: Facilitating conversations is so important. And you’re right, things get baked in. The longer you wait, the far harder it is to change. A lot of times, these things happen in very unintentional ways. It might just be the CEO’s proclivity, it might just be a habit that she has. But you want to be really intentional because it becomes really hard to change. People will come into the organization when it’s 12 or 50 people and they’ll start observing behaviors and they’ll assume that’s how it’s supposed to be. It magnifies and compounds really quickly. The next thing you know, we’re 100+ people and we never wanted it to be this way. We need to change.
Being really intentional in the beginning is important. One way that you can do this, even if you can’t hire a person, is to go through a values exercises. Figure out what your operating principles are, or whatever you want to call them. A lot of companies don’t think it’s a worthwhile exercise, but it’s one of the most important things that you can do, especially at an early stage company. Because then people know how to behave within the organization. They know how to make decisions when the answer isn’t really obvious or easy.
SG: Is there a non-negotiable one that everyone needs to do? Because there are so many different processes that organizations go through — some do a values-focused thing that’s bottoms up, some do a mission that’s top down, there’s a north star, there’s all sorts of different permutations of this. Does it matter what they do or does it just matter that they go through that conversation?
AB: It matters more that they just have the conversation. No company should be a company unless it knows what its mission is. Everybody should know what the mission is. The values or operating principles conversation is really important because in their best form, they guide action. They tell people how to act, how to behave, and what to do. It’s not like, “be a family.” It’s something that people understand and that directs them into some sort of action.
SG: In the spectrum of top down to bottoms up, where do you sit?
AB: That’s hard. My inclination is top down, especially if it’s an earlier stage company. Most of the time, people come into organizations and they want to be told, how am I supposed to act? How am I supposed to behave? What’s expected of me? It’s almost unfair to put that on somebody new walking into the organization, because they’re going to bring their own biases, baggage, or conditioning. So my sense is that top down is a better way to do it. There are processes that you can run to make sure that people feel bought in and included in the process and that’s 100% important. That’s good internal comms practice 101. But in terms of making a decision about what they are, it’s better when it’s top down.
SG: We are at this unique point where lots of power, especially in the tech industry, has been given to employees over the last 10 years. If I’m reading my tweets correctly, some would suggest too much power. Given the economic cycle, we’re also at a place where companies are laying off employees. It’s certainly not the first time it’s happened. What’s your take on where we are right now? How can smart leaders imbue this relationship level of communications to these harder times where you have layoffs, cutting back, maybe even companies shutting down?
AB: I feel for everybody who has been affected by layoffs at many of these companies — my heart goes out to people. I also have total faith that people will end up on their feet and ultimately will be in a fine place. The companies that do this best are the companies that are as direct and transparent as possible. They also maybe go a little deeper than they think they need to, because you don’t want to keep doing it in dribs and drabs. The worst is when you have to keep doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it. That’s less of a communications practice and more of just a leadership question. If you’ve got to do it, be really clear about why you’re doing it and assume some responsibility for it.
It also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when everybody says, “Oh my God, we’re going to be in a recession. It’s a slowdown. It’s a slowdown,” It becomes hysteria. People panic and it creates an environment that is very stressful for people, which then clouds your ability to see clearly. It makes people more prone to misunderstanding and miscommunication. So make sure that you’re thinking as clearly as you can. This is another way that comms leaders can be therapists, leaders, and just really good company stewards. Are we really thinking about this in a clear, sober way? Is this really what’s in the best interest of the company?
But in terms of good comms practice, you have to be transparent. Leaders assume ownership when they’re clear, and when they put the feelings of employees first. The employees who are laid off, but also for all the people who are left afterward. Because the whole experience is traumatic for people. Their jobs are changing in a moment. They are taking on three times as much work. They have different teams, maybe a new manager. Then they’re worried and thinking, “Oh my god, that could have been me. Is it going to be me in two months or are they going to do this again?” You have to show as much care and empathy as you possibly can.
SG: What about on the CEO level? You see a lot of communications from executives now along the lines of, “This is all my fault. I hired too much. Blame it on me. The buck stops here.” The cynical part of me is like, okay, this is performative self-blaming stuff — you never talked like that before, but you talk like that now because you think that’s the right play. How would you counsel executives who look at Brian Chesky or Patrick Collison and say, “Well, I’m just going to cut and paste these messages. They seem to work.” Is that smart or is there another path?
AB: I’ve never met Brian Chesky but I’ve followed him over time. He is a really good example of how to do this in a human way because that is who he is. Every interview I’ve heard, every conversation I’ve heard (and I’ve heard many), even people who have worked directly for him, they all say that is who he is. It feels authentic. So if that’s not who you are, don’t say that. Don’t be that. In moments of trauma especially, people want genuineness. They want connection, they want humanness. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not. Be who you are.
You can still be direct, you can still be transparent, you can still talk about why, you can still assume ownership. But you don’t need to fall on the sword and make it over the top. Because it makes it worse, it makes it seem like you’re papering over something. This is why it’s so important to invest in this stuff early and often, so that you’re not waiting until the last minute to do this. You have to invest resource-wise but also you have to create regular opportunities along the way for you to interface and engage with employees in a human way so they build a relationship with you, they’ve built some kind of connection with you over time. They’re like, “Oh yeah, that sounds more or less like Andrew,” or, “That sounds like Brian,” or whoever.
SG: So much has changed in internal comms since you joined Facebook 10 years ago. How will it change in the future?
AB: A lot of companies are still struggling with, “Are we in person? Are we not?” People are more disconnected than ever. The question of polarization and misinformation in our broader ecosystem and broader political system is only going to get worse before it gets better. All of that is absolutely going to affect the way that employees expect to be engaged with. The whole idea that tech employees have too much power, well in all sorts of companies that aren’t tech companies, employees are unionizing. They’re loud, they expect their voices to be heard. It isn’t just tech. That’s only going to continue for the next 10 years.
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