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SAIT Polytechnic’s Irene Lewis on the leader’s role in corporate communications

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Miri Zena McDonald attended the 2012 International Association of Business Communicators World Conference in Chicago and is providing coverage for SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership. She tweets @mirimcdonald.

The IABC World Conference this week heard from the winner of the IABC 2012 Excellence in Communication Leadership (EXCEL) Award, Irene Lewis, president and CEO of SAIT Polytechnic, Canada’s first publicly funded polytechnic institute.

No stranger to recognition, Lewis was named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women in 2010. She discussed the transformation of SAIT under her leadership from a “trade school on the hill” in crumbling disrepair with a disengaged workforce to a majestic, award-winning institution that is globally recognized and has received accolades as a top employer in Canada.

Lewis credited communications as a key part of that transformation, emphasizing the role of the CEO in carrying that out. The best things a leader can do are:

  • Listen closely and look people in eye.
  • Be authentic and lead from the heart.
  • Tell and reinforce the organization’s story.
  • Acknowledge hard work, never forget to say thanks and give credit where it’s due.

She challenged audience members to create communications structures that help leaders make authentic personal connections and establish relationships. She did this when she arrived at SAIT, when trust was at an all-time low. She called it her “conversation, connection and collaboration” stage, asking employees three simple questions:

  • What’s working well?
  • What’s not working well?
  • How can we fix it?

She read every reply and set up discussion groups, creating a springboard for an employee engagement and participation program that helped define company culture. SAIT compares itself against its own progress and that of other organizations using a survey administered by The Hay Group.

After dismal scores the first time around, SAIT is now at or above the public-sector norm with communications in the best practices category. Lewis credits the success to requiring all departments to submit a plan that addresses weaknesses, is linked to compensation and comes with a commitment to communicate those plans widely.

Lewis says the biggest gains from corporate communications came in 2005, when she separated communications and marketing, as  she had yet to see an organization that does both well when they are combined.

Today, SAIT corporate communications’ role is to:

  • Provide leadership in telling the SAIT story.
  • Safeguard the SAIT reputation.
  • Put a face and heart to the organizations’ leadership.
  • Tell the employees where SAIT is going and how they expect to get there and how employees can help.
  • Recognize organizational and individual accomplishments.

SAIT Communications carries out this role using vehicles such as creative videos and events, a world-class intranet  and an ice cream party where the leaders serve up scoops.

The SAIT communications department is able to do this and more because they’ve earned the trust of leadership. As part of earning this trust, Lewis provide resources and makes herself available to carry out communications. The SAIT leadership team willingly participates in innovative communications — including zany things such as parody videos — and they do these things because the communications are authentic and from the heart.

In Lewis’ words, “Employees don’t care what you have to say until they know you care.”