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UBS’s Kraleigh Woodford, on communicating during times of difficult change

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This guest post is by Miri Zena McDonald, a strategic communications consultant. She is passionate about employee engagement, corporate culture, and the use of social media to drive internal communications. Miri tweets at @miri_orgchange. This week, she’s reporting live from Marcus Evans 6th Annual Employee Engagement and Internal Communications Conference in Orlando.

UBS, a multinational financial services firm, experienced some tough times over the past few years, including loss of billions of dollars, changes in top leadership, employee layoffs, as well as a multibillion-dollar U.S. tax evasion scandal, according to Kraleigh Woodford, head of employee communications for UBS.

An employee survey found that morale declined and satisfaction plummeted. In particular, nearly half of employees were dissatisfied with the availability, timeliness, and understandability of information. Employees also said they learned more about the company’s issues from media than from internal communications efforts.

In response, UBS developed a simple yet effective strategy to focus internal communications around three key areas, Woodford said:

  • Real time updates on issues: UBS created a new channel on the employee intranet featuring topical pages with comprehensive information on issues and topics on the minds of employees and clients. This channel included a media watch to provide a summary of all UBS and industry-related headlines.
  • Helping employees tell the UBS story: UBS developed timely materials to help employees feel informed to respond to concerns and questions on topics such as strength of the firm and safety of assets. Created corresponding letters to enhance these tools.
  • Leadership: The company prioritized CEO communications and maximized effective use of the CEO as the spokesperson. They focused on visibility, transparency and trust.
    • Visibility: The CEO was more present than ever before, conducting more than 25 all employee calls between April – July 2008 placing an equal emphasis on both the field and home office.
    • Transparency: The CEO tackled all issues head on. He was OK saying “I don’t know” and pushed boundaries to ensure employees were informed on sensitive issues.
    • Trust: The CEO actively encouraged dialogue by conducting Q&A sessions during all events. They also created a blog.

USB learned four important lessons during this process , Woodford said:

  • When you think there is nothing to say, this is when you should communicate the most. If you ignore it, people think you are hiding something. Get out in front of it.
  • Flexibility is key. You need to be nimble enough to change your approach quickly. Employees are different and you need to use all channels available.
  • Every employee is an ambassador for the firm. Don’t stop at the leader level. Make sure employees are armed with needed information.
  • You know what your employees need, so don’t be afraid to push back. Be their advocate with leaders to make sure their concerns are addressed.

This whole process changed how UBS talks about their business, Woodford said. The company branded the challenge as “Our Renewal” including a clear vision to be the best wealth management firm in the Americas and a future focused view. To gather employee feedback, UBS established an employee advisory council, among other tools.

Woodford said if she could do it all over again, she would be more proactive and anticipate employee needs. “You know what’s wrong. Don’t wait too long.” She also said she would remember to talk about the good. In the middle of pain, it’s easy to forget how to talk about the positive.