Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Nicole Neal
Director, Global Employee Communications at Cushman & Wakefield
I enjoyed talking with Nicole Neal to learn about her career path. This is her internal communications story.
Nicole Neal can’t help but jump in to resolve a communications or business challenge. Nicole leverages her corporate communications and brand-building expertise to help brands and executives shape their most important conversations and make authentic connections with their audiences both internal and external to the organization. She is a business storyteller and communications strategist, currently serving as Director of Global Employee Communications for the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications?
For the majority of my career, I was on the public relations and brand side of communications. I worked at agencies and focused on several consumer-facing projects, but I had very little exposure to internal communications.
Once I entered corporate communications, that opened a whole new world of opportunities. My very first corporate role was at McDonald's where my primary focus was on brand programming focused on Black consumers and also Asian-American consumers living in the US. While I worked on external facing communications, this required a great deal of internal stakeholder management, especially with franchisees.
Working with franchisees gave me a greater understanding of how critical it is to orchestrate business messaging among impacted stakeholders. I noticed that some of our executives had a difficult time adapting their messages to the franchisee audience, and in my relationships with franchisees I found myself more and more curious about the business. I really wanted to understand what was happening from the franchisee point of view. I believe that communication should be two way, and I would circle back with my internal communications colleagues to share ways we could be more effective in translating our company messages to this critical audience. Not fully internal communications, but close to it.
I found myself much more interested in how we messaged our business decisions within the company than how we talked to customers externally, which led me to explore new roles in the company. I transitioned into field communications, where I moved from primarily PR roles into internal and executive communications, eventually moving back to headquarters. I started in brand and multicultural PR and wrapped up my 10 years at McDonald’s leading internal communications for two top executives overseeing the U.S. regions and their brand growth. It was an incredible experience.
How do you describe internal communications to others?
My role is to make context of the organization's business—the work that we do and the environment that we are working in and make these experiences come alive for employees. I help every employee see themselves as part of the ecosystem of the business.
I credit my multicultural PR and marketing background with giving me the skill sets to be able to take that audience-centered approach, to leverage communications to address audience nuances and create meaning for the various audiences that make up our company. You never know how components of your career are going to be channeled into your future roles, so it's really nice when you get to see it come alive like this.
At the end of the day, if you look at any business and its entirety, it's a bit chaotic and internal communications allows us to channel that chaos into a beautiful story of the organization and its ability to survive and thrive because of its people.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
I’m going to choose a recent project since there are so many from throughout my career. Currently, I serve as the communications partner for both the Chief People Officer and the Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer. DEI is a new department to the organization in an industry where DEI has been elusive as a practice.
While so much is happening outside of the company, we are working to shift the culture internally and to demonstrate our commitment both internally and externally. It's about what we do for our colleagues and how we show up as a business. We’re being very agile in our approach.
When the Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer started, we wanted to ensure that she was approachable since this is a mysterious function to many and is attached to a number of volatile social issues. Since she joined, we’ve focused on educating the company about what DEI means, she's participated in a number of town halls across our organization to make DEI feel accessible and doable. She's a voice within the industry which is hungry for a perspective on diversity in commercial real estate. We're building a movement from the ground up in the organization, which is a really incredible experience.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?
I would say there are three skills that are very critical. To begin, it’s all about listening. There is always a lot of information flowing within an organization and more often than not communicators are called on to help connect the dots. From my perspective, we have to listen for the connectivity across the many work streams that are happening within the company in order for us to be effective in our roles.
Storytelling is the second important skill set I want to emphasize. I encourage internal communications professionals to think like journalists because our role is about finding the story. It’s more than being able to write, it's about giving people reasons to care and sparking thoughts and behaviors that will benefit the organization.
We can push out information all day long and not tell a story. I'm always asking how we are connecting the dots for employees so that they feel like they are on a journey with the organization. Storytelling is even more critical when we have a number of stories happening over a span of time. It's a long-haul point of view when you're in internal communications, so that we're telling the story across multiple chapters with many characters in many situations.
The third skill is courage. One of my former leaders at McDonald's talked about communicators being the conscience of the organization. We need to have courage to stand up for what we believe is the right thing to do and encourage our companies to be accountable, sensitive and brave when making difficult decisions, especially when it comes to employees. I see this a great responsibility especially in the DEI communications space.
When you remember that your business is comprised of employees who are people, you open yourself up to many different types of communications. These days that shows up in difficult conversations around when and how to respond as an organization to social justice issues. It takes courage to raise these issues for discussion and stand by your decisions when you make them. It definitely takes more courage to keep going when not everyone will agree with what you say and how you say it, but it's your integrity at the end of the day.
How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications?
I embrace learning and listening to all different topics around leadership. I read and listen to anything that helps me understand people and emotional decision-making even better.
I really prefer smaller conferences, like the Marcus Evans conferences. I've also been fortunate to be in a few peer sharing environments. I’m currently part of a private peer group with women of color in internal communications. We meet monthly around hot topics and share our learnings of how we're handling situations. Another peer group is comprised of local Chicago area professionals. It’s great because I know that I'm interacting with top-notch professionals who are really all just willing to share the great work that they're doing and to learn from others.
I also learn a lot from new-in-career professionals. While I'm able to mentor them at some level because of my experience, I also believe in reverse mentoring - I believe there’s a lot they can teach me. They’ve entered the field with new resources and experiences that I find so inspiring.