📣 Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Liz Soltoff
Communicator who helps companies, leaders and employees perform amid business challenges and changes
I enjoyed talking with Liz Soltoff to learn about her career path. This is her internal communications story.
A self-proclaimed employee advocate, Liz Soltoff has spent two decades helping companies, their leaders and employees thrive amid business transformation and change. Her internal communications career began at a prominent HR communication consulting firm, Liz later went on to manage internal communications teams at leading companies. She has helped organizations inform and rally their people to confront a variety of business challenges. She recently returned to her roots as a consultant, once again focusing on HR communications.
When she is not working, Liz is probably scouting out her next home improvement project. She awaits the day when she and husband Brad can finally take that trip to Sicily, originally scheduled for April 2020.
What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications?
Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to work as a communications consultant focused on HR communications following several years in PR. I welcomed the role as a way to “round out” my communications career and add internal communications to my resume as I aspired towards a future leadership role. I had every intention of returning to PR.
At that time, the whole notion of internal communications was foreign to me. I had never worked for a company that provided effective (or any) internal communications — no town halls, memos from the CEO and annual health insurance enrollment rollout plans. So when I joined the large consulting firm, I suddenly had the chance to work with a variety of respected brands from all industries. When I realized that these companies were spending significant dollars to inform, educate and engage their employees, I was really impressed. These were the leading companies in their respective areas and a prominent client list of highly recognized brands. As a media person, I was really drawn to this opportunity. They believed in their people and wanted to invest in them. I knew then that I wanted to be part of that.
I thought that I would do this for a while to round out my career to learn everything that I could about the field. I certainly did. I learned about delivering a wide variety of HR-focused communications to clients, including compensation and benefits, performance management, on-boarding, even process improvement. I had a lot to learn about HR to be a good HR communicator! But not only did I come to understand the importance of HR to the business, I saw firsthand the way effective communications to employees – those who are closest to the real work – can truly advance company performance. I really enjoyed the employee advocacy. Helping people to understand, value and better utilize the employer programs that supported them and their families. And in turn, those employees are helping the business to grow and succeed.
I learned so much from the major projects that I was a part of, including seeing the inner workings of making a merger work. It’s all about people and being a part of integrating that change was transformative. So, I made my own professional change! I switched to internal communications because I was really impressed by how companies were investing in their people.
What path did you take after your Internal Communications consulting?
Consulting taught me a lot, but I eventually moved to my first corporate HR communications job at a tech spinoff. It was like being at a startup within an established company. I now could see the full view of the company — I had greater access to the inner workings of the organization and could really connect the dots in important ways to broader projects. I realized the importance of integrating HR communications with overall messaging about the company’s strategy and direction.
In a corporate role, as a true insider, I was working as a member of a holistic team focused on meeting real-time business challenges. And I was an employee, so the company’s story was my story, too. I felt the excitement, the uncertainty and the anxiety and would factor those feelings into the overall communications strategy.
I eventually was promoted and responsible for general internal communications at a prominent manufacturing company. Beyond HR, I worked on major transformation efforts – acquisitions, divestitures, spinoffs, organizational redesigns, layoffs, public offerings, activist shareholder response, wellness initiatives, and leadership changes, including a CEO transition. The need to create cohesive, consistent messaging was extremely important given the high visibility of these corporate actions and the long-term impact they would have on the organization and its people.
You recently launched your own consulting practice. What was your position just before you made this transition?
I was at TIAA where I initially worked on Employee Channels Communications. I focused on the delivery of information, this included Intranet re-designs, video Town Halls and email systems to track our communications. We made some major improvements.
Then, I transitioned into Executive Communications where I worked with the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Human Resources Officer and the Chief Legal Officer. I managed all the employee communications within their departments and company-wide. I also was a part of our communications transition during the pandemic with 17,000 employees and how it would impact each of them in different ways.
Over a weekend, we had to quickly figure out how to get people to work from home and decide who were the 400 or so employees whose work required them to be on site. I’m extremely proud of how this was handled as teams around the company worked around the clock instilling calm and confidence. As much as you prepare for a crisis, it’s never the same when you are living it. TIAA really rose to the challenge and took tremendous care of its people during such a frightening and difficult time.
During my six years, the company underwent significant change and continues to evolve to best serve its clients. Transforming a 103-year-old company really reinforced that organizations just can’t stand still and must move ahead in response to technology, regulations and relentless competition. As communicators, we have to be right there on the treadmill with them, keeping up and getting ahead wherever we can to anticipate the needs of employees and the questions they are going to ask.
Now, I’m returning back to my roots, focusing on HR communications, helping clients focus on problem solving and delivering value to their employees. I really enjoy working on communications that promote benefits, compensation, tuition-reimbursement, learning, professional development — the fundamental reasons why people come to work. If people are engaged, informed and understand the value of these components, they can continue to thrive at work and be a part of something essential and important.
How do you describe internal communications to others?
I truly believe that great customer interactions, brand reputation and business performance emerge from well-informed and committed employees. I try to dispel the myth that internal communications is just about spinning a positive message amid bad news. Or that it’s about getting employees to “like” a business decision. I want people, especially leaders I support, to embrace internal communications for the power it can bring to an organization.
The value of internal communications comes from informing, influencing and inspiring employees. Our key role as communicators is to help employees understand why changes are taking place, how it affects them and what comes next. We do that by developing a practical, well-sequenced and well-crafted plan that enables leaders and managers to reinforce the consistent messages so they can invite questions, instill calm, restore confidence and minimize organizational disruption.
It’s also our job to manage employee expectations by providing ongoing information, to help all segments of the population to internalize and eventually accept the decision. That requires us to understand what our audience needs from us, just as we must be clear what the business needs from them. It’s vital that employees trust the message – not simply the words, but the way they are delivered and by whom. Leaders must take accountability for the decision and deliver the information with clarity, empathy and respect.
The best tool we have — it’s not the newsletter, the intranet or email, it’s leaders. It’s arming those leaders and managers to take that message and bring it to employees, personalize it, make it relevant and help people understand the implications. They must share the good, the bad, and the ugly and when there’s not an answer — we say “we’ll get back to you on that.”
People often expect that me and the team will go back into a room and “work our magic.” I know it is meant as a compliment, but it oversimplifies what we do. When the business rationale is strong and the story makes sense, you don’t need magic. You need a strong plan, and that is what we do best. Positive results happen when people feel trusted, believe they too can trust, feel they are a part of the decision and have someone they can go to and ask their questions.
Too often the communications process reveals the program’s disconnects and discrepancies in the planning and details. Words alone cannot resolve that. It’s extremely beneficial when the decision is clear, leaders fully understand the implications and, perhaps most of all, there is agreement among the stakeholders on reasons for change and how to proceed. Absent that, a good communicator will use their influence to drive consensus to bring the facts and details together. Change can be emotional for the leaders, too, and our constructive guidance can help to unify contrasting viewpoints.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
Over more than 20 years, I have faced a multitude of internal communications challenges and worked on several major announcements with significant implications for companies and their people. As I consider what the work has in common, it’s how communications can drive success through people.
Perhaps what I’m most proud of is a program that was not envisioned by communications, but by the CEO almost 10 years ago. He was convinced that mid-level leaders did not have the financial acumen to really interpret how the company was performing and how they could improve. At his request, our team launched a quarterly call with the top managers to benchmark ourselves against a dozen competitors on numerous areas like free cash flow, return on investment capital, operating margin and net promoter scores. Admittedly, the presentation was a lot of very dense numbers and dry terms. I admit I was dubious at first. Anne, a member of the team worked hard to find ways to make the information as compelling as possible.
Each quarter, our Communications team took the data and created a presentation and script to enable the CEO, CFO and head of operations to deliver a live, deep assessment of where we stood against the companies that were vying for our customers. In many of the categories, we began at the bottom quartile in performance.
But the fascinating part was that leaders began to see where we could improve and were armed with data, insight – and a fierce competitive streak — we watched quarter over quarter as the metrics improved. After several quarters, the company had surpassed some of our fiercest rivals! The evidence was bearing out in our earnings too. We continued to beat estimates and the stock price rose.
Winning felt good and it was no accident. When armed with data and insight, leaders could rally their teams to overcome business issues and strengthen company success. When a program is sponsored by the most senior executives, you get greater buy-in. We always knew that our work was important and transformative, but this example proved it with hard facts and the strong correlation with metrics. It was a true representation of what time, data, insights and CEO support can do to bring a company along. What really matters is the substance, the information, that helps the employee understand the impact and how their work matters to it all.
I am gratified by all the work I do. These days, demand for our specialty grows because nearly every company is undergoing significant change. More companies are seeing the power of increased transparency and greater two-way discussion to solve business challenges. Companies are recognizing that employees are central to success and when leaders engage teams in the mission, when people are clear about what you need from them, employees deliver.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?
There’s a lot to what we do. We have people’s livelihood in your hands. It will impact the company and the people for a long time so these are all important:
Great listening skills: Knowing when (or whether) your input is appropriate.
Strong consulting and influencing capabilities to work with business leaders and to develop an effective communications plan and strategy.
Business knowledge: Otherwise, you lose credibility.
Empathy and advocacy for employees: Believing that great customer interactions, brand reputation and business performance rely on well-informed employees who know the end game – and how to get there. And respecting their role and their voice in the company’s success.
Problem-solving and facilitation skills: We aren’t just developing email messaging, intranet stories or executive scripts. We help the business solve real issues and, at times, get everyone clear on how to overcome them.
Resilience and flexibility: The ability to course-correct is essential. Things rarely go as planned. Technology can fail. People can misread their lines. Distribution lists are less than perfect. Leaks happen. Remember, this too shall pass.
Knowing when to let go: If you’re pushing for a webcast and the business leader is adamant to use video, read the room and take the cue. Some things need not be set in stone. Compromise builds trust.
How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications?
I review LinkedIn feeds for tons of insight on what’s new and trending, and the new suppliers in the area of internal communications delivery. There’s so much innovation that is enhancing how we distribute information. I really enjoy networking and talking to others to understand what other companies are up to – not just in their communications, but in their business strategy.
During the past year of this pandemic, I have stayed close to my network of communicators and former colleagues to watch and learn about companies and their quick and responsible action. This pandemic had a major impact on how we work, where we work, what we prioritize. And based on my own limited and unscientific research, I am proud of the way companies have risen to this global challenge by putting their people first.
So I never did go back to media relations! Now that I am on my own providing internal communications consulting, I look forward to working with an array of companies that face various market and workplace challenges. Chances are I have helped address similar issues and would love to provide support, insight and advice to those who may need it!