🔖 Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Sean Langston, Jr.
Internal Communications, Reddit
I enjoyed talking with Sean Langston, Jr. to learn about his career path. This is his internal communications story
A Washington D.C. native and now a San Francisco bay area-er, Sean spent most of his upbringing in the suburbs of North Carolina. He was recently hired at Reddit to lead internal communications as the company aggressively scales and expands internationally. Having spent the past 10 years submerged in all things organizational communications, he calls it a passion and a hobby more than a career. He's partnered closely with c-suite executives and senior leaders to build and scale organizational communications programs at companies like Autodesk, Glassdoor, A.P. Moller-Maersk, PayPal, and eBay. Sean employs a purpose-driven approach to building the communications muscle in organizations earlier in their journey and embeds a deep storytelling culture within those that are further along.
Beyond his work with large, public enterprises, he's also advised ed-tech startup Betabox, an OOH advertising startup, marketing agencies, food and health brands, and e-commerce consumer goods shops. He’s passionate about helping founders grow their businesses.
Sean earned his B.A. in Organizational Communication from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. When he's not entrenched in all things communications, he's devoted to mentoring young, aspiring technologists from marginalized communities. You'll also find him reading, going to concerts, searching for top-rated restaurants and coffee shops, or intensely researching the wonders of space.
What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications?
Friends, family, and teachers always pointed me towards math and science, especially since those were the strengths on my report cards. I didn’t necessarily thrive in subjects like Social Studies and English, so it’s no surprise that during my college search, I started by looking at engineering schools. I was interested in industrial engineering, in particular. After a few semesters, I came to terms with not really liking the work or the projects—I wasn’t fond of coding or solving complex equations. There just wasn’t a spark for me.
This experience forced me to take a step back and ask myself what I did like. Surprisingly, I found my passion in connecting the people and the projects. I spent more time talking to the engineering students and learning about their projects, passions, and skill sets than I actually did studying with them. Fast forward three semesters, and this passion landed me in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences where I majored in Communications with a focus in public relations and organizational communications.
Once there, I absolutely lit up. These were people, projects, and conversations that connected what I was learning in engineering to the world, organizations, consumers, and the future. One of my professors, Dr. Melissa Johnson, assigned us the most amazing case studies that introduced us to real problems, opportunities, and challenges that companies faced. I kept thinking it's cool to be on the external-facing side of these communications, but wouldn’t it be even cooler to be there before this challenge happened? How could I help limit risk from the beginning so we wouldn't even have these case studies? Pondering this kept me up at night. I also had another impactful professor, the legendary Dean Phillips, who really challenged us to sit down and talk with people. We would engage in mock interviews where we simulated talks with journalists, employers, and all types of personas. This revealed an interest I had in persuading people when the stakes were high.
This all is what grew my passion for internal communications. And believe it or not, it wasn't popular with my classmates, and it is still a very new field to most today. But I loved it and kicked off my career at eBay/PayPal as an intern and then I was brought on full-time, taking internal comms all the way since then.
How do you describe internal communications to others?
It is really an abstract role and practice. I liken it to traffic control in a busy metropolitan city. There’s thousands of streets with so many routes you can go down anytime. Then there's people on bikes, in cars, and walking on-foot. There's the need for any organization to take all of those roads and all those decision trees and layer it down to a few for their employees. It’s directing this whole city of people with different minds, biases, skills, and driving levels towards a few roads and getting them all to the same destination by a certain time — that's what success looks like in internal comms, when you’re thinking about impacting the bottom line.
Here’s more on this traffic control metaphor. In my role, I'm the guy who is putting up a billboard to show you that you’re on the right path. I'm shining the beacon into the sky before the trip even starts, pointing out the “North Star” to keep employees focused. I partner with leaders to do that, by the way. On your drive, I'm closely monitoring and emphasizing the colors of all the stoplights, whether green, yellow, or red. I'm monitoring and reporting on accidents that unfortunately may happen while people are trying to get to the end of the trip.
I'm evaluating the different speed limits and helping everyone understand the roadblocks and detours to navigate most efficiently. Sometimes they have to stop and get gas or food, but I have to keep them informed and inspired to get back on the path! I think you get the point, but that’s how you can think about it all—I’m always considering the fundamental diversity of an organization and how I may best embed a seemingly native experience of direction-setting, clarification, and celebration to get “citizens of an organization’s town” to one destination.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
The project was called #MyWhy. It was an internal communications campaign I drove that aligns well to something close to my heart—being purpose-driven in everything you do. It’s important for anyone who’s a part of an organization to be able to answer these two questions: what are you doing here and why does it matter? Being able to reflect on and answer those questions at any time is core to the health of an organization and the focus, productivity, and fulfillment of an employee.
The #MyWhy campaign was spurred by an opportunity to connect the organization’s values, goals, and vision to tactical outcomes that would drive the business forward. It was intended to improve alignment in a diverse, distributed organization that had changed in so many ways over time. This was an opportunity to get everyone marching along to one drumbeat and towards one North Star.
I partnered closely with the Executives to frame the campaign by our three anchors. From there, it was a cascading and engagement exercise. I strengthened the storytelling muscle to help leaders lean into that with hands-on training. Once we had the highest level of the organization's executives articulate their personal ‘why,’ we then brought it to the next level with an offsite where we tasked everyone with articulating and drafting a vision for their specific team’s ‘why’ and their personal ‘why.’ It was really a “train the trainer” model.
Enabling and empowering that extended leadership cohort to go back to their teams after the offsite with ‘why’ they were excited about the mission and inviting their employees to articulate the same was a really special moment where it all intersected. They were given the latitude to do it in a few creative ways that felt most comfortable to them, creating a storytelling flywheel.
The results were really magical hearing people talk about why they're at the company and why they're in their specific organization and working on any specific project. I was also selfishly excited that it created evergreen content for repurposing inside the business. It also doubled as content that could be used for external communications efforts like employer branding, recruiting, and social media employee stories. It was an exciting project to be a part of.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?
I feel like this is one of the most important questions to show up so far and important to ask when thinking about how to continue evolving and learning as an internal communicator.
I’ll start with flexibility—to be nimble and agile is critical to success. You are officially the hub in the hub-and-spoke model of the organization. Information is two-dimensional, but understanding is three-dimensional. You are accountable for that and have to evolve with the organization every single minute—in 2020, we saw this happen day-by-day within organizations. You have to be able to keep an open mind and always be willing to show up as a lifelong learner to be the most effective communicator within your organization.
It's also critical to be a self-proclaimed generalist. It's table stakes to be able to understand, and more importantly, listen to so many things from so many people across so many different spaces and areas of expertise. This job requires you to be an informational jack-of-all-trades. Often, you have to take those complex ideas and deliver them to drive people’s understanding in a way that even the most expert leader can’t always articulate. I think it's a secret lever for aspirational communicators to be able to communicate in such clear ways.
And finally, instead of being called “Internal Communications,” it should be called “Internal Listening.” Your ears are your best friends in this function. You have to build so many relationships, and trust is foundational to getting what you need from the right subject matter experts and leaders in all the functions that you're going to have to partner with. You have to come to them with strong questions, open ears, and clear articulation that you're there to understand what works, what doesn’t, what's new, what’s outdated, and what ideas they have, all while capturing and synthesizing these nuggets into meaningful action that then needs to be backed by data. You can't collect that data without the funnel of information, and the ears are that funnel. So I’d ask anyone looking to improve their internal comms skills and outcomes: how are you regularly connecting and listening?
How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications?
I'll first double down on what I said about being an expert generalist, however ironic that may sound. I find it very helpful to dabble in any and all topics in your free time to strengthen your muscles as an internal communicator. Organizations aren’t made up of products, projects, and technologies; they are made up of people who are people at work and outside of work. The more you understand and have insight into people and the state of the world around them, the better you can tap into strengthening their employee experience.
Also doing as much learning about psychology as you can will put you ahead—this job’s all about understanding people, influencing people, listening to people and managing the extreme of personalities across the spectrum. It’s about science and systems and tribal behaviors, all things that are embedded within organizational behavior.
This is what is exciting about internal communications in a corporation—it’s not product development, marketing, HR, finance, legal, or operations; it gets to be a little of all of those things! You must commit to continuous learning across a diverse set of topics.
I also follow internal communications thought leaders like Rachel Miller closely—she initiates such rich dialogue about the state of the industry and does so alongside IC shakers and movers. I stay connected with internal comms students as well as a mentor, and within those engagements I learn a lot about what the next frontier of the role may look like.
What are you most excited about as you start this new role?
Reddit is a super exciting place to be. It's only getting better everyday and it's at the center of society right now. I’m excited to keep the momentum and accelerate that impact. There's such an appetite for growth, learning, and collaboration, making it such a unique environment. I want to help the company reimagine internal comms in a way the industry has never seen.