Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Lindsey Sanford

Chief of Staff, People Team (PMO, Coms, Employer Brand)

I enjoyed talking with Lindsey Sanford to learn about her career path. This is her internal communications story.

About Lindsey

Lindsey started her career in politics, running campaigns from the age of 16. After many years organizing communication and volunteer efforts for local, federal, and international campaigns, she gave up her constituents for candidates upon entering the recruitment marketing world. For almost eight years, she worked at Symphony Talent, assisting Fortune 100 companies with their recruitment marketing content marketing strategies. Then, Palo Alto Networks came along.

She is now Chief of Staff at Palo Alto Networks for the Chief People Officer, where she manages the project management office, the employer brand, and internal employee communications. Her passion is storytelling, creating engaging content that leads to transformation and changed behaviors, building infrastructure, fixing shit, and sitting on product demos for days (okay, not really this one). In her elusive “free time” she can be found picking up new hobbies like Girl Scouts leadership, reading all the books, speaking for her cat, and asking her kids for the 100th time to pick up their toys. 

What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications? 

In college, I was an English non-fiction, creative writer. One of my favorite courses focused on how culture is created, and shared, through storytelling. It’s even more true today, when the mediums for storytelling are widespread, accessible, and creative. Fast forward, I’ve now managed blogs, personally and professionally, for the past 12 years. Personally, I run a local mom’s blog. Content creation has been a serious passion of mine. I love the idea of sharing stories with a sense of understanding of the power of voice. 

I started my career at an agency as an analyst. I began by connecting performance back to data analysis to identify what stories were resonating with our target audience. I built a business case for creating content. I progressed through the ranks to become VP of Content Strategy where I helped Fortune 500 companies on recruitment strategies focused on company culture and how it connects people. 

I made the move into internal communications because our strategy for employer brand is just as much about candidate engagement as it is employee engagement. It’s about attracting the right people and reminding the employees who are already here about what’s great about the organization. 

You have a really awesome title. How did you become Chief of Staff with an internal communications focus?

I started at Palo Alto Networks as an Employer Brand Strategist focused on telling our stories, both externally and internally. When our Chief People Officer, Liane Hornsey joined, she wanted us to tell those stories more, leveraging them internally to engage our employees around process and program changes. 

Then, Liane asked me to also take on Internal Communications to build upon the stories we were already collecting to share information. There was an architecture to put into place, such as maintaining newsletters, leveraging the right channels for messages and tapping into the executive voice.   

A year after taking on this new role, we recognized a new need: building and scaling the project management function for the People team. At that point, I was asked to run the PMO - Project Management Office - to focus on this trifecta of internal communications, project management and employer brand. In my role as Chief of Staff, I take on any special projects and manage these across the board. We have six other priorities for the People Team and partner with Communications to build out strategies for these initiatives.   

How do you describe your work to others?

The elevator pitch for employer branding is to imagine you are selling a consumer product, but instead of the product, you are selling a way of life. Changing jobs is one of the top stressors of adult life so when you start to conceptualize strategy around something that is important, you get a really good feeling about the work you are doing - you are selling a change of life that could impact their happiness, family, way of life or income. We’re selling a career and finding the people who are most fulfilled by that career. If you find the right talent, the business outcomes come with high engagement and productivity.

The other aspect that sometimes gets looked over is retention strategy. The industry is facing problems we haven’t faced before. Employees view this moment as a defining one for the future of work - and that includes flexibility and choice. There’s a lot of neuroscience behind that because employees want control and they haven’t been able to have it during the pandemic. That’s where internal communications and employer brand come in - we look at the story narrative to build a message that conveys emotion and connection to our employees - centered on choice and personalization. 

What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished? 

Over the past year at the request and passion of our CEO Nikesh Arora and CPO Liane Hornsey, I’ve worked on the concept of FLEXWORK - the process of creating a personalized approach to work. For so long, companies have been employer-choice - but we’re looking at the future, one that’s employee-choice. This is HR’s moment! 

A vast majority of us went home and in more than a year that we have worked from home, we challenged paradigms that we aren’t productive, connected or engaged if we’re not in office. All of that went out the window  - we proved that distributed work can excel even in the worst of circumstances. 

There are significant changes that come with this. We’re looking at revolutionizing the benefits programs to be more responsive to individuals. We’re looking at our learning experience so that every employee has a personalized road map for professional development. Of course, what is top of mind - what does it mean for where, how, and when I work? 

For Palo Alto Networks, we officially announced that it’s you tell us where you want to work and we make it happen. The concept behind our FLEXWORK is that you know what’s best for yourself and the less we make assumptions, the better for the employee and the employer. There’s a lot of science to back this up - when you evoke autonomy, the reward center of the brain is activated. 

I’ve worked remotely for 12 years. I have always thought my quality of life was very good. I get to stay home, see my family more often and don’t waste time commuting. It’s been such a passion of mine that I’ve wanted others to realize that truth for themselves. It’s less about the choices I’ve made - but watching the flexibility and personalization cater to each individual, uniquely. What’s right for me isn’t right for others - and it’s time we recognize (and enable) this.  Getting to have these executive conversations to talk about how we get to this distributed way of thinking and then working on the programs that enable it has been really motivating. Because at the core of FLEXWORK isn’t the programs - it’s the recognition that each of us are individuals - and we do our best work when we are recognized as such.

We’re not just making these changes as a company, we want the industry to follow and other companies realize this is possible to have conversations with other Chief People Officers. We have over 200 people leaders who have joined us and we are facilitating these conversations. Even though we have challenged these biases, many CEOs want to revert to what they knew, and we’re trying to prevent us from going backwards. 

What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?

I’ll share three major skills. First, you have to be a good storyteller. This can happen in diverse ways in today’s environment. Storytelling can be brought out in an email, a presentation, social media or a blog. Someone needs to be really good at crafting a narrative that is compelling and emotionally inspiring while understanding the channels you can use to build trust. It tends to be overlooked in the busyness of our lives, but leveraging it is so important to get people to pay attention to your message. 

It’s important to be a systems thinker - this is where design thinking meets the creative type. More than anything, I’m able to make connections from different programs and build those bundles of messaging so that it feels like an architecture of connecting the dots from strategy to strategy, department to department. There are missing opportunities to strengthen and make an impact in this role. 

Organization is so important to look at the whole ecosystem and organize the chaos into something that is consumable. The other skill that is so important is resourcefulness. It’s a skill that’s low on the ground. If you don’t have the answer, know how to get it or you know who to go. When you match that to the other skills, it’s really powerful. 

How do you continue learning about the field of Internal Communications?

Last year, I read 104 books. These weren't work related books, because at the end of the day I need a break! I love to read science fiction, fantasy and mystery. This helps to evoke my approach to creative storytelling strategies.

I seek opportunities to learn. I never say no. Even if an opportunity makes me feel uncomfortably excited, I don’t say no because it can change my life as working on this FLEXWORK initiative has done for me.