Internal Communications Introductions: Meet Lisa Chen
Head of Internal Communications, People Operations, Google
I enjoyed talking with Lisa Chen to learn about her career path. This is her internal communications story.
Lisa Chen is Head of Internal & Executive Communications, People Operations at Google. She joined Google in 2018, originally with the industry's fastest growing Cloud business, where she led Internal & Executive Communications for its Go-to-Market team.
Prior to Google, Lisa led internal communications for companies in a variety of industries, including Sabre, ADP, ITT Exelis, Mars Chocolate North America and Rolls-Royce.
Lisa holds a MA in Communication from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Liberal Arts from the University of Virginia.
What sparked your professional path into Internal Communications?
I went through college and my first job without any knowledge that internal communications existed. I had a general understanding of PR and marketing. But, I started my career working for a research firm because it required someone with a background in writing, and I was trying to find a role using the skills from my liberal arts degree.
It wasn’t until I was working at an airline as a recruiter, my little unknown time in HR, that a colleague suggested the internal communications team. I didn’t know about the field, but soon learned it was the hidden secret of every major corporation. I felt like I fell into it by accident, and the stars aligned. I’ve been in the field ever since.
At some point, I would love to teach internal communications as part of the communications graduate degree curriculum. Until then, I advise those I mentor to try internal comms (in addition to PR/media). If you have aspirations of being a CCO someday, a turn in internal communications provides the experience to lead both internal and external communications teams from a place of experience.
How do you describe your role to others?
On my LinkedIn, I have a one-liner: “I help organizations share powerful stories.”
When there is anything you need an employee base to start, to continue, or to stop, you really need an effective communications plan — with a powerful story — to get there. That’s what internal communications is about at its core.
It’s also the aspect of ensuring the leadership lands organizational change. There’s an ability to manage and leverage multiple tools in effective ways by looking at them strategically and asking: how can they help us really reach the audience? Those include events, All Hands, Intranet, collaboration tools, video, et al., which help you to execute that change effectively.
Finally, it’s also about partnering and coaching leaders as a trusted advisor. My view of leadership has changed throughout my career. Early on, I had a one-dimensional image of what an effective leader should be. I started to realize that people bring different experiences and strengths into the workplace. Rather than having this mold and trying to coach leaders to be one way, I took a step back and appreciated the inherent strengths that a leader brought to an organization. I focused on making them the best they could be based on where they were most strong. I find opportunities where this person shines and can be great at getting a message across; and for the areas they aren’t as great, I help manage those areas.
As a trusted advisor to senior leaders, I try to understand their personality, goals, personal style and the communication vehicles where they'll excel. I develop an engagement plan that focuses on the strengths and mitigates around the environments in which they are less comfortable. The most enjoyable part of my work is watching leaders transform into their best and most inspirational selves. Watching the leader get stronger in their own authentic communication style is the best.
How have you learned to coach leaders on communications?
I had a leader who used to start a speaking engagement by telling everyone: “I hate communications.” But, what he really hated were the scripted speech opportunities. He didn’t like standing in front of a podium. So, I started observing where he was the most comfortable and realized he was great at ‘seated’ fireside chats or Q&A. So we started turning the majority of his engagements into that - internal and external. Then, he stopped hating communications (or telling everyone he did). I’ve learned that you really have to see what people excel at and lean into it.
In order to learn about coaching leaders, I have observed some amazing CCOs. I had one manager who was known as the CEO whisperer. I watched how trusted he was with leadership, and I observed how confident he was with his communications experience. While I may not have an expertise in managing a supply chain or closing the books each month, I do have an understanding of what goes over well with employees and how to engage them in the company’s vision, mission and goals. This is what I bring to the table, and I need to share that with leaders to amplify their voice and vision.
In order to be great at this skill, you must be really prepared. Be ready for the questions that leaders are going to ask. You need to know the employee base to provide trusted advice. It’s information that leaders may not have time to gather and the insight they don’t have — but want.
I’ve also improved at giving balanced feedback. After employee events, I follow-up. Expediently, I let leaders know what went well and what opportunities they have for next time. And I back it up with data via surveys and focus groups. In order to be that CEO whisperer or executive coach, you need to be able to tell them the good, bad and the ugly in a way they can receive it and at a time that it’s relevant, which is usually quickly.
What are the sources you read to learn about Internal Communications?
I have attended some great “virtual” conferences during this last year. I'm a part of the Arthur Page Society, specifically their Page Up program. It’s a wonderful organization for CCOs and their leadership teams, and I’ve learned so much from the communications industry’s most esteemed leaders. There are also associations such as IABC and PRSA who are sponsoring virtual events where I tune in to hear best practices.
I do miss the in-person events immensely so LinkedIn has become my daily lifeline to learning beyond my current work environment. It’s such a broad network of people that you can tap into and this has become even more important during the pandemic. People are being more proactive, and I love that! I’m having coffee chats with new colleagues each week.
In a way, we may have been hesitant to do this before the pandemic so that’s one good change that came from this past challenging year. I participate in groups, have formed my own comms circles and connect with anyone in the industry who wants to share best practices and support the internal communications function. Yes, there are LinkedIn articles that I read, but the learning is coming from conversations with colleagues about the work we do. It’s my hope that this spirit of generosity and connection remains beyond the pandemic.
What is one project you are particularly proud to have accomplished?
I love big, sticky, chaotic, messy organizational change. Early in my career, I was fortunate to experience a company split. The original company, American Standard, doesn't exist today in the same conglomerate form that it was in 2007. Looking back, I had never managed such immense change, and I certainly didn’t understand everything that we were tasked with leading.
I learned on the job; sometimes that’s the best way. It started with what was happening (i.e., key messages): there were three core business units that were splitting and one was being sold to a private equity firm, one was spinning off as a standalone business listed on the NYSE and the remaining company would be listed on the NYSE as well, but was bought by another manufacturing power house a month later. It was so much change, and while I was quite junior in my career I loved to learn so I soaked up everything from that experience.
I think there was an aspect of “we really need to get this right.” There were 60,000 employees in office and manufacturing roles. We worked with European Works Councils and translated materials into 20+ languages. It was about identifying the impact on each stakeholder so that people understood how it was happening and how it affected them — their careers, benefits and lives. The importance of what we were working on felt really big. I worked with amazing partners in finance, HR, legal and a phenomenal team of communicators, truly a dream team. The complexity and coordination was intense, but we achieved our goals and it built a foundation of organizational excellence that I leverage to this day.
What are the skills that are most important for someone to succeed in Internal Communications?
It’s table stakes that you have solid communication skills. To be a trusted advisor, you have to write effectively, be a competent project manager for everything from an All Hands or offsite to a major organizational change or event. It’s important to have varied writing experiences, from scriptwriting to talking points to authentic emails in your executive’s voice. Beyond that, your negotiation skills are key for knowing how and when to push forward and back. And you need patience to acknowledge that this is as far as you can get — for the moment.
I also want to emphasize the importance of confidence. There are communication roles that don’t require you to push back with leaders, but if you are going to be advising senior leaders, you need to be able to convey confidence. Confidence comes from successfully completing whatever challenges come your way; it’s learning from mistakes and building on successes. If you’re feeling any form of doubt, look back at what you’ve accomplished in your career. Review your LinkedIn profile to remind yourself that you do have a right to speak up or push back because you have the experiences that have gotten you to where you are today. Then go into that meeting with that information and be the communicator that you were destined to be.