Jonathan Adashek, CCO at IBM, shares his experience of taking on a leadership role at the company shortly before COVID hit. He discusses how the impact of the pandemic on communications affected his leadership style.
Jonathan also provides insights on navigating communications on a global scale, staying consistent with core values of the business, but adapting to the specific markets at the same time. Lastly, Jonathan offers his outlook for 2021, and tips for communicators to prepare for the new year.
>> More episodes here
About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: JONATHAN ADASHEK
DOUG: Jonathan, thanks so much for being with us. And you started at IBM, It coincided with the start of a new CEO. How did that impact your experience?
JONATHAN: Yeah, it was a great time to start at IBM. It was a really interesting time, I should say. I started, week one, I found my way around the building. Week two, we had earnings, we had Davos and some meetings. And week three, I got notified on a Tuesday night that we were going to be announcing a new CEO that Thursday and that I needed to go and get that figured out how we were going to announce it and what we were going to do internally and externally. And then shortly after that, COVID came in, and it’s been a really intense but amazing time to be at the company. I’ve got to work with an amazing team, really some of the best professionals in the business at IBM in the communications and citizenship function that I lead, but then across the whole company. It’s really a strong group of people who are so dedicated to our client success and to our business success that the pandemic has caused everybody great turmoil and concern and issues. But I feel like our passion, the passion for the people who I work with really helped us move through it and continue to move through it today, not without bumps along the way, because I think we’ve all seen those bumps, but to really stay focused on what we needed to do and really move into a way of adapting our work and adapting what had been done for a long time to be more nimble, to be more agile to what the times really called for. I mean, perfect example was as we went into to the pandemic, in the heat of it, we were doing twice a day for the leadership team, leadership team and twice a day media meetings to understand where we were putting our stories and what were the stories that we’re going out, and what do we need to adjust. And it was really an intense grind, but the team, going back to that focus, that’s really what we did. And then when Arvind (IBM CEO) came in, we took that same model and we just kept going with that as well.
DOUG: Now, having such a strong foundation, it was obviously critical for success, but communicators have been dealing with this unprecedented rate of rapid change. How does that affect your leadership style and what you recommend for other communicators to maybe adjust their own leadership styles to be successful?
JONATHAN: You know, for me, I’ve always tried to be as open and transparent and engaging with my team as I can. And that hasn’t changed in this, fundamentally hasn’t changed because of the world we’re in today. I think if it’s adjusted in any way, shape or form, it’s that I need to be even more engaging and more communicative with my team. I send a note to my team every Friday. And it could be a note about a great win with a client, winning an award, but sometimes you notice, hey, I’ve had a tough week. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a note to the team and I said I had a tough week and here’s why I had a tough week. And it was really saying to everybody, hey, we’re all human. We all need to take it back sometimes and just raise our hand and say, I need help here, and that’s OK. But I think that engaging as best you can, I’m really finding that’s helpful. Random phone calls to people on my team, just checking in, whether they’re here in New York or somebody in Japan, or in Moscow, it doesn’t matter. Just that random check in, the email saying, “how are you? How are you holding up besides the work stuff?” And always engaging on that personal level at the beginning, something that’s been needed more today than ever before.
DOUG: Yeah, transparency and trust, especially with internal communications, are so important. Thank you for giving the stamp of approval, because since it started, we’d have two a day full staff Zoom meetings to get a handle and share what was going on. We’ve now got that it’s one a day, but it’s really a chance to engage and also to share some of the water cooler, in quotes, stuff the people would have normally picked up about what else was going on, including things in their personal life, whether they were terrible with a relative perhaps being sick, or positive, you know, their kid doing something or having an accomplishment. You also have to deal as a global company, that there are sort of different realities going on in different parts of the world at the same time. How do you navigate that piece, and do you have any advice for people who are handling communications on a global level to make that most effective being consistent, that’s still adapting to be flexible to the situations in each market?
JONATHAN: Yeah, it has been an interesting thing for us to tackle as a team. I think the fundamental that we’ve done is we’ve said there are going to be a set of principles that are IBM principles, and we are going to stand by those, and how we then adjust accordingly for the local market, you’ve got to empower the local market to make the adjustments that they need to make, as long as you’re staying true to what you’re what you’re doing. For us that could be, as a company, returning to work. We’ve got a set of principles across all of our, across IBM, we will follow these scientific guidelines about when people return to work or don’t return to work. But then those are decisions that get made at a local level. So that that’s one side of it. The other side of it is, at a very simple level, I said to everybody on the team, hey, we’re going really hard, take your Friday afternoons and use your Friday afternoons for whatever you want to do. Then that’s not always a Friday afternoon, because in the Middle East, it’s a Thursday afternoon or it’s using your holiday. So, it’s adjusting accordingly to meet the local cultural norms and what’s going to work from a communications perspective. I always say to my teams, you’re the ones who live in a market. You’re going to see those reporters in a normal time at a restaurant, or at a movie or wherever it might be. You know what works. It’s easy for me to sit in headquarters and tell you this is what you have to do, but you’re empowered to make it work for your market.
DOUG: Yeah, and we found new ways to connect and be more transparent with reporters and provide access. I mean, the number of zoom interviews we’ve done more than 2,000 where we’ve connected spokespeople to media outlets using Zoom as a way to connect. And it’s added a whole level of authenticity because you get to see where the people are working from, where they live, what their experiences are. Let’s turn a bit to 2021 and some predictions. One of the things that we’ve done well with the series that we get good feedback is having experts like you who’ve had incredible experience sharing advice and tips for best practices that people can put in their plans for 2021. Now that it appears the US election is settled, that’s still created one level of maybe more certainty, but there’s still a great level of uncertainty with everything that’s going on. What’s your best advice for communicators to navigate 2021, and then our next question after that will be any sort of predictions about what communications trends will start off. So, first, let’s hit people with your best advice for preparing and navigating 2021.
JONATHAN: I think the best advice I have is, as communicators, we’ve always had to be nimble, but I think it’s to the next level. In 2021 that’s going to continue because unfortunately I see continued cycles in this pandemic that are going to take people into offices and out of offices, and there’ll be a spike in Europe before there’s a spike in the US, or China’s numbers are down, but New Zealand has a spike. There’s so many different combinations. And I think that we’re going to have to be more nimble, we’re going to have to empower our teams to make adjustments to what they’re doing to meet the local market norms and what’s happening. And I think it’s that really, it’s about that transparency. As communicators, we have to be open with our teams, be open with our leaders to what’s working, what’s not, what do we think we can do and really push ourselves to do more. But I think there’s a role for communications to play, even more so than before, that sits at the table and really helps businesses move forward in this new abnormal as you phrased it in the past, and really ensuring that we’re helping business in understanding that all the work we do in 2021 is tied to business objectives. Because as the economy is tight, as people’s resources are tight, we need to make sure that we’re using our resources as effectively as possible. The best way to use them is to help a business achieve its objectives.
DOUG: Now you’ve been able to develop a uniquely collaborative relationship with your CEO. What’s some advice for communicators, how can they best go about making sure they have that good relationship? Because it’s even more important now than it’s ever been with so much transition and change.
JONATHAN: I think today, more so than ever, CEOs are looking for, and executives overall, because I think you’ve got to have that relationship not just with the CEO, but it’s important for me across my peers, across the executive leadership team at the company, they’re not looking for people who are just going to say yes and go do whatever they think needs to be done. They’re looking for people who are going to add value and help them think about the decisions that need to be made, and why they’re doing things and get a better understanding of how communications can help them achieve their goals, achieve what they’re trying to do, achieve the business’s objectives. I think that’s really a key foundation.
DOUG: And finally, as we wrap up any predictions for what will be different in PR, whether it’s how corporations work with their agencies or any other trends that you see that might happen, even some that we might not be thinking about?
JONATHAN: I wish I had a crystal ball and I knew, but I really don’t. I think that we’re going to face, the one thing I feel pretty confident about is we’re going to face even more continuous change, and the pace of that change is going to be greater than it’s been in the past. But I do feel that if teams come together, there’s almost nothing that a good team can’t overcome and can’t resolve and tackle and make good progress for their business, for their clients.
DOUG: Awesome. Thanks so much for sharing your great information, ideas. I’m sure it’ll be inspirational for the folks that get a chance to check it out.
JONATHAN: Thank you for having me. Really appreciate it, enjoyed this chat.