Telum Talks To… Founder and Director, Anna Whitlam of AWPeople, executive search & advisory in the disciplines that impact reputation

Telum Talks To… Founder and Director, Anna Whitlam of AWPeople, executive search & advisory in the disciplines that impact reputation

Can you tell us about the conversations you’re having with CEOs and Managing Directors who are cutting staff from their communications departments during this challenging period?
On one side, business leaders are seeing how vital internal communications is to providing security to staff, and on the other side there is acknowledgement that communications functions in general do not have the skills or are “fit for purpose” to meet the demands of this new reality. Many multi-nationals have never quite understood the pace at which digital is changing the way we do business. For example, many organisations have multiple media relations professionals to cover the different segments of their business without much understanding as to what new platforms like Telum can do for them. If they embrace digital change, they might say, “In fact, we only need one media relations professional to focus on core local, corporate or business media”. Or, perhaps, we need a savvy, social media guru who is ahead of the growing changes in digital and social media. The question on many people’s minds is that if our function does not have the required skills and is operating 5 - 10 years behind, how can we guide and enable our leaders who are grappling with the changing external environment?

We observe that Asia is starting to repair at a much faster rate than Australia. And see their agility and mindset as key to this advancement.

How do you recruit for people that have this agile mindset and can respond to change quickly?
Sadly, there is only a very small handful of people who have this capability. Contrary to belief, it’s not about their technical skills. It’s about values, and behaviours. Who are they as a person and how do they articulate themselves and their stories? Their ability to “sensemake” - how do they consume and disseminate information? How are they going to translate that information and help their leaders mitigate against risk? Their understanding of metrics and the role they play in helping leaders understand risk. Their empathy and understanding of broader societal and community expectations. Having the confidence to speak up, influence and engage leaders on the issues that matter.

We “reputation check” every candidate represented to a client, which is different to a more traditional “reference check". Reputation checks are carried out via both social media and via networks of “people who know the candidate” as colleagues, ex managers or suppliers through their work together, that the candidate may or may not have provided. It’s often the best way to find out about someone’s capability and credibility, their agility, and their mindset.
How will the new working from home environment impact the development of emotional intelligence in employees?
The new reality of working looks different in every city and every geography, so depending on where you live and work, and if you are working for a local or multinational company, your mindset on how you manage communications will vary dramatically.

The one consistent theme no matter where you live or work is that community expectations have changed, as have the rules of communications, crises planning, and business continuity. We have all had to adapt to these new ways of working, use of collaboration tools and need to be flexible and creative to achieve outcomes in an uncertain world.

Key to our success has been our ability to effectively manage our feelings and relationships, which have been put under stress given the inability to separate home from work, fear given uncertainty of the future, and the casual corridor conversations which for many “filled in gaps” and completed stories. Being self-aware, and having an ability to naturally empathise with others, was an important capability to have pre-COVID, however now, it is essential for all professionals as we navigate operating in a world without “in person” collaboration and corridor conversation.

What is your advice for people interviewing for jobs over Zoom?
The need to create rapport straight away is very important as it is in an “in person” interview, although more challenging via video. Being prepared for a casual exchange at the beginning of the formal conversation is a good way to start. “What did you get up to this morning? How have you found lockdown?” etc.

Although we are all working from home, and may feel more relaxed given our surroundings, it is still important to dress and present as if you were in person.  Remember, first impressions count. Being authentic is great, but of course this must be within reason, as you are being hired to represent their organisation. 

Many people have been made redundant over the past few months due to COVID-19. What should they be doing in the meantime to address the employment gap in their CV?
This is my favourite topic. The opportunity to focus on “self” has never been greater than it is right now. I’ve been talking to very senior candidates who have been made redundant and, for the first time in their careers, can turn their focus to themselves and their future career. I’ve been asking them, "What is your vision? How well have you aligned your career choices to where you want to be long term?" Many don’t realise that they've been on a path, potentially, that's not what they wanted to do.

But the single most important thing that modern professionals need and don’t do well in our discipline, which I find extraordinary, is proactively manage their networks, not just inside their organisations but more broadly externally. Most people in communications are not as connected as they need to be. We’re in a world now where “network currency” is absolutely everything. Once you step outside the currency of a brand, the organisation that you represent, you're on your own. Most people who do have a network will often say it “looks like them”! My advice and the advice from “connections guru” Jon Burgess at Kwan is that your network is only strong if it “doesn’t look like you”, and if you can prove that you are on the minds of 5 people at any one time.

The other opportunity that has sprung up during COVID has been the volume of accessible micro-credentials via some of the biggest universities globally. To address skills gaps, you can participate in an online course with Harvard University, Stanford or INSEAD for less than two thousand dollars.

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