Dell’s Stella Low on Mindful Employee Communications

November 2, 2018

Stella Low [albert chau]
Stella Low [albert chau]

In 2015, Stella Low had put the finishing touches on what would be her family’s dream house in London — what she called “her forever home.”

That’s about the time when Low, then the vice president of global communications at EMC, received a phone call from her boss: Dell was going to acquire EMC, the world’s largest provider of data-storage systems with a global staff of 70,000 employees. He wanted Low to lead the communications on this $67 billion merger, the biggest-ever in the tech industry. However, she would need to relocate to the United States.

“The first thing I said was, ‘I can’t do that,’” Low recalled. However, after much soul-searching and encouragement from her bosses and husband, she decided to accept the position.

Today, Low is Dell’s senior vice president of global communications, responsible for leading the company’s global team dedicated to enhancing and protecting the reputation of Dell Technologies as a leader in digital transformation while creating awareness of Dell’s brands, values, products and services.

On Oct. 8, Low was the featured speaker during the Networking Luncheon and provided some insights into the changing communications landscape. Afterward, she shared her thoughts with Strategies & Tactics on a variety of employee communications-related topics.

What’s your philosophy for communicating with employees?

Make sure you’re constantly communicating, not just when there are big needs. We have huge internal communication programs going on all the time. For example, we have a quarterly broadcast hosted by our marketing CMO, Allison Dew, where Michael Dell and our CFO talk about company results, or our HR leader, Steve Price, talks about a new aspect of benefits or something else that’s being introduced.

It gives everybody in the company, wherever they’re based around the world, a chance to tune in to this broadcast, whether it’s live or recorded, and see the news. We’re very mindful about how our leaders communicate.

We’re always sharing good news on our intranet, and great examples of what team members are doing, with lots of videos to celebrate their successes.

How can communicators make sure employees know about a development within an organization before they hear about it in the news?

When you have any news to share, you need to think about every single audience. No one should be an afterthought. Sit down at the beginning and work it out. Even if you’re announcing news to your team 10 minutes before it goes out externally, that’s good enough.

But don’t just communicate the same way to all team members. I’ve seen some terrible examples where the salesperson’s gone somewhere and they have no clue what’s been announced that day. We have special communications for our sales folks, so they don’t get caught out wherever they are in the world.

You have experience with mergers following Dell’s acquisition of EMC in 2015. How should an organization communicate with its employees following a merger announcement — a time fraught with anxiety?

In times of stress, over-communicate. And make sure you’re communicating in lots of different ways. Sending out a memo to employees is not enough.

To brief our top leaders so they really understood the issues, we gave them an update every month on how the integration was going. They had the chance to ask questions. And then we encouraged them to have the same meetings with their team members.

We used the intranet and email, but we also used in-person meetings. When people wanted to know from their boss, “Am I going to lose my job?” Sometimes we didn’t have an answer for that.

But within those confines, we wanted to tell people what an exciting opportunity this was going to be and all the good things that were going to happen — while also being realistic about some of the difficulties we might have to get through to realize those opportunities.

We all have families that we care for, and our jobs are important to us. We all want to know the truth. Don’t dress it up as something that it’s not. People understand that sometimes there are issues along the way and they want you to be honest. It all comes down to trust and transparency.

Personally and professionally, how have you made the point that the senior communications-PR leader needs a seat at the executive table?

I couldn’t do my job if I was not strategically involved with some of the larger decisions. But you do need that seat at the table. It may be a crisis issue or something positive that’s happening, and someone asks, “How are we going to communicate this to all these audiences?” That’s the best time to have that conversation, right at the beginning when those things are being decided.

To the question of how you get a place at the table, I would say: Deliver, prove yourself and show the results. And then say, “This is how much better it would’ve been if I’d have been there.”

Many people on my team are working with executives, and I encourage them to make sure they attend their manager meetings. Communications is that important.

What are some leadership lessons you’ve learned in your career?

Every leader has a different style and different strengths. I’m a people person, so I want to know that those I lead are comfortable with where they are and to help them through difficult scenarios.

The biggest lesson I ever learned about leadership was to understand your own strengths and weaknesses. I once went on a training course and came out of it thinking it had been a waste of time. And it wasn’t until I reflected on the course later that I realized its message was right: Unless you understand yourself, how can you ever lead anyone or expect anyone to follow you?

As a leader you also have to be excited about what you do, and tell people where you’re heading together. That’s important. I remember when I first came to the United States we had a very successful PR department. But I had to tell them that we needed to change, to start introducing social media. That’s quite a hard thing to say — to tell people that they’re really good at what they do, but they still need to change.

However, having that vision — painting a picture of where we could be if we do change, and where we could end up if we don’t — helps people get there.

I was very lucky that I had a team that was excited about those possibilities and wanted to get on board. And I’m lucky that I still do. 

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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