Each of my grad students during the spring semester researched and interviewed Chicago business and civic leaders as well as some influential chief communications officers. All offered great advice that you will be able to read as interviews are posted over the next two months on the Let Go & Lead website. Following are some powerful words of wisdom from Bridget Coffing, Chief Communications Officer at McDonald’s Corporation.
Bridget was interviewed by DePaul grad student Sarah Grage who is now an account management intern at Ketchum Chicago.
Q: What do you think is the difference between leading and managing?
A: Both are important every day. Leading is the ability to develop a vision and articulate it in a way that your team can understand, embrace and act upon. Leadership is in many ways about how you inspire and motivate. Managing is the way you empower your people to help bring your vision to life. It’s the plans and processes you put in place and the actions you take day in and day out to help your people be more effective and impactful.
Q: What is the biggest communication challenge for leaders today?
A: One of the biggest challenges today is the increasing pace and breadth of communications. The 24/7 nature of our business challenges you to be thoughtful and reflective – and do it more quickly than ever! The time for both seizing opportunities and responding to issues has been significantly condensed, so you have to focus even harder on being prepared and always ready to move. What’s more, in today’s digital environment where issues quickly spread, there are rarely any more “isolated” incidents. So you have to be prepared to manage nearly all of your communications across multiple mediums and at a global level.
Q: What words of advice can you offer leaders on how to best engage their organizations in today’s dynamic environment?
A: Employees are eager for information, interested in the facts, and passionate about their work. Keeping people engaged involves helping them continuously recognize the value of what they do. Providing a clear line of sight on how their work contributes to the larger success of the company goes a long way in helping people feel energized and proud. In addition, it’s crucial to be as authentic and transparent as possible. Having your employees feel the company is talking with them in a timely and honest manner is foundational to building a culture of trust and collaboration across the organization.
Q: When external stakeholders are critical of McDonald’s, how do you maintain pride and enthusiasm internally with employees?
A: Our employees recognize that we live in a world where everything is discussed and debated. It is important to be open and candid with employees, arm them with the facts, and remind them of the journey. Our people recognize we cannot be all things to all people. The key is to not be defensive, embrace the notion of debate to drive change, and know when to agree to disagree. That said, we preach continuous improvement across our organization – not just in our operations and service but in how we affect communities and the larger world. So what we all focus on together is evolving to meet the changing needs of our customers and always showing a commitment to doing better across every aspect of our brand.
Q: In the past, you’ve had responsibility for both U.S. and Global communications. What is the biggest difference in how you lead these different areas?
A: It is more about evolving the two groups and working more closely together to better meet the needs of the business. The customer is at the center of all we do – and the customer rarely distinguishes between U.S. messages and corporate/global messages. It’s all McDonald’s. So it makes more sense for us to work collaboratively and with a common goal and purpose. It allows us to be more nimble, responsive, and able to speak with a unified voice.
Q: With your background primarily in external communication, and now with a larger focus on internal communications, how do the different issues in the different global areas play into how you communicate and lead?
A: We have 1.8 million employees in 120 countries. To stay unified across our system, we take the approach that we cannot have one message internally and another externally. Due to this philosophy, it was less of a transition for me to move from external to internal communications than you might see in other organizations. We are joined at the hip with our external and internal communications partners around the world. This alignment is hugely important, and enables us to maximize opportunities and stay in front of crisis preparedness.
Q: I understand you have multiple children, and was hoping you could share what have you learned from raising them and how that impacts your leadership style?
A: Jim and I have five kids, and they expand our horizons, and challenge our thinking every day. They have helped me understand that you really need to prioritize. You can quibble about a lot of small things at home with your kids and you could do the same at the office every day. That is not very productive. Working toward a common goal and addressing differences and challenges and then moving on are part of a healthy environment at work and at home.
Q: McDonalds leads a lot of cause related campaigns, how do those play into communication? How do you communicate internally and externally and build pride around these programs?
A: Giving back to the communities we serve has always been foundational to our brand. Our franchisees live and work in the communities where they operate their restaurants. Through Ronald McDonald House Charities, our franchisees, suppliers, employees, and customers all try to help make a difference for families and children around the world. As we work to make a positive impact, it’s important to talk about our efforts both externally and internally. Externally, we want to give people a better understanding of our principles and commitment to doing good; while internally our focus is on instilling pride and energizing our people to carry on our values and remain community-minded.
Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to someone about being a leader in an entry-level position?
A: Everyone can lead in whatever position they are in. You need to bring strong ethics and integrity to the job, while being willing to grow and learn from mistakes. No one is expecting perfection. However, you have to be ready to continuously adapt and evolve in this fast paced and virtual world. Be a player, not an observer. Energy and enthusiasm are infectious. Read more about Bridget in the Fast Facts sidebar of her interview.