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Leading with Purpose: Navigating the Political with the Personal

Leading with Purpose: Navigating the Political with the Personal

Over the last few years, the world of communications and marketing has dramatically shifted from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, then George Floyd’s death, and of course the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. There is now a new focus on companies and nonprofits to lead with value driven decisions that benefit not only their customers and stakeholders, but their employees as well.

At the same time, communications pros must continuously pursue new approaches and methods to reach our target audience but in ways that are transparent, authentic and inspiring.  The goal is to communicate our values, but with empathy and the understanding of people’s situations and circumstances. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities for the future of employees, business, and value-driven leadership.

On September 8th, 2022, Mimi Carter, U.S. General Manager & SVP of Proof Strategies, had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Fahlbush, Vice President of Marketing, Communication, and Corporate Affairs of Keolis North America, on what purpose-driven communication looks like. Jenny is a pioneer in purpose-driven communication with over 20 years of communication and marketing experience.

This is the first interview in the series on value-driven leadership with Mimi Carter, featuring Jenny Fahlbush, discussing what is needed to be successful in a new era of communication.

Mimi Carter:
Mimi Carter: Hi, I’m Mimi Carter, US. General Manager at Proof Strategies. And I’m joined today by Jenny Falbush, Vice President of Marketing, Communications, and Corporate Affairs at Keolis North America, which is one of the five largest transit operators in North America. AND Jenny and I are former agency colleagues.

Welcome, Jenny. So glad you’re here!

Jenny Fahlbush:
Thanks, Mimi. It feels like old home week — It’s great to see you.

Mimi Carter:
Before we jump into our conversation on value-driven and purpose-led communications, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and your trajectory?

Jenny Fahlbush:
Sure. So I am not a transportation veteran, but I’m certainly a marketing and communications veteran. For over two decades, my career has spanned public and private sector B to B and B to C marketing. This is my first foray into B2G, so it’s been pretty interesting to learn about that side. I’ve done everything from media to hospitality to working for the government. So, a really broad spectrum and foundation has brought me here to Keolis to lead up marketing, communications, and corporate affairs for our regional organization here in North America.

Mimi Carter:
I really appreciate you coming today because you and I had a conversation over the summer about value-driven leadership and purpose-led communications. And would you mind just walking us through a little bit about Keolis North America. Where it’s located, how many employees as well as some of the work you’ve been doing on DE&I and ERGs (employee resource groups) and that journey because I think for a lot of leaders and women leaders in male dominated industries, this can be a hard road to travel.

Jenny Fahlbush:
Mimi, I want to pick up on that word “journey” that you mentioned because I think it’s really important because it is a journey, and it’s not something I can take personal credit for because they certainly started that journey before I arrived at Keolis.

I have some really fantastic colleagues on the HR side who work on this day in and day out, including our VP of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But we are representing about 6000 employees across North America in the US and Canada, where we currently operate. Our business is that we are a private operator of public transportation systems. And our objective is really to focus on providing equitable, accessible, and safe transportation opportunities for the communities where we serve. That’s the external goal. And on the employee side, we have a duty of care to our employees to make sure that they feel safe coming to work every day, that they feel included, that there’s a sense of belonging and that they feel a part of something bigger. That’s a big reason why I came to this organization because there really was a purpose-driven agenda. They were focused on leaving communities better than where we started.

I’m also super proud of the fact that the DE&I messaging is really at the center of what we’re doing here at Keolis because it sets us apart from some of the others in the industry who maybe just aren’t leading with that as vocally as we are.

Mimi Carter:
Jenny, you’ve worked with some very big brands. When you think about some of the positions and POVs on difficult-to-discuss topics — political topics and hot-button issues — how are you approaching the situation, and how has the situation changed from pre-2020 and George Floyd to post-2022 and Roe v. Wade?

Jenny Fahlbush:
I think that’s a really great question, Mimi. I was thinking about this and looking back to my early career, and this was really the beginning of social media. When I first started, social media didn’t even exist. But as soon as social media really started to become part of the mix of communications and marketing for organizations, the windows just opened. They were wide open, and employees could see what their companies were doing. People in the public could see what companies were doing. And now, there was a different expectation. There was a different expectation of everybody for companies to either take a stance on things or to talk about things more publicly. And certainly, after the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder, that just exponentially became something that was a part of the toolbox for communications leaders. It’s a really challenging balance because you want to create an organization that has that sense of belonging. And with that, you really do have to leave your political beliefs, and some of your personal beliefs at the door, and you have to instead think about what your employees’ belief systems are.

You have to recognize that you might have very divergent viewpoints. I think the Roe v. Wade situation is a really good example of that. Here at Keolis, we had employees that supported the decision, and you have to be empathetic to that. You have to be respectful of that. That’s part of the decision-making process to make sure that we’re not doing something that will alienate an employee population unexpectedly. You don’t want to have those unintended consequences, so you have to be really thoughtful and careful with how you craft a message and what your decisions are going to be.

Mimi Carter:
We talked a little bit about this, as I said this summer. Can you talk to me a little bit about the decision tree you and the team are building right now?

Jenny Fahlbush:
After the Roe v. Wade decision, we came together as a communications team and said this isn’t going to be the last time this happens. This is going to be a challenging conversation on either a similar topic or something very different. We are living in a world that is becoming more polarized. Everyone’s political views and the bubbles that we’re living in are just getting expanded, right? So, we needed to look at some tools to remove some of the emotion, where we could look at not just the business needs, but the employee needs. And when you look at some of those really sensitive and highly charged political issues, to be able to move through something like a decision tree really allows us to look at it practically to make sure we’re not only taking care of our employees and the messaging but also taking care of the business. You don’t want to make a decision that’s going to inadvertently harm the business by saying something that could have other unintended consequences.

Mimi Carter:
Right. And so, as my therapist would ask, “how are YOU doing” as a woman leader? How are you navigating this because it’s your job to be the voice of the organization?  How are you managing this role?

Jenny Fahlbush:
I think there are two big pieces to that. One is from a personal perspective, and for someone who comes from a political background and an advocacy background, it can be really hard to leave that at the door. For me personally, it was a very personal issue, and so it was really challenging to not be able to voice my personal opinions about it.

But I wasn’t able to do that because I needed to protect my position as a communicator for the organization. So, I think that’s one piece of it.

And the second is going back to what I was saying about social media. I think one of the beauties of what has happened in organizations is there’s now an acceptance that people bring their whole selves to work every day. There are emotions, and there are perspectives and politics that come with that. That has allowed me to come to the table in a more authentic way, which I think is really powerful. The reality is sometimes, we women leaders are going to come with a very different perspective, and I think that’s really good and it’s powerful.

And I look forward to seeing even more women at the boardroom table so that those conversations ARE happening, and we really ARE focusing on the empathetic decisions that we can be making so that we are truly taking care of our employees. I think back to early in my career; I would have never heard somebody say, “we’re really taking care of our employees and being empathetic.” That’s just not something businesses would have ever talked about publicly. And I think it’s really powerful.

Mimi Carter:
Yes, Jane Fraser at Citi just did a whole speech on empathy and the value of it with regard to your employees. And it’s a critical component as part of, again, the corporate values and how each of these DEI, ERGs, and your CSR all ladder up to the corporate values. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jenny Fahlbush:
Thanks for having me.

Mimi Carter:
I’m Mimi Carter. I’m the US General Manager of Proof Strategies. And this is the first of the series on purpose-led communications and value-driven leadership. Thanks so much.