Why this HR maven “banks” on communications and branding specialists to achieve her goals.

An HR maven, a communications expert and a branding specialist walk into a bar….

An HR maven, a communications expert and a branding specialist walk into a bar. Sounds like the beginning of a funny story or a tall tale, right? But, for HR maven Katrina Sam, this is real life – a regular occurrence in her former role as Human Resources Management Specialist at the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB).[1] Except that the bar, in this case, could be her office on the first floor of the CDB building, in the company’s spacious conference room or on a remote working platform like Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams.

Katrina Sam is no stranger to working across the aisle with professionals from other disciplines to help her fulfill her primary responsibility – that of providing the Bank’s leadership team with strategic direction on matters related to talent acquisition, talent development, employee engagement and other “talent and people matters”. This is no small task! The Caribbean Development Bank is one of the region’s prestigious financial institutions. The Bank provides funds, lends technical assistance, promotes private and public investment and mobilizes financial resources to over two dozen member countries – all with the aim of contributing to the harmonious economic growth and development of its member countries in the Caribbean.

Since joining the bank in 2013, Sam has worked on several big-ticket items that are of strategic importance to the Bank, and in virtually all of them, she partnered with corporate communications and branding professionals to work on these projects and to provide the support necessary for the successful completion of each project.

In 2019, Sam was tapped to spearhead the launch of the Bank’s learning management system – an innovative system which would eventually house all of the Bank’s sponsored learning courses – up to 7,000 online courses that CDB’s employees could access from anywhere at any time. Recognizing that the success of the project would depend heavily on the Bank’s employees adopting and embracing the system, Sam turned to her organization’s corporate communications team to position the programme as an exciting learning opportunity for employees, and to effectively communicate the benefits of this new system to members of staff. 

More recently, when the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying quarantines, lockdowns and physical distancing rules disrupted the global working environment, Sam’s HR department again partnered with the Bank’s corporate communications team to develop an employee resources hub which included a suite of videos and visual content that educated employees about the Bank’s remote working protocols and encouraged staff to embrace this new way of working.

Blueprint Creative, the creative agency that I co-founded, also had the opportunity to work with Sam and her HR team on a project that was of critical importance to the Banks’ culture and brand. In 2017, the Bank launched an aggressive recruitment campaign designed to expand the organization’s staff complement, to diversify its in-house skillsets and to make the organization more competitive in the market. To help onboard new employees and to anchor its culture in place, the Bank turned to Sam to develop a program which would educate all CBD employees on what the organization stood for and which would encourage employees to live the Bank’s core values on a daily basis.

To help ensure that the project would be a success, Sam worked closely with Blueprint Creative to help the Bank clarify, articulate and document their core values. Blueprint Creative helped to bring the project to life through impactful design collateral which was then integrated into the organization’s visual branding strategy and recommended additional branding initiatives to help cascade the newly articulated core values throughout the organization. We then worked closely with the Bank’s corporate communications team to settle on the internal messaging for the program.

Such cross-discipline collaborations between HR, communications and branding are exactly the types of partnerships that Blueprint Creative predicts will increasingly occur all over the globe as the lines between roles like HR, branding and communications professionals become increasingly fluid. Back in 2018, we published an article entitled The remarkable rise of the ‘bhranding’ professional. (And no, that’s not a typo). The article pointed out that the shared interests between branding and HR would lead modern companies to tear down the silos between these two teams, fundamentally changing the way in which they interact. We hypothesized that, in many cases, these changes will lead to the rise of a hybridized category of business professionals who subscribe to the principles of both branding and HR. At Blueprint Creative, we refer to these professionals as “Bhranding Superheroes”. (By the way, ‘bhranding’ is phonetically identical to ‘branding’. The ‘h’ is silent). 

Clearly, Sam, who has a habit of banking heavily (pun intended) on branding and communications specialists to achieve her goals, could easily be described as one of these “Bhranding Superheroes” – relying on her Bhranding superpowers of multi-tasking, superior listening and organizational skills, and her dedication to drive results to save the day for her colleagues and her organization.

When asked why she takes an integrated approach to HR, Sam explained her conviction that HR should “co-own” its organization’s brand – particularly its employer brand, which can have an impact on its ability to attract its industry’s best and brightest to want to work at the organization. Sam also explained that in order for her to fulfill her responsibility as an HR professional and as a “co-owner” of her organization’s brand, she needs to work with colleagues and external agencies that possess the skillsets that are needed to make her projects a success. Or, as we like to say at Blueprint Creative, “it takes a village to raise a brand”.

Sam is definitely on to something. Across the globe, modern organizations are breaking down the silos between their various departments and replacing those silos with powerful organizational synergies.

Airbnb, for instance, famously replaced its HR department with a new unit dedicated solely to employee experience. This change at Airbnb was more than a cosmetic change in the title of its HR department. Reportedly, the thinking behind this move was that if the company had a unit responsible for customer experience, it should also have a unit that was focused on its employees’ overall experience with laser-like precision. According to Jeanne Meister, the Founder of Future Workplace Academy (and a Contributor to both Harvard Business Review and Forbes), writing in an article entitled The Future Of Work: Airbnb CHRO Becomes Chief Employee Experience Officer, “The role of Head of Employee Experience at Airbnb blurs the lines between the functions of Marketing, Communications, Real Estate, Social Responsibility, and Human Resources”.

Even though CDB’s HR and corporate communications teams work in separate departments, Sam has taken the principle behind Airbnb’s de-siloed organization and applied it to her own approach to project management. In fact, Sam collaborates with communications so frequently that she feels like the organization’s communications unit is conjoined with her HR department. The Bank’s corporate communications team has even dedicated one of its team members to Sam’s department to ensure that HR projects that are sprinkled with corporate communications ingredients can be more efficiently completed.

Sam’s blended approach to managing HR projects comes, at least in part, as a result of her academic and hands-on, practical working experience. Sam has a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration & Human Resources and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix. So, academically, Sam has been trained to see organizational challenges not only through the lens of HR, but also through a broader lens of business administration. And, before immersing her career fully into the world of HR, Sam had a stint at what was then Barbados National Bank (now Republic Bank) as a Marketing Assistant where she worked on a marketing campaign to launch the Bank’s first credit card products in 1995.

Even though she’s spent the last two-and-a-half decades working in HR-specific roles, in some respects, Sam still thinks like a marketer. Sam embraces the idea that to excel in her role as an HR professional, she has to successfully “sell” her ideas, projects, initiatives and final deliverables to members of her organization. And, part of her role as a salesperson involves working with her comms team and with external agencies like Blueprint Creative to ensure that the sales messaging for all of her projects are clear, compelling and easy to understand, and that they are supported by impactful, engaging visuals which capture the attention of her organization’s stakeholders. While marketers sell products and services to consumers, Katrina sells projects, initiatives and ideas to her colleagues. 

This theme of HR being sales professionals is one which we’ve heard before. Jane Wight, formerly the Group Executive Manager for Human Resources for BOSS Trinidad & Tobago has recently been promoted to CEO of the company – a role which she has fully embraced. When Blueprint Creative interviewed Jane to get her take on why, even in today’s modern age of business, many HR professionals are denied a seat at their organizations’ strategy tables, Jane’s response was quite blunt. Making reference to her experience as an HR professional in her organization, no one had given her an “official” invitation to attend the high-level meetings that were taking place about the company’s strategy. “So,” she explained, “I had to drag my chair across the hall and insert myself into these conversations.”

Jane believes, quite strongly, that an HR professional’s job is also, by default, a sales job. “You have to create your elevator pitch,” she says. “You have to create the value and present it in a way that CEOs and senior executives want to actually listen to you.” To the best of my knowledge, Jane and Katrina don’t know each other, but their views on HR being a sales job are certainly aligned! (By the way, you can read more about Jane in my article Why this “HR BOSS” doesn’t have much sympathy for HR professionals!)

At the moment, one of the CDB’s front burner projects is to support the economic and social development of the CDB’s 19 borrowing member countries throughout the Caribbean region – mainly by repurposing many of their existing loans to help them better respond to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. And Katrina and the HR team, and really, any other individuals, teams or agencies which she has identified as potential partners – will be right there to support the Bank on its mission.

Now, back to the opening lines of this article. An HR maven, a communications expert and a branding specialist walk into a bar. The HR maven says, “I’ve got an important HR project that I’m working on at the moment.” The communications expert says, “I can support you on your project by making sure that your messaging for your project is on point!” The branding specialist says, “And I can help by bringing your project to life through impactful design and other innovative branding initiatives that connect with your audience. The HR maven says “Great! Let’s get it done!” And they all put their heads together to work on the project. There’s no funny punchline to the story. No outrageous exaggeration that would usually be found at the end of a tall tale. Just a reminder that it takes a village to raise a brand.

And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

[1] Katrina Sam is now the Head of Performance and Reward at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

By Ron Johnson

Author | Speaker | Storyteller (Co-founder, Blueprint Creative)
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