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Gold Standard: How Mastercard Got Employee Comms Right During COVID-19

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 — August 19th, 2021

Gold Standard: How Mastercard Got Employee Comms Right During COVID-19

Last year, when I led the employee communications team at Mastercard, our team won the Gold MarComm Award for Internal Communications for excellence in internal communications and employee engagement throughout COVID-19.

Full disclosure: it was bittersweet. In a year of great suffering, it felt a little awkward to celebrate and a bit trivial to get an award that recognized us, when there were so many important people and things to recognize of greater consequence.

And yet. It was also a pride-worthy moment for the team to pause – something we hadn’t done for months - and to acknowledge that our communications had a real impact.

To learn from the survey results of 20,000+ employees that in the most collectively difficult year in our lives, our team’s communications informed, inspired and connected employees and leaders in ways that hadn’t ever been done before.

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Well, that was one thing from 2020 that I actually wanted to hang on to. So I am.

I’ve since moved on to a new role at Mastercard heading up leadership development. I’m keenly aware of what made 2020 a year that made employees feel closer to their leaders and each other.

I’ve had the privilege of being in the front row to see what our employees said leaders did that made such a remarkable difference. Knowing what really mattered to them last year, and looking ahead to our audacious aspirations as a company, I plan to harness this understanding in my new role and pay what I learned forward.

Practically speaking, I’ve got my eye towards doing making these three things part of what exceptional leaders at Mastercard do (spoiler alert: it’s not rocket science, but it is mobilizing):

  1. Default to trust.
  2. Be vulnerable.
  3. Find the funny.

Defaulting to trust. This means that even if I’m your leader and can’t see you or hear you in person, even if your working hours are different from mine because of family or other commitments, I trust you’ll do what needs to be done.

If our collective focus is where it should be – the outcome, the results – then I don’t need to monitor and approve of how you plan to get there. I trust you and when I do, you feel safe and empowered.

I’m here when you need me. That’s what employees want from their leaders.

Be vulnerable. In our year-long story series, “Tales from the New Normal,” we solicited our employees and management committee for stories that would provide help, hope or humor. 

They delivered. We had poignant stories from our senior most leaders sharing their struggle with loneliness and their coping strategy, employees terrified with family members on the front medical lines and then…streams of comments from those at all organizational levels offering support, resources, advice, virtual hugs and expressions of love and care.

Everything not corporate speak came streaming through for all to witness. At the risk of sounding sappy, it was like a big comforting blanket had been wrapped around everyone.

Find the funny. This may seem counterintuitive coming off such a painful year, but I’m a passionate fan of laughter in the workplace.

We wrote a funny script to describe the changes we’d put in place in our offices to reinforce our priority on employee safety and wellbeing.

Think about it. It’s hard to be annoyed by even your most challenging colleague after you’ve shared a good laugh. Or feel closer to a leader whose humor makes her or him more approachable.

According to a Harvard Business Review article from February 2021, research shows that “leaders with any sense of humor are seen as 27% more motivating and admired than those who don’t joke around.

Their employees are 15% more engaged, and their teams are more than twice as likely to solve a creativity challenge — all of which can translate into improved performance.”

In hiring my former communications team, a non-negotiable was the ability to both have a sense of humor and care deeply about the work. It’s not frivolous, it is adaptive.

We sought funny moments and some sensitive, yet humorous stories from leaders who were willing to show another side of themselves. We brought them to our employees and it helped them too.

Interestingly enough, these aren’t only things that were good for employees to experience and leaders to do, this was also reflective of how our communication team showed up for each other.

When I initiated a “Guess Which Team Member” Zoom game with my team before I moved on to my new role this year, it was an attempt to acknowledge how well we knew each other and the unique things we appreciated.

It required us to lean in with humility and the willingness to be vulnerable, even with the humor. We could do this because it was safe - we’d build enough trust with each other, more so over the year spent working tirelessly on COVID related internal communications.

Even I had to take it when everyone rightly yelled “Kerri!” to the question, “Guess which team member is 10 minutes late to the 15 minute they set up?”

It’s certainly a much more fun way of getting to one’s areas for improvement, that’s for sure.  And in the difficult journey that we were all on, humor was a pit stop, a release valve for stress, for overwork, for heartache, for fear.

Maybe not the most scientific proof of concept, but it was an award-worthy one.

* Kerri is currently the Global Head of Leadership at Mastercard and was previously the Global Head of Employee Communications. In addition to her team receiving the MarComm Award for Internal Communications in 2020, she was also recognized as a top leader in comms by Ragan in 2021.

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