By nickjohnson - May 20th, 2013
Jeff Shafer is responsible for global communications at Lenovo, the US$30 billion personal technology company and the world’s second-largest PC vendor.
He is one of 40+ senior communications and marketing executives who contributed to the Incite: Summit East.
We spent some time with Jeff investigation his approach to communications - from the nauseating term ‘glocal’ to the ‘new’ trend for storytelling in communications. He was so generous with his time that we have split the interview in two. Part one covers the organisational model of communications at Lenovo, his approach to the term 'glocal', and the internal relationship between marketing and communications functions. Part two will be released on Wednesday May 22.
First off, Jeff, can you tell us a little about your role and remit at Lenovo?
Sure. I’m the Vice-President of Global Corp Comms, so the head of Lenovo’s corporate communications function. I’m involved in public relations, internal communications, financial communications, reputation management and a few elements of social. My job here is also to be responsible for all worldwide communications - that’s not necessarily every communication that happens worldwide, though.
One of the big things we’ve found through our research is that there is significant change coming in the relationship between marketing and communications functions. The line between the two appears to be blurring - because of things like the rise of social media, the proliferation of data sources and the increasing need for a company to be customer centric.
What’s the structure of your relationship with Marketing?
First and foremost, it’s pretty direct - because my boss is the CMO! Frankly, that has been great. There are lots of different arguments for where Communications can reside, but I happen to have a company and a Chief Marketing Officer that puts a lot of stock into the ability of PR, both at a corporate level as well as at a product level, to help move the needle on brand and on consideration, and the internal side. He’s also highly supportive as far as making sure that employees understand the brand and strategy.
And how do you, based in Raleigh NC, work with the regional Heads of Communications around the world?
It’s quite autonomous. It’s not as if every member of staff in corporate communications/PR reports directly to me around the world. We’re a major organisation, with 30,000 employees across 100 countries. So we’ve divided up into 4 geographical organisations - China, Asia Pacific, the Americas and EMEA. Each one of those units has a Head of Comms - and that person then reports into me.
They’re responsible for the activities that are directly related to the business in their geography, and we allow those guys to operate with a degree of independence, as long as they’re aligned with company message/priorities/timing/strategy.
Essentially, I lead a community of communications professionals across Lenovo. Directly, there are maybe 30 or so people that are reporting to me. Indirectly, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-70 people who are working in our PR and communications functions.
We’re finding that there are a wide variety of organisational models that large companies use to organise the Communications function - and specifically, there’s disagreement on how this function should work with marketing. Why is it that Lenovo has chosen to have the Communications function report up to the CMO, as opposed to other models? Would you say this is the ‘normal’ approach?
I think that it is one of several kinds of normal. It’s not entirely unusual for communications to report to marketing. It could also report to the Chief Operating Officer, or the CEO. On some occasions, I’ve seen the Communications function report into HR.
I think it’s fundamentally a question of the management structure of the company - where do we want to put it? What’s more important than ‘location’ of the Communications department is how that department is allowed to operate.
And I’m allowed to operate with a lot of independence/freedom. While I report to CMO, who happens to be pretty enlightened about what we do, I don’t consider our function is beholden only to marketing priorities of the company.
As long as the Corp Comms function has the freedom to be objective, the ability to provide an outside point of view on things that are going on, even within the organisation that it reports to, then I think you’re ok.
‘Glocal’ is a somewhat nauseating, but nevertheless increasingly popular buzzword.
What does ‘glocal’ mean to Lenovo
First of all, I promise never to use the word ‘glocal’! I don’t like the word, it sounds silly. My personal preference is ‘global-local’.
I think there are two important points to make here.
Point one is that you cannot necessarily run a ‘global-local’ Communications function unless you have to some degree a more holistic ‘global-local’ strategy as a company.
Lenovo does have that global-local approach.
We are a 30,000 person company, we’ve got people in about 100 countries, we’ve got HQ operations here in Raleigh NC, as well as in Beijing. We’ve got regional HQs in Singapore, and in Milan.
We also own manufacturing operations in China, India, Brazil, Japan and the USA - and distribution facilities in Eastern Europe, Russia, Mexico and a number of other places. Through M&A, we also have operations in Germany, Japan, and Brazil.
We do not simply have all our HQ functions in one place, and sales operations in other places.
We actually place some high value functions across all the different markets we operate in. And that’s a different approach to the typical ‘globalised’ company. The traditional ‘global company’ has been a Western company that eventually decides to build things in less expensive markets, and sell things around world - but keeps high value management functions in one place - typically in a Western, mature market. With Lenovo we have always dispersed our leadership and our high value functions. We have seven nationalities in our top 10 executives, 20 nationalities in the top 100.
I go through all of that because the company itself is dispersed in a unique way around the world.
As a result, our communications function is dispersed in a unique way around the world. We’ve got Communications people in lots of different places. And we don’t feel the need to centralise all of them under one roof in one location, or even 2 - 3 roofs in 2 - 3 locations.
So there’s this fundamental global/local DNA at the company.
And then we look at how we operate from a Communications standpoint. As I mentioned, we split into 4 geographical units. Each one is run by a communications leader who reports jointly into that geography’s marketing function, as well as into the person who runs that particular geographical unit.
We empower these people more than most other companies do - they are responsible to me, in that they 'dotted line' report in to me, but even more so because they rely on the global function that provides strategic direction, messaging, all of the corporate stuff - financials etc. We also provide them with the tools that allow them to go and promote products etc.
But they own their region. They operate in their region with a big free hand and a lot of independence because, fundamentally - they know it better than I do.
I may be really good at knowing what the Wall Street Journal is interested in on a global level, but I’ve no idea what the Economic Times of India wants today. But my people in India do. So they run with a lot of independence.
In addition to that, uniquely I think for my company, our CEO Yang Yuanqing has given me the specific mandate that he wants our local, regional and country General Managers to be the voice of Lenovo. He wants them to be out there, known and respected in their markets as visible business leaders, and so in order to do that we allow our country General Managers to do some things that a lot of other companies don’t - for instance, look at how we approach Earnings Calls.
The general approach across corporations is that CEO and CFO are the only voices that speak at Earnings. And that’s certainly how we start.
But at earnings, I want Amar Babu, our GM in India, out there talking in the Indian business media about our performance. And I want our Asia Pacific GM doing the Asia Pacific versions of CNBC and CNN. We want our geographical unit heads to be visible public leaders - the caretakers and storytellers, and the people who are out there carrying this message forwards.
You say that your geographical units are unusually autonomous. I want to investigate what that means practically from a Communications standpoint. To what extent can these guys dictate their own messages and Communications strategies. To what extent can they alter global brand messaging to suit their own priorities?
The first thing to make clear is that the only way you build a powerful global brand is by having a consistent global brand. So you need your people adhering to fundamental global ideas.
While we may do different things based on language and culture, we have to preserve our core idea of “For Those Who Do”, ie people who have affinity for Lenovo products are those who want the quality/power/tech capabilities that we’ve built.
So we work with worldwide Heads of Communications to provide a framework, the core messages about the product. We work with them to create some consistent timing about when we want to launch things and what we want to do.
But they can absolutely tailor this stuff. My view of ‘the right message' is from a Western, American standpoint - and that may be completely wrong for what’s important in India, Brazil or China.
There’s no way that I can be successful at dictating with an iron hand what the message about any particular issue ought to be, or the approach we need to take that’s going to help to sell that product in the market.
Let me give you some examples. In some places, the message might be all about design. For some, it’s all about power. For some, it’s all about having a brand that people like. In China, it’s really important that people know we’re a global brand. While we’re the top brand in China and one of the top companies in China, these people buy from us because they know we’re global.
Fundamentally, you’ve to to have a team you trust to tailor a message. After all, PR is inherently local.
What you as an individual see and read is only effective in the context of your experience, your culture, your language, your expectations and what else you’re exposed to.
So you’ve got to have a team out there that can do tailor our message in that way - so we allow them to do that. We allow a lot of autonomy, but it’s all done under a consistent brand framework - with timing and messaging that is directed by us.
When it comes to core global issues, we dictate though, Obviously, we dictate financial messaging firmly. We handle major crises and issues in a central way. But for the rest of it, we need that autonomy. We need these guys to understand their markets, and tell our story in a way that makes sense there.
This concludes part one of our in-depth interview with Jeff Shafer, VP of Global Corporate Communications at Lenovo. Part Two is available here. You can sign up to receive all our articles in our weekly Wednesday eBrief here.
Jeff is one of 40 global communications and marketing leaders who spoke at the Incite: Summit East in September 2013. Find out more here.