Jess lonsdale, rio tinto - kademy

Jess Lonsdale, Global Director, Employee Communications, Rio Tinto

When Jess Lonsdale joined Rio Tinto as Global Director of Employee Communications in 2023, she quickly embarked on the lofty task of restructuring the company’s global comms team. With employees spread across Australia, Canada and London, Jess aimed to establish an agile, “glocal” structure that would be responsive to the business’s ongoing needs.

Jess shared valuable insights from her experience in redesigning her team at Kademy’s recent member roundtable, attended by comms leaders. Below, she elaborates on some of those key learnings and takeaways.

 

Jess, thanks for joining us. How did you approach redesigning your comms team?

My first step was to define the exam question. By that, I mean digging into the ‘why’ and ‘why now’. I spent time working out the problems we had to solve, the business outcomes we needed to drive and what we wanted to achieve as a team. In my experience, leaders often skip over this phase too quickly, but spending adequate time here is critical. If you don’t, you can’t effectively reflect on the outcome of a redesign. I advise leaders to approach this stage with curiosity, engage in conversations with key stakeholders – even when challenging – examine performance data and analyse key learnings from past team changes.

Defining the exam question - rio tinto

What did you uncover in this exam phase?

We were well aware of the key challenges we needed to address, which included optimising talent, removing siloed activity and adapting our structure to better serve Rio’s evolving needs and cultural transformation. Ultimately, we needed to better align with company-wide priorities. To achieve this, we aimed to create a “glocal” team that could effectively operate on global and local levels in support of business growth.

 

How did this translate into practical team changes?

Three principles guided the evolution of our team. First, we had to clarify remits in our team and ensure we had a structure that aligned with Rio Tinto’s business priorities. Second, we needed to build capabilities and dedicated resources to help us be fit for the future. Third, we needed to create synergy between group comms, the business’s respective geographies and functions, and the product groups.

Principles for evolving our team - rio tinto

Were there any new roles you incorporated into your team that you consider particularly valuable for a comms function today?

We created a planning, performance and process role for the first time. Acting as ‘air traffic control’, the role enables us to continually review performance and drive improvement in the team. It has made a big difference by allowing us to better plan, control messages and organise campaigns. It’s great to have someone with an almost bird’s-eye view of what is going on in the team.

 

At our roundtable, you mentioned that the hard work often starts when you have the new structure down on paper. Can you tell us more?

When navigating a team redesign it’s critical not to overlook or downplay the fact that you are dealing with people. Change is uncertain and overwhelming for many of us and simply having a new structure doesn’t mean that behaviours change automatically. As leaders, we have to be very intentional about bringing our teams along on the journey and supporting them to embrace and adapt to new or revised roles and changes in the team.

 

How can leaders best support their teams through this period?

It is important to create psychological safety in any way possible. You can begin by ensuring that everyone knows what they are accountable for and are expected to deliver. Setting clear objectives, co-creating your plan with the team, holding more regular 1:1s with line managers and increasing time spent in person are also good ways to provide support.

I think training is a crucial component as well. Once we had our new structure in place, we partnered with Kademy to provide dedicated training on topics that we identified as crucial for our team’s success – such as stakeholder engagement and strategic planning. This is helping our globally dispersed team to learn, connect and grow together.

 

Do you have any final nuggets of advice for comms leaders who are navigating a team redesign?

First, think about your team and how you can support them through the change. It’s critical to have your virtual door open at all times so you can listen to concerns, address questions and provide reassurance.

Second, focus on “where you play and how you win”. We can’t do everything as leaders but we can create absolute clarity for our teams by articulating how their role and remit drives maximum impact for the business. I advise leaders not to underestimate the ‘softer’ leadership skills. Taking time to listen, learn and connect with your team is fundamental to achieving high performance.

Finally, remember to celebrate successes and have fun! As a comms team, we work incredibly hard to be first-class strategic advisors and execute seamlessly as one team. Our structure needs to enable our ways of working while allowing us to celebrate success and have fun along the way. I think of our team as a pod of dolphins – calm, focused, playful and working effortlessly together.

Thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with our community Jess.

 


Want to join fellow comms leaders at our upcoming roundtable?

Leveraging GenAI’s potential can add big gains to the comms function, from increasing productivity to supporting content creation. But how can you harness the benefits whilst mitigating some of the risks? At our next comms leader roundtable, you’ll have the chance to hear how fellow comms leaders are using GenAI and approaching their adoption plans. We’ll give you the space to explore the big questions with your peers, including:

  • Where can GenAI provide the most value to the comms function?
  • How you can you move your team from exploratory GenAI use to more strategic adoption?
  • How can you make the most of the opportunities while ensuring safe use?

Not a Kademy member? Email us here to find out how you can secure a spot.