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How Automation Helped a Small Internal Comms Team Align a Global Culture

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On this episode of Culture, Comms & Cocktails, we have Allison Nelik, head of global of internal communications at MSCI.

I’m your host, Chuck Gose, senior strategic advisor at SocialChorus. On this episode of Culture, Comms & Cocktails, we have Allison Nelik, head of global of internal communications at MSCI.

With more than 45 years of expertise in research, data, and technology, MSCI powers better investment decisions by enabling clients to understand and analyze key drivers of risk and return so they can confidently build great portfolios. The company  creates industry-leading, research-enhanced solutions that helps clients gain insight with greater transparency across the investment process.

Allison was the first internal comms hire at MSCI. In just 18 months, she is:

  • Bringing together an intelligent, entrepreneurial culture at this high growth, global company
  • Fostering bottoms-up communication with employee-generated content
  • Showcasing executive storytellers

Of course, she’ll also reveal her favorite cocktail!

“SocialChorus’ automation tools allows us to be more productive throughout the day and gives me time to focus on the things that really matter instead of spending maybe three hours on formatting a newsletter. It has been phenomenal in terms of the results we are seeing.” —Allison Nelik

We feature communications leaders every second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Don’t miss an episode of Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, brought to you by SocialChorus. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts (Apple, Google Play, Stitcher, etc.)

Culture, Comms, & Cocktails Episode #20 Transcript

Chuck Gose: Allison, welcome to Culture, Comms, & Cocktails.

Allison Nelik: Thanks Chuck. I’m happy to be here today.

Chuck Gose: Allison, it’s been great to work with you and your team there at MSCI on improving  internal communication. But let’s take a couple steps back and explain a little bit about  MSCI because I’ll admit I was not familiar with the company. It’s been around for decades. It might be a name that some listeners aren’t familiar with. So share with us what MSCI does.

Allison Nelik: Yeah, so it’s a good question because I had the same question when I first started looking at working at this company as well. But to sum it up, MSCI helps investors build better portfolios. So a lot of our clients are big, institutional investors such as asset owners and asset managers, and we provide tools and solutions for them to build better portfolios by better understanding performance and risks and  ultimately make better investment decisions. Many people have money that’s invested, and if [that money is] being professionally managed, that professional management investor is using our tools and solutions in order to help you see better returns on your portfolios.

So in the tools and solutions that we do talk about, there’s a wide range. We offer different product lines, such as indexes, environmental, social, and governance type solutions. So very ESG-related analytics and real estate tools on top of some of the industry’s top leading research and thought leadership and of course technology solutions as well. So it’s a really interesting industry to be in and a niche within the investment industry as a whole. We are a public company that was spun out of Morgan Stanley in 2007, so about 13 years ago now.

Chuck Gose: And one of the great things about what I got to do with you and the team there is come on-site, come into the office and it’s always good to see how a company operates, how people behave there. But I’m curious from your standpoint, how do you see that MSCI culture? What are some of the words that come to mind when you think of the culture at MSCI?

Allison Nelik: I think the first word that always comes to mind when somebody asks me this question is intelligence. There are so many smart people at this company. We have a crazy amount of PhDs in astrophysics and quants, and and they take a lot of pride in that amount of intelligence, that knowledge that’s shared around this company. So it’s something that at first overwhelmed me because I must admit I do not have a PhD in astrophysics, but I’ve really enjoyed working with people across this company.

It’s also very entrepreneurial. The company grew out of an idea that was built within Morgan Stanley and was eventually spun out into its own company. Now we’re a leading company in what we do by providing these tools and investment solutions. And then we’re also very much a growth company. So because of that, things are fast moving and dynamic, and when you think of all the change that’s happening, not only around the world, but in the investment industry in particular, it’s important that we keep up with the trends and the changes that are happening. So things are very dynamic at this organization.

Chuck Gose: I loved hearing you use that word, “intelligence,” because I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t think about when it comes to the culture. It made me immediately think back to when I was a communicator at Rolls Royce. And it was funny, one time I was in a room with somebody and they introduced themselves as a rocket scientist and I thought…

Allison Nelik: Interesting.

Chuck Gose: … they were being a bit facetious and no, that’s actually what they were. And I was like, “Oh yeah, that saying now makes a little more sense,” because it was amazing to see the attention and intelligence and interest and excitement around what they did every day. And I’m sure that’s a bit of what you see amongst the culture there.

Allison Nelik: There’s a lot of beautiful mind happening, so when you walk by the whiteboards in our offices it looks like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, with all the equations and formulas and numbers written all over the boards. It’s a very cool thing to be exposed to.

Chuck Gose: Hopefully minus some of the conspiracy theory of that movie!

Allison Nelik: Minus the conspiracy theory.

Chuck Gose: Now you also have employees spread all over the world. How do you see this culture playing out in different regions and what are some of those threads that connect MSCI?

Allison Nelik: Yeah, we do have about a little over 3,400 employees at this point, and we’re in 21 different countries. So it’s very interesting because we have these top line culture items that we see pretty much the ones that I just talk about. Yet every culture, every office is so different from the next, and we also have a wide range of employees. So we have our researchers and our quant modelers and our index creators all the way down to engineers and developers and some of the smartest people I’ve seen create some incredible technology at the company. So we really try to let the local offices embrace their local culture as well. Each office is going to be based on different teams and different roles and different sizes. Some of our offices have 1,600 people, some have 10, so the culture is going to be very different between those offices. So it’s really about bringing them together through this dynamic entrepreneurial and intelligent spirit, but letting them really be true to who they are within their local spaces.

Chuck Gose: Now, I’m going to open up a little secret sauce here to the show. We did have a little chat before we started recording and I completely forgot that you’d only been at MSCI for around 18 months. It seems like you’ve been there way longer, in the best way possible, because you have a good grasp of everything. But it’s interesting you joined MSCI as the first internal comms hire at the company. So what I’m curious about is how has the company adjusted or responded to having internal communicator now in-house to support the culture and all the communication efforts?

Allison Nelik: I think it goes back to what I mentioned before, that the company is really in a growth era. It was only about two years ago that we were actually listed in the S&P 500. We’re growing enormously and rapidly and the company finally decided to realize how important a strategic global communications department would be for this company as well as having a strategic internal communicator on-site. So that was one of the things that attracted me to the position was that I saw immediately from the leaders in the organization how much they were going to value the work that I was going to be doing and be supportive of changing the way that we communicate across the organization.

So that’s one of the things that I’ve really been focused on is creating that foundation for just letting employees know that there’s tons of cool things happening at this firm. And all it takes is some ideas and content creation and leadership enthusiasm to really spread the word around the firm. So watching that grow over the past 18 months has been an incredible journey.

Chuck Gose: And a big part of that change took place this past fall. You launched My MSCI and some would have been, I think a little concerned or fear-based around launching a global tool. We talked about your employees in all the countries all around the world with a relatively small comms team. I think it could have been potentially a little overwhelming to them. Why was it so important for you and the company to launch My MSCI?

Allison Nelik: I definitely had some concerns at first just thinking about how I came from a prior company where I think there were 16 internal communicators that would work with me on a project like this. [Then at MSCI it’s] down to myself and I soon realized, especially those first few months at this company, was the reason why I needed something like the My MSCI platform. I think it comes down to two main reasons and the first one is automation. The tools that your company allows us to be more productive throughout the day and then gives me time to focus on the things that really matter instead of maybe spending three hours on formatting a newsletter. It has been phenomenal in terms of the results that we are seeing. We’re able to respect global time zones. As I mentioned, we’re in 21 different countries yet being the only person that was pushing out content, everything was based on a New York time zone, which isn’t fair to employees that are based in EMEA and APAC all over the world that they’re getting their Monday newsletter at 8:00 PM at night.

It just doesn’t seem right if we talk about ourselves in a truly global aspect. And then the second reason, I talk about increasing content. There’s only so much that one person can do, and it didn’t take me long to realize that. I quickly onboarded my colleague, Joe, who is a multimedia producer and has been fantastic  creating podcasts and videos and animated designs and everything that you can imagine under the sun. But, again, there’s only so much that two people can do. So it was really time to start using the employee voice to generate content. And we went from generating about four to five intranet articles a week to now having an average of eight pieces of content a day being posted to My MSCI. So you can see how far we’ve already exceeded expectations, just in terms of tapping into the employees to share best practices, progress, celebrations, recognizing one another that it doesn’t always have to come from the center, it can come from them.

Chuck Gose: So I’d like you to repeat something that you shared.

Allison Nelik: Sure.

Chuck Gose: The  amount of content production that’s happening there. You said it was around four or five articles per week, and now it’s around eight pieces of content per day.

Allison Nelik: Yes, and that’s because it’s not just coming from the internal communications team. It’s coming from employees all over the world, whether they’re attending an MSCI-led event for clients, which is very popular. They’re holding a DNI round table that’s diversity inclusion with employees, or they’re celebrating birthdays in our Monterey office; and these are the connection points that our employees are creating with one another that are finally making them feel like they’re part of a larger community and not just the office that they belong to. And seeing that content growth was something that really opened our eyes and said people want to share, they want their colleagues to know what’s going on, the things that they’re working on and the success that they’re seeing and being part of this growth story that we have.

Chuck Gose: And you mentioned that when you brought on Joe—and Joe’s been great to work with—that part of what you guys have started creating are podcasts. And after being on-site I was pretty impressed with the podcast culture that’s building there at My MSCI. So talk about how the platform is supporting and growing the use of podcasts to connect employees.

Allison Nelik: Our executives like to tell stories. There are great storytellers and they have some really unique backgrounds. From all over our executive committee, everybody has come from different walks of life. Some have been with the company for 30 years, others have been here for just a few years and have really different backgrounds. And being able to share those thoughts and backgrounds and insights with our employees was a way that we really wanted to break down the barriers between employees and leadership and really let them get to know who our leaders actually are and have their personalities come out. So we decided to just let our executives talk. We record them, and then Joe does a really great job at arcing some stories and editing them—minimal editing, we want to keep them authentic—but just turning them into 10 minute snippets, we call it take 10 and frame them around taking 10 minutes out of your day or on your commute home to sit back and have 10 minutes with our CEO or our president.

And, so far, they’ve been great. Before we had My MSCI, employees couldn’t even listen to these things on their phone. They had to sit in front of their computers to listen. I think we can all attest to when we have Outlook email, the notifications flying in our face all day, it’s hard to take 10 minutes in front of your computer to sit and listen. So since we’ve been able to offer employees podcasts on-the-go, we’ve really seen them take to the content that we’re putting out there. And so the next step, we’re also starting to record employees. It’s not only our leaders who have some great stories to tell, it’s also the employee base who are leading innovation efforts, nailing some great wins with clients that we want to share. So we want to make sure that we get those stories out as well. And sometimes it’s just really great to hear an authentic voice telling that story rather than reading about it in an intranet article.

Chuck Gose: And I think the one apprehension I’ve heard, and I again, I love what you guys are doing there and I know a lot of other communicators are curious and interested about how to begin using podcasts internally, but I think the content side of it is a little concerning to them around identifying who are the people who should be on a podcast series or do an interview or, “How do I get them ready?” So what’s some advice for listeners who might be a little bit apprehensive about it? How do you get people excited or get them ready to be on an episode?

Allison Nelik: I think when it comes to leaders, a lot of them are very well versed in the stories that they’ve told over their career. So we pretty much let them just talk for an hour. And then as I said, we cut it down into smaller episodes so that way we can cut out anything maybe an executive doesn’t feel comfortable with that they ended up having recorded or just didn’t really fit into part of a larger story.

When it comes to employees, I find pre-interviews work well. Hopping on the phone with them and getting the story from them first so you can figure out how to help them arc a story. As we know, everybody likes to talk about their accomplishments, but sometimes some of us need help in making the main points that we want to hit and the examples we want to share. So we hop on some pre-interviews with employees to get that story first and then turn it into a recorded podcast at a later date.

Chuck Gose: And it’s been great to hear, whether it’s the podcast with leadership getting so involved with it, but it was also really cool to hear how excited they’ve been with My MSCI and the launch and since that launch. So, talk a little bit about their involvement and enthusiasm with it.

Allison Nelik: I got a directive pretty early on in my time here that some of the leaders at our company are really looking for a revolution in employee communications. They really want to see more bottoms-up communication. They want to hear employee voices. They don’t want everything coming from the top down. So when I finally showed them a way that we have an organic platform that really meets employees where they are and mimics the way that they share externally, but now they can do that internally and share snackable, digestible pieces of content instead of thousand-word essays all the time, and that they can stay connected and aligned to the firm. It really rang a true bell with our leadership and they were really excited about it. A lot of emails with a lot of exclamation points. So, we were happy to see that.

Chuck Gose: And that’s it. Any time you can get leaders to use exclamation points in a positive way, that’s a good sign. That’s a good sign.

Allison Nelik: Yeah, I would have to agree.

Chuck Gose: And what I see a lot of times, Allison, is when goes through a launch and not just even the implementation of it, but the ongoing maintenance and creation and building of a new internal comms platform, communicators are pretty harsh on themselves. So I’m curious from your perspective, if you had to give you and the company, because obviously I mean you were a leader in this, but you had other people pitching to help, whether on the tech side or the content side, what grade would you give yourself on the launch and then perhaps more importantly, what grade do you think the company would give you?

Allison Nelik: That’s an interesting question. So it’s funny, I had a B in my mind and then when you said that we tend to be more harsh on ourselves, I decided to give myself a little bit more credit and my team and give us a B plus. I think it’s a bit of the 20/20 hindsight and the Monday morning quarterback where if you look back there are definitely things you could have done differently. But there were a lot of things that we really did right. Really making sure that the My MSCI platform was integrated into all of the channels that employees use to access their content. So whether they are using SharePoint, email, their phone, the desktop experience, it’s there for them; and we’ve seen that be really effective and watched behaviors form through [using] the app and the platform, rather than forcing it. We’re taking an organic approach. 

So, we’re glad that we didn’t pigeonhole ourselves too early so we can quickly adapt to the changes that we’re seeing. I hope that my organization would maybe give me an A minus. I think employees here, for a long time, have been hungry for more information and news flowing inside the company. They’ve wanted to tap in to see what other people are doing and celebrate  things happening across the firm. And I think, finally, and we’re seeing that with the increase in content that’s happening. If employees want to share, they finally have an easy way to access timely and relevant content.

Chuck Gose: Now, do you want to know what grade I would give you, Allison?

Allison Nelik: Yeah, of course.

Chuck Gose: Solid A to A plus.

Allison Nelik: All right!

Chuck Gose: And here’s why. It’s because you and the team there were hungry, were enthusiastic, were looking for ways to make My MSCI as best as it can be, knowing that it’s not going to be perfect right out the gate or ever truly perfect. But you guys are going to put in the energy and effort to make it as great as it can be for employees, and that’s the part that I liked hearing from you and Joe and others.  It was about the MSCI employees and what were they going to get out of it, what was going to draw them in; not as self-serving for you, but building it for them. And having that approach is, I think, what built My MSCI into the success that it is.

And I only see it growing, whether it is more podcasts or more employees generating or more employees signing up, whatever that is. And even the fact that you’ve mentioned that you’re letting people pick where they get it. You’re not saying you have to go here. It is you can get it mobile, you can get it in the desktop, you can read the news in SharePoint. It’s the fact that they are now connected through My MSCI to their peers around the world.

Allison Nelik: Oh well, thanks, Chuck. That makes me feel better.

Chuck Gose: Absolutely. But again, I don’t get to decide your bonus and that kind of stuff, but if I had input, I would…

Allison Nelik: Really? You sure you can’t write a letter to the top people here?

Chuck Gose: You know what? I’m happy to do that, Allison; just send me the email address.

We talked a little about the culture there and the communications activities and I think, honestly, Allison, anybody listening to this would be impressed by, even if they didn’t know MSCI  before, I think they have a great idea now and what you and Joe and others there are looking to accomplish. So, the podcast always ends with cocktails. Before we get into the cocktail, I did want to share with everyone listening—and I did get permission for this—you are expecting your first, so congratulations.

Allison Nelik: Thank you very much. Coming in mid February, 2020.

Chuck Gose: There you go. So, you can’t probably enjoy your favorite cocktail now. I will ask what was your favorite cocktail prior, or what’s that cocktail you’re looking forward to when you can?

Allison Nelik: Yeah, just even thinking about it makes me wish I had one sitting in front of me right now, but it’s a good old Negroni with Hendrick’s gin. I love a Negroni. Been drinking them for years and years and years so well at least as long as I’ve been allowed to drink them and they’re definitely my go-to cocktail.

Chuck Gose: Well, you won me over with Hendrick’s gin. That’s my favorite gin.

Allison Nelik: Awesome.

Chuck Gose: Well, thank you, Allison, again. Really, it’s been great to see the work that you and Joe and the others there at MSCI have put into making My MSCI the early success it is, and I only see the success growing as it integrates more into the culture. Think about it: as new employees join the organization, what a great resource this platform will be for them. 

Allison Nelik: Absolutely. We’re very much looking forward to seeing the growth of this over the next few years here.

Chuck Gose: Well, thank you for your time today, Allison.

Allison Nelik: All right, thanks so much Chuck. It was a great conversation.

Chuck Gose: If you enjoyed this episode and want to check out others, find Culture, Comms, & Cocktails on Apple podcast, Google play, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. And when you do, hit that subscribe button so you don’t miss any future episodes. This has been Culture, Comms, & Cocktails, internal comm served straight up. Thanks for listening.


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Chuck Gose

Chuck Gose

I am a self-proclaimed Skyline Chili connoisseur and Duran Duran fan with nearly 20 years of experience in marketing, corporate communications, and internal communications. My passion and enthusiasm for the communications profession began early in my career at General Motors and Rolls-Royce, Since then, I have focused on weaving internal communications and technology in creative ways. I'm also the co-creator of The Periodic Table of Internal Communications and The Very Hungry Communicator. But most importantly, I got to fly in a blimp once.

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