JC Lapierre has spent her entire 24-year career with PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), holding positions in HR, marketing & sales, and leading strategy and operations for the US firm before being named chief communications officer in July. At that time, she assumed responsibility for running the newly integrated function, as well as overseeing the employee communications that have kept PwC’s 55,000 team members in the US engaged and informed throughout the latter half of the year.

Lapierre spoke with PRovoke about what it took to master the CCO role despite not having previously worked in communications, how the multinational professional services firm’s US operations withstood the year’s challenges and what the company’s future looks like. An edited transcript:

You were named CCO after 24 years with PwC, but no direct experience in communications. How did that happen?

I consider myself a lifetime student. PwC is just an incredible operation and a really large playground to try different things. I have had the incredible opportunity to be in client service, I’ve worked in human capital to really help all our people develop, I’ve worked marketing and sales and prior to this role I worked directly with our (US) CEO Tim Ryan on firmwide strategy and as his chief of staff. I think that in order to be an effective communicator you have to understand the organization. Equally as important as understanding how to communicate is understanding the story you’re going to tell. I am just genuinely interested in sharing that with other people. And so I may not have the mechanics of communications but we have a lot of incredible people in our group that do. And what I bring is the passion, the story and I also still have responsibility for helping create our business strategy.

So, how's it going? 

It’s been incredible. I love the opportunity to get to work with people, to learn new things. And perhaps what I can bring to that group that is a little big different is the most direct knowledge of our strategy and where we are trying head and how we can possibly get there. In my mind, it’s fairly simple what we need to accomplish as a team. One is to bring more value to our clients. Two is to grow the connection that all our stakeholders have to our brand. And three is to accelerate our strategy. And it’s been an absolute privilege to learn all these different things and the skills and capabilities that our team has to tie that to our strategy and then how to go after each of our stakeholders so we can accomplish it.

There is a lot of discussion in the industry about the importance of bringing comms into the C-suite. But in some ways, you are bringing the C-suite into communications.

For me, I believe one of the most important things an organization can do is to allow the communications function a seat at the table, not just to share the strategy with stakeholders but being part of helping to create it. Because the communications function sits at the table with business leaders, our team is always listening and they bring back critical feedback to help inform and shape our strategy. And this year brought to life how important that was in a year in which the way we all work and the things we all know sort of shifted automatically and immediately. And the comms team really helped to drive how we steered the ship of our firm through 2020. 

What is the larger business strategy you are referring to?

Our strategy ties to our purpose. And our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. So two of the ways in which we do that is bringing people and tech to everything we do, to solve those complex problems. An enormous part of our strategy has been our digital transformation, and we have invested $2 billion over the last three years to upskill our entire firm. We brought 55,000 people along in the journey to equip them with the tools, the skills. We have trained 55,000 people on storytelling about how to take those tools, those technologies and apply them to what you’re hearing from your clients so that you can drive more value and better decision making to the problems at hand and opportunities for our clients.  We have also been incredibly focused on diversity and inclusion. We fully believe and know that when we bring more diverse teams together we can do better and solve bigger and more complex problems. And so we have been driving through our firm, also through CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion (which Ryan co-founded), helping organizations be more inclusive, to really bring that thinking to everything that they do. But ultimately our strategy is to bring more value to our clients in a more tech-enabled fashion, and to take care of our people. And in this year, really managing for the safety and wellbeing of our people has been most critical. 

How have you handled that safety and wellbeing piece this year?

When Covid hit in mid-March and the world shifted underneath us, we thought to ourselves that we don’t have all the answers. Everyone is looking for them. It’s a very uncertain time. And how can we best create some kind of certainty for our people in a very uncertain time. We used to connect with our people twice a year in having town halls with our CEO, with Tim. We went to weekly town halls. We went live to everybody once a week and our comms team helped drive putting together the way in which we would get to our people but really driving the content and making sure we were living our purpose and making sure we were taking care of our people in the best way. I think one of the mistakes people make about leadership is thinking that leadership means you have to have the answers. And for us we think leadership means you have to be transparent, you have to be authentic and you have to listen and respond. In having weekly webcasts, it allowed us to share what we knew, what resources we could help make available to our people so we could continue to bring value to our clients and care for our people and also listen to help us figure out how to drive our strategy in the next week, and what we needed to share in information for the following week. For four months, we did them weekly and out of 55,000 people we’d have 35,000 show up every week. Then we moved to monthly. 

How has the current crises impacted employees’ relationships with leaders?

I don’t think we’ll ever go back to (town halls) less than monthly. I really, really love what it’s taught us and how its allowed us to drive our strategy in a more focused way and share more information with our people on an ongoing basis. Our CEO Tim is really transparent and authentic and brings humanity to these. When we talked about new mental health resources we brought online, Tim stood up first and was the one to say his family was taking advantage of and using them because his kids came to him and said they needed a little bit of help. And I think that demonstrating that humanity, that we all feel that way, is, again, that leadership isn’t always having answers and having strength. It’s also showing your vulnerabilities and showing that we are in this together and are going to get through it together. 

Has the tone as well as the frequency of internal communications been impacted?

In this year, we’ve had to confront how we want to talk about what’s happening outside our four walls. And how do we bring a different level of transparency, one that is rooted in our values, and how we stay true to how we care for each other, how we work together, how we continue to reimagine the possible. The shift for more is less about the level of transparency but it’s the topics we are being transparent about, that we’ve talked about as a firm, such as when George Floyd was murdered, such as the election in recognizing the division that exists within our society. And it’s not our place to suggest how anyone should vote, but we believe in democracy. We also believe in respecting each other and different points of view. So (we look at) how do we work together to not be divisive because we are one big team, and we are all working together. So we can really come back and really stay true to our values as we navigate through an incredibly difficult year for everybody.