Empathy and authenticity key to outstanding communications

Laurie Dawkins, ABC, MC
Vice President (interim), Communications, Public Affairs & Community Engagement
Vancouver Coastal Health

Laurie Dawkins received the Master Communicator (MC) designation from the International Association of Business Communicator Canada (IABC) Canada West in 2017.

It is IABC’s highest honor which recognizes outstanding Canadian communication professionals whose achievements have raised the standards of organizational communication in Canada. Linda Andross was Canada East’s recipient.

Laurie is a communications executive with over 24 years experience in leading highly engaged teams, breaking down barriers and inspiring success in corporate communication, employee engagement, reputation management, and media, government and stakeholder relations.

She is an influential advocate in the business communications profession, recognized for speaking, teaching, volunteerism, and thought leadership.

How did you feel when you heard you were a recipient?
Proud, because I knew that pretty much all of the people I respect most professionally had contributed to my nomination, but also humbled . . . for the very same reason. I spent the rest of the day smiling and resisting the urge to skip in the office!

IABC opened my eyes to a world of possibilities

What is it about IABC that drives this passion and your belief in the organization and your local chapter?
For the first six years of my career, I worked in places where I was pretty much the only communicator. I had a degree and a bit of work experience, but I “didn’t know what I didn’t know” . . . you know? I was a member of IABC but not really making use of my membership so I started volunteering.

My eyes were opened to whole new world of specialties within the profession and to the amazingly generous members of the IABC/BC chapter who were willing to take me under their wings and share communication plans and advice whenever I had to try something new.

Once I was on the local chapter board, I couldn’t stop! I served on the board for nine years straight and then started trying out international roles. I loved the feeling of community and of belonging to something bigger than myself; it wasn’t long before I was mentoring others and honestly, it’s such a rush to truly help others be successful – by mentoring, teaching, helping them advance their own careers, and see them pay it forward.

I don’t think I could ever stop being involved. Being a member and volunteer with IABC is good for your soul!

Next to your passion about IABC, you’re dedicated to communications as a profession, seeing it evolve and advance, and also helping young professionals and comms professionals new to Vancouver. It’s both generous and altruistic of you. But what’s the inspiration behind it? What drives you to give?
IABC members were generous with me when I was starting out and I see it as my responsibility to pay it forward. Plus, it’s good karma! Yes, I’m in a great role right now, but I honestly believe you never know where your next gig is coming from and the person I help today, could be my boss tomorrow. And I like having a reputation as someone who is approachable and kind. It makes me feel good!

From a shy child to a Master Communicator

Let’s talk about communicating. Did being a stellar communicator come naturally to you, or is it something that you have had to work at over the years? If it’s the latter, have you employed any tools or techniques to help hone your talents?
I was always expressive, but not necessarily a natural communicator. Growing up, I was good at art and creative writing, but I was incredibly shy; I couldn’t deliver a book report without sweating and shaking (which was a shame because book reports were awesome!).

I knew I couldn’t go through life like that so in grade 11 and 12, I ran for student council because it forced me to give speeches to the entire student body, and I also competed in the Miss Penticton Peach Queen pageant because they offered Toastmaster training . . . and then made you do public speaking in a swimsuit, tiara and white high heels. After that, pretty much any form of fully-clothed communication is a cake walk!

I have learned to be a better communicator by repeatedly taking chances, taking on roles or volunteer assignments that felt beyond my current comfort zone on the belief that with support, I could rise to the challenge. IABC has never let me down in that respect!

We all communicate all the time and, chances are, a lot of us think we’re better at it than we really are. As a Master Communicator, can you share with us some of the secrets about impactful and effective communications? And in your work and volunteer activities, how do you talk authentically, motivate people, and listen so people will open up?
Wow. I feel presumptuous in even trying to answer this! Even with the Master Communicator designation, I don’t have a lock on impactful or effective communication, but I really do pride myself on being authentic and empathetic and I think that builds trust with those who I am fortunate to work and volunteer.

As a leader, I work hard to consistently share what I know, meaning I try to be generous with information. At work, I communicate with my team members about what needs to be done as well as my belief about WHY it needs to be done. (Yes, I am a fan of Simon Sineck!)

I am transparent about my own state of mind – if I had a rough morning with my kids and my head’s not in the game, I share that so people know where I’m coming from. Someone else can potentially take the lead, and so they can also openly show up as human beings with their own wants, needs and worries, and not feel like that has to be left at home.

I firmly believe that we should bring our “whole selves” to work because every aspect of who we are impacts our communication; the more of that we can share, the easier (and more interesting!) it is to connect with each and together create impactful and effective communication campaigns and strategies.

Want to build trust? Become authentic and empathetic in all aspects of your life

What are some of the biggest challenges individuals within organizations face when it comes to communications? Are there similar kinds of issues you see over and over, and what are the solutions?
The issue I see over and over again is senior leaders or executives, chasing “shiny things,” essentially looking for the quick fix or the new best practice from another high profile company to emulate and magically increase employee engagement. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeking inspiration – that’s a good thing! But it needs to be paired with an understanding that to effect meaningful change and truly advance engagement, it takes sustained effort by all leaders and not just those with “Communications” in their title.

I like to think that one of the things I do best is help executives find their voice, allowing them to show up authentically and be part of that effort. To do that, I get to know them and appreciate what they enjoy doing and what scares them, and then work them on both the messages and the stories that will help them connect with employees and partners.

I also create the events, opportunities or communication channels that will best showcase them where they will feel most comfortable and confident, and by extension express themselves most authentically. It’s not a quick fix, but it’s impactful and generally, it increases engagement for not only the employees but the executives themselves.

And when it comes to leadership, if there is one piece of advice on communicating that you’d impart, what would it be?

Be generous – with your time, your attention, your praise, your consideration of others’ feelings, and also with well-timed home baking.

Regarding the latter, I specialize in cheesecakes and I always make time to bake cheesecakes to celebrate the birthdays of those on my teams! In all seriousness, I feel guilty and know I haven’t really been showing up as the leader I aspire to be if people start their conversations with me with, “I know you’re really busy, but . . .”. That’s a red flag to me that I’ve been too focused on myself and my own “to-do” list and that I need to push away from the keyboard and focus on the people in front of me. They either need me or I need to learn something from them.

Empathy in the moment

In this new age of social media and data, what kinds of communications practitioners do you seek out? Apart from being great communicators, what skills should they possess?
I look for people who are curious and creative so they are always on the lookout for new ways to engage audiences; people who are strategic in their ability to look across all of the many different ways to get messages out and connect the dots to make sure we are being coordinated and thoughtful of our target audiences; and also people who are resilient.

I find that communicators tend to do double-duty as guidance counsellors and the moral compass of the organizations they serve and if you want to be successful, you need to be empathetic in the moment, but also let things go so you are ready for tomorrow.

Change is constant – and so a combined skill set of communications and change management is highly valued

Looking to the future, what do you foresee as some of the biggest opportunities and challenges facing PR practitioners? Any thoughts on taking advantage of what lies ahead or how to prepare for challenges?
It sounds cliché, but I think we have all come to accept that change is constant – it happens now at a truly breathtaking rate. As part of this I see a growing convergence of what used to be two different skill sets in communication and change management, and it is an asset to find people trained in both areas, with either direct experience in both, or at least the ability to speak/appreciate the language of both disciplines.

Individuals with this kind of background bring a lot of thoughtfulness and humanity to their communication strategies, and because they tend to get to the crux of what people really need to hear and see from leaders or their organization, they tend to have greater and more lasting impact on operational goals and objectives. So having an understanding of both communications and change management – formally or informally – makes you a more valuable partner in dealing with the challenge of change.

Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness

Who have been the biggest influences on you, your thinking, and how you approach your work?
Honestly, my mum remains the biggest influence on my life. She died unexpectedly when I was only 30 years old, and at a time in one’s life when you are only just starting to appreciate how wise your parents really are. She raised me as a single parent and we were close; I thought I knew everything about her, but I was wrong. She was soft-spoken and gentle and a lovely human being, but I sometimes thought she was a push-over because she always seemed to put the needs of others ahead of her own and I couldn’t understand why.

But in the days leading up to her funeral, I had the opportunity to interact with many of her clients and friends, and every single one of them was moved to tears as they told me about her influence on their lives, both personally and professionally.

My mum’s generosity helped her clients and friends reach their own full potential – they had started businesses, embraced their lives as imperfect parents, taken risks because she stated her belief in them.

When I think of my mum now, I think of the saying, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness” and this is how I approach my own work and life. I try to treat everyone with kindness. I remember to thank them, remember their birthdays, look them in the eyes when I have to deliver tough news, and when I create communication strategies I make them people-focused. I am mindful of what would I need to hear, and how would I want to be communicated with in order to understand or embrace whatever change is about to take place.

Funnily enough, sometimes people accuse me of being too kind, but those closest to me know that just like my mum, I’m kind, but I have a spine and if you need me, I will stand tall for you.

Communications pro Laurie Dawkins

Laurie is based in Vancouver and is a Master Communicator (MC) and an Accredited Business Communicator (ABC), and an overall insightful and collaborative leader with a solid reputation for executive counsel, strategic planning, multi-site operations, performance-based decision making, timely problem-solving, and a dynamic and authentic style of communication. She gets things done and helps her team members enjoy the journey!

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Sheelagh Caygill

Sheelagh Caygill is an award-winning content marketer, communications practitioner, and journalist. She is based in Toronto and currently looking for new opportunities. Sheelagh has worked for media organizations and also the corporate and non-profit sector in Canada and the U.K.

4 comments

  • Sheelagh, thank you for honouring me with this profile. It’s a bit like receiving the MC designation all over again!

  • Thanks Sheelagh for an excellent interview with our latest Master Communicator. Laurie has, and continues to make a meaningful contribution to the oft-neglected field of employee communications. She brings a much-needed dose of humanity to the workplace and helps others do the same. I’m proud to count her as a colleague and a friend.

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