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Each month, we interview a prominent communication professional about a ‘lights on’ moment they’ve experienced in their career. This month we speak with author of Conversations of Change: A Guide to Implementing Workplace Change, Dr Jen Frahm.

Can you describe a major ‘lights on’ moment in your career…an event, occurrence or moment in your career when you learned a powerful lesson that significantly changed your approach?

Sure can! My lights on moment came about in the early part of my PhD and I have the ‘stinky smokers’ to thank for it!

What was the background to your ‘lights on’ moment?

It was in 2003 I think, and prior to this I had been working in marketing, change management and communication roles. I was one year into my PhD research and part of the research methodology I was working in an energy company with their change management team (I was supporting the change communications). The lead change manager came back from outside the building smelling of cigarette smoke (She was a non smoker). I asked her what was up, and she explained she’d just been out talking with some of the people she thought would be really influential in the change process.

What was the major lesson you learned?

It’s not the communication *of* change that matters,  it’s the communication *during* change. It was really pivotal for me. It doesn’t mean that all of the change communication that relates to providing information is unimportant, it just means you need equal attention on creating containers for conversation and the sense-making that goes on in the background. I needed to be thinking about who the informal communicators were who had influence and meet them where they were.

How have you applied that lesson in your career and what has the impact been?

Well, I quickly added that observation as an element of my doctoral research to study and validate! And there was a big section on the “background talk of change” in my thesis. But in practice, it is huge. All of the change communication work I do addresses what’s going on that is *not* spoken, what is *not* communicated formally. Rumour, gossip, sense-making – it’s all part of the informal communication during change and will negatively or positively impact your change success.

How do you believe other communication professionals could benefit from your experience and the lesson you’ve learned?

Many managers want to ignore rumour, gossip, anything that is not shared with them in an formal forum. It’s often invalidated. But your background talk is the barometer of your change success. I would encourage other communications professionals (if they are not already) to work out who are the informal leaders of the organisation and work out how they will engage with them on a regular basis during the change. Luckily with things like enterprise Social Networks and Organisational Network Analysis this has never been easier. We didn’t have these in 2002 – that’s why we hung out with the stinky smokers!