Angela Buonocore is senior vice president and chief communications officer for Xylem, a spinoff business from ITT Corporation. She is responsible for global brand and reputation management, public relations, employee communications, corporate advertising, community relations and corporate philanthropy.
INTERVIEWER: It’s March 21, 2012 and we’re talking with Angela Buonocore, senior vice president and Chief Communications Officer for Xylem. We’re here at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York and this is for the Page Center Oral History project. Angela, could you tell us a little bit about your career trajectory, from your experience at the University of Florida to where you are at Xylem. What happened? How did you get where you are?
BUONOCORE: Sure. Well, it’s been a 30+ year career so it would take a long time to take you through the whole story, but I’ll take you through the abbreviated version. Let me take you through a little history of my career starting with—I completed my Bachelor of Science degree out of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida with a concentration in advertising. I was always very interested in storytelling and originally had planned to major in English or Literature and gravitated more toward the commercial side, thinking that I would either go into journalism or advertising. And as it happened, when I completed my bachelor’s degree, I was lucky enough to have interviewed with General Electric Company and to be offered a position with GE in upstate New York. I’m originally from New York, the idea of moving back—at least in the vicinity of New York City was appealing. But what was even more appealing I think, as a college graduate was to be able to join a company with a very, very powerful brand that was known worldwide. And if you will look at my resume, that has been my history. I am a person who loves big brands and I love building brands. And so my career has been all about corporate communications, the brands, the reputations of the companies and looking at communications from the aspect of what we can do to help the entire enterprise reflect the image and the personality of its brands. The corporate brand… and oftentimes it’s the product brands as well. I spent almost five years with GE in a couple of different assignments. I learned a tremendous amount there; I always tell people it was tantamount to going to graduate school. GE at the time had its own internal advertising and PR training that was given to the cadre of folks that were brought in. And so, in addition to having a day job, I was able to take courses that were taught by GE experts in communications and it really was a career-shaping experience and a wonderful place to start my career. I moved from there to IBM, another huge brand, and I would say that was one of the most joyful experiences of my career. I loved IBM, everything about it, I still own quite a bit of IBM stock, and GE stock too. And IBM for me was a wonderful experience in not only being able to impact and influence a lot of the communications and business work, but in working with some of the best communicators I ever worked with, and learning from each other. Obviously, the communications organization is very large both in GE and IBM, so the opportunity to be part of that fraternity of communicators that was global and to learn from each other was really a wonderful career experience. I was very lucky because when I joined IBM I started in the personal computer division back in 1983 and this was when PCs were very new on the scene and being at IBM, over the course of the time that I worked in the PC division, I got to work on a number of different projects, including the fact that I got to meet both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs way back when. And I look upon some of those moments as some of the fondest memories I have of my career. Not only from the learning experience, but also from the experience to have an impact on a business that was just really very dynamic and growing. I spent four years in the PC division down in Florida and then moved back up to New York in 1987 and did a lot of work on ad campaigns, going back to my roots of the study I had done in advertising, I had done some advertising at GE as well, and at IBM I worked on the Charlie Chaplin campaign, which is studied these days as a classic in corporate communications and then into the launch of the whole new Personal System/2 campaign. And I had a number of assignments at IBM because I was there for 11 years. Ended up managing media relations for all of IBM United States, ended up being the assistant to the head of all communications for IBM United States and that was kind of a shadow job to really learn what it takes to be the top executive in communications and then I became the director of communications programs doing all of the leadership meetings, the Golden Circle and all the recognition meetings, etc. And then one day I got a call for a job at Pepsi. And, I told you I love big brands and I had always, always wanted to work on a consumer brand. And so I thought, even as much as I loved working at IBM, this was kind of an opportunity that was really hard to say no to and so I joined Pepsi -- Pepsi-Cola North America and I ran employee communications for Pepsi-Cola North America for a number of years. And then I got a very exciting chance to work on the initial public offering when PepsiCo spun off their largest bottler, which ended up being The Pepsi Bottling Group. And then I got the top communications job there, reporting to the CEO. And I was there for a number of years, 12 years, all in, at PepsiCo and then one day I got a call from a search firm looking for a head communications person for ITT and I thought, this is an interesting assignment, another large manufacturing company, another big brand, a brand with a lot of history and past to it. I went over and met the chairman, Steve Loranger, and after I got done meeting with Steve, I knew that I wanted that job because Steve was a CEO that really, really understood the partnership between communications and the executive role—his role—and really understood that the chief communications officer of the company is not the CCO. It’s the CEO. And that’s something I’ve always understood, and so for me, to have a CEO that really gets that and to work in partnership with him to get the right messaging and to really start doing some work to change the culture, some of what he wanted to do, was really an opportunity of a lifetime for me. And so I joined ITT in 2007 and then as time moved on, last year we announced that we were going to spin off our water business and our defense business and create three companies and I got the opportunity to go with the water business. All three of these companies I think are wonderful, terrific companies but I was very, very excited about joining the water business and really creating a brand from the ground up. So I led, in my role as the head of communications for ITT, all the work associated with my team obviously, of creating two new brands. Xylem was the brand we chose for the water business and ITT Exelis for our defense business and then a whole new kind of design around ITT Corporation and kind of refreshing of their brand. So my team did a phenomenal job with that and plus, all the other work required to really separate an $11 billion company into three separate entities and we completed it on a very aggressive schedule. We announced it in January and completed the spinoffs on October 31st.
INTERVIEWER: Which leads to a second question which is, what are the challenges and the opportunities of communications leadership for a spinoff firm such as Xylem, officially formed just last year?
BUONOCORE: Right. So, working on a spinoff I think is really a highlight of anyone’s career and I would really recommend it to anyone. It’s very hard work but it’s also extremely satisfying to be able to think throughwhat are the most important aspects of the company that is spinning businesses off that each company wants to retain, and what are the aspects of a new culture and a new personality that you want to create for the new brand. But it was really just a lot of work, not only around those strategic sorts of questions which, once the CEOs were chosen for each of the companies, the communications team, my communications team, worked with each of them to start the ball rolling on that. But it really also was, all the important things you have to do in cooperation with finance and legal to be able to separate companies. And, keeping the messaging very clear, because as you might imagine when you announce that sort of change, employees are very anxious and they have a lot of concerns and questions and it’s the communications team, along with HR and your other partnerships, to get employees to really understand every step of the way what’s going on and a lot of times what you have to tell employees is, “This is still work in progress. Everything isn’t worked out yet.” But it comes to the question of trust. Do the employees have trust in the enterprise and trust in their leadership? And that is a lot, where you draw on the equity you have in your bank of this relationship that you’ve built with your employees over the years. And understanding and telling them that you do understand that they’re anxious and frankly everyone is a little bit anxious because it’s an endeavor that you’re really sorting through, you’re doing it to create more value for the shareholders and you know, when you create more value for the shareholders, it creates more opportunities for employees, so it’s setting the right context and trying to allay people’s concerns, but to do it in a way that people trust in. Because it isn’t all going to necessarily work out maybe exactly the way they expected, but your hope is that they will trust you and, in the end, it will result in a better value for the shareholders, three great new companies in this case—or in the case of another spinoff, I did another initial public offering where it’s one new company but, it’s just the question of wanting to stay with you for the ride and to really understand that you have to do your day jobs for the people that are involved in the spin and keep the engine room running while you’re still doing work associated with the spin. In a lot of cases, the vast majority of the employees at the company, even though they may end up in the company with a different name on the door, would be doing the same sort of the work that they had been doing, although in a new construct.
INTERVIEWER: Speaking in general terms, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing public relations executives today and how can those be met?
BUONOCORE: I think the greatest challenges facing people in PR today are really that we no longer control the messaging. And we’re all a little bit of control freaks. We love to write messages, work on strategies and work tops down. And what PR people and communicators and frankly, it’s not just communicators but everyone in business, is coming to realize very quickly, is that that sort of communications, the sort of messaging, while it certainly has a place and you still do work on creating messaging, your customers and in the case of consumer companies -- consumers, are also creating their own messaging about your product, about your brands, about your reputation. And so you’re trying to work on multiple fronts to maybe manage messaging but in a way that hopefully if you’re getting your messages out and you’re doing the right things that other people—including your own employees but, customers and other constituencies and in some cases consumers—will also be blending their voices in… and, hopefully, that messaging will be consistent and positive around your company. But I do think that’s the biggest change that’s facing communicators today. There’s a lot of other changes as well, just with the proliferation of new technology and new ways to get messaging out and the fact that you know, the individual person that you’re trying to get your message to is the recipient of so many different messages, it’s always about breaking through the clutter as well and really getting with a very targeted message to the person that you’re trying to communicate something to and hopefully it’s not just communicate, but get that recipient of the message to take some action.
INTERVIEWER: What do you see as the status of the chief communications officer in the corporate world today? Is it growing in importance? Diminishing? How do you see that?
BUONOCORE: So, I see it as growing in importance. I think the role of the chief communications officer for enlightened companies and companies that really have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on, they understand that the chief communications officer belongs in the c-suite. Belongs sitting alongside of the CEO along with everyone else that sits in the c-suite; the CFO, the chief human resources officer, because you really have to work together as a team to create the right results and drive the right results for the company and if you have the right person in the chair, I think there’s no CEO that would tell you they don’t want to have the person that works with the team, that’s responsible for building the image, reputation of the company and frankly working on performance and morale, within earshot. I think the most progressive CEOs are the ones that are working hand in glove with their chief communications officers, so I would say the role is growing significantly in importance. And the role is also what you make of it because if you’re driving results that people can see are really having a positive impact on the business, I think that also helps to elevate the role.
INTERVIEWER: The aim of the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State and of the Arthur W. Page Society is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. How can individuals best prepare themselves for that role?
BUONOCORE: I think to best prepare yourself for the role where you’re going to become a counselor, is to do a few things. First and foremost, you’ve got to have very, very strong skills in your discipline. That probably goes without saying, but I would tell you, it’s very surprising to me because I see a lot of resumes and I meet a lot of people that are studying communications—the number of communicators that don’t demonstrate the basic writing and frankly, speaking skills that are necessary to have command of your area of expertise. Beyond your own area of expertise, you have to be an expert in the business. And that comes with time -- you have to study, just like you do in school, and any time I’ve joined a new company—it’s part of just really getting yourself immersed. Not only in the nuts and bolts and how the company makes money—which you really do need to understand—but also to really travel around the company and really get to talk to people and listen to people and to be a very good student of reading between the lines - to really be able to connect dots and put things together and bring a different perspective. I think that’s the most valuable skill that you can bring and I think that’s not a skill that’s confined to communications, because thereare many people in many disciplines that can bring that sort of “connecting the dots” skill. But I think as a communicator, you’re exposed to so much more in the organization that you should be able to connect the dots frankly, practically better than anyone else. And if you demonstrate that you can do that, that’s when you earn a seat at the table. You earn a seat at the table by driving yourselves and showing what those results are. And so, part of it is you have to have courage. You cannot be afraid to say what you think. You cannot be a yes person, because if you are, then you really won’t be the best advisor to your CEO, and that is not always the easiest thing. I think some of that comes, that street cred[ibility], comes with doing it and gaining some experience but, you really have to be able to tell the emperor when he or she has no clothes. You have to be able to, obviously using your diplomatic skills as well, be able to bring to the table, a new way of looking at things. And sometimes the best way of doing that is to employ the Socratic approach and to ask a series of questions that might lead a person to draw a conclusion that you want them to draw without just telling them something. So, there are different methods that you can use and you learn to flex your style and try to be able to use what works best with whomever you are partnering with. But I think to really earn a seat as a counselor, you’ve got to be able to show them that you bring appropriate skills and that you understand the business and you understand where the CEO is trying to take the business and you are able to help him or her do that.
INTERVIEWER: What do you feel are the keys to building trust and credibility in an organization?
BUONOCORE: I think there is a lot that goes into building trust and credibility between employees and the senior leadership, between peers as you work together; and I think some of it is just common sense—it’s how do you build trust in your own personal relationships? Do what you say you’re going to do. Listen to what other people have to say. Reflect. When you make a mistake, admit it. When something is not right, make the right steps to change it. Be transparent. Don’t have hidden agendas because employees can sniff that out immediately and I will tell you, some of the biggest things I’ve learned in the 30+ years I’ve been in corporate America is that your frontline employees know a lot. If you really want to know what’s going on in an organization, get out of your office, go out into the field, sit down and ask questions of the people that are on your manufacturing line, that are working with your customers face to face day in and day out. They will tell you the truth and they will know when you’re telling the truth. And you’ve got to be able to, I think, connect with people in a way that they understand that you’re serious about driving results but, there’s a quid pro quo there. People are going to deliver for you; you have to deliver for them. It isn’t all about just what can the employees of an organization do to move the organization forward. And these days, because employees generally don’t join a company and stay there for 30 or 40 years like they used to do, it’s part of—not a written contract—but a contract nonetheless that employees have with the place where they work. As long as they are happy and satisfied and whatever that means to them, which usually means having the opportunity to learn, grow and develop—of course people want to be paid fairly—but I think more what people want is a workplace that gives them an opportunity to exercise their own self potential and their own ability to move forward in whatever way that they view that, in their own career development. A lot of it has to do with engaging and feeling that they’re working on something that has meaning. And that comes back to the full circle of what the communications team, I think, can do really well. People want—the vast majority of people want to make a difference. They want to make a difference with their own families and in their own communities and they want to make a difference in the place where they spend most of their time, which is their workplace. And so you’ve got to be able to explain to them what it is that this company does that makes a difference and makes it different. What’s unique about this company, why do they want to work there and what do they get for doing so—beyond just the basics of their salary and benefits which are givens and certainly important. But I think it’s those sometimes intangible things that people get when they work in a certain company that, if you can explain them well, makes for a much better contract, that unwritten contract that exists between employees and their employers.
INTERVIEWER: Certainly argues for a strong internal communications program
BUONOCORE: Without question, I think internal or employee communications is one of the most important functions and I think CEOs are really getting to understand that. For years we focused on the external, and external is always going to be important, but internal is extremely important because internal—every single person in your company is an ambassador for your brand. Now, obviously if you’re doing a really good job, you have a lot of people outside your company who are also ambassadors for your brand. But to me as a given, I want to get every employee to be a very positive force around the brand or brands. And the way to do that is to really engage those employees and the way to engage employees is to make sure that they really have literacy around the business. That they understand not only what the business does and how it makes money, but where the business is going. What kind of company do we want this to be 3 years from now, 5 years from now, 10 years from now, and how are each of you important in getting us there? It sounds very simple but it’s not that easy to do and if you can unlock the secret of doing that and figure out a way to do that so that everyone in the organization is aligned and understands where the organization is going and understands why they’re important in helping the organization get there, you unlock tremendous potential—and I have done that several times in my career and those are the days that you feel just the happiest of all because that is such a satisfying thing to be able to do, really to be able to do. And you know when you’re doing it.
INTERVIEWER: Is it important, do you think, for a corporation to have an ethical mission statement or credo? And should ethics training be provided for corporate staff?
BUONOCORE: I think ethics training is very important. And I think having an understanding—whether you reflect that in a credo or a statement of ethics that goes along with your vision and values and mission statement, is important. And I think that the values of the company should always include honesty or integrity or both as part of a set of values because I think people need to understand that that’s the price of entry. And they need to really understand because doing business, particularly if you’re a global company, there are different mores and customs in different countries but you have to be able to explain to people in very concrete terms, what you will accept as ways of doing business and what you won’t accept. And some of that really is just a case of training and for people to really get an understanding around what that is so I do think it’s very necessary to have ethics training and to refresh it very often. It’s not just once and done. As new employees come in, it’s part of their orientation and you really at a minimum, once a year, have to have training. And the best kind of training in these sorts of things are scenario, role-plays, so that people can really understand because it’s often not always a bright line between what is right and what is wrong.
INTERVIEWER: Continuing with the ethics theme, what education or previous professional experience best prepares a person for the rigors of ethical decision-making?
BUONOCORE: Now that’s a great question. If I had it to do over again and I were back at the university, I would love to have taken some ethics courses in conjunction with communications courses. That was not part of the curriculum that I took but, I was in school 30 years ago and I do think a lot of communications programs do have ethics in communications or certainly courses where you can have discussions around these topics and I do think that that is a very progressive way to look at a well-rounded communications education. But I do think that some of this education is also easily obtained on the job. If your company, as we just talked about, is doing ethics training; I think communicators have a role in that. They certainly have a role to be totally knowledgeable about it, but they also have a role sometimes in helping to create it, and I think that that’s very important.
INTERVIEWER: So you would see a role for mentoring in the workplace in ethics?
BUONOCORE: Yes. I think that mentoring is critical and particularly in jobs in the selling organization. In any jobs in purchasing where there’s negotiating that goes on. And clearly just even in this day and age, companies are not islands as we often used to be… you have to partner. Sometimes you compete with other companies in one arena and you partner with them in a different way. And you really have to understand kind of the rules of the road about how to do that. Even when you’re working together in industry and in trade associations, a lot of that, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally so you really have to understand and make it your business to understand that. It’s kind of like the road signs when you’re driving, you just really have to be able to understand when a flag goes up, when a light turns red and if you’re not sure, to go ask and get help. Some of the biggest mistakes get made; not from malicious intent, but just because people don’t really understand and they don’t ask and that can cause a lot of problems, not only for them personally, but for their corporation and many times—I’ve done a lot of reading on this and frankly I’ve experienced some of it too—many times it’s employees trying to do the right thing. For example, trying to speed a product to a customer, get a decision made quickly that they skip some steps that they shouldn’t skip in a process. It’s with every good intention.
INTERVIEWER: Sure, those are both virtues under normal circumstances.
BUONOCORE: Yes. And I think that that’s part of just really understanding what the rules of the road are and in order to do that, you have to be trained and you have to refresh that training, and particularly these days, because so many businesses operate globally. And operating on a global stage does create a lot of opportunity, but it also creates a lot of challenge that can get you into some murky waters ethically.
INTERVIEWER: I think for this next question—you addressed some of it when you talked about the challenges and opportunities in the business today. I want to ask, has the new media made the public relations industry more or less ethical?
BUONOCORE: That’s a great question but it’s a really difficult question to answer in aggregate. I’d like to think that the PR, and I do think this because I’ve been in PR and communications my whole life—I’d like to think that the vast majority of us are very ethical people that try to operate ethically, but I do think new media adds a little bit of additional perspective and certainly additional watchdog status because frankly, everywhere you go, your picture can be taken and uploaded to YouTube immediately. I mean, it’s one of those sorts of things where, when you’re always being watched or there’s the possibility to always be watched, I think that puts a little bit more—what should we say—rigor into everyone’s mental state. I think the fact that anything you say can be uploaded immediately, pictures can be taken and uploaded immediately that there’s really not a lot of restrictions around how that’s done with the new media, I think gives a whole new perspective—not only to communicators and PR people, but frankly everybody that’s in any kind of a public—and sometimes not even a public—but, especially in a public domain. I mean, recently I gave a speech and moments after I gave it, it was uploaded on a website and no one asked me if they could do that. But I think you just have to operate with the frame of reference that when you’re in the public domain talking to someone, those kinds of things are going to happen, and you have to think about that accordingly.
INTERVIEWER: I want to ask you, do you have any perspectives that you could share with us on the issues of diversities, particularly gender and race, in the public relations field today?
BUONOCORE: I am a big fan of diverse teams and I think diversity covers a lot more than just gender and race. I think diversity has to do with the way people approach doing their work. I think that you have to look at having a mix of people that are analytical and people that look at things in a maybe more creative way. I think that you want to think about different life experiences and some of that has to do with a mix of young and older, because I think you get a very different perspective that way. I think if you’re in a global company, when you put together a team, if you have a global team, that usually helps inform your thinking so, I just personally think the more diverse your team is, the better solutions you’re going to come up with and I have proven that time and time again when I put together teams. People tend to put teams together that are people like them, that’s your natural inclination, and when you do that, you really won’t get the best result in communications or frankly, anything else. I certainly think that it’s important for all of us to try to make sure women and people from diverse ethnic backgrounds are considered on every slate of candidates for every job, I always do that. But I think in the end you pick the best person for the job, but the important thing is to get the right slate and when you get the right slate you will build a diverse team, I know because I’ve done it time and again and I think it’s important to do, for all the reasons we just talked about. You want to get the most diverse team possible. … This is something I learned a long time ago too and that’s part of how to be a good leader. The same type of management or leadership doesn’t always work with each of the people that works for you. You have to get to know the people and understand what motivates them and you have to try to flex your style to use what motivates people to get them to drive results. And that involves getting to know people, and that takes time. People don’t always reveal all their inner secrets to you right away—if ever. And so some of that comes back to the trust question, this is kind of common sense but it’s trust in relationships. How do you build friendships? How do you build relationships in your personal life? Some of that is the same sort of thing at work, even though you’re not trying to be everybody's best friend, you are trying to understand things about that person—why they behave the way they do. And frankly, when you’re working with high-powered—if your culture is type A’s and high powered, which many of the cultures where I have worked are. You really have to try to figure out when everyone is trying to make their own contribution, how you’re going to collaborate and work together with everybody also getting to leave their fingerprints and imprint on things. And so part of that really is you’re also a psychology student, I think it would help if I had it to do over again, I would also take more psychology courses and social science courses to really understand.
INTERVIEWER: Only so much you can cram in there between 18 and 22.
BUONOCORE: But, you could also—studying is a lifelong thing. Reading, studying, learning and frankly that’s the one thing I regret. If I had more time, I would be going to night school all the time but because my jobs have always been ones where I travel a lot. I used to sign up for courses and miss half of them. But, there’s also self-study and I do think a lot of that—and communicators especially, usually are very good readers and they’re usually voracious readers. There’s a lot you learn just on your own by reading and it’s important to do that and keep up with all the new social science and things that are coming out about; even how people make buying decisions and it’s not just your alliances at work but it’s sort of your alliances or your influence skills on whoever your customers are. And that is not just the purview of marketing. That was always very interesting to me and how communications can make an impact on that and if you manage marketing communications, you have a piece of it and I have usually managed it but it’s also really getting in there with the sales guys and gals and understanding what is it that they do to sell things. How do they do it and what could they be doing better because communications can bring a lot to that party as well, if you bring those skills.
INTERVIEWER: Angela Buonocore, thank you very much.
BUONOCORE: Thank you.