Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash
October 9, 2019

How do you involve your community when rebranding?

Elisabeth King

“You’re never going to get 100% buy-in…” is one of many lessons Elisabeth King, Director of Communications for Lycée Français de New York, learned during her organization’s rebrand.

Over two-plus years, she oversaw a process that thoughtfully involved over 2,000 people—students, parents, teachers, and staff. Listen in to hear how she undertook this complex change management process and navigated buy-in. You’ll get tips for involving your community in a significant organizational change, too.


Sarah Durham: This is Sarah Durham. We’re back together for the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m joined today by Elisabeth King, the Director of Communications at the Lycée Français de New York. Hi, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth King: Hi, Sarah.

Sarah Durham: Elisabeth has over 15 years of experience working in the communications sector. She worked as a journalist at ABC News, she worked on all kinds of interesting projects as a consultant. She’s been in B2B communications and marketing. Now she’s working in the education field. She has this really interesting kind of diverse background. We’re going to talk today about how all of that came to bear as she led a significant change process at the Lycée Français. So before we dig into that, just tell us a little bit about the school by way of background.

Elisabeth King: Yeah. So the Lycée Français de New York is a bilingual French and American independent school, and we’re on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’s a really interesting place, because we have a population of parents from over 68 different nationalities, and we educate students from pre-K all the way to 12th grade. It’s both a great gift, of course, to be in the community with people from so many different places, but of course it’s also a challenge, because you want to make sure that people see the school the way they see it and the way we communicate with them. It’s not just delivering a single message anymore.

Sarah Durham: So you oversaw a significant rebrand and change effort coming out of a new leader and new strategic planning process. Tell us a little bit about that journey. Why did you oversee that process? What was the change you needed to create?

Elisabeth King: Let’s see. So I joined the Lycée in 2011, a couple of months after a new school head came on board named Sean Lynch. Sean had a very clear vision for the Lycée. He was brought on board because what we had at the school was a really extraordinary foundation, a French school in an American environment with an international community. But I think it was very clear to the board of trustees that we needed to start thinking about the future of the school, and looking at 21st century-style education and what that might mean in terms of the education that we deliver to the students in the school.

So Sean came in with some ideas of things that he felt were really important and spent the six to seven years of his leadership really slowly but surely bringing those things forward for the community. And the whole work that we did around the mission and the branding work was helping him carry through this vision in a way that would be respected and embraced by the community. That means both the students in the school, and the teachers, and the staff of the school, the parents, and also our alumni.

Sarah Durham: So you worked on this project over many years. It had many phases. I heard you speak about this at a conference about a year ago, which was where I got excited to talk to you more about this. One of the things that impressed me when I heard you talk about this process was the way you really thoughtfully and systematically involved all the stakeholders in the school’s community. There were students involved, parents involved, faculty. I mean really everybody had an opportunity to share their ideas even to create as part of this process. In my experience, almost every organization would like to involve its stakeholders in those kinds of ways, but very few have the time or the capacity to do so. Why was that important to you? And how did you design that involvement? How did you identify who needed to be involved and where?

Elisabeth King: Sarah, well, first of all, I would say with communications, it’s a field that’s changed so much, right. It used to be that we were hired to write some really good emails, get a couple of messages together, and figure out as many ways as possible to plaster those messages in front of people. That’s a little bit of an oversimplification, but I do think that’s what most people come into marketing 15, 20 years ago did. We know that the way that we communicate with people has changed because we become a society of communities. Of course, the Internet has really fostered that in some really good ways, some not so good, but by and large some really positive ways.

Along with that change has come this idea of inclusion. That’s a big, big term that we use in many, in the nonprofit world, but I think in the business world too. We have to do things inclusively because we are building communities now, we’re not selling products. We’re selling services. We’re creating a connection among people. Then the thing that you’re trying to promote will ultimately sell itself through the people who believe in what you’re selling. In our case, the education that we’re providing. I think this is the most powerful thing in communications, and it’s what makes me want to do the work every day.

But we had this school head who was very much a believer in inclusion as a process. I came from communications as much more of a “message hander-outer.” So when he came to me and said, “Okay, Elisabeth, we’ve done this work on our strategic plan.” And that was done in a very, very community-wide process, which involved surveys of stakeholders, and that was done in 2013, 14, 15. When he said to me, “Okay, now we really want to look at the mission of the school.” I thought, “Okay, great. I’m going to go into my corner and write down some words and pass it back through the board, and run it by some teachers and we’ll see where we go.”

And of course he said, “But what I’d like to do is to have everyone in the school involved.” So I actually did a count of the number of people in our existing community. So when you added up our parents, our students, our faculty, and our staff, I think it was something like 2,350 people or more. I thought, “How are we going to do that?” But he was absolutely right, because what I see at the end of this is that the process of bringing people through the thinking through in the creation of the mission is far more important than the roll out of the mission, because it’s only as successful as it is inclusive to begin with.

Sarah Durham: It sounds really poetic. I love the way you describe that. But also deeply challenging. And I think probably for a lot of people who are listening, one of the things they’re wondering is how do you do that? I mean, how do you involve over 2,000 people without ending up with something that’s kind of created by a committee, or Frankenstein-ed together, or those kind of things? So, how did you actually do it?

Elisabeth King: Ah yes, Frankenstein missions. Initially, our board of trustees sat to work on the mission themselves. What we discovered, no fault of theirs, is that when you ask people to create a mission and they know the school really, really well, they tend to fall back on the terminology that they know. That may create something that is accurate, but it may not be that compelling. So the first thing we did was say, “Okay, what’s the most important part of the mission? This is representative of the community. We have to really think about our values.” When we started thinking about a mission that was values-focused, right, because we’re educating students, we want them to graduate to thrive in the world, in this unknown world, and what better thing than knowledge, of course, but also values that are going to guide them.

So we thought about how can we get the community together and engage around the question of values. That doesn’t mean calling everybody up and asking them what they care about, it was obviously, natural that we would start with a survey. So I got together with a smaller group of people, just our executive leadership team to start thinking about the values that we know are already important to the school. There are sort of the obvious things like embracing of differences, being open to the world around you, and then other things like self-confidence and self-respect and working hard.

So we were able to kind of come up with a list of 15 to 20 different values and we just surveyed everyone in the community about these 15 values, pick the five that are most important to you. That process was a way of getting everybody to tell us what they cared about most. So we started off, we surveyed the whole school, and I think our youngest alumni, but mostly our parents, and students, and teachers, and staff. That gave us a starting point to work from.

So we did that survey. In the meantime, in a school setting, a really important constituency are your teachers and staff, because they’re the ones that deliver on the mission every day to students. So we did also have a committee of teachers and staff that came together to help us really craft and write a mission statement together. But we started with values, and then we had this committee that was able to take the results of the survey and think about what they cared about most to write a couple of different versions of what we thought a mission statement could be.

So we had the survey for everyone, faculty and staff, and then we had the board of trustees too. So I led a half-day workshop with our board of trustees, where we also tried to get at the things that mattered most to them so that we could begin to get their thinking a little bit differently around the mission.

Sarah Durham: One of the things I remember you talking about when I saw you present about this was how important it was when it was time to hire a creative firm, to hire a multicultural firm and a firm also that particularly understood the deep French roots of the school. But also to get the students involved in the creative process, in the design of the logo, or the visual identity system. Can you speak a little bit about how you did that?

Elisabeth King: For sure. So that’s absolutely true, the Lycée Français de New York is a French school, and with it comes some very particular things that really a French company would probably understand the best. I think it’s very easy when your identity is rooted in a culture to potentially go into cliché about that culture. And so we didn’t want to have an outside company that would come in and give us a sort of fetishized version of ourselves. We were looking for a company that had been French, but had been outside of France long enough to know what was core to the culture that was most meaningful. This was a very important decision that we made, because what they were able to do is give us a new vocabulary for the way we described the school.

We worked with them, and they came up with this idea of citizens of culture and courage. It’s a very beautiful, simple phrase, that translates very well into French, which is very important to us. But that also gave us something to put in front of people as we were starting to do the work on the mission, because it’s normal to go back to the words that you know, and I think reframing thinking about our mission around something as powerful as courage was really important. And that notion of courage comes from the French notion of kind of critical thinking.

So that’s where that happened. Then we had the logo work was a different thing all together. Also the work on the mission too. We worked very closely with the student council over a number of years to do this work. This was a two and a half year process. So it took a long time. What happened during the course of that process is that the student council changed. So we started with one group and finished with another, which worked well and maybe had some things that we had to think about a little bit differently once we rolled it out.

Sarah Durham: Where these high school students, the student council?

Elisabeth King: We have student council in the primary school and the secondary school. But we worked with the student council in the secondary school, from 6th grade to 12th grade. You’re reminding me of something really funny about the survey. I remember going to the student council very early on, they were a very important constituency and telling them about this values survey that we wanted to do. Also asking them about some of the values they would like us to express in it. Because it’s very, very important to get their thoughts in that survey, because we might miss something important, right, and they know themselves well.
I remember distinctly talking with a sixth grader on the student council. He was so funny. I said to him, “Okay, we want to do this survey of values to as many students as we can. Do you think that sixth graders would be able to take such a survey?” And he said, “Of course we can take such a survey. Give me a break.” What he reminded me is that, and it was very fitting with the mission of the school, was that students really have a sense of agency about themselves and in the environment in which they are there every day. And you’ve got to include them, it’s really important. So we definitely included the students in the survey.

Sarah Durham: I would think that that is a lesson that transcends the education world into other worlds. I think that’s probably true in almost any organization that has direct service programs, right? The people who use your programs are your core stakeholders, and I think sometimes it’s very easy, particularly in a rebranding, to be more focused on external audiences you’re trying to newly reach and acquire, like donors for instance, or maybe parents in your case. But at the end of the day, in your case, it’s about education. Or it’s about those programs. So their voice seems like it’s critical.

Elisabeth King: You know, I would add, that stakeholder voice is probably one of the most essential voices for a couple of reasons. One, they’re receiving the services, so they can articulate best what it means to them. But also what we got out of our survey was some really beautiful quotes from students who were able to talk about what it meant to them. You know, we’re in this era of storytelling, and when you engage those service recipients in this process, you also for marketing purposes, you’re building a portfolio of stories that you can use to really support the mission and the brand that you’ve been working so hard on. The stories really matter anyway.

Sarah Durham: I remember seeing a slide in your presentation that showed classrooms of students having to make things as part of this rebranding process. What was the assignment that you gave them? How did you ask them to participate?

Elisabeth King: Sarah, that was actually something different. But I can talk about that because it might be useful. So we had the mission work, which was about the words that we wanted to use to define ourselves. Then we had the visual identity work, which was obviously about how we wanted to visually represent ourselves externally. Always we were thinking about the past, the present, and the future. We are an historic institution in the city of New York, and we didn’t want to have something that would feel too far away from our past. At the same time we didn’t want to be so stuck in it that we would be seen as antiquated. So we wanted to think about the future.

Part of that was asking other people to help us think about visually what that would mean. So what we did with the faculty and staff was we wanted them to also help think about how we might visually represent ourselves, because we were curious what they would come up with. So, in the process of doing research for the brand and the mission we had a half-day workshop with the faculty and staff where we spent time on the mission, and then we asked them to draw what they thought the school could mean. We broke them into teams and they drew examples of what they thought the brand could be. And we shared those with the group. Stephen Doyle actually ultimately did the visual branding work.

But we didn’t do it with the students, and I would love to have done it with the students. We didn’t do it because of timing, but it would’ve been really interesting to see what they had come up with.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s such a fun idea to ask the people in your programs, or all of your stakeholders, to have to write, to have to draw, to generate ideas. And one of the things we’ve seen a lot in the sort of journey of rebranding in organizations is how people who get an opportunity to contribute on that journey are just much more inclined to be bought into it. Even if their ideas don’t actually get used. But the fact that they had an opportunity to express their opinion in a survey, or they were interviewed, or they got a chance to write something or draw something. It somehow releases this energy that they feel to share and to represent their passion for the organization that feels so critical, so important.

Elisabeth King: That’s so true. One of the things that we did is we really tried to show different constituencies the evolution of the work all along in the process, because you never know what you’re missing if you don’t ask people. So with the student council, we brought them the mission over time, and had them give us comments and feedback. We did the same thing with the branding work. We really wanted them to see it, at the student council level, so that they might see something that we didn’t. I can say with the faculty and staff, they were involved the entire time. I would say every couple of months we were in front of them with something new. They brought up some things that we hadn’t thought of that were really important that we really ended up making changes to. One of the big ones was our logo, it has this beautiful red and blue brush strokes in it.

Sarah Durham: We’ll link to it in the show notes, we’ll link to your website.

Elisabeth King: And they’re beautiful because they’re embodying a certain kind of spontaneous creativity that we wanted to express, and they also are two colors right that represent the US and France. But I remember a teacher in one of those meetings saying, “You know, we are a French and American school, but we have this incredibly international community, and you have this overlap point in the logo, but it’s really narrow, I don’t really see it. You don’t see the purple all that much. You might think about making that overlap stronger, because that’s really where the chemistry is in the school.” She was right. We listened and we did that.

Sarah Durham: That’s awesome, I love that story. Yeah, it does feel like the key in all of this is to take the time that first of all you were empowered by the head of the school and by your board chair to facilitate this process. But you were also given the time. You mentioned it was two and a half years to do this, which gave you the opportunity to be in front of the staff and faculty regularly, the student council regularly. What other ingredients would you say are essential to the success of a thoughtful change management process like this?

Elisabeth King: Taking the time and listening are the two most important things. The other thing is I really felt like I spent a lot of time myself getting in front of people, even I wasn’t asked to do it all along in the process to make sure that we weren’t missing something, or making sure that everyone was included in everything that we did. So, I had a lot of meetings with our parents association, in addition to the survey that we did, just a lot of back and forth. I was in front of the board many, many times in the course of that process to get their feedback. Again, I did the same thing with the student council. And I also had a team myself. I have a communications team, who had such insightful things to say.

I think with all of these things, as the person leading the project, you have to kind of check your ego at the door a little bit and be open. One of the big influences on my life at the moment is this philosopher, J. Krishnamurti. One of the things that I was reading that he said, a few years ago, as we were entering this process, was this thing called see, listen, and learn. It’s very difficult to do, because what he’s saying is as you go into a room full of people, and you have to bury all of your own thoughts, and you just have to open your mind to what everyone else is saying. I really took that to heart in this process.

It was very difficult, because I had a lot of my own opinions. And I don’t want to say that I buried them. But I really had trusted the process. I trusted that the students, and the parents, and the teachers, and the staff, and the board, and the leadership team knew the school really, really well. And then if I was open to what they had to say about it, we would come out with something really wonderful at the end.

Sarah Durham: That seems to me that it touches on kind of the elephant in the room in a process where you bring in a lot of voices, which is people are difficult, people have bad ideas, people challenge the best ideas. I think it’s quite possible that a lot of people don’t undergo such a thoughtful process because they’re not sure how to manage that, you know, what to do when an important board member says, “I hate this.” When that’s the idea that everybody else loves? Did you have any ways you had to navigate that or any suggestions for how to navigate that that emerged from this process?

Elisabeth King: You’re never going to get 100% buy in on something. It’s not possible. I remember a very wise person on the communications committee that I lead with a board member told me, “Don’t expect 100% approval on this, Elisabeth. We all believe that it’s the right thing, but you have to be ready for not everyone to agree.” So I went into it knowing, “Okay, it’s not going to be totally embraced by everyone, and my responsibility after gets rolled out—because getting it to the roll out phase is just the beginning—is to keep it going, and keep it going.”

But I did have a couple of people in the process who really disagreed with some of the things. And the only thing I did was call them up and have conversations with them about what their concerns were. So that I could make sure that I was listening to them clearly, because maybe they were right. But also so that they knew that they were being heard. I had two conversations in particular I’m thinking of that I could see discontent, and I just called the people up, and it really helped.

Sarah Durham: That’s a great suggestion. It feels to me that another ingredient that was essential to the success was the fact that you were a senior level staff person empowered to do this work in house. I want to also elevate that in this discussion, because while it is possible I think to hire a consultant, or an agency, or somebody to help oversee a process like this, doing what you did takes enormous institutional understanding. You have to really understand who the stakeholders are, how they work, what’s culturally appropriate in all the conversations that are happening. That really takes an insider. And an insider who’s empowered to go to the board meeting, empowered to do all those things. So I think that’s probably an important piece of the success of your work here too.

Elisabeth King: It’s true, Sarah. And it’s an interesting thing, as you know, I come from a consultancy background myself, and I think that it’s really valuable to have both. I think you want to have someone inside the organization that really knows the organization at its core and really believes in it. You got to believe in it. You have to have passion for it, or you can’t lead the process, because it’s grueling, but fun. It’s also incredibly valuable to have people coming in from the outside to weigh in and help you see things that you might not have seen, or anyone in the community wouldn’t have seen.

We definitely had great consultants, including Big Duck, to help us early on in our strategic planning process. The work that Big Duck did on our strategic planning was really an essential part of where our mission ultimately went. I would say the same thing for the other outside agency that came in and helped us think about some new verbiage, which we wouldn’t have been able to come up with on our own.

Sarah Durham: The other benefit of the consultant is they can often be the heavy, they can say the thing that is more challenging sometimes than a staff person can say. They can be a bit more argumentative or confrontational in some situations. It doesn’t sound like you needed that per se, but we find that’s often kind of useful, the voice of the other, the voice of the outsider, can be powerful.

Elisabeth King: Yes, and you know, the outsiders, they’re outsiders, but they’re not outsiders. Right. They’re experts, and I think really good boards acknowledge the value of having experts in the process. Most boards have people on them that know something about marketing. They understand.

Sarah Durham: So, before we wrap up, are there any parting tips you would suggest for somebody who is about to embark on a significant organizational change process? What advice would you go back in time and give to yourself at the beginning, or give to somebody who’s about to embark on something like this?

Elisabeth King: I would say take the time to think about all your stakeholders and figure out how to integrate them into your process in a meaningful way, and a meaningful and genuine way. I think that’s super important. I think remember that you have to keep communicating throughout the process. And most of all, you may have an idea, you may have a north star in mind about where you’re headed, but remember that it may change and that’s okay.

Sarah Durham: Great. Elisabeth King, thank you for joining me.

Elisabeth King: Thank you, Sarah.