May 11, 2015. A simple headline sent shockwaves through the commercial real estate industry: “Cushman & Wakefield to Merge with DTZ.”
Merger headlines are common, but this one was different. The move created an enormous new company branded as Cushman & Wakefield, built to compete with the largest real estate companies on the planet. Before the merger, Cushman had sixteen thousand employees. Today, the company has more than forty-five thousand employees who manage a portfolio of more than four billion square feet worldwide.
Even the best mergers present challenges. Leadership roles often change, and executives rush to absorb new responsibilities. IT departments scramble to unite processes and platforms. Employees may switch locations. And, during the process, the new company must come together without disrupting critical client services. During the post-merger integration phase, one Cushman executive knew he’d need a seasoned PR veteran to help communicate the right message to Cushman & Wakefield employees. He turned to a dynamic difference-maker who had made an impression on him several years earlier: Aixa Velez.
Strategies for Corporate Communication
Although Aixa Velez has moved from finance to corporate real estate, she says her communications strategy remains the same—it’s all about concise communications and employee engagement. Below, Velez shares her best practices for getting employees the right information at the right time.
Communicate early and often across several channels.
Share success stories with executives to build awareness about the importance and effectiveness of internal campaigns.
Monitor what works and what doesn’t.
Be prepared to change and adapt accordingly.
Personalize and localize information when possible.
For global companies: Don’t rely on English alone.
Paper and digital are great, but you can’t replace face-to-face interactions.
Velez, who was then working as an internal communications lead at Groupon, jumped at the chance to lead strategic communications for Cushman & Wakefield. “It took me about sixty seconds to accept the job,” she says. Cushman & Wakefield’s trajectory and the chance to work in a global role were simply too enticing for the rising star to pass up.
To find success, Velez had to hit the ground running as Cushman & Wakefield looked to fast-track a growth plan and give two major competitors a run for their money. Some communications pros would have been intimidated, but Velez remained confident; she’d been in a similar position before.
After studying journalism and working for outlets such as People and The Huffington Post, Velez earned a master’s degree from DePaul University and found her niche in corporate communications. In 2012, she joined BMO Harris Bank as it went through a merger and immediately doubled in size, and she was tasked with developing and executing a critical communications strategy to help six thousand people through the merger.
Throughout her career, Velez has earned a reputation for meeting challenges head on. “I love a good obstacle because it gives me a chance to find the right creative solution,” she says. “I’m always looking for a way to learn something new or develop a skill set I didn’t have before.” As Velez stepped into her role at Cushman & Wakefield, she relied heavily on her experience during BMO Harris’s fast-paced post-merger days.
And, though finance and real estate are two very different industries, she found some common ground. “The main difference here is size,” she says. “I’m working in a global role for a bigger company, but the needs around internal communications are very similar.” No matter what industry they work in, good communications leaders are focused on helping employees understand where the company is going and why their role plays an important part in fulfilling the company’s stated mission.
On day one at Cushman & Wakefield, Velez was busy meeting her team, building relationships with company executives, and prioritizing projects accordingly. But, she wanted to do more than ask simple questions about strategy and culture; she wanted to know how others viewed Cushman & Wakefield. “I wanted to learn what the perception was in the marketplace and what kind of coverage was out there about this company,” she says. Armed with that information, Velez was ready to develop her communications strategy.
As she crafted that plan, Cushman & Wakefield was already implementing a new tech platform. Thus, a key change-management project became an important part of Velez’s integration strategy. She leveraged printed materials, digital messaging, and a multicity road-show, creating a multichannel approach to communicate change to Cushman & Wakefield’s employees spread across seventy countries.
Employees embraced the best-in-class tech platform because it made their jobs easier and more efficient. “Change is constant and hard at times,” Velez says, “but when you communicate reasons behind the change, you get buy-in.” It’s an important concept for Velez and other leaders to grasp, because studies routinely show that employees are more effective and engaged when employers are transparent and share information.
“I love a good obstacle because it gives me a chance to find the right creative solution.”
Velez says her colleagues at Cushman & Wakefield understand that. In fact, it’s part of what drew her to the job. “This is an innovative company that puts new ideas into action,” she explains. As Cushman & Wakefield celebrates one hundred years in business, Velez and others are revamping an employee portal to enhance tools that encourage collaboration.
Velez is also working to make her mark on the corporate culture at Cushman & Wakefield. In 2011, she helped start the Chicago chapter of ColorComm, an organization dedicated to advancing opportunities for women of color in communications. Now, Velez is importing similar ideas at Cushman & Wakefield, working with HR leaders and other executives to help drive their diversity and inclusion strategy to help the company stay competitive.
Diversity and inclusion initiatives, Velez says, are an important complement to her work in communications. “Good campaigns create productive employees, and good D&I practices will help us reflect the world around us and make our employees even more proud to work here,” she explains. “It all goes hand in hand.”