Informed staff sits well with AstraZeneca

From monthly breakfasts to town-hall meetings, the pharma giant strives to keep employees engaged

A new CEO at a major corporation always draws great interest from media and investors, but perhaps nobody pays more attention than the company's employees.
So when Tony Zook was promoted from SVP to CEO and president of AstraZeneca's US operation in early 2006, the communications team at the pharmaceutical company worked not only to make Zook more visible to media and investors, but also more accessible to the employees.

With that goal in mind, and to generally ensure better interaction with employees, the communications team - at about the same time as Zook's promotion - was re-structured to better coordinate its external and internal relations.

"When the department [was reworked] two-and-a-half years ago, we asked, 'How are we going to make employees engage?'" says Leslie Pott, senior director of commercial communications. "Where's the feedback? The awards and recognition?"

The answer came in the form of breakfast. Every month for the past two years, the US leadership team, which includes Zook, meets with a random group of about 30-60 staffers at its Wilmington, DE, headquarters for a breakfast, says Ray Parisi, senior director of corporate communications at AstraZeneca.

Employees can ask questions, sometimes anonymously, about the company, its business strategy, and its future while sitting with the nine executives from the leadership team. Other breakfasts showcase one-on-one meals with the leaders.

"It's an integrated approach we've been striving for," says Pott. "It's a small setting, safe... It's cross-functional to sit with a senior leader and not be embarrassed and intimidated."

Monthly lunches were eventually added to the event schedule to involve more employees in the effort, which has included 1,400 staff members in the past two years, notes Parisi. The corporate communications team also conducts anonymous surveys after each event to gauge the value of the meetings. The surveys show the average rating for each event is a 4 on a five-point scale.

"Employees can understand the strategic goals and what we're doing to achieve them," he says. "We can reinforce that communication with support from the leaders."

Building on the success from the leadership breakfasts and lunches, employee town halls were added to the schedule for staffers to question AstraZeneca leaders about business updates and other issues. The company also strives to make sure employees understand that the events are not mandatory, questions can be anonymous, and they can bow out if they feel uncomfortable, explains Parisi.

"We're reinforcing what employees may have read online or seen in a video clip," says Rich Fante, VP of brand strategy and portfolio operations at AstraZeneca and a member of the company's leadership team, via e-mail. "We live in an online world now, but face-to-face discussions with plenty of opportunities for questions and answers remain an incredibly effective way to communicate."

With the events at the Wilmington headquarters and the manufacturing site in Newark, DE, proving to be a success, the communications team has started the next phase in keeping ties between employees and executives close: a regular teleconference, called "Ask Tony" for employees who live and work around the US.

"It's in different areas of the country," says Parisi. "It's similar to a town-hall approach, with a Q&A."

The effort has likely contributed to AstraZeneca's inclusion for the past two years in Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For, he adds. The pharmaceutical company has also been included on similar lists for Working Mother and The Scientist.

"The various recognitions are all one example of positive reinforcement," says Parisi. "It indicates that the workforce feels good about working at AstraZeneca. They feel engaged at the company."

The employee engagement strategy is placed at the same level as the company's effort with transparency.

Fante notes, "These meetings are an important part of our overall strategy to make sure employees understand our goals, what we're doing to achieve them, and how employees' contributions are absolutely critical to our success."

At a glance

Company: AstraZeneca

US headquarters: Wilmington, DE

President and CEO: Tony Zook

Revenue: $30 billion

Key trade titles: The Pink Sheet, Pharmaceutical Executive, Medical Marketing & Media, HR Magazine, Incentive

Comms budget: Undisclosed

Comms team:
Lisa Davis, VP, corporate comms;
Tony Jewell, senior director, issue and policy comms;
Ray Parisi, senior director, corporate comms;
Leslie Pott, senior director, commercial comms;
Earl Whipple, director, corporate business comms

Pragency: Edelman

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