The 10 Most Admired Business Leaders to Follow in ...

Mark Dollins: Leading the Way in Change Communications and Employee Engagement Strategy

The 10 Most Admired Business Leaders to Follow in 2023

With over 30 years of experience in Fortune 500 companies, Mark Dollins has solidified his expertise in the corporate world. He is the visionary president of North Star Communications Consulting, a cutting-edge consultancy at the forefront of employee/change communications and engagement, and communications talent development. Previously serving as the head of Executive & Global Employee Communications for DuPont, Mark spearheaded transformative communication strategies that successfully engaged a staggering 35,000 employees in the company’s growth initiatives. Moreover, he empowered 8,000 people leaders to foster measurable engagement within their teams during DuPont’s monumental $130 billion merger with Dow.

Since its establishment in 2011, North Star has been the go-to partner for prestigious clients such as Visa, Toyota, Raytheon, Signet Jewlers, PepsiCo, Louis Vuitton and Xerox — delivering exceptional communications consulting services. Under Mark’s leadership, his dedicated teams masterminded game-changing communication strategies for executive teams and hundreds of thousands of employees across the globe — ensuring measurable internal and external communication business results. Their exceptional expertise in change management communications for the enterprise earned them unparalleled recognition.

In 2017 and 2018, Mark’s team received the industry’s highest honors for communications excellence, including six prestigious IABC Gold Quills and two PRSA Silver Anvil awards for their remarkable achievements in change management, employee engagement, and employee communications.

Mark’s outstanding work also caught the attention of PR Week, which bestowed upon DuPont its highest honor for employee communications in North America in 2018. In addition, his team’s efforts were nominated for the best campaign of the year, while receiving the coveted “High Commendation” award for employee communications in the 2018 Global Communications competition.

Evolution as a Strategic Communication Professional

Mark’s career began in broadcast media as a production assistant for ABC News in Washington, DC. This opportunity allowed him to understand the power of storytelling and newswriting under tight deadlines. He then moved to general assignment newspaper reporting, where he learned the importance of diverse perspectives.

For the next decade, Mark worked in corporate communications for gas and electric utilities. This role involved employee communication, media relations, and crisis communication in a regulated industry. Mark’s understanding of journalists’ needs led him to become a media spokesman, exposing him to various stakeholder perspectives.

Transitioning to consumer goods, Mark joined The Quaker Oats Company and PepsiCo, where he became an executive communications leader. His responsibilities expanded to include employee communications, media relations, and brand PR for regional, national, and global brands. Mark also took on government affairs and philanthropic giving, deepening his understanding of stakeholder needs.

Mark’s corporate career showcases his growth and expertise in strategic communication, starting with broadcast media then moving into utilities, and consumer goods. He continuously learned and adapted to diverse perspectives, shaping him into a well-rounded professional. His consulting experience has taken into a diverse range of industries – from aviation to sustainability to financial services and manufacturing.

Building Trust and Collaboration

So much of leading communications for organizations, regardless of their size, involves strategic thinking and building trust. Mark believes that as a communication professional, trust is earned by asking the right questions, considering all stakeholders, possessing strong moral values, and consistently being authentic. Throughout his career, he has focused on developing the necessary skills and exhibiting behaviors that foster trust.

The challenges in communication are endless. There are always conflicting interests, agendas, and perspectives that can undermine even the most well-crafted communication strategies if they are not aligned. What works for shareholders may not work for NGOs, and what benefits brand building may not be suitable for other stakeholders. Establishing trust and cultivating strong relationships with partners goes beyond mere alignment; it necessitates the inclusion and consideration of diverse perspectives before executing any communication strategy.

Mark has witnessed how some individuals have suffered setbacks by taking shortcuts and implementing strategies that lack support from peers or leadership—or worse, strategies that have not been shared or subjected to diverse points of view. As a communicator, it is crucial to cut through the noise and assist the organization in communicating clearly, authentically, and strategically while engaging stakeholders. This cannot be achieved in isolation; it requires teamwork and the incorporation of diverse insights.

Tailoring Messages for a Diverse Stakeholder Landscape

Communication plays a pivotal role in the success of any enterprise initiative. Mark acknowledges that the traditional distinction between internal and external stakeholders has become blurred. In today’s interconnected world, employees have transformed into activists within publicly held companies, and information travels rapidly across various channels. Mark has always emphasized the importance of considering how communication will resonate with a wide range of stakeholders.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, all communications must align with a clear, shared, and compelling set of messages. Messages can be tailored and customized for specific audiences, but they must be consistent with the communicator’s voice, suit the delivery environment, and align with the chosen medium. Mark views audience insights, messaging, and segmentation as essential “homework” that every communicator must undertake when preparing messages for any communication strategy. When this groundwork is done effectively, it is evident in the messaging and strategy designed for stakeholders.

AI and Digital Communication in Employee Engagement

Mark spends a significant portion of his consulting work assessing the evolving landscape of employee communication and exploring how organizations can effectively connect with their workforce. One area of particular focus for him is the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on employee communication in the digital realm. He is currently conducting research in collaboration with the University of Missouri School of Journalism to gain a deeper understanding of both the possibilities and limitations that AI brings to this field.

AI is rapidly transforming employee communication, offering a diverse range of solutions for communicators. From content creation to predictive analytics for content placement, the potential is vast. However, one consistent business challenge that AI can help address is employee engagement. Through data-driven insights, communicators can better understand how to reach and resonate with employees. AI enables the delivery of the right message through the right channels at the right time and frequency. However, it is important to note that AI should not be relied upon as a standalone solution. It is a powerful tool that complements the human touch and expertise that experienced communication professionals bring to the table.

Digital communication is not the sole answer, but it can certainly play a significant role. The unique combination of organizational culture, work environments, and digital capabilities makes employee communication a crucial element in an enterprise’s strategic success. Areas such as reducing employee turnover, effectively reaching front-line employees, supporting managers in their communication efforts, and establishing internal communication governance are just a few examples where digital communication can make a substantial impact.

The Power of Learning and Mentorship

Throughout Mark’s career, he has been fortunate to encounter numerous opportunities for learning and personal growth, even when he initially felt unprepared to take on leadership roles. In the early days of his career, communicators were often expected to focus solely on writing and messaging without venturing into broader stakeholder engagement efforts. However, everything changed for Mark when he joined The Quaker Oats Company.

Early on at Quaker Oats, Mark was entrusted with the responsibility of shareholder communications, despite his limited knowledge in that area. Thankfully, he had a supportive executive who led investor relations and took the time to mentor him. Under this guidance, Mark learned about complex subjects such as foreign exchange rates, margin expansion, top-line growth drivers, and the SEC’s disclosure requirements. This period was particularly challenging for Quaker Oats due to its acquisition and subsequent struggle with the Snapple tea and juice brand, which resulted in significant financial losses. Through this experience, Mark realized that communicating with shareholders and employees should not be treated as isolated activities.

Mark embraced the lessons learned during this challenging period and carried them forward as he advanced in his career. He applied these insights to future roles and also made it a priority to mentor and support other talented individuals he had the privilege to lead. Over time, Mark found himself taking on additional responsibilities, such as leading Government Affairs and managing a corporate foundation, alongside his communication role. Throughout his journey, he consistently emphasized the importance of maintaining a 360-degree view when it comes to stakeholder engagement.

Every new role Mark undertook contributed to shaping his understanding of working across multiple stakeholders and integrating effective engagement strategies. These experiences were made possible because he remained open to learning, had a remarkable mentor, and was not afraid to tackle new challenges. The valuable lessons he learned were clear: It’s crucial to seek help when needed, take ownership of personal growth, and share knowledge with one’s teams.

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

Throughout Mark’s career, he has encountered and managed various crises, each providing valuable lessons and areas for improvement. One particular incident occurred when he worked for an electric and gas company in the Chicago metro area. The company’s electric generating station had a significant water intake pipe that suddenly collapsed, creating a sinkhole that engulfed trucks and cranes. Although no injuries occurred, the media quickly picked up the story and began disseminating incorrect information, suggesting a nuclear plant collapse akin to the Three Mile Island incident.

Despite the plant being coal-fired and not nuclear, the visual resemblance of the cooling tower to those at Three Mile Island caused confusion. Fortunately, Mark’s team had a well-established crisis communications infrastructure in place, including a diligent media monitoring team. They swiftly reached out to the media outlets involved, providing them with fact sheets and illustrations to promptly correct the misinformation. The key was to respond quickly and comprehensively, dispelling fears, outlining the steps being taken to address the incident, and assuring the community of their safety.

While the response was not flawless, the speed of their actions, the provision of accurate information to the media, and their genuine care for the community and internal stakeholders, including notifying employees’ family members of their safety, generated goodwill. The experience taught them the importance of building redundancies into their crisis response protocols, establishing additional backups, and ensuring access to necessary tools from remote locations. While it is impossible to anticipate every crisis, having a well-prepared infrastructure in place to address the needs of all stakeholders during challenging times is not only expected but crucial.

Mark’s experience emphasized the significance of effective crisis communications, swift response, accurate information dissemination, and demonstrating care and concern for all those affected. It highlighted the importance of continuously improving response protocols and being prepared to handle unforeseen situations.

A Holistic Approach to Professional Growth in Communications

To stay updated and informed, Mark relies on a variety of news feeds and platforms on a daily basis. He understands the importance of staying informed about changes and developments in his clients’ industries as well as the ever-evolving field of communications. To achieve this, he utilizes tools such as Google alerts and follows relevant feeds on platforms like LinkedIn. By dedicating time each day to digest and assess this information, Mark is able to learn from best practices, identify areas for improvement, and share valuable insights with his stakeholders.

Mark actively engages with professional communities and networks to enhance his knowledge and understanding of the communications profession. He serves on boards such as the Communications Executive Council at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and is a member of the Forbes Communications Council. Through these affiliations, Mark has the opportunity to learn from and exchange ideas with his peers, gaining diverse perspectives and staying abreast of emerging trends and practices.

Additionally, Mark is fortunate to have mentors who provide him with valuable insights and opinions on a wide range of communication issues. Their guidance and expertise contribute to his continuous growth and development as both a counselor and a practitioner in the field. Mark has learned that there is rarely a single source of truth, but rather a multitude of perspectives and insights that need to be accessed and considered to foster personal and professional growth. By leveraging multiple sources of information and engaging with various networks, Mark cultivates a well-rounded approach to learning and evolving in his role.

Empowering Professionals in Marketing and Communications

Mark advises professionals to take ownership of their development to enhance their communication skills and thrive in the marketing and communications field. While organizations often provide training for leaders, there may be limited internal opportunities for honing function-specific skills. Mark recalls a CEO’s advice on cultivating a “hip-pocket skill,” something that sets you apart from others. He emphasizes the importance of continuously investing in deepening expertise and expanding technical competencies to deliver exceptional communication and marketing counsel. Mark’s practice involves identifying emerging competencies, outlining progression paths, and assessing talent accordingly. As skills in the field constantly evolve, he urges individuals to raise the bar for themselves and stay ahead. Waiting for someone to point out skill gaps is not proactive; instead, strive to be on the leading edge of skill development. Don’t wait for validation – take charge of your growth and continuously improve your abilities.

Harnessing Opportunities

Mark recognizes that AI is a disruptive force in marketing and communications, offering numerous opportunities alongside ethical and legal considerations. Communicators must take the lead in guiding their organizations through this wave, actively participating in strategic decisions regarding AI implementation. Their unique perspectives can shape how AI impacts enterprises and their stakeholders. Collaboration with legal, Human Resources, IT, and other key functions is essential to assess and determine the appropriate use of AI.

Another emerging trend is the renewed focus on communicating with front-line employees, who face customers and experience higher attrition rates. Communicators must prioritize understanding these employees’ needs, aligning them with management’s expectations, and ensuring clarity and relevance in the content delivered through various channels in diverse work environments. Embracing the employee experience is crucial.

To stay current in the field, it’s important to not only monitor competitors and industry practices but also to seek insights from outside sources. Mark emphasizes the value of staying connected with universities and business schools, leveraging their research to benefit clients and establish credibility as an innovative thinker. It’s not just about chasing the latest trends but understanding how they can bring value to clients and businesses, always striving to stay ahead of the curve.