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How a Global Communications Company Has Made Constant Change Part of Its Culture

Joanne Layne Article 3 min

Lots of companies like to talk about how constant change is the new normal. Few practice what they preach more than Intelsat.

One of the world’s leading satellite communications providers, Intelsat has a long and storied history as one of the great pioneers of its industry. It has a reputation as a company that is always changing, always evolving and innovating to bring value to its customers.

“Ours is a very fast-changing industry,” said Angela Galyean, Vice President of Human Resources for Intelsat. “Like a lot of companies, not everyone in our organisation is comfortable with change. But the last message from our CEO, Stephen Spengler, was that this is the new norm if we want to meet our customers’ needs. We are always going to have to change if we’re going to succeed.”

Intelsat’s rich history is a testament to the benefits that accrue to organiations that are good at change.

The origin of the company dates back more than a half century, when it was known as the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation, a global intergovernmental consortium that launched the very first commercial communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit in 1965.

That satellite—the Intelsat 1—was appropriately nicknamed “the Early Bird.” And for good reason.

Intelsat 1 facilitated the first live television broadcast of a spacecraft splashdown, when it helped broadcast images around the world of the Gemini 6 splashdown in December 1965. By the time it had been decommissioned four years later, it had provided the first direct and instantaneous communication contact between Europe and North America, including television, telephone and facsimile transmissions.

However, if there’s anything we know about being the early bird with any new technology, it is that your leading-edge status can be fleeting if you aren’t willing to transform. It’s that understanding that drives Intelsat today.

Intelsat, which was privatised in 2001, has worked diligently to go from a company that essentially sold time on its fleet of satellites into a powerhouse that designs and manages communication services along with its clients—primarily the world’s leading media broadcasters, fixed and mobile network operators and the leading service providers delivering broadband connectivity to shipping vessels, cruise ships, planes and government customers, such as the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force.

The transformation began four years ago when the company relocated its administrative offices from Washington, D.C. to McLean, Virginia. It further accelerated when Stephen Spengler was appointed CEO while Intelsat and the broader communications industry was undergoing a period of intense disruption. Broadband and media customers’ business models were rapidly changing to meet viewers’ and subscribers’ changing content and data consumption demands.

Commuting in the D.C. area can be very challenging. To get employees ready for the move, change in commutes and more open, collaborative office space, Intelsat’s HR department embarked on an aggressive internal communications strategy to help ease the transition—not just in McLean, but around the world.

To ensure a smooth transition, the company created an internal website where employees could easily access information on the changes that were underway. Updates were posted daily, reinforced by messages from Intelsat’s CEO. And HR deployed a “communications toolkit” for leaders to help them create presentations, share information and gather useful feedback from their teams.

“We shared as much information and facts as we could with everyone on all changes,” Galyean said. “We were in a closed environment where many had their own offices. Now we’re in an open and more collaborative environment.”

Along with the changing office environment, Intelsat significantly realigned the company around four business units to ensure better focus on their customers’ fast changing needs. “Cross functional collaboration created greater transparency and a more agile structure that enabled the business units to act quickly and decisively,” she said.

With the business models for Intelsat’s customers changing and Intelsat entering into new growth verticals, it also required an assessment of current and future skills needed to support and advance Intelsat’s long-term strategic vision.

“It was like changing the tires as you are still racing around the track,” Galyean said. “It was tough on people. We did not increase our resources to facilitate the transformation. We had to be very deliberate about change. It was exciting and scary at the same time.”

For some employees, the pace of the structural and cultural change was difficult. From an HR perspective, Galyean said this required leaders to go out and meet with affected employees face-to-face, hear their concerns and help them adapt to the new structure and culture. Leaders also needed to reinforce the importance of sustaining the work for Intelsat’s customers while also putting energy into the transformation.

“Communication is essential when you are trying to execute a successful transformation strategy. The message cannot just be delivered from the C-suite. Early on, we recognised that communication needed to flow down two levels below our executive management team to ensure transparency, understanding and, importantly, garner buy-in or flag issues early on so that we could quickly move to address them,” Galyean said.

Overall, Galyean said the company’s transformation has reached a point where many of the big, structural changes have been put in place, and there is a measure of comfort returning to the organization. But this comfort level is constantly accompanied by another important message.

“We want our people to know that change is never over,” Galyean said. “We are reinforcing that all the time. If we’re going to continue to be a disruptive company, we need our team to understand that change never ends.”

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