Lisa Hartenberger and Jim Spangler of Navistar International know how to manage a crisis.
The two spoke to IMC graduate students in Senior Lecturer Nancy Hobor and Lecturer Ernest Duplessis’ Intro to Strategic Communications course about their roles in helping the company Navistar International turn around after it faced a bump in 2012. They also shared tips for a successful career in marketing communications.
It all began in the early 2000s, when the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new air quality regulations that required companies like Illinois-based truck manufacturer Navistar to change their diesel engine technology to fit the new regulations. Navistar chose to invest $700 million to develop a new technology that would have been cleaner, cheaper and more convenient for their customers.
“We weren’t going to put on costly after treatment components which added weight, added another fluid to the vehicle and added cost,” explained Spangler, who currently serves as Navistar’s chief communications officer and vice president of corporate communications.
However, the new engines failed to be developed on time, causing the company to scramble. Navistar’s then-CEO retired after 37 years with the manufacturer, and the company was forced to use the engines and technology it had previously rejected.
With many employees worrying about the future of Navistar, Spangler and Hartenberger set a communications strategy surrounding the company’s new turnaround plan into action, focusing on internal communications and transparency within the company while highlighting Navistar’s new goals and business strategy.
“In a situation like this, we really had to over-communicate so that people understood what the game plan was, what we were going to do and what the timing behind it was,” said Hartenberger, director of corporate communications.
Hartenberger told students they made sure the company’s new CEO Troy Clarke was visible to employees, and that the 1,000 plus managers were immersed in the new business plan. In addition, she taught employees how to become brand advocates by scheduling open forums within the company so that employees could communicate directly with leaders and get the answers they needed to their questions. This helped to build buy-in for the company’s go-forward plan, and the communications team’s research showed these efforts also were effective in building employees’ trust in leadership.
Now two years into the turnaround plan, Spangler said that the company has made amazing gains—accomplishing “10 years of progress in two years.”
Spangler also noted that while the company is leaner than in years past, this just allows more room for team members—especially the junior ones—to grow within Navistar.
“Our people get a lot of opportunity, and they have a lot of fun,” Spangler said. “The youngest person on our team sits down and works with one of our senior leadership team members, one of our top 12 leaders. It’s a great training opportunity.”
Spangler acknowledged that fit has a lot to do with this kind of constructive work environment.
“When we bring someone on, it’s really about how this person is going to fit with our leaders, how this person is going to fit with our team,” Spangler said. “You should be interviewing that company and that team as much as they’re interviewing you.”
It also helps to make an effort to really know and understand the company before coming into the interview, Spangler said.
“Having that knowledge, you can have a real intelligent conversation with a business leader and it tells him or her right out of the box that this person understands the business,” he said. “That’s how you get a seat at the table.”
After that, it’s all about rolling up the sleeves and getting the work done, according to Spangler.
“You’re coming out of a great program with a wonderful reputation,” he said. “That will get your foot in the door, but once you’re on the job it’s really about execution.”
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