IN THE ZONE
A career in the extractives sector has allowed Anik Michaud to oversee corporate relations for Anglo American. She discusses her journey from Montreal to London and from health sciences to communications with Brittany Golob
Photographs by Jeff Leyshon
It was four in the morning when a single comment from a departing CEO led to an off-hand response which subsequently resulted in one of the biggest changes in Anik Michaud’s life. Now group director of corporate relations at Anglo American, Michaud was then director of public affairs and media relations for Canadian aluminium giant Alcan. She was helping Cynthia Carroll through her departure to Anglo American – where she served as chief executive from 2007 to 2012 – when Carroll had to make a transatlantic call to Michaud in the middle of the night.
Carroll thanked Michaud for her work on the transition. “And as a throwaway sentence, she said, ‘Too bad I can’t take you with me!’ and I said, ‘Well, why not?,’” says Michaud. “It’s four o’ clock in the morning and probably on her side there was nothing more to it and probably on my side there was nothing more to it, but we were having breakfast a month later to start talking about it.”
But getting to the seismic shift that would bring the native Ottawan to London went beyond a single call. Michaud was born in Ottawa, but moved with her sister and parents to Montreal as a teenager. The family took up residence in the francophone neighbourhood of Outremont, a move that allowed Michaud to grow up bilingual, like most denizens of the Quebec city.
Michaud was raised by an engineer father and a corporate comms executive mother. She enjoyed life sciences at school and spent time lifeguarding as a teenager, a combination of interests that would encourage her toward a medical profession. But she began to rethink that route before doing her entrance exam for university. Michaud visited a guidance counselor and completed an aptitude test that told her to pursue accountancy or law.
Michaud was accepted for a law course at the University of Ottawa, one of the top 20 universities in Canada. Law, though, was not where her passion lay. It was Michaud’s work experience that ended up paving a more fitting career path. During her final year at university, Michaud worked at the Competition Tribunal in Ottawa. The government body, like the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, maintains good competition in industry and safeguards against monopolies.
Following that, a brief experience in law was the end of her potential legal career. Michaud says, “I won a case I should never have won and I lost a case I should never have lost so I thought ‘I’m too much of an idealist for this,’ and I went into politics.” Instead, she became the political attaché for then-minister for finance for Quebec, Louise Robic. Michaud swiftly became Robic’s press secretary even though she says, “I had never spoken to a journalist in my life, I had never done a question period. I had never written a speech.”
It was a lot of responsibility to put on the young graduate. Michaud says, “I actually get a little bit of anxiety when I think that this person put her political career in my hands. It was intense. I did it for a little over a year and I did not sleep for over a year. You know what they say, a day in politics is like a week anywhere else.” After the campaign, the young Michaud took her experience into communications agency Le Groupe Columbia.
Though she was still young and in the early stages of her career, Michaud managed to work on some high profile campaigns. Her background in politics came in handy when working in media relations for the mayoral campaign of Pierre Bourque. The director of the Montreal Botanic Gardens and horticultural engineer-turned- mayoral candidate won the election with 47.6% of the vote. The campaign taught Michaud an invaluable lesson. “You need to understand your portfolio very well. That’s one of the life lessons that you need in order to understand people,” she says. “I used to walk the streets with the eventual mayor. People used to want to touch him, he was so popular.” Bourque also stayed with families in Montreal’s poorer districts to better understand the people of his city.
This lesson has stayed with Michaud. She offers similar advice to communicators early in their careers. “Know your portfolio and know your constituency,” she says. “Have your finger on the puslse. Don’t be scared of providing advice; that is what you are there to do. Challenge. If something doesn’t make sense, there is nothing wrong with asking questions. Put yourself out of your comfort zone.”
Her comfort zone was expanded during her years at the agency. From the relatively familiar political work, Michaud then worked on the National Hockey League’s (NHL) lockout in 1994-1995. The disagreements over salary caps and assistance for smaller-market teams carried on between NHL players and owners for three months during the season, resulting in 468 missed games. For hockey-mad Quebec, tensions were running high between fans and the league.
Michaud had to manage the NHL Players’ Association press. She says appeasing fans and maintaining consistency of message throughout the strike meant, “Making sure that the guys stayed true to themselves, that they really appealed to their constituency – sports lovers – and that when they spoke, they spoke with some humility.”
Michaud also took on some of the preparation work for the 1995 G8 Summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Before the October 1995 referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty, Michaud struck out on her own. Her work ranged from the referendum events to media monitoring, analysis and response for corporate clients. But being a one woman band had its downsides as Michaud missed the support found in an agency setting. “You didn’t have anybody guiding you. You were it,” she says. Yet, that strengthened her voice, too, “You really needed to be able to stand by the advice that you were providing,” a lesson she stands by today.
Two major changes swiftly swept Michaud into a new role, at home and at work. She started sub-contracting for Alcan – her eventual home for over 10 years – and became pregnant with her daughter Sophie, now a 20 year-old University of Edinburgh student.
Alcan was where Michaud was allowed to thrive professionally. She began her role there with a stint in internal communications – something that at the time, she’d had little experience in – managing the implementation of Oracle software throughout the business. Internal comms, she says, should be approached no differently from externa, “It’s all about knowing your constituency and tailoring your work to them.”
“Don’t be scared of providing advice; that is what you are there to do. Challenge. If something doesn’t make sense, there is nothing wrong with asking questions. Put yourself out of your comfort zone”
She then led the implementation of Alcan’s first crisis management strategy in the run up to the Y2K crisis. In the late 2010s, the Y2K scare seems a bit of a laughing matter, but in 1999, it was a serious corporate risk. The United States published a Congressional act – the ‘Year 2000 information and readiness disclosure act’ – encouraging businesses to prepare for the new year and share their advice with other businesses as a means of promoting the national interest. For Michaud and Alcan, Y2K saw the implementation of the company’s first integrated crisis communications plan. She says Alcan had risk management strategies, but this crisis was corporate. Preparing for 1 January 2000 meant aggregating potential plans throughout the business and setting out the corporate strategy for crisis management.
Michaud then took responsibility for improving the communication of environment, health and safety at Alcan. Her team reexamined all aspects of Alcan’s health and safety and created new safety communications and change managament systems. She calls it “one of the best, most worthwhile” projects during her time at Alcan. The massive change management programme had to change behaviour among line managers regarding health and safety. Michaud found success with both the more emotional appeals and the practical points like the money lost from an operation that has to be shut down for a post-accident investigation. “Usually you have local legislation that creates the standard,” Michaud says, “What we did was say legal legislation is the minimum standard. The corporate standard is what we want the business to operate at.”
But then, 2007 came along and changed Michaud’s life yet again. American aluminium business Alcoa had put in a bid to acquire Alcan. Then, in July, Rio Tinto put in a massive $38.1bn bid for the mining firm. Dick Evans, who became CEO of newly-minted Rio Tinto Alcan, later called it one of the “worst decisions ever,” due to the takeover’s timing during a high price point for mining.
“I’ll remember it always very well,” says Michaud of the Alcoa bid announcement. “I had known about it on Sunday but as I was brushing my teeth, I was hearing it on the news. I knew what kind of day I was going to be having.” Alcan had a policy to call every journalist back, but the volume of calls the press room received that day was overwhelming.
Carroll was hired by Anglo American in October and took up her post in January. In that transition period, she and Michaud shared their fateful 4 a.m. call. Michaud then stayed on for another eight months, before departing Rio Tinto Alcan in December 2007 as the director of media relations. Swept in the tide that followed that call, Michaud suddenly realised she was actually moving to London, with 12 year-old Sophie in tow.
The change was challenging professionally, largely due to the different reporting cycle in the UK and to the fact that Anglo American is an upstream business and Alcan downstream. But, in 2008, the single mom also had to settle her daughter in a new school and Michaud’s office at Anglo American soon became the after school home for her daughter.
Curriculum vitae: Anik Michaud
Michaud’s role as group head of corporate communications was far-reaching. She supervised media relations, IC, marketing, digital, branding, crisis management and communications, with a bicontinental team of 34. In 2008, there was no such role. “I was actually setting up a function that did not exist. I needed to create the capability in the corporate communications space,” she says.
Michaud began the process of professionalising corporate communications at Anglo American and leading many company- wide change management programmes. The team has since developed its health and safety strategy. The ‘zero harm’ policy put in place in 2011 seeks to ensure all employees return home ‘fit and well at the end of each shift.’ She is responsible for turning Anglo American on to social media, a necessity that has risks and opportunities. Having a clear strategy helped mitigate those risks and ensured that social media is now well-embedded throughout the massive organisation.
Though Carroll departed the company in 2012, Michaud has flourished in the role. She attributes some of that success to the support of new CEO Mark Cutifani. “Someone like me normally doesn’t survive CEO changes,” she says. “Mark elevated corporate relations onto the executive committee, where it belongs.” She is looking forward to the implementation of a new sustainability strategy and the development of an innovation platform, both of which are designed to allow the business to think about its work a decade into the future.
In her rare hours not travelling to far-flung sites – Michaud has been to Ghana, Peru, China and Australia, to name a few – she unwinds by cooking. But it’s not a complete departure from Michaud’s experience, background and the tenets that have informed her professional life. “I love to cook, it’s like my own lab. Recipes are there for guidance and inspiration, but not really to be followed. You can actually see a real outcome very quickly, which is great,” she says. “I like trying something new and putting myself out of my comfort zone.”
A four a.m. phone call may have changed her life, but only in terms of the continent on which she lives. Michaud has adhered to strong ideas about communications throughout her professional life and she has made a career of succeeding when taking herself out of her comfort zone.