ON THE RIGHT TRACK
Always focused on creativity and career development, Will Foy has paved a road through internal communications, gaining experience across different sectors and different types of teams. Brittany Golob reports on his career journey and current role at Imperial Brands
Photographs by Jeff Leyshon
Will Foy grew up hoping to become a race car mechanic.
The south Wales native was influenced by his parent’s garage business and motorsports. He worked with engines and electronics, taking an early interest in rally driving, motorbikes and vehicle maintenance. Foy still gets to drive his pair of 1990s Vauxhalls on track days and “get [his] hands dirty” on the weekends, despite having shifted his career aspirations years ago.
As a college student, Foy loved his media studies course and found a creative refuge in art, but at the time, he still felt the pull of the track. He took a year out after college to get a qualification and work as a professional mechanic. He spent his weekends visiting friends at their respective universities, “paying rent via alcohol,” and getting the opportunity to see what felt right in a university.
In the end it was media studies that decided it – and maybe the desire to get as far from home as possible – and Foy took a place on the media course at the University of Leeds. “I always knew that I wanted to do something with creativity; I liked art, I liked drawing, I liked painting. I was never as good as other people…But I still wanted to keep the creativity,” Foy says of his course choice. As a concession to his parents’ practical request, he added management to the media studies and spent three years fighting with economics.
But at Leeds, media studies was a creative haven. Foy had the opportunity to do placements in TV and radio production, and journalism, as well as gaining skills across creative writing, filmmaking, radio, computer studies and more. He says one of his favourite aspects of the course was the aspect of “production and making something come to life. If you wrote a script and you were able to choose the right person to do the role, it was really interesting to me to see how you could go from a concept idea to getting it down on paper to developing it into a script to actually seeing someone act it out. It was brilliant.” Foy found production came naturally to his creative mind.
The real value in terms of career progression was in the three work placements Foy did as part of his course. They allowed him to graduate with experience in communications on his CV, giving him an instant advantage over others in similar courses, but with no professional experience in the industry.
The only downside to Leeds – apart from the maths – was leaving his girlfriend of one month back in Wales. The story ends happily though; they’re together still.
Foy didn’t stay in the north for long. His first job out of uni proved to be seminal in that it helped focus his career firmly on internal communications. His criteria for finding a job was vague – “some kind of marketing, PR, comms, journalism role” – that would allow him to write creatively in a professional setting. Foy took a job back home in south Wales with a US defence contractor that had recently received a massive UK contract.
General Dynamics was relatively new to the UK and didn’t have a formal comms function. Foy was technically the marketing and communications executive at, but he found the role swiftly focused on internal communications. “I think in hindsight, I was really lucky in that role. Yes, it was scary, it was frightening and they were a big US company with a relatively small UK footprint…You were thrust into this environment where everything was new, there was no infrastructure. Every day was different because everything was being built on spec,” Foy says.
But, applying that to communications, Foy found General Dynamics to be a blank piece of paper. He reported to the PR director, but swiftly made the role his own. Despite the still-developing discipline of internal communications, Foy’s role became an internal one. He worked across all aspects of comms, but focused on intranet design, bidding documents, writing, proofreading and working collaboratively with the technically minded people on staff. As he once delved into the inner workings of engines, Foy found a creative outlet in managing the internal culture of an organisation.
“At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but thinking about translating complex things into easy to digest creative writing was massive. I didn’t really appreciate what I was doing at the time in terms of my career development. It was just by chance. I was ambitious and I was keen to learn,” he says. Now, he can see how that early experience set him up for a career in communications working for organisations that need complex subjects distilled into simpler communications.
But, when the role became more embedded and the cyclical nature of IC reared, Foy took a job in comms management at Thales, another defence company. “While I was a marketing coordinator, I had a natural affinity with internal comms that developed over the years that I was there and I basically ended up being the internal comms person,” Foy says. “I was managing the intranet, managing the newsletter, helping out with the internal magazine, all that kind of stuff. Before the role was so broad, I cast my niche by being able to see things through from conception all the way through.”
He also got his first experience in change management. But, when looking for his next role, Foy wanted to work in a more established team. He joined NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), leaving the organisation over five years later as the head of internal communications. This post helped Foy develop strategic skills and learn how to embed strategic IC into a large organisation.
Foy can’t speak highly enough of the nurses and medical professionals working for the organisation. The NHS Blood and Transplant team is required to have difficult conversations with patients’ families every day. Their jobs are emotionally taxing, but they provided the IC team with a wealth of stories. And NHSBT is a body held at arms length to the NHS, giving communicators the opportunity to be a bit more brave with their work, Foy says. “The biggest thing I took from that experience was the change management and how structured you could be with internal comms without making it dull.”
Curriculum vitae: Will Foy
2015 - present Senior internal communication partner, Imperial Brands
As an internal comms team may grow to a certain point and then seek consultancy support, Foy’s next role was a consulting one. He worked for facilities manager Amey, but as a kind of internal consultant communicating across the business’ areas of operations.
Following that was the head of internal communications job at Sovereign Housing Association, different again in its remit. Foy relished the challenge to transform internal comms within the organisation from a single person who “just did it” to a strategic internal communications team. It required both a frontline state of mind and willingness to get stuck in, but also the need to build IC into the strategic framework of the business. “I loved it,” says Foy. “I built the team up and had a really great, high-performing team that we integrated well into the wider comms team. That was the challenge I wanted to overcome.”
But a 160-mile roundtrip commute to the Berkshire town of Newbury from his home in Newport, Wales, with a young child at home was tough. Foy took his current job, though, to embark on a new challenge – working with a global remit. Imperial Brands, the 118 year-old tobacco firm, has operations across 70 countries and is experiencing a time of change within its sector.
From the interview stage, Foy had to respond to questions – both from Imperial itself and from his friends and family – about his desire to work for a tobacco company. Always focused on the right kind of challenge, regardless of sector, though, Foy says, “It was not something I necessarily thought of when I went for the job.” In fact, that external perception has led to a warm, supportive internal culture, making it a great place for an internal communicator to work. The IC team, Foy says, is built around trust and allows communicators to be creative.
The challenge required all of Foy’s skills to be deployed. “I was employed four years ago and there wasn’t an internal comms team four-and-a-half years ago,” he says. But the challenge had been extended by the changes to the tobacco industry. Extending its portfolio from combustible products to vaping and technology-driven solutions, the company has become more agile.
“The whole business is shifting,” says Foy. “It’s a really interesting time where tobacco is declining and the business model is changing. The whole business is shifting. It’s a massive shift in terms of organisational culture and the way of working. It’s like working for a tech company now.” For Imperial, the change has caused the product pipeline to have a shorter timescale and the company to become more tech-focused. “It wasn’t an organisation that was necessarily adept to big changes and working in agile ways,” Foy says, but it’s a challenge the company is meeting head-on.
And for Foy, it’s a new challenge in terms of his internal comms playbook. Throughout his career, he has followed the development of the discipline of internal communications, building skills as IC people built their influence within companies. But, says Foy, there’s still room to keep evolving. “I’ve been in internal comms in one way or the other for 20 odd years. It’s come such a long way and it’s evolving all the time, as most disciplines do. But the fundamentals of what internal comms is about is still as relevant as it was 10 years ago.
It’s all about line of sight with the strategy, line of sight with where the business is heading,” he says. “The trust that you need to build with the leadership in order to deliver. People need to believe in this new way of working, in this new direction that we’re heading in to inspire people to achieve what we want to achieve.”
There’s a role for internal comms in all these areas of business; in trust in leadership, knowledge sharing, digital collaboration. Foy challenges internal communicators to push for more, though. “It’s actually very easy to become the typical postman/craftsman – writing, designing, supporting events. And very easy to deliver against that. It’s much more difficult to be measured on what we should be measured on, which is creating the actual added value for the business around consultancy and coaching, and develop strategies that are aligned to where the business is heading,” he says. He adds that that positioning of IC has evolved, but it hasn’t reached that ultimate objective. “I think that’s still where the future lies. And I hope to see it in my career,” he adds.
In retrospect, the road through internal comms seems logical to Foy, but, at the time, it was anything but. From prospective car mechanic, altering engines and makingcar modifications, to improving the inner workings of companies, creativity has been the driving force.