During a difficult time, it can be easy for cynicism to set in. As a communicator, in a world that is overstimulated by information right now and focused on the accuracy of content, the substance of content and determining how best to communicate important information has taken on new meaning. This isn’t just at work where we are dealing with important and complex subject matters — whether it is around how we are keeping our employees safe with new regulations or how we are helping partners in life science — but this is also important at home. How do you help a 7-year-old not be scared that she may never be able to go to a park or play with her friends? Or explain to an 8th-grader that all the memories they looked forward to can’t be completed as they had traditionally been done? Content requires care of the message.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Renee Connolly.
Renee Connolly is global head of communications and community affairs/sustainability at MilliporeSigma, the Life Science business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, where she leverages the power of education, community and responsibility to motivate the many people the company impacts to achieve greatness. In this role since 2013, she leads the company’s internal communications for more than 22,000 employees, as well as its external communications, corporate brand strategy, societal relations and programming around the globe. She also oversees events and business market services for the organization worldwide and is a proud mom of four.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
While I was still in college, I was faced with my mother’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis and eventual loss. I realized that with my journalism degree and communication focus, I could help articulate complex science in a way that people could understand. My career has been dedicated to using my public relations experience to help people understand life-saving treatments and drug development technologies. Now, I get to share the “magic” behind what it takes to make all these therapies or diagnostics, for example.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
Leading the communication strategy for the $17B acquisition of chemical giant Sigma-Aldrich in 2015, the largest acquisition in the company’s history and one of the largest ever in the life science industry, was the most intense and rewarding experience during my career. I had the pleasure of expanding my perspective and surroundings with fantastic colleagues that joined our world from the legacy Sigma-Aldrich business. At the very same time, our larger company launched a new brand across the globe. Launching a new company and corporate branding at the same time made for a lot of activity, learnings and teachings during that time.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the things I am experiencing now is flexing new muscles. We’ve always had them at MilliporeSigma, but now we’re using them in different ways. Take our Curiosity Labs™ program, for example. We have a fantastic science outreach program that has reached more than 250,000 students in just a few short years. We visit classrooms and lead inquiry-based learning experiments to spark curiosity in every kid and remind them deep down, we are all “scientists” — even if they don’t know it. How do you do that in quarantine? Well, we got in our learning lab — socially distanced, of course — and filmed videos to move the content online. In just the first two weeks, we had more than 1 million views of three videos. We didn’t need to invest millions, but we needed to flex a different muscle to leverage a great creation in a new way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My dad and I are as close as a father and daughter can be. We debate, we laugh, we problem-solve together, we support each other and we teach each other how to use technology in order to communicate with the grandkids or some of the various generations within his company. I’ve watched my father raise three young children (then two more children with a second marriage) after losing his wife, run his own company and instill values in our family that are endless — and can say he has been a compass in many turbulent waters. He’s taught me the values of resiliency and hard work. For example, no matter how high you may climb the corporate ladder, it is critical to roll up your sleeves and work alongside your peers and your team. Demonstrating the importance of family and work ethic has provided me with two core principles that have given me the most joy in life: succeeding in a career that provides me with purpose and having a family that is center of my world. He taught me you can have it all, but sometimes you may not be able to have it all at the same time.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
I would have to say there is a fine line when working in the office or traveling to meetings. There is a differentiator for the most part between home and work. We have deep relationships with our colleagues, yet, we maintain that divide of our work and home. Through these virtual times, when we wake up and begin video conferences that go from 7 a.m. — 7 p.m. (or last night, with colleagues in Asia until 11 p.m.), we have to accept we are giving teams not only a glimpse into our personal space or our office space — or my dining room table for that matter — but we are also giving them a sneak peek into our lives outside of work. We may need to step away and help the kids with their login for class or put the water on to boil for dinner. At times, my daughter’s ponytail whips across the screen while quietly asking me to play dolls with her or showing me her latest drawing. We are doing our best to balance both worlds at the same time and, through it all, demonstrating we are only human. And while this was a perceived challenge at the onset of this, I think it has brought our teams closer and has added a human element to each of us.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Forgiveness is important to embrace at this time. I have shared with my team we are all doing our best and we are in this together. As we balance life — maybe at home alone or with spouses, partners, children, pets or elderly parents — across the globe, we are all in this together. I have begun holding Round Robins with Renee — a 30-minute, voluntary session I offer to my team members. I hold one in the morning for colleagues in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and U.S., and then one in the evening so our colleagues in the Asia-Pacific and the West Coast of the U.S. can join. These 30-minute sessions are informal conversations in which I share updates on the business and the relevant news of the week, but most of the time, they are a conversation about how we are managing through these times and meant to be a pressure release valve for everyone.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
My biggest challenge right now is knowing we can’t be there to fix everything for everyone. I have been taught by an amazing mentor and leader who has instilled in me that you have to focus on what makes good communications: content, simplicity and memorability. I am grateful he has helped to instill those foundations that are serving us well right now… and maybe I am not meant to be a calculus teacher.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
From the onset of the pandemic, our organization established a guiding set of principles. These would inform our decisions, plans and communications, and would provide us a framework of moving from decision to action quickly. Employee Safety, Public Health and Business Continuity are the guideposts in which we operate. When there are many urgent priorities coming all at once, we are reminded of our principles and we can determine what remains relevant should they fall into these categories.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
I am not sure if there is a clear answer or solution to balancing the needs. First, I would say there is no right or wrong, only what is right for your family unit. It has taken me some time to realize I can’t be everything to everyone. My husband and I make it a point to divide and conquer, and for this, we are lucky. One part of our routine that I have changed since we have had our shelter-in-place order is cooking. Cooking is my ultimate stress reliever and, the more stress I encounter, the more I cook. I usually wake up early and cook for the day or, when traveling a lot, I would cook meals for the week. A new spin on this routine now includes one of the four children each evening. We set a menu for the week in advance. They help select “their” prepared meal and pull the ingredients together. We cook together each night. These are the moments I will cherish during this time in our history — they’re when time stood still. Although I’m sad to not have sports, musicals and relatives in our life right now, I will remember these moments together. In a way, my kids didn’t know what a family dinner was since other priorities set in. Now, we have prioritized us and, wow, it is amazing what these kids are thinking about. The sharing of thoughts is so special.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
Well, I can tell you with four children ranging from ages 7 to 17, there is never a dull moment. I am either working on a media pitch for a major outlet, writing a key memo for our brave employees who are in our plants performing critical work daily, prepping our leaders for upcoming discussions, making sure my 7-year-old daughter is participating in her scheduled Zoom class for first grade, or sitting down for family dinner — even if it may be at 9 p.m.! Since we were first confined to our homes, I have made it a priority to set an intention for each day. It is an “I am…” statement and is an intention that I set my focus toward with the effort of staying with that intention for the day. There is something to be said about sharing out loud and with others that provides a sense of accountability. Through this time, I have shared several such as “I am calm,” “I am responsible,” “I am thorough,” “I am respectful” and many others.
Once I set this intention, I share it with my family and with my leadership team, with whom I meet daily. As you can imagine, communications is an interesting space to be in during a pandemic. Many people have opinions and ideas as to how, who and what to communicate. It is important to stay grounded in our intentions during these times.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective, can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons to Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Throughout history, we have been faced with crisis. We have witnessed the resiliency of our ancestors who have lived through these times and we have seen the values they have instilled in generations to come. Through crises, the human spirit is built to carry on. It is built to move forward and, if we are lucky enough, it will improve along the way. It is in these times that innovation surfaces and, as a society, we need to embrace this spirit. This is exciting and can be the greatness that we leave behind when this is just a history lesson.
5 Reasons to be Hopeful
1) One outcome
These crises force us to act quickly and do what is right for those that need help the most. Now, the world is focused on the same outcome: to save lives. Our healthcare workers are working tirelessly to treat patients faced with the virus, while researchers are collaborating across industries to deliver on potential vaccines, diagnostics or therapies. For those not on the frontline, we have seen an influx of industries step up to support — from those that focus on sports equipment to automotive parts. Each have adjusted their priorities to produce material to support our workers by developing respirators or personal protective equipment (PPE). This gives me hope and assures me society wants to do what is right and help those that need it most.
2) Compassion existsFabric stores and sewing machine manufacturers are trying to keep up with demand. Those of all ages and from all locations with seamstress abilities have come forward to produce PPE for healthcare providers. My great-grandma was a seamstress and I sure wish I had listened more so that I could learn. I have a colleague who has stepped up to help with her sewing machine and I am so moved by her commitment. Initiatives such as the “front steps” photography project have garnered donations for food pantries, hospitals and animal hospitals across the country, while providing families with a reminder of a time when being together at home was their most important job.
3) We can hit reset
Our families are adhering to overcommitted calendars, leaving minimal time to just “be” as we are living in a busy state most of the time. Although life goes on and businesses continue to operate, we have hit the pause button for most activities around the globe. From school and professional sports, to weddings and vacations, we have paused. We are living in a time and place where we can just be. We can be together. We can focus on what is important. We can reflect on what it felt like when the world paused. These are the times when our weekend commitments are only filled with gardening, movies, reading, puzzles and baking. While we still may be working remotely or on the frontlines, pulling our hair out as we homeschool our children, or caring for elderly family members — these are our only priorities right now. The things in life that should be a priority can be prioritized. We can hit a reset button right now to make sure we are putting our best forward with clarity of what we are supposed to be doing at any given time.
4) Technology is in our corner
Our world moves at such a fast pace — faster than ever before. With technology at the forefront, we are consumed by what is the next best thing. We are competing in markets as industries innovate and advance at lightning speed. Technology is not always perceived as the “next best thing” and can be to blame for children’s increased screen time or society being glued to their devices — preventing interactions with those in front of you. What we have seen through this pandemic is a renewed sense of connection. Through technology, family members have had some opportunities that may not have previously existed, including the ability to say hello or sadly to say goodbye to loved ones in hospitals. Socializing is now done through technology — online cocktail parties, trivia nights, ladies’ nights and several others. Education is being facilitated through a new online classroom, and teachers and specialists are delivering on a curriculum focused on screen time. Relatives have all been able to join holiday dinners or milestone celebrations. As travel is no longer required, a simple click of a virtual technology invite is all it takes for families to sit by the table together. It is a time to appreciate what technology has brought us during times like these. Just seeing someone live may bring someone a smile, and perhaps there will be a renewed sense of connection in person or virtually.
5) Content matters
During a difficult time, it can be easy for cynicism to set in. As a communicator, in a world that is overstimulated by information right now and focused on the accuracy of content, the substance of content and determining how best to communicate important information has taken on new meaning. This isn’t just at work where we are dealing with important and complex subject matters — whether it is around how we are keeping our employees safe with new regulations or how we are helping partners in life science — but this is also important at home. How do you help a 7-year-old not be scared that she may never be able to go to a park or play with her friends? Or explain to an 8th-grader that all the memories they looked forward to can’t be completed as they had traditionally been done? Content requires care of the message. A very respected communicator who has taught me so much, Charlotte, inspires me to share the following message with my team: Respect your delivery and respect your audience. It is important that we work to be concise and always remember many ears are listening — big ears and little ears — to communicate messages that matter.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s important to demonstrate compassion. You are not alone. We are not alone. We need to remind our families or loved ones that they are not alone, and their extended family, town, state, country and the entire world is feeling this anxiety and sharing in the fears and concerns. My advice is to look for the good news amidst the bad. Google what companies are doing to support the crisis. Read about industries that have completely shifted focus in order to provide PPE or respirators to hospitals. Read about local catering companies that have raised funds to donate meals to healthcare providers or the companies that are researching potential vaccines. Read about the good! Additionally, assume positive intent. I share that we all need to be a bit more empathetic and know that we don’t know others’ worlds at any given moment or point in time. Assume the intent of a comment or conversation is from a place of positive intent and share information around the facts as you know them to help inform and educate in a time when misinformation can create fear and uncertainty. Visit reliable sources that exist, like the CDC website, to share context.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m going to share a comment I like from a Disney movie, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In it, Mickey says, “Magic is something we can make ourselves.” I like this as a grounding reminder that no matter what we are doing, saying or how we are acting, we can bring “magical” properties to an experience, a program, a message or an interaction that has a lasting impression. I say to my team at work and team home, “Let’s bring on the ‘magic’ — the magic of creating memorable moments even in the most difficult of times and circumstances.” For me right now, it could be the magic of a message we send, the magic of a program we roll out or the magic of a meal my family prepares together.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow me on LinkedIn and my newly more active Twitter handle, @ReneeConnolly6.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!