…Empower your employees. Empower them with information, so that they are emboldened to carry it forward and across the organization. It can’t just be one person communicating this or just a small group of people. Employees, when given information truthfully, honestly and transparently, are naturally empowered to share the information with others so it becomes a top-down-left-right, horizontal-vertical sharing of information.
Weare living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Licy Do Canto, a veteran of public policy, corporate strategy, health care communications and diversity and inclusion, is managing director of APCO Worldwide’s Washington, D.C., headquarters office and mid-Atlantic region lead. A well-respected expert in public health and health care policy, with nearly three decades of experience at the international, national, state and local levels across the nonprofit, philanthropic, corporate and government sectors, Mr. Do Canto is an accomplished, values-driven leader with unparalleled experience in developing and leading integrated public affairs campaigns combining strategic communications, public relations, political/legislative initiatives, policy, coalition building, grassroots efforts and advocacy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Iam the son of immigrants from West Africa, from the islands of Cape Verde, which are just off the coast of Senegal. My parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s and settled in inner city Boston, where my two brothers and I grew up throughout the 1970s and 80s. At that time, the inner city was exceptionally poor and faced a mountain of economic issues. It wasn’t until we moved to the suburbs to Milton, Massachusetts that I finally realized the uphill climb my family and I would be faced with.
My experience as a first generation American and a descendent of immigrants, has truly shaped the work that I do today. Growing up, I walked in two worlds — one that was the culture and history of my parents and ancestors, and another here in the U.S.. It was both a rewording and challenging experience and when I pause to think about it, my work today is truly reflective of my upbringing and my family’s long standing commitment to lead with maximum impact in mind. My parents came to America for the American Dream, yet while they came to carve out a better lives for themselves and our family, which I’m incredibly grateful for, that decision came with unforeseen consequences that my siblings and I largely had to navigate on our own.
Growing up in the suburbs made it all the more challenging when I was suddenly in an environment where people couldn’t pronounce my name or understand the language that I spoke when I was with my family. However, the duality of my two neighborhoods growing up is what enabled me to lead the life that I do today. On one hand, moving to the suburbs and being surrounded by resources to help me learn and grow motivated me, and moved me toward opportunities I don’t think I would have had otherwise. On the other, my experience shaped me to be inclusive of peoples experiences and backgrounds, and to make a point to understand the stories that people share — it’s part of the reason why even though I spoke fluent Portuguese, I chose to study Spanish because I felt like the more languages I could learn, the more knowledge, understanding and empathy I could have for other cultures.
I didn’t realize it then, but growing up I was less concerned with my backstory and more focused on the front story — and frankly that’s the lens through which I lead my life and my career and that has guided me to the job I have today: hoping to leave tomorrow better than today. The legacy I ultimately intend to leave is one that prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusion as a means to further justice along racial and social lines, and I’ve carried that thinking across my entire career journey.
After graduating from Duke University I began working on Capitol Hill with Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy, then soon after with Congressman Barney Frank — who provided me what I consider to be the greatest intellectual experience I’ve ever had. In particular, I supported Congressman Frank as his chief advisor on all policy related efforts related to Cape Verde. Congressman Frank represented the largest constituency of Cape Verdeans living in the U.S., and therefore served as an intricate conduit in the relationship between Massachusetts, the United States and the Cape Veridian government. Via Congressman Frank, I played an intricate role in all issues related to economic and international development, national security, health, maritime law and a whole host of other policy arenas between our constituency, the state and federal government and Cape Verde.
When I left The Hill, I started down a healthcare path, working with some of the largest NGOs in in the world and leading an organization in the fight against HIV and AIDS and the fight for equity across the healthcare system. Since I was a young kid and witnessed firsthand the inequities of the healthcare system both in terms of access to resources, as well as how the industry engages with communities of color and vulnerable populations, I’ve made an effort to be a catalyst for change. I’ve never forgotten something a friend of mine and renown Black Cancer surgeon said to me “people who are poor don’t want to be made to feel like they are poor.” Having once lived in poor circumstances as a child, I can appreciate those words and what it means to have an equitable healthcare system. When I was as young as a teenager in middle school, I had to be a translator for my parents and grandparents when there was no other translator in place. That’s a terrifying position to be in for anyone, but especially a teenager where one wrong translation of medical terminology could lead to a misdiagnosis.
Fast forward and that experience enabled me to walk into rooms, identify with people from all walks of life and make a point to ensure that they feel comfortable and feel understood. Eventually I started to work with a much broader sector of the industry on broad range of policies and issues that essentially span from one end of life to the other — maternal health, diabetes, cancer, end of life care, etc., all of which I focused on with the intention of supporting vulnerable communities and communities of color.
Harnessing my experience and expertise, in 2010 I started The Do Canto Group, my own public affairs consultancy company, and then eventually navigated the PR agency world until found my way here to APCO Worldwide’s family table.
I’ll be honest, can’t tell you that one day I woke up, and decided that I wanted to be at the APCO table running the flagship Washington, D.C. headquarters for one of the most prominent global communications and advisory firms in the world. But I can tell you that one day I decided that I want to be in a role where I can collaborate with others to generate and drive impact with purpose and inclusion on a global scale, and at APCO I’m honored to help do that for those we serve and the communities they represent.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Nearly twenty years ago I found myself listening to the then-president of the American cancer society talking about a concept known as the cancer preventorium. The doctor was encouraging people, without symptoms, to come into the hospital as a preventative measure. It was a concept that intrigued me and as he explained it, I realized that it was an incredible opportunity to change the game and to drive enormous change and impact across the healthcare industry.
Soon after, I met with Dr. Elmer Huerta, who today is a very close friend of mine, and said I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but you and others are going to make this a national offering — a federal law — so that we’re incentivizing and helping people to remain healthy and to go into hospital systems for preventative measures before they even become sick, or their circumstances become dire.
So that began a five year journey working with Dr. Elmer Huerta, in Washington, D.C. among the Hispanic-Latino community, but also with pioneering and renown African-American doctor and former president of Harlem Hospital, Dr. Harold P. Freeman as well as Dr. Gilbert Friedell in Kentucky, all three representing different, yet distinct communities that have historically been impacted by a lack of access to quality healthcare. We worked together for five years with several bi-partisan leaders in Congress to study the origins of the program in Harlem, New York, and to develop this legislation.
We even worked with Hollywood to incorporate the Patient Navigation concept into an episode of ER as means of helping to promote the enactment of the law. The writers of ER and I collaborated to weave the Patient Navigator concept into the storyline of an episode, and I then used that episode in a presentation to Congress as a means to advocate for the eventual pass of the law.
Finally, in 2005 HR 1812, or the “Patient Navigator Outreach and Chronic Disease Prevention Act of 2005,” became the first healthcare legislation that then President Bush signed into law. The act allowed for the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a competitive grant program — that still exists today — to help patients navigate the healthcare system and access healthcare services to prevent and treat chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
President Bush sent me a note soon after to congratulate me and others on this effort and shared signed copies of the law that he signed. I’m incredibly proud of this law and it is by far one of the most impactful experiences of my career. This effort is a constant reminder of how important it is to work in bi-partisan ways with communities at all levels, especially those disproportionately impacted by disease.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A life lesson quote that represents me in so many ways is a is an old South African proverb: “I am because we are; we are because I am.”
This quote is the essence of who I am, what I do and what I’ve learned throughout my life and my career — that none of us are who we are without the support, guidance and mentorship of others.
I am here today being able to do this work, engaging and driving with impact because others took up interested to serve as mentors, champions and as friends in order to shape me into who I am. In helping me, they imparted words of wisdom based on their personal life experiences. To me this quote is about bring people together regardless of age, gender or race, but instead as a community to be the very best that we’re capable of being.
This is a powerful expression of how I orient my life in ensuring that whatever I do, I do because of the “we” and whatever we do, I benefit from that as well.
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?
Absolutely, but I must say that it’s impossible to narrow it down to one singular person as so many individuals have had a hand in carrying me to where I am today. So first, I must acknowledge that like many others, I wouldn’t be doing what I do without my parents and my family. Their decision to move across the Atlantic to another country and to raise three children — myself and my two brothers — in a culture that in many ways is distinctly different from their own, was not any easy choice. Their journey was fraught with challenges and so I must give credit to my parents for their resiliency. So much of what I have learned in my life stems from that resiliency.
Another individual who has had an enormous impact on me is John Cronin, the former administrator of Milton, Massachusetts — my former childhood town. Although John’s official title was the administrator, for all intents and purposes, he was more or less the Mayor of Milton. I was recently reflecting on how he fundamentally helped to shape me and my life in all ways. When I was just 12 years old, a young boy with the funny name and funny hair, he took me under his wing. First in the Boy Scouts of America and then eventually providing me with job opportunities to work with him in all functions of the Milton city government. I think I honestly had every job position in the town of Milton that a teenager could have had, from sitting at the desk and documenting the issues that the town was confronting and reading water meters, to working in the police department reviewing tickets, to working in the town library to being the janitor for the town hall, I did it all. The experience I gained through these positions humbled me as a teenage boy in suburban America and truly helped shape the man that I am today.
Finally, my friend and former boss Congressman Barney Frank. Congressman Frank provided me with one of the greatest intellectual experiences of my life. It may sound silly, but I often tell people that I went to the “College of Barney Frank” because of how much I learned from him. He taught me how to work on highly complex issues with diverse personalities and individuals that…let’s just say…you may not otherwise invite to your children’s birthday party. He taught me how to be an effective communicator, negotiator, and he equipped me with the ability to work with a wide range of personalities for the sake of a greater purpose.
Thank you, Licy. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
When I think about this, I think about what Michelangelo said, which is, “to touch is to give life,” and when you are together in the same space with another human being — in this case, a workplace — you’re giving life to the work. No matter how sophisticated the technology that we have, there is nothing more effective than face-to-face communication and that’s an important part of being together. Being able to be together gives us a greater opportunity to be able to understand one another, and in the workplace, that is critical. In addition to the benefits of being in close physical proximity with colleagues and peers, is the benefit of various non-verbal ways that we use when we communicate with one another. The cues and subtleties we express as human beings are just as important. It’s in our DNA to not to be isolated, but to be together in one space or spaces, where we can engage with other. We’re only human we derive value and benefit from connection emotionally and certainly physically; working together creates a sense of closeness and empowerment to communicate in very effective ways.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
For the better part of a year now, we are all living with constant ambiguity and uncertainty that can lead to isolation. I appreciate the privilege of being able to work remotely, but it’s no surprise that this can often lead folks to deal with intimate, personal issues that previously went unspoken. If one doesn’t have the means, or the right method of communication or the necessary level of engagement, or they simply just don’t have the opportunity to regularly step into a physical atmosphere, it can be very difficult and challenging.
Again, I’m thankful we have the advanced technology that enables us to work from our homes, or anywhere really. But no matter how sophisticated the tools, when you’re not in the same space, technology can become a bit of a blessing and a curse; on the one hand it can create opportunities to communicate more, but it can also lead to severe fatigue. Employee burnout is at an all time high and in many cases, employees are working longer hours but aren’t necessarily being more productive — much of which has to do with our over rotation of communication.
I think one of the greatest challenges while working remotely is where the line between work and personal life begins and ends. It takes an incredible amount of discipline in order to understand and know where that line ends and begins, and I don’t think anyone has truly mastered it yet. Unfortunately, when the two worlds blend together too frequently, it is a fast track to burnout both physically and mentally. This, I think, is actually going to have a lasting impact on all of us, even when there is some sort of “return to normal”.
In general, I think the most important thing people can do to support themselves mentally, is embrace that life today is fundamentally different than yesterday. We have gone through, and still are going through, a world-shifting event, and some of these challenges are going to continue, even when we return to physically working together.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space? (Please share a story or example for each.)
It’s all about maintaining an ongoing dialogue with your staff. First and foremost, it’s important to think about how to effectively communicate in a virtual environment and make sure the right context is there. This is not just about working from home; it’s about working from home under great duress — personally and professionally — and we must understand what individuals are facing in this context. It’s also important to consider the frequency of the communication. Many companies have increased the volume and frequency of their communications through the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s now some rebalance occurring. People are feeling overwhelmed by messages from their workplace, state and federal government, concerned friends and family, social media, etc. It’s more important than ever to be mindful of sensory overload and practice necessary internal communication to employees.
Another point to consider is anticipating, identifying and responding to questions that employees may have — making it clear that no question is too small or too minimal in its importance. It sounds obvious, but doing so helps employees know that their employers are actively thinking about them and that they understand everyone’s experiences are unique.
Further to addressing employee needs, we have to find a way to decrease uncertainty. For example, the question of when offices will open up again is front and center for virtually every employee and that’s a very difficult question to answer. Addressing this uncertainty doesn’t mean lying to employees simple in an effort to reduce their anxiety; it means being able to honestly convey accurate, truthful information about the current situation while considering employee feelings and emotions. You must also be courageous enough to update, evaluate and, if necessary, change that response later — when the facts change, so do the positions. The pandemic is an ongoing real-time evolution of a crisis that we have never seen before — we must remain patient, flexible try to eliminate or minimize uncertainty whenever we can.
It is with this degree of care that we have to do the last step: empower your employees. Empower them with information, so that they are emboldened to carry it forward and across the organization. It can’t just be one person communicating this or just a small group of people. Employees, when given information truthfully, honestly and transparently, are naturally empowered to share the information with others so it becomes a top-down-left-right, horizontal-vertical sharing of information.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a dedicated international APCO task force of key leaders, led by CEO Brad Staples, monitored, assessed, communicated and guided the company’s pandemic response. A key concern for APCO’s leadership through 2020 was employees’ wellbeing and implementing measures to protect them while mitigating business risk. APCO seamlessly shifted to fully remote operations, provided complete flexibility to meet employees’ challenges at home, converted global learning and development programs to be completely virtual, and hired experts and created social outlets to protect employees’ mental wellbeing.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
Technologies like Zoom or Microsoft Teams have allowed us to not only seamlessly work with one another, but also to have conversations and regular engagement with staff that we otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to work with. Before, if we were to engage with our global team, we would have tried to get on a plane or pick up the phone — not necessarily use Zoom, Teams or other platforms.
In a way, these solutions have opened up greater opportunity to engage with employees and clients in ways that we would never have considered. It’s about how you use that technology and the creative ways that you can communicate with one another. Working remotely has opened up new forms of relationships and human connection that may be permanent in the workplace going forward.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
One that is transparent, clear, engaging, minimizes downtime, has a high degree of user satisfaction and helps to reduce overall operating expenses. I don’t know if there’s such thing as a perfect communication feature, but I’d imagine having a system that allows employees to connect, share information and engage with one another in all ways, at all times, in any space and in any form, would be ideal for any business.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
The pandemic brought together all of the technologies — from antiquated use of phone calls to conferencing and mobility video — and created unified communications. This has brought greater acuity for the need to have a unified communications strategy and system, and a culture that aligns.
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
Before we get too excited, we have consider what these technologies will look like in and for the future. In the context of the pandemic, we’re thinking about what the future workplace will look like, and it’s important to understand that future state in order to understand the systems, technological and communication needs we’ll have. Whether in a unified communications setup or overarching communications, this consideration will determine whether to deploy various connectivity solutions. Net-net, technological innovation will no doubt continue in support of a remote workforce, and we are looking forward to helping to support this innovation to best serve our people and how they work every day.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
I am concerned about how the culture of a company will align with the future. Through what I would call a “Corona normal” — I don’t believe that COVID-19 will fully dissipate, and it’ll be with us consistently — we have learned that there are aspects of the workplace and how we organize and communicate that we may want to make permanent. Certainly a significant consideration of such adoption will be how we want to use the various technologies that we have been using in order to work and communicate internally and externally.
So the concern is how quickly companies can come together to understand what those future requirements are going to be and how they can align their culture, given the system and the needs that they have today for what they’ll need.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, technology solutions have allowed us to carry forth and successfully operate our global communications and advisory firm with little to no road bumps. Sure, I think there were some growing pains at the beginning of the pandemic as we navigated new ways of working, but as I understand it and have witnessed in my time at APCO thus far, the way that we’ve used technology in our work has, in many ways, improved our interaction with clients and nurtured our relationships even further.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
Giving honest feedback is always important — whether remotely or in person. I don’t see one as being trickier than the other; I see it as an opportunity to provide your employee with the feedback and information they need and help them to be more successful. In order to provide constructive support and useful feedback to anyone, it is critical to have a holistic way of listening and engaging as a means to understand who they are as individuals, what their passions and goals are and how they want to grow with a company. It’s also incredibly important to be honest and affirmative. These, all taken together, are very key aspects of providing feedback in communications to any team in any circumstance.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
One of things we’re doing at APCO is focusing on three things: care, connection and wellbeing.
I think those are true in our personal lives and they’re certainly true in how we engage in a professional sense — helping our staff to feel engaged and creating opportunities for them to feel empowered. We also try to bring a sense of creativity to the way in which we are engaging and incorporating human connection into the work that we do every day.
It’s important to never lose sight that we are, in many ways, all experiencing a historic, and unique time period and focusing on care connection and wellbeing is as important for us personally, as it is for us professionally.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m lucky to be able to say that it would be the work that I do now — which I’ve had the privilege of doing alongside so many individuals from all walks of life for the better part of 30 years.
It’s the movement for a fair and just society. I think what has given me great hope is that we’re seeing efforts today that incorporate the hindsight from where we’ve come with the foresight to know where we’re going.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
APCO Website: https://apcoworldwide.com/people/licy-do-canto/
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.