How to Build a Corporate Culture that Keeps Customers and Employees Smiling

Zappos Shoe Boxes

Zappos shoe boxes. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Say you’re visiting Las Vegas…what’s top of your list of Fun Things To Do?

Mine was: Tour the corporate headquarters of a successful company and learn how it translates its values into exceptional customer service and employee culture.

Okay, so my priorities may be a bit different than yours, but when the company is Internet shoe and fashion sensation Zappos, I leapt at the chance. A couple years ago, I read Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It was interesting to understand his perspective about why a culture, created by employees, works better and has such a strong effect on the bottom line compared to cultures imposed from the top-down.

Zappos Values

Photo by Vickie Bates.

This is a photo-heavy post of our tour, led by the awesome Valerie of the Zappos Insights team, whose motto is “Engage Employees. Wow Customers.”

As you can imagine, I was on board from the get-go, especially when I saw this sign (click on any photo to enlarge), taped to an employee’s cubicle. How great that employees feel so strongly about Zappos Values that they display them.

FYI – here are Zappos’ 10 “Family Core Values”:

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open, Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More with Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

You’ll see most of these Values crop up throughout this post.

The tour focused on customer service and marketing with plenty of culture thrown in for good measure. It’s impossible to separate culture from almost anything Zapponian, as we quickly found out.

The walls, the stairwells, the cubicle jungles (everyone – and I mean everyone – works in a cubicle, as you’ll see) are all painted and decorated by employees. There’s no dress code. There are no rules about personal items on your desk.

Food and drinks are free – and given gratis to thirsty tour-group members – with the exception of certain vending machines, like the Red Bull dispenser, though the money collected through these goes to Operation Smile, a nonprofit that helps children born with cleft lips and cleft palates.

Zappos Hall of Fame

That’s our guide, Valerie, in the Zappos Hall of Fame. Photo by Vickie Bates.

At right, you can see our intrepid guide, the vivacious Valerie, at the start of our tour, in a sort of “hall of fame,” with framed T-shirts that were given to employees when Zappos hit certain milestones. For example, in his book, Hsieh mentions that Zappos had a goal of reaching $1 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2010. They zoomed past the mark in 2008. Hsieh comments:

“Looking back, a big reason we hit our goal early was that we decided to invest our time, money, and resources into three key areas: customer service (which would build our brand and drive word of mouth), culture (which would lead to the formation of our core values), and employee training and development (which would eventually lead to the creation of our Pipeline Team).”

About that customer service…

While there’s a goal of trying to respond to calls within 20 seconds (no one likes to hear endless ringing), there are no requirements about how long customer service reps can talk to callers. That’s right – and the longest call so far? Ten-and-a-half hours, according to Valerie.

Zappos Rrrrr Desk

Problems walk the plank in this department. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Most calls are handled by the regular customer service team members. They’re empowered to make magic happen for customers on the spot without having to escalate the call to someone more senior. Really difficult calls that require research or calming down the rare irate customer go to the “Rrrrrrrrr Desk.” This section is tricked out in pirate booty.

Zappos customer service team members are given time before their lunch breaks to write thank you notes to people they’ve talked to that morning. There are no set talking points, nothing they’re required to say, and they can decorate the cards any way they want. Talk about trust. And what happens when companies trust employees? That’s right: You boost engagement, morale and productivity.

Teams consist of about 12 employees, and they switch teams every six months in an effort to build team and family spirit, said Valerie.

In terms of “walking the talk,” I found it interesting that the white board Zappos uses to record each week’s call totals (see below) also features totals for thank-you cards sent and employee growth and learning classes. I’ve always believed that when you support employees with training, education and skill-building, you help them achieve their own goals, as well as the company’s, and you engage them at the same time. It’s win-win-win.

Zappos Continuous Learning

Zappos call count board and much, much more. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Zappos even offers employees sessions with a certified life coach to establish goals – personal or professional – create a plan for achieving them and receive support and encouragement along the way.

Zappos Coaching

Writing on the wall. Zappos employees express their joy over meeting goals. Photo by Vickie Bates.

One of the moving sights on the tour was this stairwell, where employees shared the goals they’ve achieved and everything they surmounted to get there. Some were about losing weight, gaining confidence, learning new skills. A graffito that really made me say, “Wow!,” mentioned creating an anti-bullying campaign at a child’s school.

I mean, Wow! What a great personal goal, and how cool that a company would care enough to support an employee in its success.

Zappos Monkey Row

Monkey Row at Zappos. Where the senior leaders sit. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Welcome to “Monkey Row,” where the guys who normally wear the monkey suits in a typical corporation sit. No one really dons formal-wear at Zappos, and even the CEO shares cubicle space with the rest of the gang. You can see the red and white “Tony Hsieh” sign in the center of the photograph, behind Valerie.

With something like three tours a day moving through the Zappos hallways, it was amazing at how generous everyone was. Employees twirled noisemakers as we walked through their workspace, cheered, said “Hello,” and basically made us feel warmly welcomed. They answered all questions, were happy to have us take photos, and then gave everyone on the tour a free copy of the beautiful Zappos 2011 Culture Book.

Zappos Culture Book

Yours truly with complimentary copy of the 2011 Zappos Culture Book. Photo by Rochelle Kanoff.

(Get your own free copy here.)

Beyond the daily free tours, Zappos Insights also offers one-on-ones for a small fee, deeper dives at a higher rate, and multi-day boot camps. Why is Zappos so intent on giving away the “secret sauce,” you may ask?

Hsieh discusses that in his book. He says, “Our belief is that our Brand, our Culture, and our Pipeline…are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run.”

“Everything else can and will eventually be copied.”

Basically, he’s happy to share, but he also knows that driving and implementing significant change in corporate culture is not the easiest thing to do. Hsieh believes that “although change can and will come from all directions, it’s important that most of the changes in the company are driven from the bottom up – from the people who are on the front lines, closer to the customers and/or issues.”

Not every company is willing to let that happen.

Zappos Name Tag

Zappos tour name tag. Photo by Vickie Bates.

If you’d like to learn more about the free tours or deeper dives, visit the Zappos Insights website or follow Zappos Insights on Twitter.

A big “thank you” to the Insights Team and Valerie for the fascinating look inside the unique Zappos culture.

Why “What keeps you up at night?” Is a Bad Question and What Communicators Can Do about It

Full moon photo by Gregory H. Revera. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m at an employee meeting where the CEO is speaking, I always cringe when a staff member raises his or her hand and asks, “What keeps you up at night?”

You might not care what I think, but would it make a difference if you knew the CEO considers it lazy and cliché?

Perhaps that’s why this question never stumps CEOs. They hear it all the time, from employees, from reporters and shareholders. It’s so ubiquitous that the communications person supporting the CEO (cringing at the front of the room) always prepares an answer to this question.

So, I was thrilled when a friend, who co-wrote the excellent book Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others, dedicated an entire chapter to the CEO’s view of “What keeps you up at night?” (Note: This is an unpaid endorsement of the book, which I received as a free copy to review.)

The authors talk to the chief executive of North American operations for a multinational corporation about the problem: “It’s a terrible question,” he says. “Overused. Clichéd. Stale. And worst of all, lazy…They thought that by posing that question I would – as if by magic – immediately volunteer to tell them all about my toughest issues.”

And, really, what employees asking this question want to know is: Are there going to be layoffs? And, specifically: Am I going to lose my job?

The executive is clear that no smart CEO would divulge something like that, or be involved so directly in day-to-day issues management. CEOs, he explains, are “focused on growth and innovation, not operational problems.”

Laying the Cliché to Rest

Okay, it’s a bad question, but employees probably aren’t going to stop asking it, so now what?

As the communicator, you could recommend the CEO turn the tables. Instead of responding with a standard talking point, have the CEO ask the employee what keeps him up at night. (Gently and kindly. The CEO doesn’t need to be Mike Wallace here.)

The employee will be so stunned, he’ll probably give the CEO a raw, but honest answer. Your job is to make sure the CEO responds to the answer.

How do you manage that without being a mind-reader? How do you know what an employee might ask?

Solicit employee questions before the meeting – if you already do this, but have a tendency to weed out the negative ones before you show them to the CEO, make sure you review all of them. If people are angry or upset, prepare the CEO to address such issues with concrete solutions.

Talk with functional communicators – these folks are closer to the day-to-day operational issues in each department. They should know what’s causing concern among employees in the business units they support, whether it’s that new initiative in Manufacturing or cutbacks in perks for Sales or rumors of layoffs among Administrative staff. If there’s a major issue brewing, work with the comms person to get the senior leader in charge to the employee meeting – prepped with talking points – to address the problem head-on. The CEO can introduce the leader and she or he can take it from there.

Look at what employees are saying on social media – study conversations about your company in the social channels and on industry forums. Has the tone changed? Is something particularly concerning employees?

Find out what customers care about – check in with Customer Service to see if there are any concerns that are having an impact further up the supply chain.

Address market and competitive issues – these frequently drive internal efforts at efficiency and product development, so make sure the CEO has talking points on external drivers of change in your organization.

It takes a bit more prep time, but changing the dynamics of a dull, heard-it-all-before employee meeting enables more helpful information to reach employees and creates greater transparency and respect between employees and the CEO.

Employees on Social Media: Have Fun Storming the Castle

The following is a true story. Could this still happen in the age of social media? If your company wants to remain competitive, let’s hope not.

Once upon a time, a company was struggling to regain market share. After trouncing all comers for a decade, it lost its punch as new competitors and more exciting products entered the ring.

The entire company was reorganized to focus on marketing. Despite decades of award-winning work, the old advertising agency was let go. A hip new one was hired. Product lines were brought somewhat up to date, but they didn’t function as well as the market leaders. Consequently, they received poor reviews from press and consumers alike.

And what of employees inside the hallowed halls of this once-great company?

The daily grind was pretty grim. Employees coped as best they could with successive reorgs, changes in leadership, mission rewrites, OPEX reductions, and the launch of one new initiative after another. It was hard to generate excitement when every move the company made seemed to lead to a new round of layoffs.

But try they did. At employee meetings, they sat politely as marketing unveiled the latest products and plans. When asked for input, they gave it. Intelligently, clearly, poignantly. They wanted this stuff to work its magic and they were fully invested in its success. But, because they were closest to the front lines (manufacturing, quality, sales, customer service), they also knew it wouldn’t and, like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, they felt obliged to tell the truth before the company threw good money after bad.

What did they get in return?

They were told repeatedly that they didn’t understand all this newfangled marketing because they weren’t the right demographic. They didn’t like the new products because they weren’t the ones who were going to buy and use them.

And the “right demographic”? What did they think of the new products and marketing? They turned away in droves.

Was there a Happily Ever After for this company? Sadly, no. Remember, this is a true story, not a fairy tale.

The only thing that kept this saga from getting any worse was the fact that it took place in the days before social media. Imagine if employees – treated like that – had access to Twitter, Facebook and blogs!

What’s the moral of this story?

Dismissiveness discourages engagement (and encourages mutiny)
What exactly are employees supposed to do with insults, such as, “You don’t understand because you’re not the right demographic?” (A lot of them might think about taking their revenge on Twitter or Facebook or in industry forums.)

Effective marketing is all about relationships. Launching a campaign calls for engaging key stakeholders to help build enthusiasm. It starts inside a company before the very first ad airs on TV or the first tweet goes out. If a company can’t build solid, positive relationships with its own employees – natural allies because they share the same goals – how can it expect to create them in the world, where people are far more suspicious of brand messaging?

And if morale is bad inside a company, it’s only a matter of time before that negativity seeps into the social world where it influences key audiences and customers.

Employees aren’t the “right demographic,” they’re the “first demographic”
Engagement must start inside the gates with internal audiences because they are a company’s ambassadors during good times and bad.

“Your people are your best assets,” notes Christopher Barger in The Social Media Strategist. “In an environment in which trust is a key currency, it is your people and their personalities that will sell an audience on your brand as much as your product.”

In this age of social sharing, even with limited or no budget, a company can still create word of mouth around its products if its social media strategy includes having employees use their expertise and enthusiasm to engage customers.

This is doubly true in a crisis, when employee goodwill is shared in social circles, reinforcing official communications. Effective crisis communication is no longer simply about “putting a coin in the good karma bank in case you need to make a withdrawal,” as crisis experts used to describe it.

Companies that value employees and empower them to engage with audiences in social channels on a regular basis have a host of vocal advocates ready to put their influence to work on behalf of the brand’s reputation when barbarians are at the gate.

It’s important to understand how employees relate (and are related to) your customers
Think about a company that makes toys for toddlers. The employees probably range in age from early-20s to early-70s. Clearly, they are not the target user of the toys they manufacture.

But, do none of these folks have children? Grandchildren? How about parents who buy toys for grandchildren? And cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and professional colleagues they meet at industry conferences, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, employees are customers. And, if they’re not direct consumers, they encounter customers in all walks of life and have the potential to be ambassadors for the brand and influence purchase across networks of family, friends and professional associates.

Companies don’t own their “story” any more
Companies no longer control messaging about their brands, leaders or dirty laundry in social channels. (Just ask Yahoo!)

Sure, companies can restrict access to social platforms on the corporate network and create HR policies that forbid mentioning the company in social channels after work. But brands that want to excel take a different tack.

Christopher Barger recommends “teaching the organization to fish”: “Not every organization or company will empower all of its employees to engage in social networks. All the same, it’s a good idea to build a social media education program for all employees anyway.”

Barger’s approach enables employees to learn everything – from social media platforms to publishing tools and company policy. It also gives employees insight into how the company – both marketing and corporate – shares messages and builds relationships in social circles.

This kind of immersion in social media best practices, based on teaching and trust, goes a long way to building a strong base of employee ambassadors who understand the vision and strategy and are well-versed at engaging with the audiences companies most want to reach.

Companies don’t always know how to build a better mousetrap
“Great leaders…know that if they come up with all the answers, the chances of having anyone else buy into the solution are next to zero,” write Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas in Power Questions. “But if their employees come up with the answer – if they feel ownership of it – there is a good chance it will bear fruit.”

Many social media experts predict that smart companies will create iterative processes that allow feedback from social media fans and followers to inform the design of better and new products. Both consumers and employees are in prime positions to contribute expertise in this scenario.

Some companies are already doing this. So, when an employee figures out a whole new way to use a product, simplify consumers’ lives, solve a problem, streamline a service, or just make customers happier, give that employee a blog. Why restrict access to social media? Heck, let them share their personal story with as many people as possible, and watch how customers get engaged.

Now that gives employees and customers something to tweet about!

Do you have examples of companies that encourage employees to use social media channels? I’d love to hear about them in the Comments.

Transparency Equals Credibility: Communicating What You Know When You Know It

Communicating is tough when the news is difficult for your audience. It’s even harder when details aren’t fully baked.

I’ve fallen victim to holding back – for example, waiting till all of the content was developed before launching an intranet site with only a few months left to go on a large-scale change project.

I look back on that experience and cringe. Sure, intranets were brand new then, and most of us were trying to make them look and function like external websites, but the main reason I delayed was fear that stakeholders needed more content. So, they waited while we created.

Doing Better than “I Don’t Know”

Recently, I wrote a post about communicating a new Pay & Rewards system for warehouse employees (“They All Laughed: Can Humor Be a Communications Asset?”). That post was about getting my foot in the door and learning an entirely new functional area – heck, understanding a whole different culture – at the company. I promised to tell you the rest of the story as a kind of case study for communicating difficult information, even when all the facts aren’t available.

For many years, change communicators were advised to get comfortable (and get leadership comfortable) with saying, “I don’t know.”

The fact is, “I don’t know” doesn’t work for most audiences. They suspect you do know something; you’re just not telling them.

Let’s face it, they’re usually right.

Instead of trying to make “I don’t know” work, it’s a lot better and creates far more credibility for everyone involved (leaders, the change team, Corp Comm, and your communications vehicles) to establish regular milestones for communication.

That’s the mandate our warehouse Pay & Rewards team started with. But, instead of providing regular updates, they sequestered themselves while rumors filled the information vacuum.

Rebuilding Credibility

Before I was ushered in to meet the Pay & Rewards team, the facility leader advised me he’d appointed warehouse employees to this team for a reason. He was adamant that, unless there was absolutely no other way, they needed to deliver the communications. This wasn’t going to be some slick communication from HQ. The credibility of the team and the pay system depended on it.

Sitting in on my first session with the team, it was easy to recognize their expertise. They’d been through weeks of training to understand pay systems. They’d spent months formulating and reformulating a design they thought was appropriate when employees moved from the old warehouse to a new distribution center where they’d be expected to work with a massive robotics system and computers.

The team was determined to do right by their colleagues. And that’s where they foundered. Concerned about creating a fair system, they were afraid to communicate a half-developed design – and air their debates as the design took shape. The risk of misunderstanding seemed too great.

Early in their deliberations, they began taping paper over the little window in the conference room door to keep people from peeking at anything that might be on the white board. That didn’t sit well with the warehouse.

Good News or Bad, Be Honest, Clear and Consistent

As we worked together, I realized the new design was good news for the majority of employees: most would see a pay increase when they moved to the new distribution center, and the process for earning bonus pay would be standardized, making it clear and fair for everyone.

(Now, I can hear you thinking, “But, you had good news to communicate. Just go out and tell employees, and the team’ll be fine. It’s not like employees were losing money. That’d be a lot harder to explain.” True, we were lucky there, but six months of silence is a hard act to follow. More to the point: I would have taken exactly the same steps if the new pay system had meant smaller paychecks and fewer bonuses.)

The first thing I did was have the team explain the new pay and rewards design to me, the timetable for its approval, and how it would work as employees transitioned to the new facility. This took a while, but in the confines of a private conference room, they presented the information like the experts they were.

Facing their co-workers was quite a different story. Up until their appointment, the Pay & Rewards team members worked in the warehouse; they’d never had to speak in public, and they were nervous and wary. We spent hours on presentation training, while I worked with a graphic designer back at HQ to bring their design to life.

The team had three critical goals for the presentation:

  • re-establishing the Pay & Rewards team’s credibility
  • explaining the new pay and bonus system clearly, so that everyone walked away with a solid understanding of where they fit in the new pay scale
  • establishing the equity of the new system

When It’s Okay to Bury the Lede

Together, we created a presentation that addressed each of the critical needs and used models (i.e., without actual hourly pay) to explain the pay scales conceptually before sharing the actual new pay and bonus rates.

The presentation went something like this, with each team member taking a turn:

  • the team’s training in pay design
  • the core value of developing a pay system in-house, rather than having one imposed from the outside
  • an objective overview of pay scales in the regional economy
  • benefits of the new pay and bonus system
  • models of the new pay and bonus system
  • expectations of employees: how they could be successful within the new structure
  • the new pay and rewards system
  • questions and answers

This wasn’t a crisis – and we were delivering complicated information that every single employee cares deeply about (“How much am I going to get paid?”) – so, we had good reasons to delay sharing the actual pay rates. If the team had shared the new pay rates at the beginning of the presentation, no one would have heard a word they said after that.

Despite jitters, the team delivered heroically, communicating to every employee in the facility within a 24-hour period and staying late into the night to present to third shift to ensure the information was delivered in a timely and consistent manner.

There were lots of questions, but very little confusion – the audience heard and understood the messages – and the team answered every single query, further re-establishing their credibility.

By the next morning, we’d placed thick notebooks with the full presentation, a long list of Q&As, and a schedule of regular Pay & Rewards team communication updates in the cafeteria and common areas. The team made themselves available for questions and we updated the Q&As whenever there was new information.

There were certainly concerns and questions for a couple of days following the presentation, but before the week was out, everything was back to normal and the old rumors had been put to rest.

Ultimately, the new design gave employees a positive incentive to move to the new facility, so they could work within the new pay system. And our change team moved on to other pressing issues of the transition, such as employee technophobia and business-stakeholder management.

Is there anything we would have done differently if the news had been bad and pay went down? The key indicator for that message was the pay scales in the regional economy and how our facility ranked in relation to other companies. Given bad news, you’d still follow the same order above, ending with a series of small group or brown bag lunch sessions to continue the discussion, reinforcing key messages and answering questions. Then, make all of the information available, as we did, in an open and transparent way. Ongoing communications from the team and their willingness to answer questions frankly and on the fly would help maintain their credibility over the long run.

They All Laughed: Can Humor Be a Communications Asset?

It might surprise you that one of the career moments I’m most proud of didn’t involve handling a crisis or securing a talk show for a client. It was a brief event, lasting all of five minutes, when a conference room full of clients couldn’t stop laughing at me.

I promise this isn’t a painful-to-read story about learning from failure or an embarrassing tale that ends with me being remembered as “that woman who mooned Atlanta.”

Back when I worked for a large apparel company, I was assigned Logistics & Transportation as a client group. All I knew, at the start, was that our warehouses held three brands’ worth of men’s, women’s and children’s fashion.

The Logistics & Transportation guys (and they were mostly guys, in those days) knew their stuff. They knew their people, too – the ones who picked, packed and shipped product for hourly wages – and they understood how to talk to them. They had to. For a long time, Logistics was in the shadow of larger functions, without their own communications person.

So, my assignment wasn’t exactly greeted with a round of hearty cheers. Like most folks who work in remote locations, they had a healthy skepticism of “experts” from HQ – those pampered few with carpeted offices, who’d never walked the cement floors of a warehouse or had to make things work no matter how limited the resources out in the field.

Understandably, they were a bit aloof when we met, but in the politest manner possible. The one thing those tough exteriors never hid were the true gentlemen beneath.

I knew their work and lives were different from mine, and that I had a lot to learn about this key part of our business. I freely admitted it, studied hard, asked questions at every turn.

I’d like to say that hard work won the day. It might have in the long run – certainly, a strong work ethic is something they respected. But, the day I truly got my foot in the door went like this…

There was a pressing communications issue over the pay and bonus system at one of the warehouses. The facility leader knew it was a heated topic and decided, what the heck, give this supposed HQ expert a shot.

How we communicated the new pay and bonus design is a story for another post (which you can now find here). But, the employee team was gracious – and probably worried – enough to accept my help. Before the team could deliver communications to employees, though, the facility leadership team needed to review the design, approve it and give the go-ahead for an employee meeting.

You do the math, I’ll handle the words.

The Pay & Rewards team – all regular warehouse employees who’d received special training in pay design – brought deep knowledge of their subject matter; I provided messaging, organization and graphic design support. The one thing the team, with all their expertise, hadn’t been able to do by the time of the leadership meeting was explain one of the mathematical formulas so that I could convey it graphically in the presentation. It had been a bit like a game of telephone, with the team trying to help me understand, and me, via emails, conveying my impression to the graphic designer back at HQ.

Laughter the Best Medicine

The Pay & Rewards team, who’d never done public speaking before, overcame their nerves and gave an excellent presentation to leadership. When I advanced the PowerPoint to the slide with the math formula, though, it still wasn’t right. Before the leaders started asking, “What on Earth is this?,” I jumped in and said, “This one’s my fault. The team has worked valiantly to explain this to me, but I’m mathematically challenged.”

The tension in the room evaporated as everyone laughed.

They laughed a lot harder than that line deserved – laughter wiping away nerves over public speaking, concern about how the pay system would be received, doubts that an outsider would usurp the warehouse’s way of doing things.

Normally, when a room full of people laugh at you, it feels rotten, but I was over the moon and couldn’t help but join in. It was deliriously contagious.

This was the moment when it all changed, and it happened not because I played the fool – self-deprecation isn’t about being foolish – but because I didn’t insist on being the expert. And that can be a hard thing to let go of when our job is to provide communications counsel.

Once I’d demonstrated a willingness to learn from the people in Logistics & Transportation, no matter their position on the org chart or how much they were paid, my clients relaxed, welcomed me and gave me the chance to work with them and support their communications needs going forward.

When the conference room quieted, I quickly assured them I’d get it right so they could sign off on the communication. Then, I delivered on that promise and kept delivering. Because in the Logistics & Transportation world, delivering is what really matters.

Should Corporate Goals Drive Employee Communications?

If the answer to that question seems obvious, then would you be willing to take a moment for a (slightly) contrarian point of view?

This post is inspired by a Ragan article I read on Friday, called “Communicators: Stop delivering news, start changing behavior.” Now, I’m all for employee communications that lead to results, especially those that impact the bottom line, as this article recommends. The question remains: How do we accomplish that? How do we turn our words into someone else’s actions?

The article posits that corporate communicators take the annual corporate goals and use them as your messaging “for the whole year.”

“Yup,” the author continues, “you’re going to repeat the same three to five messages over and over for a year.”

What, you wonder, could be wrong with that? Glad you asked.

Be More Strategic and SMART

When I saw the headline of that article, I was intrigued and excited to read something new about internal communications. Afterward, I thought, “Corporate goals? Really?”

Here’s the problem: At too many companies (maybe not yours, but certainly at a lot of them), annual goal-setting is at best an exercise, and it’s done in such a way as to accommodate every potential sea change in the business. In other words, they’re vague. And they’re often repeated year after year to the point of losing all meaning for employees.

A company I worked for posted the same annual goal for four years: Be Financially Sound. This is not specific enough to drive a 12-month editorial calendar.

If you’ve worked at a company that sets annual goals, then you know that the S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals are set several levels down the corporate food chain, in the operational functions, where employees can have a direct impact on the bottom line.

Here’s my recommendation: If you’re developing employee editorial based on goals, assign Corp Comm writers to work with their client groups to identify the key functional area goals – the new ones that directly address the current business climate and competition, the measurable ones that determine what’s expected from product development or marketing this year and just how much of each product line Operations will heroically ship this year. Step away from the vague, showcase the specific, and you’ll more than likely turn up some amazing and inspiring stories about problem-solving, teams, cross-functional collaboration, and customer-focused effort.

The People Closest to the Work Understand What Motivates and Interests the People Who Do the Work

If you apply the strategy above and delve into operational S.M.A.R.T. goals, you’ll gain a much deeper understanding of the work of the company and the nuts and bolts of how product is developed, manufactured and marketed. Even better, you’ll see the “M,” “A” and “T” goals in action. This is where, as Operations folks often say, the rubber meets the road. It’s also where employee motivation can be influenced.

That’s important enough to repeat: Communications can have a genuine impact on employees when it provides information that helps them accomplish the key tasks they’re measured against. So, instead of repeating top-level corporate goals in stories throughout the year in the hopes of having an impact, what we as corporate communicators could be strategizing about is how to research, write (or digitally film), and deliver the information that helps employees “A” in a “T” manner and meet their “M” goals.

Another recommendation: If you’re struggling to figure out what that information might be, invite some employees (and front-line managers and HR folks) to the brainstorming.

Be Prepared and Flexible

Locking Corp Comm into an editorial calendar that repeats the same vague three to five goals throughout the year may not prepare you for sudden disruptions to business.

If the last three years of painful recession have taught anything, it’s that your break-out product, stock price, competition, environmental concerns, customer satisfaction, the general economic climate, federal regulations, and much, much more can change on a dime.

If Corp Comm wants to be strategic and S.M.A.R.T., it’s important to develop, agree upon and stick to editorial calendars to keep our work going smoothly. But, change brings surprises that even the most visionary leaders can’t predict at the start of the annual goal-setting process.

Recommended: Assign your Corp Comm staff responsible for functional area support to work with the leaders in those areas to report on and watch out for changes that could affect your business. These topics may not easily fall under the existing corporate goal categories, but you can bet they’ll be fascinating, and eagerly read and appreciated by your employees.

The 300-Word Opus (or Why Brief Isn’t Always Better)

I’m trying to fit a post into 300 words today. This is the word count a Corp Comm department recently placed on intranet news items (features receive an expansive 500), and I wanted to learn what’s possible in finite space.

Some things aren’t better in small doses. When have you ever said, “I wish there was less of that,” about a delectable dessert, your favorite film (this is, in fact, why sequels and film-franchise reboots exist), the first sunny afternoon after a hard winter, or a great book (“Yes, Miss Austen, I know it’s difficult to develop two characters plus their circle of family and friends, play out their misguided stubbornness, help them overcome their worst qualities so they can find their best and fall in love, but, really, don’t you think the headline ‘Pride and Prejudice’ says it all? Three hundred words should suffice.”)?

At the same time this department was asked to slice and dice content, they were informed it needed to incorporate more compelling storytelling, real-life examples, a vision for the future, and humor. (Presumably because humor is so frequently welcomed by corporate leaders and content reviewers, and especially appropriate when introducing new HR policies, but I digress and, at 203 words and counting, I can’t afford asides.)

I’m all for pithy. For three decades, I’ve counseled writers to be specific, edit closely, trust the exact meaning of a word to do the work and apply its bearing to a sentence. But, brevity for brevity’s sake doesn’t give employees weighty material – it can’t convey the detailed information that informs their work and improves understanding of the business environment or the direction of the company. And when have employees ever wanted less explanation about changes critical to their departments, pay or responsibilities?

Normally, I prefer to offer at least three practical tips that readers can use in their own work if they find them valuable. At 300 words, dear reader, that’s impossible, which means I leave out the How, as well as the Why.

Yikes, I’m at 340 Words! Time to Bring it on Home

Online and social media writing isn’t as different from the old print world as it’s made out to be. Word limits are a trend – we’ve seen this one before, it’ll surface from the swamp of bad advice when the next new channel is invented. It comes up because communications departments want to provide value, but struggle when employees don’t read internal communications (more on that here).

But, employees aren’t tuning out because content is long or because social media like Twitter are somehow training them for shorter content. Employees will take the time if content is of value to them and can be directly utilized in the context of their work – and when it makes them feel better about the company.

We do no great service to employees, or any reader, when we make arbitrary rules that reduce subject matter to headlines, limit the ability to provide sources (plural, because facts should be verified and readers need to know how much authority to grant sources), force us to skimp on explanations (in a tumultuous business environment, one of the most valuable things writers can do for employees is build the foundation and case for change while underscoring the culture’s values). Try doing that in 300 or 500 words.

Write clear. Write well. But, write the story whole.

(P.S. This blog post is 564 words. My point exactly.)

The 4 Essentials of Employee Communications

Yesterday’s post looked at examples of leadership communications gone wrong. Today, we’ll look at four essentials that can help writers avoid unfortunate miscommunications with a company’s most valuable resource: employees.

Step Away from the Desk
Good writing doesn’t start and end at a desk, tethered to a computer. Before you can get to the place where you “know your audience,” it’s important to learn your audience. And the way to do that effectively is by getting in there like a beat reporter.

Just as cities are made up of neighborhoods, companies have their “villages,” and to some degree each has a culture, language and even norms that vary from the collective corporate entity. The trick is not to “vacation” – visiting a few times, picking up some of the lingo and a contact here and there, and then working over the phone, relying on those few contacts from then on. A quick phone call may be easier with the workloads we’re shouldering these days, but cultural reporting requires immersion – it means developing a deep understanding of what’s meaningful in these worlds, however small and finite they might be. You want to be Margaret Mead in this world, not a discount traveler.

It’ll sound silly, but it also means going to lunch (not away from the office, but having lunch “in the village”), where the casual atmosphere allows employees to be more reflective about their work in the larger context of the company, what their constraints are, where they feel they’re supported in their work – and where not.

We become better writers – and communications counselors for our leaders – when we have a deeper understanding of what matters to specific audiences in our companies, when we go beyond a few examples of jargon and really know how to speak the language because we not only understand the work, we’ve seen first-hand what it takes to do the work.

I truly believe no one sets out to use an example, like “rocket science,” to purposely hurt an audience’s feelings. But real understanding of the culture within some of the technical organizations within our company goes a long way to avoiding accidentally slipping in something that does.

Test It Before You Deliver It
Developing strong ties to a client group or department can help communications in other ways, as well. It allows you to share messages and even entire pieces of work (articles, memos, speeches) beforehand across a range of roles within the department (rather than just with leaders or the same contacts over and over).

Of course, we’re talking about sharing non-confidential information here, but it helps to cultivate a process of sharing more. We in the corporate communications culture are innate hoarders of information, we hold it close. I had a journalism professor, way back in the day when it was the epitome of journalistic integrity never to share a story with a source before it had been printed. He told his flabbergasted class that he shared every story with every source. “Why wouldn’t you want to get it right?” he wanted to know. This professor was a seasoned cultural reporter, and it was his philosophy that interpretation can shade meaning while the source of the information can shed light on it.

Testing out messages may need a more formal process, like an editorial board (and here, having a range of pay grades represented or a rotating group to reflect diversity of opinion, is even more effective than the same small group every time) or it can be as simple as sharing a story over lunch.

“Write Up” to Employees
I’m with the party that endorses clear, concise writing, but that doesn’t have to mean writing in simplistic ways.

With the advent of online communications and the further reduction of messages to 140 characters on Twitter, there’s been a move away from – and even a bit of fear around – using language an audience might not understand. It’s the worry many speakers have, our corporate leaders among them, that what they’re saying might go over the heads of the people in their audience.

This is where time spent in the trenches is invaluable. It’s where we learn to trust the audience – actually, more often it’s where we learn that our audience is far more sophisticated in the detailed work of the business than we might ever hope to be – these are smart people or they wouldn’t be doing the work they do. Trust that they not only get it, but want to hear something substantial from senior leaders. They don’t want discussions that remain at the surface, they want the deep dive, and if they don’t understand a word or a concept, they’ll figure it out from the context or ask a question at the end of the speech.

This last one is going to make you cringe, but here goes…

If You Dare – Tell the Emperor He Has No Clothes
Leaders need their communications counsels to be honest coaches. Those “rocket science” analogies I wrote about yesterday? That was a worn-out cliché. On that basis alone, it would have been better not to use it and to wave off the CEO from returning to it over and over again.

Be prepared for uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to be overruled sometimes. But, be prepared with concrete examples – not merely of better wording, but with videos of world-class speakers, news stories, statistics, and any other kind of proof you can present of their impact on the target audience.

It’s going to mean coming up with wording and new directions on the spot. But, if your senior leader sees the depth of your understanding of the subject and the audience, she or he will rely on you for that expertise because it will make the CEO a stronger communicator and create real engagement in the organization.

I’d love to hear about the practices you’ve used to support senior leadership. I’ve left out the entire area of feedback, so suggestions would be very helpful.

A great resource on the topic of effective speechwriting is this article by John Watkis, “41 reasons why good speakers give bad speeches.”

How to Avoid “Writing Down” to Employees by Applying Rocket Science

Photo by Vickie Bates.

I awoke this morning to a soundbyte of U.S. President Barack Obama using this phrase: “…those American people out there.”

While the president wasn’t addressing employees, he is trying to reach out to key audiences (those who’ll help to fund his campaign for re-election), and so, before I’d had a chance to brew my morning tea, I was provided with a perfect example of accidentally “writing down” to an audience.

We’ll leave President Obama to his fund raising for a moment to look at how writing can unintentionally go wrong when leaders talk to staff. I’m being deliberate about the use of “unintentional” here because professional communicators do a great deal of thinking before, during and after they write, and it seems like an extremely rare occasion when a pro intentionally crafts something to make a senior leader look bad or make the audience feel worse.

Rocket Science that Backfired

A number of years ago, a corporate leader was trying to rally a large engineering organization around a massive project that could make or break the business. There were many employee meetings, designed to give engineers a sense that the CEO was taking an active interest in their work, listening to their comments, available to answer questions – basically, that he understood the demands of all their effort. Except every time, he told them, “This isn’t rocket science.”

Engineers may be linear thinkers, but they’re not that linear. Like most people, they have a sense of pride and ownership about the skills and knowledge of their profession. They know they’re not literally doing rocket science, but their work is equally technical and they care just as much about the outcome. Without knowing it, the CEO and his writer were repeatedly insulting the audience they wanted to rally.

A few years later, while on a consulting job, I watched a leader use the phrase in exactly the opposite way, yet have the same effect. Again, a highly technical employee audience, whose work was the essential core of the business, and they were told that it was so much like rocket science that the CEO didn’t understand what they did.

This talking point was meant as a compliment, but it went over with this audience like a lead balloon. Most employees want to believe that the CEO understands the business they’re all engaged in. It opened a credibility gap that continued to grow until the CEO left the company and was replaced by someone who’d worked his way up to the C-suite from this technical department.

This is unfortunate in so many ways. My motto is “there’s no bad language, only unfortunate choices.” This isn’t about assigning blame to the writer for an unfortunate choice of words, or the CEO (who, in the second case, may have been going off-script at the time; in the first case, it was written into the script and meant as a sobering reality check – like I said, unfortunate). Both the writers and the CEOs probably had genuine intentions of rallying the troops (CEO #1) and patting them on the back (CEO #2), but the end result was unfortunate for the employees.

What’s happening with President Obama’s turn of phrase above? It’s distinctly different from his campaign speeches of three years ago, when the then-senator positioned himself as an average American citizen, “one of us.” There is no camaraderie to be found in “those American people out there.”

Out where? Beyond the gates of the White House?

This phrase places an unfortunate divide between the president and the American people. I hope his speechwriter realizes it soon.

“Writing Up” to Employees

In each of these cases, this is writing that’s being done from behind a desk. Behind a desk, you say? Isn’t that where most writing is done? Isn’t that where our computers live?

Yes, it is, and that is exactly the problem.

I’m going to leave you with that conundrum since this post is getting long. Tomorrow, we’ll look at four ways to avoid the unintentional gaffe, find and try out the messages that resonate, and write in ways that have fortunate results for leaders and employees.

In the meantime, if you have examples of your own, please feel free to share (though you may want to apply some creative writing to disguise the innocent).

What to Do When Employees Aren’t Reading Our Communications

One of the downsides to the recent recession is that a lot of excellent employee communications have gone unread.

After rounds of layoffs, with fewer people left to do more work, companies have been pushing employees to greater and greater levels of what economic whizzes call “productivity.” A good number of corporate communications departments did the right thing, developing stories to help employees make sense of the tough new business environment and the leaner, more efficient ways in which we were all working.

No surprise, then, that it pains communicators when readership flattens on the corporate intranet or the company e-newsletter remains unopened in employee Inboxes or no one comments on a story that took a week to report, write, edit, run through approvals, and design as a photo essay.

How do you communicate when employees aren’t even on your communications channels?

We all know of employees who are working 17-hour days and barely have time to eat lunch or take bathroom breaks. When a colleague tells you he missed his daughter’s 4th birthday party because he spent Saturday at the office dealing with the latest fire drill, you can be sure he didn’t sneak a few minutes to read an intranet news story.

So, this post isn’t about how a catchy headline or a video interview is going to bring that employee back into the fold. It’s about using our skills as communicators to reach employees where they’re engaged in the essential work of the company and help them achieve business goals.

Here are three suggestions:

Take the Focus off Management Communication Skill-building
Not altogether, of course. Helping managers communicate is critical. But, it’s also important to help employees build these skills. We can improve efficiency in our organizations by teaching employees how to use new tools – like internal wikis and instant messaging – or by supporting an employee who’s a pro at these things, but has been too shy to tell anyone about it. You’d be surprised – sometimes all it takes is a little coaching, encouraging the employee to outline the skills he or she wants to teach, and letting them practice with you.

Improve Communications at the Workgroup Level
There’s a huge emphasis on cross-functional collaboration in companies these days and a lot of confusion about what that actually means and how to achieve it. Getting two functions to work together as a team demands highly effective communications. When you start talking to team members from different functional groups, you often find baffling divisions between work vocabulary and work styles.

There are many tools out there that support greater connection across teams, from a simple wiki (“when the brand says line break, we mean our new designs for spring are out in stores, but when IT says line break, it means somewhere a fiber-optic cable has snapped, which is why your email isn’t working this morning”) to shared team sites to micro-blogs. It also never hurts to encourage efficiency in team communications: help the team move toward common practices, so everyone knows what to expect when working together: when someone sends an email, the response needs to come back using an email; a voicemail begets a return phone call; if someone needs a report that’s gathering dust on a credenza and isn’t in electronic form, scan it in for the entire team to utilize.

Work with HR to Identify Rewards
Ideally, this generates new rewards programs that tie directly to the newer aspects of work or more recent corporate objectives. Employees have been working lean-and-mean for a long time now, bonuses have slimmed or disappeared, flex-time options can’t be utilized because of longer hours on the job, the old perks have been taken away or just don’t hold as much meaning. This isn’t about large sums of money or handing an associate free passes to a movie for staying late to ship out an RFP, but about identifying excellence and innovation tied to objectives – reward it and share the ideas across the company, and you’ll find employees are happier about working there.

Do It as a Strikeforce Scenario
Corporate communicators have a lot on their plates these days, too, so I’m not suggesting these ideas become an entire FTE’s responsibility. Identify where communications skills are most needed, jump in and move on. If what you bring to the team is about helping the team (and you’ve resisted the temptation to include a little pitch about the company’s email newsletter), they’ll remember who to call if they have questions or need another workshop and they might even start reading your stories on the intranet now that you’ve made a personal connection.

Listen for Opportunities
Working with employees on effective communications, whether the support is focused on skills or tools, will inevitably reveal opportunities where company communications can fit in. Perhaps it starts with sharing the duties of blog-posting occasionally, maybe you use your micro-blog post one week to explain why Corp Comms provides company news and information, and in return possibly a news gadget streaming company news updates earns a small chunk of real estate on a workgroup site – even better if it becomes the next must-have app and interest in it grows organically. And, then, you have reached your audience where they’re working while adding value.

It’s my personal belief about the profession – and your mileage may vary – that we excel at communications when we help employees do their jobs more effectively. That includes creating communications that focus on the company and its business objectives, but it also means supporting employee-originated communication where they eat, breathe and sweat, and that’s doing their jobs.

So, if you’re feeling down because employees aren’t acknowledging your hard work, applying your skills and expertise in a new way can be incredibly rewarding – for you, for employees, and the company.