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About seven years ago, a friend of mine – I’ll call him “Bob” – joined a Silicon Valley start-up, which I will call “Dot.Com.” He was among the first employees and knew he was taking a huge career risk. But he was footloose and fancy-free at the time, young, newly divorced and feeling the urge to start fresh in a new city, with new challenges.

Seven years later, he’s one of the veterans. In the office, he often wears a San Francisco Giants jersey with the number “11” because he’s Employee #11 – that is, the eleventh person to join the company that now numbers nearly a thousand employees in locations from the Bay Area, to Austin, New York, Boston, London, and Singapore.

His company is about to go public and he stands to reap an immense financial windfall from his tens of thousands of stock options. Yet, he’s eager to leave.

Asked why, Bob replied that the company isn’t the same as it was in its founding days. He explained that the sense of camaraderie that infused and inspired the core team as it worked long hours and struggled to launch its web-based services model has evaporated. In its place are policies, procedures, politics, and hassles – and not a lot of fun, he adds.

We pressed the question, wondering whether the culture of the organization had changed. He looked puzzled. “Culture?” he asked. “Look. All I know is that we worked hard, we worked long hours, and we played hard. We had a strong sense of mission that we would conquer the world. We went about it in a single-minded way, as a team.”

Riding the roller coaster

That Bob is now leaving is not an uncommon phenomenon in that world. Previously successful start-ups like Apple, Microsoft, Google and countless others have experienced mass migrations around the time of their IPOs. Newly and comfortably wealthy, a lot of their leading talent felt free to cut the strings, desirous of riding that roller coaster again. So there’s that aspect, too – that desire to experience the thrill of creation once again.

But the transience that is a corporate culture intrigues and invites further exploration. How does a company culture form? What sustains it? Is culture permanent? Does a company culture evolve with time? How? Why?

The short answer is, a culture is no more static and definable than is the business organization in which it lives. We know from experience and observation that static businesses ultimately cease being. In that change and challenges will always assault organizations, remaining an unchanged operation is a recipe for eventual failure. So the culture of the organization evolves with the changes and challenges that the business confronts and surmounts.

Not to put too much of an egghead spin on it, but it helps to read what an academic has to say on the subject. According to MIT’s Edgar Schein, one of foremost scholars on culture, organizational culture is “a pattern of basic assumptions – invented, discovered or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration – that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

Phew!

It’s a Darwinian thing

Okay, that’s a long-winded (but accurate) way to describe the internal dynamic of a team as its members confront the issues and tests that comprise the foundation of an enterprise’s creation. As Schein goes on to point out, the culture of an organization evolves – in fact, it must evolve – to adapt to the evolution of the world in which it operates. Again, as noted here (and more famously by Charles Darwin), a failure to adapt is to accept expiration.

So if we think about the many external inputs that impose change on organizations, it’s obvious why a culture evolves. As Bob’s company grew, its opportunities expanded. The size, sophistication and demands of its growing customer base grew too. What satisfied Dot.Com’s early customers – many of which were also small companies – wouldn’t work for the far more demanding and exacting Fortune 500 companies it was now servicing.

Bob’s company hired additional staff to help tackle and solve the fresh unknowns, problems and challenges its newer customers brought it. And with each new staff member came a new way of approaching such challenges. Those new approaches may or may not have meshed with the culture of the previously small company.

With each new challenge, with each new staffer, the culture changed just a little. Amassed over the seven years of an improving balance sheet, with dozens and then hundreds of new employees being added, the culture known by Bob and his teammates from the early days had evaporated.

Is that a good thing? Well, if Dot.Com is a thriving business, solving heretofore-unsolvable problems for other businesses, then yes, it’s a good thing. But if you’re Bob, longing for the fun days of being in a startup, it probably isn’t. No wonder it’s time for Bob to move on.

Change is a good thing because with it comes growth, success and profitability. And an evolving culture.

The “Sunday drive” is an old-fashioned concept, where the family would all get in the car and drive aimlessly to see nearby sites with which they were previously unfamiliar. Mom would pack a picnic lunch. They’d start off with a whimsical notion of a quiet country road and just seeing where it would take them, and the adventures, scenes, and surprises it would bring.

In these days of high gas prices and little free time, it is a rare if not altogether forgotten pastime for a quiet weekend. Just the same, imagine jumping in your car and backing out of the driveway without a destination. At the end of the driveway, do you go left or right? And once you’ve made that decision, then what?

Yet there are people in business today who operate their employee communications function in much the same manner. Their “cars” are the tools and channels at their disposal to communicate with employees, such as newsletters, executive emails, and speeches delivered at town hall-type meetings. Just because they have those tools, their default mode is to use them to deliver often-irrelevant information to employees.

What is frequently missing, however, is a sense of the organization’s destination, much like that meandering Sunday drive. So employee communications rambles around without a consistent set of relevant messages, without links to the direction in which the organization needs to go.

The Communications Plan is your GPS

Implicit, then, in effective employee communications is a strategy tied to the realities of the business and where its leadership is driving it. Just like that Sunday drive, the ultimate destination determines whether you turn the car right or left. With your destination programmed in, your GPS will guide you via the shortest route.

An employee communications plan is like a GPS, guiding decisions and ensuring that the right information gets to the right people at the right time through means that reach them effectively.

There is a practical way to develop an appropriate communications plan for any given set of circumstances. But it requires some legwork, along with serious thought and analysis. The initial steps are always the same, regardless of the circumstances.

  • What is your objective? Put another way, what’s the desired end result you’re striving for? A typical objective is to engage your internal audience in the challenges and opportunities the organization faces. This requires that they receive relevant and timely information that will help them see how what they do every day can help the organization surmount a challenge or take full advantage of an opportunity.
  • Who is your audience? Internal audiences are as diverse as external ones. Don’t take it for granted that the people that work in your company are a monolith. Are you an international bank or are you in manufacturing? Are your employees unionized in multiple plants, field salespeople working on commission spread across a continent selling medical devices, or mid-level managers at a multi-site financial services company? Define the audience both specifically and generally, in ways that mean something to you and your management team.
  • What do you know about your audience? Make sure you know as much as possible about your target audience. Again, consider their position within the company, their relative sophistication and their responsibilities. What you communicate must be relevant and actionable. How you deliver information should take into account their preferred means of receiving information, be it email, videos, face-to-face meetings with their supervisors, or some combination. Don’t overlook, too, employees’ ability to readily access online information. Factory floor workers or retail store salespeople can’t rely on a daily intranet update for the latest company news.
  • What should they know, and what should they do? Perhaps the most critical series of questions cuts to core of employee communications. What is it that you want employees to know, and why? What do you want them to do and/or feel as a result of getting your communication, and why? If your communications are of the “FYI” ilk, you’re probably wasting everyone’s time, because you likely have no reason to communicate.
  • How will the effort be measured? It’s one thing to make plans but still another to establish the means by which we measure them to determine whether they achieved their objectives. So a core element of the plan must be to measure the outcome. Doing so will guide future planning, enabling you to assess the ways that the plan fell short and where it worked best, thereby helping you learn important lessons for future such efforts.

Answering these questions will put you in a better position to develop an appropriate and effective communications plan consisting of what (content), when (timing), how (through what vehicles) and, specifically, to whom (target audiences).

In short, the key to successful employee communications lies in fully understanding your audience, what they need to know and why, and what they should do with the information you give them. It really is that simple.

 

The day Apple introduced the iPod was the day it ceased being just a computer company – not that many people realized that at the time. In fact, Steve Jobs may have been the only one who did. But over the next few years, as succeeding and improved iterations of the pocket music player came out, the idea gradually sunk in that Apple had expanded beyond the realm of the Macintosh.

The notion became permanently etched into the public’s consciousness with the subsequent introductions of the iPhone and iPad. Sure, Apple continued to produce evermore powerful, functional, and sophisticated computers and laptops. But Apple had morphed into a lifestyle company: a purveyor of tools and technologies that make our lives more pleasant, to some degree easier and, in many ways, more portable.

What Apple and Steve Jobs figured out was how those tools and technologies perfectly linked to one another to create a unified whole that redefined for the world what Apple was and what it was capable of doing and giving us.

In a similar vein, it’s unlikely that anyone who draws a paycheck from Nike thinks of the company as a shoemaker. When Bill Bowerman, the exceptional University of Oregon track coach, borrowed his wife’s waffle iron in the 1960s to make the sole for his ideal running shoe, he launched Nike. Little about the company today would be familiar to him.

Today, the company’s Nike+ system allows runners to monitor and track each workout by means of sensors in their shoes to download data through Bluetooth into devices like iPhones. Via a Nike Internet platform, runners can share performance data online and receive customized advice from Nike coaches. Now that’s something Coach Bowerman would have loved.

But that’s only one small part of what Nike does and is capable of today.

Amazon and Google

Amazon is not just an online bookseller. In addition to selling just about any and all consumer products, Amazon is now in direct competition to Netflix, streaming its own movie and TV series catalogues. Rumor has it that Amazon wants to get into the cellphone business, too – with free cellphones, no less. Jeff Bezos just bought the Washington Post. Any guesses as to what that might mean for Amazon (and the Post)?

Google is not just a search engine but, well, Google is now into nearly everything: from tablets, smartphones and the Android operating system that runs them, to office productivity software and advertising.

What these organizations have in common is that they didn’t stand still within the narrow confines of how the world perceived and defined them. Instead, they grasped the essence of their craft and passions, and understood where they excelled. They asked themselves what that implied, where it might take them, and what was possible. And they haven’t stopped asking those questions yet.

Companies too numerous to name hewed to the tight concept of themselves, and continued to practice their trade efficiently and repeatedly. As a result, many of them either no longer exist or are a mere shadow of their former selves.

While being in business in a capitalist system means you must grow, growth for its own sake is ultimately fruitless. What gets people out of bed in the morning and commuting to jobs at places like Apple and Nike is the thrill of constantly reinventing their businesses, of expanding the realm of the possible.

The growth, success and profitability that those companies subsequently realize are the outcomes of that effort, not the reasons for the pursuit. When business leaders confuse the two, the end is in sight.

What are you doing today to reinvent your business for tomorrow?

Last month, the Wall Street Journal ran a series about today’s mid-level managers. Full of anecdotes, quotes, and first-hand experiences, the series left this reader with the distinct impression that it’s gotten to be a pretty tough assignment.

Pushed and pulled in multiple directions, often chasing “stretch” goals under tight deadlines, middle managers must keep their bosses happy and subordinates engaged, while ensuring that their business units are contributing effectively toward the company’s success, growth and profitability.

The position of middle manager has evolved in parallel with the quickening pace and evolution of business today. Companies must be more responsive to the marketplace and their customers, while sustaining upward revenue and profit curves to satisfy shareholders. For the most part, these burdens of responsibility fall disproportionately on the shoulders of middle managers, charged with implementing the strategies.

Yet, making matters still more difficult, many organizations lack clear-cut objectives – or else the objectives change in a seemingly whimsical manner. In that environment, the approaches that worked last year for a middle manager are irrelevant or ineffective today.

Dilbert Nails It

Around the same time as the Journal series, Scott Adams, cartoonist and author of the popular Dilbert comic, produced a strip one day that succinctly and hilariously summed up his view of the current state of affairs for middle managers, the middle manager in this case being the so-called “Pointy-Haired Boss”:

© 2013, Scott Adams, Inc.

Adams’ assessment may be a cynical view of management at the middle level, but the fact that it makes us laugh reveals its nugget of truth.

Yes, too often, the CEO’s strategy is vague. And, yes, many people within organizations are not singularly focused on the latest strategic edict from on high. But in many cases, it’s understandable.

Today, many organizations struggle to build credibility and understanding among the employee audience. Often, we’ve heard employees respond to the latest strategy with an attitude that says, “this too shall pass.” They’ve seen strategic initiatives in the past and all have eventually gone away without effect. So why buy in this time?

The problem with many such strategies is that they often are shaped in a vacuum, apart from the reality of needing to engage managers and employees in their development and implementation. In the end, middle managers are left to digest strategy documents and struggle to make them relevant to their teams. Senior management in such cases assumes that the organization is following along, when in fact the people are at sea, left to guess their respective roles in effecting the new approach.

This all points up the changing roles and responsibilities in organizations today that must be acknowledged and acted on:

  • Company leadership, striving to improve return on investment while assuring that the company has a strong future, must seek to identify and enact the most effective strategy to drive the company in the right direction with a minimum of turmoil or additional cost. Assuring that middle managers and employees are involved in the strategy’s development and throughout its implementation goes far in achieving its ultimate success.
  • Communicators must assist leadership by helping to shape the strategy to assure its alignment with external and internal realities, and then by crafting the appropriate messages to convey the strategy into the organization in a meaningful and relevant way, via the right channels, providing the right context in which to disseminate those messages, at the right cadence.
  • Middle managers and supervisors are the people with the most credibility among employees and therefore are best positioned to interpret the new strategies to add relevance at front end of the business – i.e., among the people tasked with producing, marketing, selling, distributing, servicing and supporting the goods and services on which the company and its future success are built. The role of middle managers is no longer that of the command-and-control gatekeeper as in the past, but rather the translator of the challenges and opportunities facing the organization, and the strategies that will guide the organization forward to address them effectively. In other words, their translation of the strategy must make it pertinent and actionable at the unit level.

Ideally, a successful future begins with a well-formed strategy, created when the leadership engages the organization and its capabilities, communicated via the middle managers who are provided the content, tools and training necessary to engage the people in the future of the organization to understand and proactively perform their respective roles in driving it forward.

Watching a Red Sox game on TV the other night, it occurred to me that there are some relevant parallels between baseball and business – and I’m not talking about the fat contracts being inked these days by the all-star players and the sky-high bonuses handed out to Wall Street dealmakers.

Years ago, a sportswriter whose name escapes me characterized baseball as a game of “suddenness: suddenly, anything can happen.” But what a plethora of possibilities the game presents. While it’s a game of subtleties, if you know baseball well and know what to watch for, you generally have a pretty good idea of what might happen next. Even then, however, the variables are virtually without number. At least you know in general what to expect.

It’s all there right in front of you and it’s only a matter of being familiar enough with the nuances of the game and the two particular teams on the field to be able to assess the situation and make a fair prediction about what might or should happen next. The unpredictability arises when you take into account the unknowns that can suddenly change the game, like errors, bad hops, an outfielder’s late jump on a deep hit, wild pitches, and lousy calls by “blind” umpires.

Hidden Variables

The same holds true with business. There are an infinite number of possibilities for each given situation. But unlike the game of baseball played on a finite field that’s completely in view, you can’t always readily perceive all the inconsistencies that might and often do come into play.

For instance, in an uncertain economy, should the company invest in new plants, equipment and people, or hoard its cash in a protective crouch? It depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the company’s position in its industry versus competitors; the strength of its new product development pipeline; the relative strength or weakness of the markets and customers to whom it sells; and cash flow and cash reserve, to name just a handful of variables.

That’s why it’s imperative for all people, no matter their position or level of responsibility within the organization, to stay fully apprised and cognizant of everything that impacts the business. That includes the dynamics both inside and, especially, outside the company. Think of the business arena as a ball field, with a lot of different players, each with a different role and capabilities.

It’s a free-for-all

But this is where my analogy falls apart. Business is not as simple as a baseball game with just two competitors on the field. In fact, it’s more like a free-for-all paintball tournament. It’s you against everyone else. While you take aim at one player in your line of sight, you’ve failed to notice another opponent hiding behind an adjacent tree about to fire a pellet at your backside and take you out of the game.

That’s why effective organizational communications are so important in helping a business achieve success, repeatedly and well into the future. A smoothly operating communications function is a company’s best means pumping oxygen into the system, assuring that its people stay well informed about the evolving paradigm in which the company operates, such as new competitive threats, evolving governmental regulations and increased corporate taxes. Or a hurricane that’s threatening a manufacturing plant on the Gulf Coast.

At the same time, communications must provide the means by which those same people can communicate up, down and across the organization to share insights and ideas in their pursuit of answers to the organization’s unique challenges, and responses to its opportunities.

In short, the communications function and the people who manage it must operate as though they were the play-by-play announcer sitting in the broadcast booth high above home plate. He brings to bear his wisdom from years of playing and watching the game, combined with his eye for the action and the added advantage of having the best seat in the house

Even still, that’s an imperfect parallel because it’s more than that. As the company’s communications professional, it’s as though while you’re calling the game, you’re also advising the team manager. And, you’re keeping score. Plus, you’re facilitating the means by which fans can ask questions about a particular play.

In short, communications is a tough, multi-faceted assignment. But, executed consistently and effectively, it’s also one of the most important roles in the organization, helping its component parts and people sustain utmost awareness of and appreciation for the multitude of dangers that threaten it and opportunities that can help shape its future.

Change brings ambiguity and challenges to our lives. So we don’t like it, and our natural reaction is to fight it. But while we may try to resist change and bristle at the stresses that it brings to our lives, we are also its primary drivers.

Consider, for example, the devices we use and the services we’ve come to expect. Were those available to us some five, 10 or 15 years ago? Most likely, many were not. Imagine a world today without smartphones, 24/7 online shopping, or the ability to watch TV programs whenever we want.

In the 1987 movie “Wall Street,” this is what a cell phone looked like:

It was so expensive that only millionaires like the fictional Gordon Gekko could afford one. By the way, the reception wasn’t that great, and it weighed a couple of pounds. Not very convenient.

So what happened? It was consumer demand – ours – that drove the development of technologies and capabilities we take for granted today: a smartphone in the pocket, an HDTV at home, and a hybrid car in the driveway.

No, we didn’t explicitly ask for the many modern devices and conveniences we now take for granted. We never demanded the remarkable smartphone apps that allow us to accomplish a range of tasks that were never before possible. But their development and evolution were driven by our unceasing and insatiable desire for smaller, faster, higher quality, cheaper, more convenient, and easier.

Choices become expectations

These are some of the components of change. Consumer choices become expectations and then demands. And they impact you, no matter your profession. By the way, these are your demands and expectations, and my demands and expectations.

On Monday morning, we go to work to face the unrelenting pace of change. What passed for quality work a few years ago is unacceptable today. It’s practically a firing offense.

As soon as we settle into “normative” behaviors and attitudes as deliverers of services and goods, along comes a competitor that does it better, faster, or cheaper. And we have to match it or beat it, or else we and our company will be left behind.

Our boss’ demands seem greater and more oppressive than ever before. But then, so too are his boss’, as well as the CEO’s demands, and the demands of shareholders for ever greater returns on investment. And those ever-increasing returns come from you and your team’s ability to create and deliver better products and services.

It’s not just our everyday devices like smartphones, TVs and the Internet. It’s health care, transportation and every other component of modern life. Consider just health care.

We’ve seen such amazing advances in our lifetimes. Diseases of our youth or our parents’ youth have been either eradicated or controlled, allowing continued life for many people who before would have been condemned to an early death or impairment.

The health care field – pharmaceuticals, devices, and delivery – continues to improve, continues to impact our lives in ever impressive and heretofore untold ways. Again, those advances are only possible because of people’s ability to adapt to and leverage change. But we have so much further to go, so many horrible diseases to conquer. And that means change and more change.

We build our societal growth and advances on what went before. That is the essence of continuous change: constant improvement on what we now have.

It’s a never-ending cycle, and you’d better get used to it. It’s only going to come at us faster. Then again, we could revert to that shoe-sized cell phone. Somehow, I doubt we will.

 

Businesses today live and die on their return on investment. Companies invest in expansion, marketing, infrastructure and the many other components of the operation. Boards of directors and shareholders want to know whether those expenditures truly bring value and growth.

No component of the business today escapes ROI analysis. To answer that critical question across the many facets of the business requires measurement to gauge whether the money and time spent on something is yielding the intended results.

But when we start measuring what’s happening among the people inside the organization, what are we chasing?

Let’s assume we can get a monthly read on what the employees are looking at on the internal website, how many are viewing what, for how long, what they’re doing with it, who they’re sharing what with, etc. Also, we can discern what they’re chattering about on internal social media.

But what do we do with that information? Do we become obsessive about it? Do we become reactive? Do we become too reactive?

Monitoring employee communications is certainly a critical and potentially valuable capability, insofar as it enables us to respond to employee information needs and adjust what we provide them, when, and through what channels. Beyond that, what are we looking for?

The problem with such monitoring is its potential to entice us to get ahead of ourselves – ahead of a curve that may or may not be critical, a curve that we may or may not be able to define – to make us too smart by half when what we need to be providing to our internal audiences is something far simpler than what analytics might lead us to believe.

At base, employees are just trying to do their job, to be good at it, to get better, to be acknowledged for their contributions, and to be aware of and understand the relentless changes that they and their company must adapt to.

Providing Relevance and Context
As communicators, our primary role then is to provide the context and information to help employees stay abreast of the shifting marketplace and its multiple impacts on them and the company. If we do our jobs well – everything else being equal – then the company thrives, employee attrition stays low, and high quality talent is attracted to the company.

In the alternative case, the business fumbles its opportunities, under-estimates challenges, and fails to meet revenue and profit targets. The best talent leaves and the mediocre remain. Growth and success elude the organization.

Measuring the quality of our employee communications, then, becomes an opportunity to stay on top of and eliminate the gaps in understanding among the internal audience that can fester into poor performance or activities that don’t add value.

Monitoring the conversation inside the organization should be less about numbers and percentages and more about the content and context of that conversation. If our analytics and monitoring allows us to determine whether key messages are resonating or not, then they become truly valuable. They can give us critical and timely guidance to help us adjust our content, relevance, cadence and context to assure maximum effectiveness.

So in that regard, yes, measurement is important and can be valuable. Rather than becoming obsessed with tenths of percentage points that measure intranet traffic, we must focus instead on delivering timely, relevant information and context. In that way, we are contributing to the success of the organization and its people, and delivering return on investment.

Good communication practices encompass a back-and-forth exchange of information and ideas where a manager questions and listens as much as or more than speaking and conveying information – a continuum of communication, if you will.

But if listening and seeking input is so important, why do so many managers fall short in that department?

Likely the short answer has to do with finite time: managers have much to do and not enough time in which to do it. So in the communication continuum, it often feels more critical for them to disseminate information and data to their teams, and then move onto the next task.

Certainly there are times in the typical workweek when that is necessary. But the manager that falls into the habit of justifying the overuse of one-way communication is on track for failure down the road.

In this era of Twitter, Facebook, email, and text messages, we have become accustomed to taking the easy route when communicating with our teams. An email to all team members alerting them to a change of process or policy is certainly appropriate. But when email blasts become a manager’s principal means of communicating to his/her team, then he/she is no longer communicating. He/she is spewing. Such information downloads fall on deaf ears.

The Team’s Value to the Organization

The reason we build teams of people within our organizations is to achieve the excellence that several people working together can attain what the individual working alone cannot. So it stands to reason that the person managing that team wants to tap into the best that his players bring to the mix.

Questioning, listening and engaging in proactive dialogues is how the best managers do that. So what exactly does that look like, ideally?

We’re talking ideal circumstances because we have to be cognizant that the sturm und drang of the day-to-day business can sometimes overwhelm and cancel out the good intentions of striving for excellent communication.

So let’s assume that the periodic ebb and flow of busy-ness on the job allows for contemplative moments when one-on-one conversations or productive team meetings can occur. The well-organized manager knows best when those times are most likely to be available – first thing Monday mornings; at the end of the billing cycle; before the next production run gets started, etc.

The wise manger with foresight finds those periodic opportunities and works them into the calendar. Those times become the most valuable of the workweek or month. When the manager and team members are prepared, much can be accomplished, and the ball figuratively moved down the field.

Preparation is Key

Preparation on both sides is critical but means something a bit different, though it follows parallel tracks. The manager, in particular, should come to these regular meetings with an open mind, ready to hear and learn things she/he may not expect, as well as a desire to discover and discern specific information related to issues of the moment, in particular the current challenges and opportunities the team is dealing with.

A significant component of the manager’s preparation is staying plugged into the larger organization and the outside world that impacts the business as a whole. He/she should be able to bring that information to her/his team and make it relevant to their day-to-day efforts.

These meetings are also chances to reflect together on how their unit might work better with other units, how they might better collaborate to contribute to the organization’s larger purpose. To that end, it is the manager’s responsibility to bring in the outside view that is not regularly conveyed into the confines of a unit’s figurative walls.

For their part, the employees’ responsibility is to come to these discussions with ideas, insights and open minds. Their preparation is best achieved over the course of doing their jobs, making note of problems that recur or opportunities they sense are not being fully exploited. These are the gems that the alert manager with good listening skills looks for and hopes for.

At the same time, the manager encourages the sharing of bad news along with the good because he/she knows that responding negatively to the employee who brings the bad news will only discourage others from doing so in the future, which in turn leads to small problems festering into insurmountable crises.

Teams should learn together, with the manager posing open-ended questions that force them to think through a challenge or opportunity and arrive at their own answers. They then share those answers and begin a discussion and debate.

Together, the team learns while often coming up with practicable solutions, or uncovering new ways of looking at and thinking about challenges and opportunities. At the same time, the individual employee becomes more engaged in the business, feeling he/she is an active contributor to its larger purpose, and that her/his voice is heard. It’s all good. It’s effective communications.

 

One of the most challenging tasks for any manager, often layered on top of many daily responsibilities and activities, is activating a new corporate initiative or strategy. These plans often originate at the senior-most levels of the organization and fall on the shoulders of the managers to enact, sometimes without sufficient support or forethought, unfortunately.

Most corporate initiatives begin with the best of intentions, often compelled by external changes that confront organizations with vast challenges. To succeed, such initiatives ultimately require change at the individual employee level. In other words, each person, regardless of role and responsibilities, must reinvent the way they do their job. And that means behavior and attitude change, too.

Where most initiatives fall apart, as our experience has shown, is in the execution. They’re well planned and launched with much fanfare and attention-getting activities. The CEO and his/her executive team are suddenly highly visible to the organization, talking and writing through various means about the need for change and what is compelling it.

Sometimes, initiatives are branded with catchy names or phrases, and banners and posters hung around the organization’s facilities urging everyone to do “X” in support of the initiative.

But then, things go back to the status quo ante, and everyone returns to doing their jobs as they always had. Banners and posters become yesterday’s wallpaper, scuffed and dusty, largely ignored. The individual employee looks around, sees nothing has really changed, and proceeds accordingly.

Somewhere down the line, the senior team notices, for instance, that their market share slippage is continuing unabated. They see the same external forces threatening the company’s viability and future. They realize that everyone has resumed their old way of doing things. Why?

If they’re honest with themselves, it’s likely because they weren’t role models of change. For instance, if the initiative included severe spending cutbacks and headcount reduction but employees saw that senior executives still got curb-side limo service to and from work every day, the message sent to employees was that the changes being sought were not universal. The CEO and senior team itself were not demonstrating the kinds of behaviors and individual sacrifice and change it expected from the rest of the organization.

Contingency Planning

The most effective change initiatives are well planned ahead of their actual introduction – planning that anticipates the natural fall-off in interest that accompanies most of these types efforts. Messages are developed and tested, and managers and supervisors are brought into the effort early, fully informed of the rationale for the changes being sought, and provided the necessary background to bolster the case to the larger employee audience.

Regardless of what the initiative is, how broadly it encompasses the organization, and how thorough the pre-planning and message preparation is, the first thing any manager must do is secure as much information about it as possible, review the information, and then check his/her understanding.

  • Does it make sense?
  • Does it answer the “why” and “what’s in it for me” questions that employees will ask implicitly, if not explicitly?
  • Is there any missing information, background, data or context?
  • What questions does the manager still have?

Getting Answers

If managers and supervisors still have questions after a well thought out introduction, it’s likely their team members will, too. The second step, then, is to fill those information gaps and get answers to the outstanding questions.

Central to this process is the Employee Communications team, whose role is to distill the essence of the initiative into words, ideas and context that are meaningful to people, and linking it clearly to the larger corporate vision and mission. Then, Employee Communications must help guide individual unit managers to make the message germane to their teams and what each individual must do – that is, relevant to their specific function within the organization and their individual responsibilities.

Only then can managers begin to prepare to present the initiative to their teams. They should proceed not in a top-down way but rather in a discussion mode, where employees have the opportunity to talk about it, ask questions and voice concerns. Employees may not agree with the decision (initiative), but if they understand its context and rationale, they will be more like to enact it, and more receptive to procedural changes, even if they disagree with them. For senior level executives and communicators intent on guiding a major change initiative through to success, it is critical to keep this localized context in mind.

At the same time, of equal importance are actions, the active, visible buy-in by the CEO and his/her senior team, modeling the behavior changes they expect from the rest of the organization – not just at launch time but as ongoing habits, central to their personal management style.