The motivation for this blog post stirred from recent turnover in agencies and a growing understanding of what it means to work for a digital agency in 2016.

The renowned author Malcolm Gladwell states that complexity, autonomy and reward for effort are the pillars of job satisfaction. Gallup calls these employees “engaged“. When you are engaged, your work is meaningful and fulfills a sense of purpose – you are proud of your work.

I’m one of the lucky ones who can check mark all three of Gladwell’s requirements. I can honestly say that I am very blessed to have a boss who thinks I’m invest-worthy and promoted me 10 months into the job. Although I originally applied for my job as a digital analyst in Texas (job visa, I shall not dwell on you) and landed in London, I am fortunate to have found a role with a certain complexity and autonomy as well as a working environment that I enjoy being part of. In short, I could summarize it as the perfect first job in the wrong city. (Millennials are never satisfied, right?)

So why do employees become disengaged or leave? Do Gladwell’s findings conclude that I will quit as soon as projects either get too boring or too complex, or my boss starts micro-managing or misjudging the help I need, or simply that I’m not rewarded enough for my contribution?

In terms of reward, writers for HBS argue that employees benefit from staying with the same company for at least 10 years, but Forbes and Fast Company authors argue for switching jobs every two to three years to increase pay. So what can companies do to keep their employees satisfied, especially in digital agencies, where turnover is generally high? The obvious answer is to reward your valuable employees accordingly – for some agencies it means granting unlimited vacation.

Gladwell’s complexity is linked to continuous learning and growth opportunities, which a company needs to provide. For most employees this means managers who respect individuals, value and invest in them and provide feedback to nourish growth. For women wanting children, growth opportunities also mean company role models of mothers who have successfully re-integrated into the workforce or who hardly left due to continued project based work, reasonable working hours, and in-house childcare. Despite the long night once in a while, I’m fortunate to have a job that rarely has me stay longer than 40 hours per week, which I know to be rare in the agency world. Whether this is good enough for raising kids – I would not know. However, since agencies pride themselves on being innovative, even disruptive, I’m wondering if they can stop the cycle of turnover, and instead become the powerhouses of welcoming mothers back into the workforce. The “complexity aspect” of job satisfaction mustn’t be strictly related ones work tasks, but can – in my opinion – just as well be the complexity of balancing work and life.

The question that remains is what agencies have to gain from employees who stay five or more years.

Engagement and meaningful work, leading to pride in one’s work, is a crucial factor not just for employee retention but recruitment. After all, according to a Gallup study, 66% of engaged workers would recommend their company as a place to work to friends and family members. Moreover, if I learned anything in my marketing services class, it’s that engaged, autonomous employees lead to happy customers: when your company cares for you, you can focus even more on your clients’ needs.

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I’ve sat on a number of committees and boards over the years and been part of hundreds of companies as an employee and counselor.  In doing so, I always gauge the level of commitment and engagement among colleagues and members to determine if success is attainable.

One recurring truth in my experience is that even in highly engaged environments success or even progress against a set of goals is not guaranteed.  Now this would seem to go against everything we read and are told about engagement – that it’s essential to achieving organizational success.

However, engagement without direction, clarity, measures, consequence, and reward is basically a more pleasant situation.  It’s akin to the famous quote “the operation was a success but the patient died.”

So before you run out to improve engagement in your organization or on your local committee ask yourself:

  • What are we here to accomplish?
  • What does it look like to customers?
  • How are we measuring progress?
  • How will we recognize achievement?
  • How will we address failure?
  • What do people need to do individually and collectively to win?
  • What do people need to know every day to contribute?

Engagement continues to be the holy grail of organizational excellence – the subject of countless books, blogs, presentations and conferences. The truth is engagement alone achieves little.  It must be part of leadership’s formula for managing the business with communications serving as both catalyst and fuel.   As communicators the most important question to answer becomes “is engagement a cause or symptom of our performance?”

How you answer will most assuredly dictate the future – good or bad!

Anything less, engagement becomes a feel good destination with little hope for sustained results.


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generic blindersIn the daily race to disseminate content, populating internal channels and sources with information meant to inform and motivate people to improve performance, communications professionals often fail to observe people’s behaviors. Yet it is precisely the details of how employees are acting that can lead to new found methods in leading, managing, and communicating resulting in stronger engagement.

Over the course of our work in organizational communications we are noticing four distinct patterns of employee behavior, which taken together reshape the role and efficacy of internal communications.

First, Projection – one of the easiest traps for communicators to fall into is to take employee sentiment at face value.

This is akin to chasing the symptom vs. addressing the cause. Often, people will say things like “I don’t understand our strategy?”
This causes internal communicators to ramp up the message machine pumping content that restates the business strategy – rhetoric on priorities, imperatives, financial targets, etc., often in high volume ways and with heavy creative assistance.

In truth, we have found employees tend to project their true intent via introducing another topic.

In this instance, what employees really mean is that the strategy does not reflect what they are either seeing or experiencing. Or worse, what they believe their performance is being based on. In one organization, a customer centric business strategy was never supported with new metrics, new tools, and compensation policies causing a major disconnect among the workforce.

The proper response from communications and management was to implement a new system including training throughout the enterprise and appropriate communications charting the progress the company was making toward a higher level of customer satisfaction.

The second behavior is what we’re calling, Local Loyalty.

One of the unintended consequences of technology is that companies have become more complex. As a result, people are migrating to the most local aspects of their work reality (read: manageable).

In so doing, their work lives are increasingly being viewed through a very myopic lens.

It is here where relevance and practicality come together.

In an analysis of content being consumed within one large, global organization, the most well-received information were neither the corporate news, business unit highlights, regional features but site and functional stories.

The response was the creation of “On-Demand” Communications.

This meant building an internal news hub within the larger enterprise portal featuring sections cultivated and curated at the site and functional level leaving to the individual to self-select content when needed and necessary. This forced communicators to embed content critical from a corporate level into those stories to ensure alignment.

The third behavior is, Blind Activity.

The speed, pace and continual shifting of business models and performance measures is causing people to search for purpose inside companies like never before. The competitive spirit once sought by leaders is now turning into a chaotic web of activity much of which is not tied to strategic intent or business success.

“We have well-intentioned people initiating all kinds of activity,” bemoaned the president of a consumer goods company. “Unfortunately, much of it is not aimed at our strategic goals. We seem to have more teams than teamwork. More data than insight. And more activity than result.”

The response was a series of “marketplace reality check” sessions at all levels of the business whereby managers and employees immersed in the current state of the industry reviewing competitive moves, customer trends, and business projections all in the interest of gaining a fundamental comprehension of the business.

This could be traced back to business unit, functional, and individual goals.

The results to date indicate higher scores in customer satisfaction, productivity, and retention.

The fourth behavior is, Billboard Assimilation.

Just as the name implies, employees are constantly distracted and often working with the volume off.

They drive by information much like a driver passing a billboard. They watch more than listen. It takes approximately 3 seconds to grab people’s attention.

No longer can internal communications be relegated to static content and images.

The response is Visualization. Visualizing complex subjects through videos, infographics, and other visual experiments piques employee’s curiosity simplifying complex topics and gaining much needed attention.

A financial services company employed custom icons in a series of graphic-laden stories representing different phases of an employee’s journey within the company emphasizing levels of learning, specific performance characteristics painting a picture for achievement.

Being Aware

The democratization of technology is reshaping the world we live in and nothing signifies this reality more than the workplace.

Everything from having information now find you vs. the other way around. To having the company at your fingertips so it can work for you vs. the other way around. To recognizing your workforce is not an audience but a series of activists viewing the world through their own prism and as such, cannot be communicated with in the same fashion.

For communications professionals, particularly those who specialize in organizational (internal) communications, recognizing how technology is empowering the individual to ideate, create, invent, and achieve is critical to attaining sustained success.

The four behaviors outlined here are just scratching the surface in terms of human dynamics.

The question remains: what are you observing in your organization?


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As the PreCommerce Summit in London concluded, the final panel discussed global trends for digital engagement.  Discussion opened around a question proposed by Gary Grates, Principal W2O Group, which summed up the key debate posed at the event: as an unintended effect of our adoption of digital, have we created a society in which it is more difficult to relate?  Are we losing our humanity?

  • IMG_8243Cynthia Storer, former CIA analyst, answered from a security standpoint that the trend she sees is laziness in interaction and interrogation of information.  We now oversimplify information and situations.  We eliminate nuance.  In our hurry to find answers and synthesize the dearth of information available to us from an ever growing number of channels, we use cognitive short cuts and tend to look for classifications that can be summed up in a short-hand, 140-character sentence of dichotomy: good or bad.  Humans have never been this simple and it is lazy for us to assume this would change based on digital tools we use to express our humanity.  Humans are humans.
  • Pradipta Bagchi, VP & Global Head of Corporate Communications at Tata Consultancy Services, built on Cynthia’s points to highlight the need for online and offline interactions to be integrated.  From his perspective,  we are having more interaction, but it is less meaningful.  For example, in India, a telecom giant had bots answering customer service calls.  Someone figured this out and called stating their issue was a desire to marry the CEO’s daughter.  The bot responded: thank you for your comments, we will get back to you shortly with a solution.  In the end, machine to human interactions fall flat.
  • Bob Pearson, President and Chief Innovation Officer at W2O Group, took an anthropologic view.  He discussed how humans are programmed to learn via play to enable survival.  For example children learn to walk so they can travel.  There is a purpose to why we have this innate sense of curiosity, desire to interact and drive to discover.  In the case of Millennials, they are comfortable with digital tools because they grew up playing with them and now they are part of their survival mechanism – how they communicate.  Older generations are uncomfortable with this because we didn’t have these digital tools, so the adaptation process is different – though usage patterns have shown that digital tools continue to be rapidly adopted across all age groups.  So digital isn’t really the culprit here, it is human nature to play with these tools and human nature to use them as a part of how we evolve our communications.
  • Gary closed this topic citing his approach to teaching at the university where he is a professor emeritus.  When he walks into a classroom, no one is talking to each other, they are all bent over their phones.  So the first thing he does is force them to introduce themselves.  And the students respond with surprise and wonder at how connected some of them are offline (ie, this guy is actually my neighbor!).  Digital should not supplant, but complement and facilitate face to face interaction.  On the other hand, our dedication to digital will likely result in a boom for another industry: interest in chiropractic services after so much time bent over our devices!

A question from the audience probed how we can factor multiple online personas into our understanding of people.

  • Pradipta responded first highlighting how platforms naturally push us to segment our personalities.  For example, Facebook is a visual and personal channel and Linked in is more professional.  The persona you have on each isn’t different so much as the weighting to your specific qualities related to your professional life or personal life shift.
  • Bob chimed in using issues management as an example.  If you are managing an issue, the first step is to separate out the noise from the reality.  We see this in particular with protests and the emergence of “slactivism”.  Initially, a digital platform will lead us to believe the magnitude of an issue is quite high based on a perception that 200,000 people are retweeting and liking things.  However, if you look at a different channel for cross over, or look at how many people are contributing to the conversation versus observing it, the numbers rapidly decrease.  The question for me is around how we get people to become more passionate about a topic so they are true activists versus just amplifiers.  Retweeting doesn’t fund a cause.
  • Gary added another anecdote about BP.  Several years ago, there was a group of angry environmental protestors outside the gas station in his town; however, the station lowered its gas prices, and the next day that group of protestors was replaced by lines of cars waiting to fill up.  The price change ferreted out the false positive of passion for the environmental cause, and leverage sensitivity to cost.
  • Cynthia mirrored this interest in human nature.  For the security industry, the spider web of personas is very important.  Cross-referencing those caricatures of a person exposes the base values that a person holds true.  Humans are humans and we rely on basic truths to define ourselves which means that across personas we can often find that thread and stitch together a valuable profile.

Another audience member took this question further to ask about how these personas help predict human behavior.

  • Cynthia elaborated that humans use routines to frame the way we make sense of and interact with the world.  These routines make us feel comfortable and safe.  You don’t have to think about how you are presenting yourself because it is true to your routine self-perception.  These routines make it easier for us to predict or forecast human behavior.  For example, we knew Bin Laden always lived with multiple wives and children so wherever he was hiding would need to be family appropriate.  We also knew he didn’t approve of blowing up school buses so we could discredit any claims to terror acts of that nature.  We do this all the time offline.  We say so-and-so is going to be late or so-and-so will take the public transport because we have learned how to predict their behavior on past actions and their values (lack of punctuality and cost-sensitivity).
  • Bob took this question in a different direction by talking about the recent election in Britain.  Polling didn’t predict the outcome of the election.  Bob believes this is because polling relies on short-term memory which means people can only recall 3 – 7 things and not even accurately, just their interpretation of those things.  So if you marry what people say in polls with their online behavior – which is subconscious or, at least, doesn’t require recall – you start to see more predictive patterns.  And this can get even more insightful using geolocation to look at specific voting districts.
  • Pradipta supported Bob’s points with an anecdote from his company’s app, Elect UK.  The app measured social sentiment, noise and activities of the parties and politicians.  In the end, the app was more accurate than polls as it showed the demise of the Lib Dems.
  • An audience member concluded the session by making a point around the value of the right question.  The audience member shared that there was a poll just before the voting booths opened that asked not who people would vote for, but who they thought would win.  The result favored Cameron.

The panel closed with a final audience member asking: what digital tool has had the greatest impact on their personal lives?

  • Cynthia – Smartphone, it is how she checked in for her flight.
  • Pradipta – Social platforms which have replaced traditional news sources.
  • Bob – It isn’t invented yet, but SnapChat for business.
  • Gary – FitBit as now his wife calls him at work to tell him to move as she can monitor his movement online.
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Tata, debatably one of India’s best known brand’s, boasts over 300K employees in over 60 countries. Pradipta Bagchi, VP and Global Head of Corporate Communications for Tata Consultancy Services, knows that internal communications through its digital channels is the most crucial way to maintain satisfied and connected employees.

In a discussion at the PreCommerce Summit with Lord Chadlington, Pradipta talked about his insights on the challenges and benefits of running internal communications on such a grand scale. His guiding principle is to always keep employees first, staying ahead of the news that affects employees and maintaining a rapid response to any issues.  Essentially, treating your internal communications just as you would your external communications.

For example, with India being a very hot country and many of Tata’s employees riding motorcycles to work, an employee discussion started last year about whether employees could be allowed to wear half sleeved shirts rather than the full sleeved shirts. This digital discussion on an appropriate internal platform led to a change in HR policy, allowing employees to wear short sleeved shirts.

This example shows how important digital is for employee communication and connection. Tata has given its employees a platform to discuss internal topics openly, offering a suite of apps that allows them to do their timesheets and expenses remotely, and offering a learning platform to continue their digital education, putting digital at the heart of the company’s global employee engagement strategy.

Lastly, Lord Chadlington asked Pradipta about how Tata mobilizes its employees as brand ambassadors. Instead of using the push method, Pradipta explained how Tata uses social media and its various networks to engage employees about things they are passionate about, such as fitness and family. When Tata reached its important milestone of having over 100K women employees last year, it asked for women working at Tata to post their selfies online and created a social media collage celebrating this milestone in it’s internal networks.

These examples and insights showcase how Tata is leveraging its digital tools to connect its vast network of passionate employees.

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The most common refrain among CEOs, CCOs, and CHROs today centers around the ability to clearly and consistently communicate and thus engage employees in the business. “If only we could get even a slight majority of our workforce to comprehend our direction and the competitive forces thrust upon us and alter their behavior daily we could gain enormous advantage in the marketplace,” noted one CCO recently.

“Quite frankly, our people don’t get it,” an exasperated CHRO offered when we asked why the company missed its last three revenue and profit projections.

But why exactly do intelligent, hard- and smart-working people not grasp an organization’s strategy and mission?

Here’s a very simple framework centering on the five basic human senses designed to improve clarity and engagement internally:


Employees are your smartest and most effective competitive advantage. They know and interpret more than leadership can ever imagine. Oftentimes, people see a distinct disconnect between actions and words and thus are reluctant to commit to a course of action knowing it probably won’t stick and their efforts will be for moot.

A global consumer products organization restructured its business around Innovation citing the need to catalyze its strong network and proud history of product development to regain category leadership. The strategy was aimed at select areas of the business thus limiting the ability of employees to engage in the process and gain the synergy necessary to rethink the entre business approach. The result was an uneven ideation effort which ultimately failed causing the CEO to lose is position.


In an attention deficient economy where there is more content than attention, people tend to turn the volume off when the rhetoric does not match the behaviors, policies, systems, and compensation patterns. It’s akin to what we witness in government and politics where officials say one thing but never follow through or worse, act in an entirely different manner.

A manufacturer in the midst of a cost-cutting effort where hundreds of jobs were lost and reductions in budget were taking place everywhere kept flying its executives daily via helicopter to meetings where employees “heard” the rotating blades believing the effort was neither uniform nor necessary.


In this instance, people can’t put their hands on anything concrete to legitimize the company’s strategy or direction. The effort boils down to a series of messages or worse an internal branding program with little substance.

A customer excellence initiative designed to up level a company’s customer service performance score to gain new customers and keep existing ones was introduced with a series of internal events, speeches, a branding platform, and numerous giveaways to employees. What it didn’t include was training, measurement and recognition. The program failed miserably with Client Satisfaction Scores plummeting 15% two months into the launch.


This is most intriguing from an employee engagement standpoint. It refers to the individual’s ability and commitment to becoming informed. It relies less on the company and more on the employee. Is she/he asking the right questions; participating in the right discussions; reading and seeking the right information; exploring the business and competitive situation; and assessing performance against goals?

In an Accountability based culture people leave nothing to chance. They initiate activity and seek information and discussion to further individual and collective goals. One such organization includes engagement measures to performance reviews based on an employee’s knowledge of the business and coherence around specific objectives within the functional area.


One of the most effective means of gaining employee trust and encouraging dialogue, discussion and debate among the workforce, is having the bond between manager/supervisor and employee strengthened. If a manager is a willing and able facilitator in moving employees along a continuum of learning and growth then people detect the essence of the organization’s strategy or goals.

An extremely successful international retailer promotes managers based on how direct reports rank their communication, engagement, and development skills. The approach builds organizational integrity at every level of the enterprise.

The bottom line is that organizational clarity doesn’t need to be a challenge today. Linking communications to engagement and performance against the five basic human senses allows organizations to better connect employees to the business while mitigating the myriad missteps that usually take place when communicating internally.



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An interesting thing happened to me recently while attending a birthday celebration for a neighbor. I discovered what employee engagement looks and sounds like!

In my last post – The Obfuscation of Employee Engagement – I detailed how organizations and communicators tend to create unneeded complexity in building successful engagement with employees as a competitive advantage. The premise is that both outside and inside forces conspire – often unconsciously – in chasing symptoms of poor engagement without thinking through the cause resulting in wasted effort and little results.

So, what does Engagement actually look like and how did I find it at a birthday party of all places?

Talking with a group of people it was obvious that one person – early 40s, manager in R&D for a global technology company – was extremely passionate and forthcoming about his company’s current business situation, challenges, vulnerabilities, and opportunities discussing in great detail how he and his colleagues were working through issues. There was no hint of cynicism, no lack of understanding and a level of confidence that spoke well of him and his company. When asked questions or challenged to probe deeper into his perspective he did so with ease agroupnd with no hint of being arrogant or going overboard in his defense or promotion of the company. In fact, he was believable and interesting for that very reason.

Others in the group spoke about their work situations but with less authority and certainly less passion. A few said they didn’t really comprehend their business’ current reality other than to describe political issues in their respective group or function. Hearing this, I took the chance to see if he might share some of the reasons for such a strong advocacy mind-set. An answer that all in the group were equally interested in knowing.

And so, here is what he shared (and what we experienced):

  1. He loves his work! (“I don’t let the typical BS get in front of what I want to do.”)
  2. He seeks out information and opinions throughout his network and with leadership at all levels
  3. He pays attention to competitors (through the business and on his own time)
  4. His company shares information openly (he attends town halls, reads the daily news on the portal, reads the promotions page, and reads the regular leadership messages from his CEO)
  5. He always asks questions
  6. He never lets a poor answer or incomplete information go unchallenged
  7. His manager takes and makes time to inform, listen and involve his team in macro issues beyond R&D
  8. He pushes his colleagues to get involved and not just be spectators (complainers)
  9. He is active on social and belongs to a number of blogs and communities in areas of interest to his work, but does not share much on his company nor is he asked to by the company

Listening to him peel off these points, the others chimed in offering their reasons or rebuttals.

Most described the work environment as confusing, contradictory and lacking trust. They cited “laziness” as a cause for not getting involved, going to the portal, or even making time to attend company meetings such as town halls. As our discussion started to end, there was a palpable sigh among this group (except our engaged friend!) on how different and better his outlook and work experience was.

From an organizational and communications standpoint, some key lessons emerged forming the foundation for how to build a sustainable engagement culture:

  1. Managers who care (involve, listen and respond)
  2. Leaders who make the time to connect, listen, and act
  3. Information that is relevant, clear, consistent, and accessible
  4. Social is an opportunity to broaden and extend positive employee sentiment
  5. Behaviors that are reinforced

Describing the above as “causes” of sustainable engagement, all of our efforts in communications, HR, and management need to be based on addressing them in a holistic and comprehensive manner.

One other distinct lesson: hire the right people!

A funny thing happened to me at birthday party…I discovered employee engagement!




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This summer I embarked on a crazy road trip adventure.  I left New York headed to Los Angeles (solo) where I’m living for the summer, before turning around and driving back home; this time with my family in the car.

Along the 3,900 mile journey (I took the long way, through Austin) I had a lot of time on my hands to reflect; here are the top lessons learned, applicable to business, while driving west:

1)      Undivided Attention is Key

OK, sure – you could say I was driving and talking, but when you’re on long stretches of roads with no cars anywhere (hello Route 10), it was the perfect time to have 1-on-1 calls with clients and staff.  Too often in meetings I’m constantly interrupted by incoming emails or other distractions; rarely do we unplug entirely and devote  100% attention to person on the phone.  I did some of my best thinking and provided the best counsel/advice when all attention was on the person I was talking to, and I vowed to myself I will do more of this more often when I’m back at my desk.

2)      Face Time > FaceTime

I’m very fortunate to work for a company with multiple offices; plotting the drive where offices are stay-overs turned out to be a great decision.  I spent quality time with my team and “pop in” visits with extended teams who have nothing to do with my business.  I learned about things they were working on, immediately saw how their thinking could be applied to my line of business.  Too often we’re caught up in our own worlds; going outside our comfort zone can result in great new POVs and incremental business.

3)      Go the extra mile

I’ve done this x-country drive before (4 times, actually) and even the best plans require a change when opportunity strikes.  In my case,opportunity to meet a new business prospect was a 200 mile detour, which was not only a scenic drive, but could result in more business.   In this example, I literally drove the extra mile, but it reminded me that going the extra mile for current clients is what it’s all about in a service industry.   With nothing but asphault ahead of me, I pushed myself for new ideas that no one else is thinking about and looking at things from a totally different POV.  Back at my desk now, I keep asking: what more can be done to go that extra mile?

The journey back to the east coast begins in a couple of short weeks, with the wife and the kids in the car together.  I can’t wait to learn what my family teaches me along the 3,500 miles home; it may prove inspirational for part 2 of this post.

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It’s no surprise that achieving and sustaining an engaged workforce is beneficial for your business. That conversation has be had time and time again, and is supported with solid data. But, how do you really achieve engagement? What must fundamentally be in place in your organization in order to be successful? This conversation is less prevalent and arguably more interesting.

Our recent issue of Common Sense for the C-Suite explores this topic and sites three pre-requisites for employee engagement to come to fruition and before any engagement tactic, tool or technique can make a difference. Let us know what you think. What’s needed to engage your workforce?

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