Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Employee engagement insights from the Edelman Trust Barometer

Infographic on employee engagement stats
Today my team at Edelman released our employee engagement-specific results from the 2013 Trust Barometer, a global trust and credibility study the firm publishes each year. I was fortunate to be involved in the creation of this year's white paper, which goes by the pithy title, A Question of Integrity: Engaging Employees and Executives as Storytellers on Corporate Values, Ethics and Integrity.  You can also check out our infographic and PPT presentation, watch my London colleague Nick Howard offer an EMEA-centric perspective on the findings in this video, or catch yours truly opining about the results from a US point of view.

I authored a post on Edelman.com highlighting a few interesting findings from the study, such as:
  • Employees, particularly those with technical expertise, are highly trusted on a variety of topics (especially when it comes to the company's working environment and employee programs), even more so than CEOs and official company spokespeople.
  • “Treating employees well” is a higher priority for rank-and-file employees than for executives, with executives ranking “treating employees well” fifth most-important of 16 actions a company can take to build trust, while regular employees put it high up at third.
  • Regular employees are far more skeptical than executives across the board: They are 15 percent less likely to trust the CEO than those in in top leadership positions and oddly enough, regular employees trust even each other less than executives do.
One of the recommended actions for companies to take in response is to encourage leaders to illustrate corporate values through storytelling. This is a personal passion of mine - I wrote a series of posts on this topic during an unbridled fit of inspiration last year. Since then, I've facilitated several workshops to help internal communicators coach their leaders in tapping their personal experience for memorable anecdotes. The best part of these sessions are the new tips participants share, ala particularly compelling questions they've asked leaders to get them to open up through storytelling. A couple favorites:

  • Describe a time you learned the importance of a specific value during your childhood.
  • Tell me about one of your mentors or role models and something they did to earn your admiration.
  • Talk about a situation in which you were asked to compromise a certain value and how you responded.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Four pieces of advice for communicators seeking a seat at the table

I recently polled some of my clients and colleagues, asking them to name their single-biggest internal communications challenge. Over the next few months I’m going to address some of these topics, starting with this perennial favorite:

Communications doesn’t have a seat at the table.

First, two thoughts: 1) Communicators say this so often it sometimes feels like our profession’s official mantra.  2) Where is Clint Eastwood when we need him?

The seat-at-the-table grip means that the people who make big important decisions don’t consider communications integral to business planning. They ask communicators to draft a memo to announce changes after they’ve already been finalized.

What we’re really asking for is not a piece of furniture but a say.

Now, I won’t even pretend to have all the solutions here. But in my career I’ve been fortunate to learn from many talented, savvy people and mentors who’ve grappled with this issue far longer than I. Certainly, to have influence, you must demonstrate skill and functional expertise. But I’d argue that it comes down to positioning yourself not just as a fine communicator but a leader in your own right.

To that end, here are the four best pieces of advice I’ve gotten along the way:

Quit doing things that don’t matter. 
Senior-level communicators often complain about doing  “tactical work,” crafting memos and slides all day long instead of advising leaders on strategy and other important-sounding things. Sometimes there’s no choice, especially when the communications director is a staff of one and the CEO wants something yesterday. Too often communicators fall back into a tactician role because it’s comfortable. We volunteer to write things because we like to write – we’re good at it, dammit!

One of my clients was promoted to a director role but struggled to break free of her more junior duties. Leaders knew she was a former journalist, so they often tapped her to write recaps of their weekly meetings. One day, she did something bold. She stopped taking notes so no one could ask her to write the summary. Soon others started volunteering to write a draft for her to review, and she began slowly rebranding herself as an executive who could write, not a writer in an executive position.

Aim not for perfection but for “good enough.” 
As an incurable overachiever, I take perverse pleasure in blowing people’s expectations out of the water. For years I’d edit prose written by junior staff within an inch of its life before sending to a client – you’d think I was delivering the Magna Carta instead of an article on repaving the employee parking lot. Problem is, obsessing over details takes time – time you could spend developing new ideas. I had a boss tell me to stop line-editing work and instead give general comments, no matter how much it hurt.

At first I hated it. I’d read an uninspired lead sentence and feel the mouse start to move, the Track Changes button calling to me like a pile of hash browns after a late night in Vegas. Eventually, I realized that letting go of the details is not just okay – it’s essential if you’re going to get anything done. Yes, my heart still pauses when I see passive voice and I think, that’s not how I would’ve written this. That’s when I remind myself that the work has to meet the client’s standards, not mine. Unless the client is as much as a stickler as I am, they’d usually rather have something error-free and acceptable in short order than wait around for Pulitzer-worthy work. Ask yourself: Who am I perfecting this for – the person who requested it, or for myself?

Make decisions, even when it pisses people off. 
Years ago I worked with a communications VP who literally asked every other VP at the company for feedback on one PowerPoint slide. One slide. It was close to midnight, the building was graveyard silent and dark as December. Except for this woman. She hunched over her desk, checking that the VPs who signed off on the slide earlier in the day agreed with the changes that other VPs made later in the evening. I have no idea what time she went home that night or if she even did at all.

Now, you could say she was just being collaborative or extremely diligent. Maybe, but I suspect she acted this way because she hated making decisions. The other VPs were her peers. She ran the communications department. The call was hers to make, but she shunned that responsibility by making it everyone else’s. Eventually it undermined her credibility, as the other VPs viewed her not as an equal but an order-taker.

Here’s what I learned: Take a stand. Make the call. It may not always be the right one, but that’s part of being a leader. Ask for input and make others feel heard, but don’t try to please everyone. It’s one thing to make people happy. It’s another to earn their respect.

Carry yourself like a leader. 
All too often communicators behave like reporters. We loiter outside an executive’s door waiting for them to give us a quote. We ask for permission instead of buy-in for our ideas. We agree to unreasonable deadlines in the interest of keeping people happy. Early in my career, I was the official communicator for my company’s diversity council. I’d walk into the oak-paneled conference room where the group held its monthly meetings, notebook in hand, and slink into an inconspicuous seat in the corner. One of the council members eventually told me to sit at the table with everyone else. “You’re a full-fledged member of this team, but you’re sitting back there like a stenographer,” he said. “There will always be people who devalue you. Don’t do it for them.”

My lesson: Carry yourself with confidence, not the person who “just runs the intranet.” Watch how business executives interact with their peers: They interrupt each other. They fight for their ideas. They ask for what they need. I’m not saying you should become a condescending twit. On the contrary – some of the best communication leaders I’ve worked with know how to make everyone feel like the winner while getting exactly what they want. People will ask for your input because they think it’s worth seeking out. The seat at the table doesn’t mean people like you. It means they respect you.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Three ways to stop employee rumors

This post was originally published on my Edelman team's (now-defunct) blog.

wikiHow is fascinating. Modeled after Wikipedia, this online how-to manual lets anyone submit step-by-step instructions for doing just about anything, from the practical ("How to wake up without an alarm clock") to the esoteric (“How to spin a pencil around your thumb") to the intensely personal ("How to trick a guy into kissing you.") 

I don't spend my days trolling wikiHow for professional tips, but I did stumble across one article, How to stop rumors,” that is for internal communicators who must so often address alleged layoffs, management shake-up, plant closings, mergers and a whole host of scuttlebutt that may or may not involve material information. Here are three tips for shutting down rumors within your workforce: 
  1. Determine what's feeding the rumor, and stop it. The smallest things often fuel the biggest gossip. I remember one organization where very suddenly everyone became convinced a competitor was taking over the company and changing the name to its own. All because three of the letters in the company's name had blown off the building's main entrance the night before. At another firm people started whispering about impending layoffs, because leaders were conducting more discussions behind closed doors. Solutions? Fix the sign, and tell your executives to get out of their offices.
  2. Never play dumb. No communicator in their right mind would say, "no comment," but failing to respond to rumors only fuel their spread. Unless it's material information (or the rumor is actually true), say, "I don't think that's true, and here's why." One time I was working with a startup where people thought one of the industry's biggest players was plotting a takeover, based exclusively on the fact that the CEO was spotted in the parking lot. Turns out the two companies were forging a strategic R&D alliance, which management acknowledged as soon as it could.
  3. Acknowledge the rumor publicly. People spread gossip to demonstrate social status, that they have an inside scoop that others don't. Outing the rumor takes away its momentum. At one company I worked with, the CEO finally got up at a town hall and said, "People, we are NOT laying anyone off. We have jobs to do here, so please do them!"

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Putting it all together: Six essential elements of a strong leadership story

This post is part of my series on leadership storytelling.

It was dirty. Disgusting. And it involved copious amounts of mud.

When people ask how I got into communications, I tell them how initially I wanted to be a journalist. The summer before my senior year in college, I worked as a general assignment reporter for my hometown newspaper. That meant I didn’t cover a regular beat, so I got all the random leftover stories - think amazing animals, cute babies, quirky local festivals, the kinds of things Robin on How I Met Your Mother is forever covering. For example, while covering a barnstorming festival, I rode shotgun in a 1920s-era open-cockpit biplane, decked out in an aviator hood and goggles (Yes, they ran a photo. No, I'm not posting it.) I went on every single ride at the county fair and rated each according to how sick I felt afterwards. I spent an afternoon interviewing members of the local Coast Guard who got busted for shooting water balloons at the county sheriff. You can’t make this stuff up.

I wanted to prove myself in the working world and thus threw myself into this role of intrepid cub reporter. That is, until the day the US Geological Survey came to town for a dig. I trekked out to the site to interview the scientists, who were all very smart and interesting and friendly. The only problem: It was pouring. There I was, immobilized in thigh-deep mud, mascara cascading down my face, futilely jotting notes on a soaked notepad that quickly dissolved into an inky mush. It was in that moment that I decided I wanted an office job.

I graduated and promptly got a job in corporate communications for Whirlpool. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a fulfilling career ever since, and I’m glad I didn’t go into journalism. Yet I learned three important lessons during that summer as a reporter:

  1. Knowing what you don’t want to do with your life is just as important as knowing what you do want.
  2. It’s more important to ask the right questions than to have the answers. I learned how to loosen people up with non-threatening, open-ended questions – a skill I use every day as a counselor. 
  3. It gave me perspective. No matter how hairy things get in my current job, at least I’m not covered in mud.

My message to you is this: Embrace new experiences. Try out the new, the unfamiliar, the scary. You are guaranteed to learn something in the process.

What makes a good leadership story
Why did I just tell you that whole long-winded story? Well, this is a post on storytelling, so you do the math. As I mentioned in my post about leadership storytelling gone wrong, some stories are more effective at inspiring, building trust or educating employees. In that entry, I shared five common types of stories leaders tell and the situations for which each is most appropriate. (The anecdote above is an “Introducing Me” story.)

Characteristics of a great story
Today, I wanted to take a look at the specific elements of a truly great leadership story. When I’m helping a leader develop his or her own stories, I try to get them to focus on stories that are:

  • Personal and authentic. It can be hard to come up with a story from your own life that illustrates the point at hand. But it just takes some thoughtful preparation. I ask leaders, what are you passionate about? What matters to you? How do you spend most of your time outside work? I encourage them to think about their hobbies, family and personal challenges for inspiration. For example, if a leader is trying to rally employees to undertake a significant change, I’d suggest they describe a change they made in their personal life – what worked, what was challenging, and how the end result was worth the effort.
  • Rich in details. So often, leaders think they’re telling an inspiring story when they’re really just citing metaphors or hypothetical situations. Including just a couple specific details – about the setting or the characters involved – will make any story more authentic and believable. 
  • About a person or people. People are entertaining. We gossip about celebrities, not high-minded ideas. Often leaders will talk about the company or organization as if it’s the central character in their story. It’s not. Instead, talk about a specific person who personifies what the company is going through.
  • Short. Anything longer than two minutes isn’t as memorable or easily repeatable.

Essential story elements
All right. Let’s assume a leader has an idea for a story that’s personal, detailed, about a person and short, and they’re ready to give it a little structure and actually start telling it. What specific elements does their story need to pack the most powerful, memorable punch? Here are six:  

  • Protagonist: As with my story about the mud pit, this is often the storyteller themselves. The audience should be able to relate to this person, and they should have some sort of mission (such as finding out whether I wanted to pursue journalism as a career.) 
  • Scene: Not just the physical setting, the scene explains what is going on around the protagonist and provides context for their actions. In my story, I explained that was a young reporter pursuing every conceivable type of bizarre story in hopes of proving myself.
  • Plot and/or conflict: What stands in your protagonist’s way? What challenges must they overcome to achieve their mission? For me, it was the mud. Tension or struggles move a story forward so your audience wants to know what happened. 
  • Transformation: This is your story’s turning point. Often it’s a realization, a triumph over adversity, a change of heart. In my story, it was the revelation that I wanted a job where I wouldn’t come home covered in filth.  
  • Moral: What’s the key learning for your audience? Here’s your opportunity to link to larger themes and the actual situation at hand. In my story, I learned what I didn’t want out of my career while also picking up skills I still use to this day.     
  • Call to action: What do you want people to DO upon hearing your story? This is arguably the most important part, yet it’s often overlooked. Take your moral and translate it into tangible actions. For example, if I were telling my journalism story to a group of employees, I could encourage them to seek out new experiences and roles within the company.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Careful around the campfire: Five types of leadership storytelling and when to use each

This post is part of my series on leadership storytelling. Last time, I shared six ways to convince leaders in your organization to try storytelling; today I take a look at five specific types of stories they can tell, depending on what they seek to achieve in the process.

A few years ago I was planning a town hall during a particularly rough patch in my client’s company history. Sales were down, layoff rumors swirled, turnover was skyrocketing. As for morale, it wasn’t just in the basement, it was in a damp, foul crawlspace. The CEO knew this and decided to start the town hall with a pep talk of sorts. She was eager to try storytelling and wanted to open with a memorable anecdote. Unfortunately, she was traveling right up until the day of the meeting so we weren’t able to prep her, or find out what, exactly, she planned to say. Here’s what happened:

The CEO started by projecting a picture of several campers huddled around a fire roasting marshmallows. “This is how our industry used to be,” she began. “We were – pardon the phrase – happy campers. We competed for share, but the overall sector was healthy and growing.”

The next slide featured the same campers, now in a downpour and running for a tent. “But then things started changing,” the CEO continued. “New regulations threatened the industry’s very existence” – cue a picture of the tent collapsing – “our intellectual property came under attack” – the forest is on fire – “and the entire sector shrank rapidly” – a grizzly bear towered over the campers, mid-roar.

Dramatic pause. “All of these distractions make it tremendously difficult for us to focus on doing our jobs. But today, I want to remind you that there is hope. We are in an incredibly competitive industry, but remember: We don’t have to outrun the bear. We only have to outrun the slowest camper.”

End of story.

Later that week I facilitated focus groups to get employees’ reactions to the town hall. The slowest camper story came up in every single session. Many people appreciated the CEO’s attempt to break away from the PowerPoint, but just as many were confused by her message. “Was she trying to be funny? Or uplifting?” one mid-level manager asked. “If that was meant to inspire us, it was an epic fail.” (Said another: “I’d hardly call being chased by a carnivore the size of a small sedan a distraction.”)

I love this story, because it illustrates why leaders should employ storytelling in a strategic, goal-driven way. (And because a story about storytelling is so meta.) Stories are tools, and the type you or a leader chooses to tell during a particular situation depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re slaving over a hot stove and need to stir the alfredo, you use a spoon; when you’re scraping every bit of that caloric goodness out of the pan and onto your plate, you need a spatula (technically a rubber scraper, but who says that?)

Just how many types of stories are there, you ask? The answer is, as usual, it depends who you ask. Various storytelling aficionados categorize stories in different ways, and there are no hard and fast rules. Adapted from The Story Factor by Annette Simmons, here are overviews of five typical stories, along with prompts to help you come up with each type of story:  

1. Introducing Me: This type of story introduces a new or unknown leader to the organization and paints them as a living, breathing human, not just another new resident of the ivory tower. Ideally, it’s about a past experience that shapes them into the leader they are today. Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address at Stanford is one of the best and most famous examples of this. Several minutes in, Jobs describes how he dropped out of college and, freed of required classes, started taking the courses he actually liked. One of these was calligraphy, which ignited his passion for typefaces and, consequently, bringing beauty into technology. Thus we have an intro-level college course to thank for the iPad’s elegant contours.
If you’re a communicator helping a leader come up with their own “Introducing Me” stories (or are a leader yourself), try describing one of the following:
  • How you overcame a personal or professional flaw (a small one – like fear of failing – nothing that involves 12 steps or an arrest record) and what you learned in the process
  • A turning point in your career where you had to make a difficult choice and how it shaped you
  • A time where you saved the day
2. Conveying Values: These stories are all about culture. They’re especially important when an organization is undergoing fundamental changes (such as a merger, growth, downsizing or shift in business strategy) that threaten its identity. During such times, leaders often extol the virtues of retaining the company’s culture or the values it must develop to thrive. Yet they’ll often talk in conceptual terms – “we must stay true to our humble beginnings! Continue working as one team!” – that come across as preachy. Culture is, at its core, intangible, which makes storytelling the perfect communication vehicle for talking about it. Leaders can make the abstract real with specific examples, such as:
  • The moment you realized someone was a role model and what they did to earn that distinction
  • A situation in which you were asked to compromise a value and how you responded
  • A value your parents instilled in you via leading by example
3. Teaching: This is the cautionary tale. The teachable moment, the modern Aesop’s fable. A leader tells a teaching story to help the organization steer clear of others’ mistakes. Here, a leader describes a situation that is at least a little negative, so employees feel compelled to avoid it.

Years ago, I worked with a nuclear plant. Things were generally okay with the local workforce, but a local union was aggressively courting them. Every week a new bulletin or email would circulate, urging workers to vote to organize. The plant manager called a town hall and told the following story. “In the 1990s, I was a third-shift engineer at a unionized plant. One time, the reactor needed an emergency repair. Problem was, this particular task was considered union work – something I, as a mid-level manager, couldn’t do because of the labor contract. But it was the middle of the night. I was the only person there, union or otherwise, who had the training to make this repair. So I spent the next six hours in protective gear laid out on top of this reactor fixing it. When I climbed back down the next morning, there was a grievance waiting for me for doing union work.”

The plant manager paused. “That’s not the kind of the relationship we have in this plant. We are a team. We make decisions together. And I hope we can keep it that way.” His employees agreed, and voted against organizing.

When you or a leader needs to caution teams about a looming obstacle, think about times that you’ve experienced (or observed) a similar issue, such as:
  • A time when someone made a false assumption and the resulting consequences
  • A situation when you or someone else should’ve spoken up earlier
  • A small problem that ballooned into a big one when ignored
4. Jumpstarting Action: The economy has not been kind lately, and many leaders find themselves cajoling their employees into changing firmly established habits just to survive – creating a sense of urgency for change.  (I worked with a leader who liked to use a photo of an actual burning platform.) Often leaders will describe near-post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as the bankruptcies, budget cuts or headcount reductions that could happen if the status quo continues. Yes, negative imagery can trigger change, but it’s counterproductive to paint a bleak future without giving people specific actions to take to avoid it. That just scares people in paralysis: employees will entrench themselves even more firmly in established routines as a source of comfort.

Instead, be very specific about the change your organization needs to make. Don’t just say you need to become a more agile company; share stories that illustrate specific actions, such as reducing the time in which customer service resolves complaints. Think about a time in your own life where you had to make a similar change. What did you do? How well did it work? Try describing:
  • Achieving a new year’s resolution or breaking a bad habit
  • A time you dared to break an unwritten rule
  • Receiving a piece of negative – but accurate – feedback that was difficult to hear but ultimately inspired you to change for the better
5. Inspiring: Finally, the happy stories. Unlike those meant to teach or jumpstart action, inspiring stories are, well, inspiring.  This is your chance to be positive and visionary, to give people a reason to stick it out through all the drama and chaos and God knows whatever else is going on with the company. It’s about a higher purpose, the reason everyone comes to work in the morning, the bright shining future that is theirs for the taking. In times of distress, leaders use these stories to repair morale and remotivate, often doing so by focusing on the company’s core mission or reason for being. Some organizations have an intrinsically inspirational purpose, such as helping patients, saving lives, promoting safety, etc. But even those that turn out widgets usually help make the world a better place in some way. That’s where leaders should focus.  Try describing:
  • What you see, hear and experience when you walk into the company’s office five years from now – the water cooler conversations, the accolades won, the grateful customers. (Do avoid too-specific details that could turn out to be wrong.) 
  • What you’ll say some day when a friend asks why you’re glad you stayed with the company through thick and thin 
  • A hypothetical conversation with a customer whose life is more effective, enjoyable or meaningful thanks to the company’s products or services
So there, in broad brushstrokes, are five types of leadership stories. In my next post, I’ll get a bit further into the weeds and talk about some specific characteristics that define a good story, no matter which type it is. And I’ll eventually get those unicorns I promised you last time.