How Do Your Employees Feel? I Don’t Know – How Do You Feel?

19172737Everyone is talking about how frustrated they are with the economy and with this feeling of stagnation and sort of dead energy that’s settled over new business efforts. We all have to vent and get it out, but if you’re in a leadership position, the message you put out will have a huge impact, ramified by however many employees are in your company times 10. And then multiply that number by 10. OK, I’m making that up, but we all know it’s true. People are talking, in other words.

As companies work hard to make it to 2010 with the hope that something will give, they are stepping up their focus on the customer – what they say to the customer, what they do for the customer, how they appear to the customer. But no matter what picture you paint for the customer, your employees will take their cues from what you say to them behind closed doors. This is the message that will be broadcast out to their peers at work, colleagues in the industry, friends and family.

How do your employees feel? I don’t know – how do you feel?

Here. Circle the words that fit:

I think my company (will) (will not) (maybe) will get through the recession.

I (respect) (don’t know) (hate) my leadership.

I (work hard) (pretend I’m working) to move the company forward.

I (know what I’m supposed to do) (don’t know what I’m supposed to do).

I (care) (don’t care) about the customer.

My boss (likes) (doesn’t like) me.

I (feel) (don’t feel) a sense of urgency.

I (feel) (don’t feel) a sense of impending doom.

I (share) (don’t share) my feelings about my employer with my friends.

Companies and leadership who feel above asking and answering these questions probably have it all figured out, right? I bet that how you answer is how your employees will answer. Here are three thoughts about getting “unstuck” and engaging employees in the battle for new business and positive thinking.

1 Stop the trash talk. I’m not saying to be unrealistic about the state of the economy. That would be irresponsible. But garbage in, garbage out. That goes for what you say around the office as well as what you do – actions and words are both important. If you’re in a leadership position and all you do is talk about how tough it is and about how you’re fearful of the future and for your job, then your workforce is going to take a cue from you. When they talk to their network, they’ll be repeating what they’ve heard – which is probably you, bad-mouthing everything. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2 Stop doing less of the same thing. We’ve all made cuts. I don’t know a single company who hasn’t cut back somewhere. Even if a company is growing right now, they’ll make a change just to seem responsible. But if you’re truly struggling – and many are – then simply doing less of the same thing probably won’t have the impact you’re hoping for. So, if you cut your budget for customer acquisition, and you did this by cutting a number in half and not completely rethinking your strategy at the same time, then take another look at your plan. The good news is that if you’ve only been looking at numbers, there’s still a huge impact you can have when you widen your view.

3 Stop putting the customer first. Say what? I know, but it’s true. The biggest impact you can have on new business is through your employees. Usually the fastest and most profitable way to win new business is word of mouth. And there’s nothing better than a brand ambassador who loves their company. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than an employee who hates their company. I have a colleague who’s fond of saying that it doesn’t matter how much money a quick service restaurant puts into advertising, if the drive-through cashier is rude to the consumer, all that money is down the drain.

Yup, if your focus is strictly on relentlessly talking to customers to sign them up, then you’re putting the cart before the horse, and, actually, the horse might still be in the barn. (Go peek and see if your barn’s empty or not.)

The New Trend in Employee Engagement is An Old Favorite

19151132I recently read an article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle about employee engagement in the workplace by Mark D. Hirschfeld, a principal at SilverStone Group. In the article, Hirschfeld makes many good points on the greater value that high levels of employee engagement bring to the workplace.

The traditional pillars of an employer-of-choice—great management, senior leaders whom employees can trust, and opportunities for growth and development—are as important today as they were last year. But employee benefits, such as health insurance and retirement offerings, are a significant and growing factor in engaging employees during this recession. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Yeah. Of course benefits are important.” What’s interesting is that today’s job seekers see more value in employee ‘benefits’ than they did a year ago. Companies that choose to cut employee benefits as a short-term cost-savings now may be doing more long-term damage from a recruiting standpoint than they are aware of.

The benefits that come from engaged employees are often far greater than the cost of employee ‘benefits.’ Hirschfeld’s own studies have shown that companies with more “engaged employees are doing better right now than their counterparts,” ands seeing higher levels of per-person productivity and customer loyalty.

From a recruiting standpoint, the recession has produced an enormous pool of high-caliber talent who are ready to work like never before. By making those connections now, your company will exit the recession a step ahead of the competition.

Mompreneurs Have Options Military Moms Don’t

mombabyThe front page of the New York Times yesterday carried an article on women balancing military duty and family. The military seems to have adapted fairly well to women serving alongside men, just as the workplace has over the past several decades. “Motherhood, though,” says the writer of the article, Lizette Alvarez, “poses a more formidable challenge for the armed forces.”

The corporate world is also still struggling with how to accommodate motherhood. The difficulties presented by that dual life — corporate gig and loving mom — are one reason so many women start their own companies before they work their way up to that corner office.

“Hanging on to today’s war-savvy, battle-tested cadre of mothers — and would-be mothers — is both crucial and difficult for the Army, say officers, enlistees and experts. ‘The Army’s challenge, but also the military’s challenge, is to help service members feel they don’t have to choose between family life and their military career,’ said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, an organization supported in part by the Department of Defense.”

“’They leave when they can’t figure out’ a way to do both, she said.” Just as many mothers leave their corporate positions when they can’t reconcile the demands of their work calendar with their kid’s schedules.

Running their own businesses allows mothers the freedom to control their own calendars. Being able to schedule business trips so they don’t interfere with kids’ birthdays and school plays, to set client meetings at a time that will still get you to soccer practice by pickup, can make all the difference. It’s one of the chief advantages of entrepreneurship, especially for parents.

Most mothers I know who’ve started a company aren’t really looking for a way to work less hard. Entrepreneurs of every stripe work hard. They’re attracted to entrepreneurship partly because it allows them to work on their own terms  — and around their kids’ routines. They might put in a few hours before the kids wake up and break to get them breakfast and off to the school bus. They might field phone calls on their cell while driving a backseat of ballerinas to dance class. Or take the afternoon to oversee homework and fix dinner, but spend a productive few hours on the computer after the kids are in bed.

Starting a business is also a way women can have it both ways. They can manage the needs of their children, but not miss the excitement and satisfaction of doing work they love and are good at. Those two driving forces are much more difficult to reconcile when the place you work is a war zone.

“Not long after reuniting with her children in 2005, Specialist Holschlag said, she was sitting alone in her apartment in Iowa when she was struck by a thought she recognized as absurdly selfish: she wanted to go back to Iraq.”

Recruiting: Top 10 Reasons Why Gen Y Might Be the Right Match for Your Company (and top 5 reasons why they might not be)

37880850Drop a pebble in a pond and you’ll feel the ripple effect. Drop 80 or so million Gen Ys into the workplace, and you get a tidal wave of fresh undeveloped talent coming right at you.

Even when you plan ahead for it, assimilating new groups of people into your organization can be challenging. As you recruit for positions in your company, consider some of these pretty consistent characteristics found in Gen Y (in addition to the unique qualities of that person, of course). The lists below are based on research from various organizations, including Emory’s Goizueta Business School and the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force.

Qualities that make Gen Y shine:

1)    They want to make a difference. And we want them to make a difference.

2)    They’re great with technology. And they like to share their knowledge.

3)    They’re innovative. They say it sometimes takes youth to come up with those sparks of brilliance. Some recruiters look for Gen Y candidates specifically because of that spark.

4)    They’re highly social creatures. They like to work as part of a team.

5)    They like Boomers. That’s good for workplace harmony.

6)    They like structure and authority figures. So they appreciate a company that will parent them. And they’re looking for an employer they can stay with and grow with for the long haul. They’re not the job hoppers of previous generations.

7)    They like lots of feedback. And most people love the opportunity to give feedback about anything. Aren’t you flattered when a younger employee comes to you for advice?

8)    They get along great with different cultures. That’s important in a global marketplace.

9)    They want to make the world a better place. They’re citizens of the world, which is also good for business.

10)  They are self policing. They’ll weed out the bad eggs themselves.

Qualities that aren’t necessarily bad, but are part of the package:

1)    They feel comfortable giving feedback. At any time to any one. This can be off-putting to managers who only want feedback when they ask for it. Gen Y doesn’t take rank into account either when they’re deciding what to say to whom.

2)    They can be fragile. Gen Y takes things to heart, and they often wear their hearts on their sleeves. So you have to manage their tender spirits. Some attribute this to the “you win an award for anything you do, even if you lose” way in which many of them were raised.

3)    They like coaches not bosses. Some managers like this style of management anyway. But, the days of “Don’t ask any questions. Just do it.” – well, those days are gone.

4)    They don’t like ambiguity. They have trouble moving forward if projects don’t have a clear beginning and end with manageable steps in-between.

5)    They can be more comfortable with technology than people. Many managers I know are making it a priority to teach their Gen Y employees how to conduct or participate in personal one-to-one meetings. Their employees keep showing up for work reviews with nothing but their blackberries.

Culture: How to Get Employees to Do the Unthinkable

When my business partner first said she wanted to launch an iPhone app, I said, “Sure, let’s do it.” But, I have to admit, I was thinking, “That will take forever.”

Actually, it only took a couple of months, from soup to nuts. And, we’ll do it even faster next time. The Start Your Own Company application is fluctuating between #10 and #20 out of all paid business apps based on Apple rankings. And Alyssa Walker wrote a wonderful article for Fast Company about the app and why we did it in the first place.

So, while the old adage is that good things happen to those who wait, our company’s mantra is get in there and get it done. And the companies that we’ve been working with who are making progress in the areas of employee recruiting, talent recognition, ambassador cultivation, brand recognition and consumer loyalty aren’t sitting around waiting for things to happen either. The reward for acting fast while still being smart is appreciated by consumers and is how companies are growing their businesses in today’s economy.

And, the ability to jump in and take care of business sends important signals to consumers:

  • We like what we’re doing.
  • We care about you.
  • We’re listening to you.

So, how do you motivate employees to do that? The general vibe you want to give them is they’re on a moving walkway – not climbing a slippery slope. Below are five simple things you can do to set your team on the path for success. Everyone knows them, but true leaders do them:

1) Set the tone for success. This is simple one to cross off your list (if you’re leadership) because it’s totally within your control: You need to set the tone for employees. Sometimes management will deliver the news about taking on a new project, but their body language or the words they choose says, “We’re never going to be able to do this, but somebody else is telling me to do it – so good luck.” If leadership appears to be overwhelmed or daunted by an initiative, then employees will figure, “If they can’t do it, then how can I?” What you want them to think is, “So and so says this will work, so why shouldn’t it?”

2) Pick an end date and communicate it. Yes, it sounds simple. So why doesn’t anybody do it? I know, it’s so easy to start with what needs to be done today and work towards tomorrow, next week or next year. But, you’ll actually get more done if you pick a date and work backwards. The longer lead time you give an initiative or project, the more opportunity there is for time-wasting exercises to sneak in. An aggressive timeline tends to cut out the fluff. Employees will appreciate focusing their time on work that makes a difference.

3) Assign roles. Don’t have two employees writing the same thing or designing the same thing or planning the same meetings with key players but at different times. Aside from losing precious time this way, employees will often feel pitted against each other. Don’t put them in this position. Also, this approach usually hurts your ability to get buy-in when you enter that phase.

4) Reward innovation. Discard perfectionism as a quality you strive for. This is hard for many because natural instinct is to do it right the first time. But consumers and, therefore, the world of business move so fast these days that if you do it right the first time – but it takes forever – then it’s wrong. There will always be room for improvement, and employees will feel more comfortable offering and implementing innovative ideas in a supportive environment.

5) Change course when appropriate. Staying focused for some people means moving from point A to point B and never looking up until you’ve reached your goal. Try to stay open to different ways of doing things, even when it seems easier to forge ahead. But, this can be tricky: consider, make a decision about what’s best, and move on.

The Romance Of A Startup

King PlowThere’s nothing like the excitement of starting your own business. Most entrepreneurs have a certain nostalgia about the early days when their companies were only a few steps beyond those initial notes on a legal pad — or a cocktail napkin.

When I launched my first ad agency, we really did start with a cocktail napkin. My business partner and I were teaching classes one evening a week at an ad school, and afterwards we’d meet up the street for a glass of wine. We would plot and plan and scribble thoughts on paper napkins, as we discussed our vision for the agency we would eventually call Match. Before we decided on a name, we practiced at the same bar with their cloth napkin rolls, wrapped around knifes and forks. We’d pick up that napkin roll and hold it to our ear saying, “Hello, thanks for calling Albert & Baskin.” No, that sounds like an ice cream store. “Hello, thanks for calling Magnet.” Okay, maybe. Until we finally tried, “Hello, thanks for calling Match,” and decided that was the one.

Our first office was two rooms in a renovated plow factory. We would spend the days pitching business and going to see clients, and then about 5 or 6 the phones would simmer down and we’d start doing the creative work for whatever deadlines we were trying to meet. I’ll never forget how it felt to be there working late, with the glow of lamplight on the dusty red brick walls and the rumble of trains moving past our open windows, almost close enough to reach out and touch. We’d have good music on the stereo and our dogs at our feet and after awhile we’d start to have some good ideas. It was heady stuff.

At first, we couldn’t afford much furniture and most of what we had was hand-me-down. Our desk was a borrowed dining room table we shared, facing each other across our laptops. We splurged on a pair of new swiveling desk chairs at the Office Depot, but hadn’t yet sprung for any rugs, so the chairs would slowly roll away on the warped old hardwood floors if you didn’t keep a good grip with your feet. One late night I was sitting cross-legged in my chair, writing on a pad of paper in my lap. I heard my partner B.A. talking to me, but she sounded far away. When I looked up, I realized I had rolled downhill all the way across the room. After that, we got some rugs, and they also helped with the noise of the trains which was so loud it was beginning to make our teeth rattle around in our heads.

Eventually, our little startup was employing ten or 12 people and working with an impressive list of clients. We grew out of our two rooms and knocked down walls to expand into three connected studio spaces. We bought furniture and returned the desks and tables and other pieces we’d begged and borrowed in the beginning. We put in a sophisticated phone system. We started a 401(k) plan. In short, we became a real business. Our startup worked.

But I wouldn’t trade anything for those early days. There’s nothing like the feeling of making something out of thin air. One day, Match was a stack of cocktail napkins covered in Sharpie. Then suddenly, there was a company that didn’t exist before, doing good work for clients, supporting a number of people in doing work they love, and giving other would-be entrepreneurs the confidence that they could do it too.

Several years later, a woman I’d worked with a decade before asked me to lunch to discuss the company she was about to launch. Over our Caesar salads she said, “I told my business partner, how hard could it be? If Elizabeth and B.A. can do it, anyone can!”

The Long Road to Overnight Success with an iPhone App

iTunesWatching our new iPhone app climb the charts in Apple’s ratings feels like watching election returns when your side is winning. On September 10, we launched the Start Your Own Company application from Starter Cards (the division of our ad agency that develops content and tools for entrepreneurs) and have spent the last ten days tracking its move through Apple’s rankings. After four days, it broke into the Top 100, debuting at 92 in paid business apps. The next day, it moved up to 66. Over the weekend, we broke into the Top 50, squeaking in at 47 and crawling up to 45 by Sunday afternoon. Today, we were ecstatic to see the app nicely positioned in the Top 25, holding steady at number 20, and by the time we all left the office at 5 o’clock it was sitting pretty at number 17. It’s starting to feel like we might be onto something here.

Anyone who runs a small business knows that there are plenty of days and months and even sometimes years when you wonder if your big idea is going to work. You have to train yourself to keep the faith, despite setbacks and quagmires and plenty of heavy slogging uphill. Some days that can be damn hard.

Then one day, everything in the universe lines up just so, and you have a major win. Suddenly, it all looks easy. It feels easy. You experience what I call the moving sidewalk effect, where you’re just strolling along yet propelled ahead at a satisfying clip.

But what makes one effort a win and another a dud? Why does one particular idea pop, while others fizzle out? I wish there were an app for that. I don’t know the answer, but this is what I think helps:

1. Sending out a lot of ships, as my old friend Chellie Campbell would say. To switch metaphors, the more irons you have in the fire, the more of a chance you have of one becoming really, really hot. Also, it helps cushion disappointment to have your hopes pinned on more than one good idea.

2. Surrounding yourself with talent. One thing you learn early on in the ad industry is that a great concept is only as good as its execution. If you have a brilliant idea for a commercial and turn it over to a lackluster director, your spot is not going to become the talk of the town. (At least not in a good way.) You want the best people you can get to bring your ideas to life.

3. Any flame begins as a tiny ember. This one comes from my old business partner B.A. Albert, now president of Grey Atlanta. Great ideas and big opportunities rarely present themselves as roaring fires. You have to recognize them when they’re  nothing more than a little glow. You blow on that ember, feed it tiny pieces of kindling, then larger sticks, finally logs. Steady as she goes, you follow one step with another with another.

4. Hope for a lucky break. In this case, our big break was Alissa Walker deciding the story of our iPhone app would be a great fit for Fast Company, successfully pitching it to her editor, and then writing a fantastic piece. That one article on Fast Company’s website is the most likely cause of the Start Your Own Company app’s amazing momentum in the Apple rankings.

5. Set the stage for lucky breaks. We had heard that the first week after launching an app was critical, and so we mobilized to maximize the moment. Before launch day, we had prepped to submit the application to reviewers, post a YouTube demo video, launch a Facebook fan page, mention it on LinkedIn and tweet about it on Twitter. We prepared a press release and jpegs to send to a core group of reporters, most of whom we’ve built relationships with over months or years. (In fact, I’ve known Alissa since she was an intern in my ad agency in the late 90’s, and have watched her blossoming career from afar.) Sometimes luck just happens, but it happens more often if you prepare the ground for it to take root.

That’s all I know. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Black Bass Lesson: How Hard is It for Potential Customers to Find You?

images-2Recently, we were invited to a friend’s surprise party at the Black Bass Inn in Pennsylvania, and decided to fly up just for the night. The Black Bass turns out to be a charming inn built several decades before the Revolutionary War, but making a reservation wasn’t easy. In fact, it was so hard to find their phone number, I wondered if maybe they had banned telephones as a nod to historic accuracy.

The invitation instructed us to visit www.blackbassinn.com, which actually takes you to a porn site called the Boob Tube (with a logo composed of two hot pink cartoon breasts). Okay, that’s funny, but not much help. There are plenty of reviews of the the hotel and its restaurants on various travel and dining sites, but they don’t give a phone number.

Then I started noticing mentions online of people asking if anyone else had the inn’s new phone number. Apparently, the old number was assigned to another customer in the interim between the former owner’s death and the new owner’s re-opening of the inn.

Finally, I went the old-fashioned route and called directory assistance. I had been putting that off, because I wasn’t sure if the hotel was in New Hope or Lumberville, or where in Pennsylvania either of those towns might be. But fortunately that didn’t stump AT&T for long, and soon I was on the phone with a lovely woman at the inn who helped me book what sounds like a pretty fantastic room with exposed stone walls and a view of the Delaware River.

I mentioned to her my experience with the website, which was apparently the first she’d heard of that. She actually guffawed when she pulled up www.blackbassinn.com and saw the boobies. Turns out the inn’s real website is at www.blackbasshotel.com. Who knew?

Here’s some advice I took myself: Take a few minutes and pretend you’re a potential customer looking for your company online. Try a few variations on your company name — like the Inn and Hotel example. Hopefully, your website and phone and even address are easy to find. But if not, it would be good to know where those potential customers are ending up. Especially if it’s somewhere as colorful as the BoobTube.


Building a Good Place to Work. Not Utopia.

Tribe studioIn a market where good jobs are at a premium, it’s been surprising that so many of our recent job applicants have been strikingly unprofessional. Actually, self-focused might be a better description. Confused, maybe, about the way business works.

My small company is in the process of interviewing for a new staff accountant. At Tribe, as in most ad agencies, that’s the position that truly requires a buttoned-up personality.  The writers and art directors and other creative types here can get away with being a little flaky or free spirits, but not the person we’re trusting to add up the money and pay the bills.

We had one highly recommended applicant decline a phone interview because she was “busy running errands all day.” Another spent much of her interview explaining how she really needed a company that understood where she was in her life and “what she needed in terms of life balance.”

It’s true; Tribe does support work-life balance. Our company purpose is To Make Life Better, and part of that is supporting our employees in enjoying better lives. We generally don’t work long hours or weekends, we bring in a company-paid healthy lunch several days a week and we have a meditation room that gets a good bit of use. We host an annual company fitness competition and allow employees to use up to five work hours a week for exercise. In the spirit of balance, we also keep wine and beer cooling in the fridge and will often share a late afternoon sip of something as we’re finishing up work.

But that often seems to be misinterpreted by outsiders to mean that work comes second. It doesn’t. Tribe is a business. The first obligation of any business is to make money. If a company doesn’t make money, it won’t be in business for long. If it goes out of business, all those employees have to go, too. (And having a job remains a pretty important part of that coveted work-life balance thing.)

We make money by doing good work for our clients, over and over again, consistently. We do good work by hiring people who are very, very good at what they do. There is not one person at Tribe who doesn’t perform at an extremely high level. To do that, day after day after day, requires a level of professionalism that doesn’t put business obligations or opportunities second in line to running personal errands.

I hope Tribe is a great place to work. I believe it’s smart business to support our employees in living good lives as well as in doing good work. But Tribe would be a much less satisfying place to work without the passion and dedication that makes us all proud of what we do.

People Development in a Recession: If You Don’t Have a Plan, You Don’t Have a Clue

36855543If you don’t have a plan for recruiting and managing your talent base during the recession, then get one fast. And, while you’re putting it together, know that a good plan for attracting and retaining talent can’t all be based in the “right now.” It must account for the future needs of the business.

Otherwise, your talent base will look and feel and think five years from now exactly like they do today. And that’s not a good thing.

How companies approach managing their people resources during this time span will affect how quickly they bounce back, innovate and grow over the next decade (or more). A people strategy that is stagnant or completely lies dormant for years can’t be expected to bear fruit at the end of a long winter. Companies who have a speedy recovery followed by growth will be those who tended their garden well.

Below is a sampling of how some companies are managing layoffs, hiring and retention during this time. You can decide for yourself which will be successful long-term. I know what I think, but the jury (stakeholders and the general public) is still out.

1) One global company I’ve worked with has consolidated a function and moved it to a new location. They had a plan and used this opportunity to set some people free (a harsh reality, yes), reward remaining high-performing talent and hire new team members with added skill sets and fresh creative ideas. People on this new team are so excited they’re practically aglow. There’s a feeling that people who were let go or chose to stay behind were selected or self-selected for a good reason and will be better off.

2) Another global company consolidated a function, but did it in a sort-of “if you can find a seat, sit down fast.” Anyone else was let go. So, if there was one spot, and five people, well – nobody is sure how they decided. Not that a company has to let people know all of the intimate details of their strategy, but if it seems there was no plan then that’s not good. There probably wasn’t one. Today, there are star performers who were also very senior who are on the street. On the flip side, this company has opened up room at the top for advancement and growth, and probably rewarded some under-the-radar employees with leadership potential. Some of the remaining employees I’ve talked with feel as if they’ve won the lottery. Indeed.

3) One national technology company let go an entire function and then rebuilt it by pulling from regions around the country. They cut costs, but lost a lot of trust and respect from remaining employees – and those who were let go. A little bit of grace and poise from the company could have gone a long way. Their culture took a huge hit, and the ambassadors they put out on the street have a lot of negative things to say.

4) One Fortune 100 company says its goal is to avoid layoffs and maintain current levels of compensation. They’ve had to freeze 401K matches and merit increases, but they haven’t had to cut staff, and if you talk to employees, they’re not worried about losing their job. The good news is that these employees are safe, the bad news is that their talent pool could become like a stagnant pond if not managed carefully. Also, employees aren’t worried about losing their jobs, but they’re not grateful to have them either. That’s cause for concern.

5) One global service company is hiring employees at a lower salary and letting them work a non-profit job until the economy recovers. So this army of top talent is waiting in the wings to be put into battle. That’s smart thinking; the company looks smart in addition to putting dibs on talent that will help them move their company forward.