Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

The Leadership Bubble: Are Your Top Execs Just Talking to Themselves?

Sometimes the top leadership of a company can be something of a closed system. The C-level and management a layer below tend to spend their days rubbing elbows with each other rather than employees in the rest of the company. Without a strong effort to create channels of communication between top management and rank-and-file employees, there’s sometimes very little information flowing between the two.

Leadership often thinks employees know things they don’t. Important things for engagement and alignment, like their vision for the company, their strategic plans for growth, the values they want the company to use in doing business.

Towards the end of the Recession, we did some research on this topic with a limited sample of four or five large companies. First we spoke with leadership about their plans for handling the economic downturn and coming out stronger on the other end of it.

Without a single exception, leadership from every company said they had a clear vision. When we asked if they believed the employees were aware of and understood this vision, they said, yes, absolutely, we talk about it all the time.

Then we asked the same two questions of employees at each of those companies.What we heard from most of them were comments like: “I don’t think they have any idea how to get us through this;” “There’s no plan, not that I know of;” and “I don’t thing there’s a vision and it scares me.”

Why would leadership think employees know these things when they clearly do not? It’s because they themselves hear about the vision every day. They’re all sitting in the same meetings, seeing the same Powerpoints and having the same discussions. They know the vision, and they know how their department or division of the company is expected to contribute to that vision.

 In short, they’re talking to themselves. What’s needed is a strategic approach to communicating top management’s strategic direction and vision to people at all levels of the company.

They’re also not hearing the views of employees outside the C-Suite. If there’s little to no communciation direct from leadership to employees, then there’s probably not an established two-way communciation channel either. So corporate management is missing out on all that employees could tell them — from suggestions and innovations to complaints and concerns. Both are useful for improving the company in a myriad of ways large and small.

Interested in establishing communication channels between your C-level and the rest of the company? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Making Open Enrollment Less of a Drag: Four Communications Tips

Sure, employees often drag their feet on Open Enrollment, but who can blame them? Even though they realize their benefits decisions are important, nobody gets excited about that annual opportunity to wade through all that insurance language about out-of-network deductibles and qualifying events.

Our job as communicators is to make it easier for them. Yes, they need all the details included in the giant enrollment guide or on the website, but they could also use a little help at knowing what they need to pay attention to, what decisions they need to make, and what actions they need to take to be squared away until next year.

Employees are busy. Like the rest of us, their workdays are packed with, you know, work. Also like everybody else, they have many different demands on their time when they’re not at work.

What if you thought of the employees as CEOs? You wouldn’t hand your CEO a huge stack of benefits gobbledy gook without providing any sort of executive summary. You’d probably also outline the important decisions that need to be made and include a clear call to action.

  1. Try to summarize what they need to know with a headline and several bullets. If employees only had time to read one PowerPoint slide, what’s the most important stuff for them to know? Probably, that slide is about what’s different this year from last year.

2. Then give them a short list of the decisions in front of them. In the simplest, most human terms possible, outline the selections they’ll need to make. Do they need to decide between three possible healthcare plans and two possible dental plans? Is vision coverage optional? Instead of writing in HR-speak, say it the way you’d say it if you were emailing a friend.

3. Finally, what’s the Call to Action? Where do they go and what do they do to be able to check this whole Open Enrollment thing off their To Do list.

4. And then there’s the power of good design. Open Enrollment materials may be on the opposite end of the spectrum from pleasure reading, but that’s all the more reason to give them the benefit of good design. The enrollment guide and all the accompanying communications efforts  — whether that means emails, direct mail, digital signage or posters — can  be more effective with clean professional design that makes them easier to read and more engaging.

Benefits are part of taking care of employees, and Open Enrollment is how we present that smorgasbord of benefits to employees. Let’s make the communications around Open Enrollment a little more appetizing.

Interested in improving your Open Enrollment communications? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Why Is Compassion So Rarely Listed as a Corporate Value?

There’s a generic list of values we see over and over when companies articulate their culture. If I had a nickel for every time the words Integrity, Honesty or Respect showed up in corporate values, I’d have a whole bunch of nickels.

In the wake of Harvey, I keep thinking about the value of Compassion. I’ve watched with interest the huge disaster relief efforts of  H-E-B, the Texas-based supermarket. They provide concrete help in disaster areas. Sometimes that can be as simple as giving away bags of ice, but it also involves deploying their mobile kitchens to feed first responders and displaced storm victims, sometimes for days at a time.

How would the value of Compassion drive business? Some might say it’s too altruistic to be useful in a competitive marketplace. But in the case of H-E-B, customer loyalty is built over and over by these compassionate acts, offered when people are at their most vulnerable. That’s the kind of loyalty that will trump milk being priced a little lower at some other store.

Actually, compassion seems a logical strategy for building customer relationships. If companies were to include Compassion as a value, that might be the permission employees need to be kind  — to each other, to customers and to the community at large.

There’s been a lot of emphasis in recent years on running companies lean and mean. The economic downturn created the need for efficiency and cost-cutting and anything else businesses could do to remain competitive.

Compassion calls for the opposite of being competitive. It encourages the view that we’re all in this together, and that helping our neighbors is the way we’ll get through.

People buy from brands they trust. Treating people with compassion is a powerful means to gaining that trust. Maybe Compassion deserves a spot on that list of most-common corporate values.

Interested in evolving your corporate values? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

In Employee Communications, Listening Is Part of the Conversation

Internal communications professionals at large companies work hard to produce engaging content. Then they make sure they push that content through an array of communication channels. But that’s only one-way communication.

In any conversation, it’s important to listen as well as speak. Ever had a conversation with someone who talks constantly and never lets you get a word in edgewise? Or someone who barely listens to what you’re saying because they’re thinking so hard about what they want to say next? After a while, you start to feel like they don’t care much about you or what you think.

Just because we don’t ask employees what they think, that doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions. Leadership can be oblivious to employee concerns, issues and questions without a day-to-day method for sharing them.

Those annual or bi-annual employee engagement surveys fill an important role, but they’re not an ongoing conversation. You might want to include a few other methods for engaging in a true conversation with the employee audience, like    one or more of the following:

  1. Pulse surveys: These are a great way to get bite-sized feedback from employees. Posted on the intranet or an employee app, they make it easy for employees to anonymously respond to questions ranging from “Do you feel like you have the information you need to make Open Enrollment decisions?” to “How did you feel coming to work today?” One-question surveys give us an opportunity to react quickly to events or major change and to feel out general trends or attitudes.
  2. Leadership Email: One of the simplest ways to support the employee conversation is to invite people to email the CEO or another top leader directly. But there’s a risk of failure here as well. If employees send emails and don’t receive a response, that’s communicating the opposite of what you want. You might set up a special email address for these leadership questions and have them reviewed and organized by someone in communications. Cue them up so that it’s easy for leadership to respond — authentically but efficiently.
  3. Q & A Page: This can be particularly useful in times of major change. On your intranet or a separate change microsite, provide a page where employees can ask anything they want with the promise that the appropriate person from the leadership team will respond within a certain amount of time, say, a week. You’ll likely get many similar questions and can post one response for that specific topic. In our experience, only a few questions will need an individual email response. The great majority of questions received are of interest to a wide range of employees.

Of course, the trick with all of these is a response mechanism. You don’t want employees to feel like they took the trouble to engage, only to have their question or response dropped into a black hole.

Interested in better employee conversations? Tribe can help.

 

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Consumers and shareholders are watching the CEO — but so are employees

That must have been one hell of a conference call. A Who’s Who of CEOs, including Indra Nooyi of Pepsico, Virginia Rometty of IBM, Mary Barra of GM, Douglas McMillon of Walmart and Laurence Fink of BlackRock, all dialing in to discuss the appropriate reaction to Trump’s remarks regarding the Charlottesville tragedy.

Consumers and shareholders were waiting to see how CEOs responded, but so were their employees. These companies depend on a diverse workforce of employees from all walks of life. If the company claims internally to value diversity and leadership, if the corporate values include things like integrity and respect, those principles theoretically  apply to the top executive as well as the rank and file.

But, in practice, does the CEO actually make business decisions based on those principles? Most employees of those companies will never meet their CEOs. They may have little understanding of what their chief executives do from day to day. They may not even bother to read the chief executive’s blogs or attend their town halls or watch their videos on the intranet.

But employees identify with the companies they work for, and they see the CEO as the figurehead for the company. As the heads of global companies, these CEOs were being watched not just by employees in the U.S. but in countries around the world.

These business leaders aren’t politicians. One could make the argument that serving on an advisory council for the president is a business decision and not a moral one.

But CEOs depend on the hearts and minds of their employees to move their companies forward. It matters to employees to know their CEOs took a stand against moving backwards in our country’s ongoing stop-and-start progress towards equality.

Interested in CEO communications for your employees? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

The Power of Not Doing: Improve Internal Communications by Doing Less

When’s the last time you did an audit of your internal communications channels? Most large companies use a myriad of channels and continue to add more, especially with emerging technology offering new options at a steady rate. You do need a varied mix of channels, because different employees like to be consume information in different ways, but do you have too many ways you’re communicating?

In “Strategy is Deciding What Not to Do,” Tim Williams describes Steve Jobs’  decision to cancel more than 300 ongoing projects in favor of focusing on just four. “By narrowing instead of expanding, Apple started down the path to becoming the most valuable company on the planet,” he writes.

Our experience at Tribe mirrors this, although on a vastly different scale. In 2009, we made the commitment to focus only on internal communications for large brands. When prospects or current clients asked for consumer branding, a field in which we’d built our careers, we referred them to other agencies we knew would do a great job for them.

The payoff was building a deep expertise in this narrow niche of internal branding.  The more we worked with large companies on specific employee communications issues, the more we learned. We began to see the same challenges repeated across companies and industries, and were able to take what we learned solving one client’s challenges as a shortcut to solutions for the next. There’s power in choosing not to do something.

The same can be true for your company’s internal communications mix. Most internal communications departments we see are stretched mighty thin. When you added a quarterly employee magazine, did you consider retiring the weekly newsletter? Do you still print posters even though you have digital signage in all your locations? Do you maintain multiple intranet-like sites? Are you still posting stuff on Yammer even though most employees aren’t using it anymore?

Discontinuing channels that aren’t working effectively is good discipline. Not only will it allow you to focus on doing a better job at fewer things, it can improve employees’ experience of internal communications. By limiting the places they feel like they’re supposed to check, you help them process communications more efficiently and effectively.

Interested in taking stock of your portfolio of internal communications channels? Tribe can help.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Your EVP is also your RVP: Recruiting Value Proposition

Even though we call it the Employee Value Proposition, the EVP does double duty in recruiting top talent. How do you sell the best candidates on the big picture of choosing your company? How do you position your company as an employer of choice? An attractive EVP can help you land the best candidates and keep them. If strong enough, the EVP can even help lure employees to less desirable geographical locations or help overcome higher compensation packages from competitors.

The caveat is that whatever you promise needs to be real. If recruits find their experience as new hires to be wildly different from what the EVP claimed, they won’t stick around for long.

There are lots of right answers to the EVP question. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. So stick to what’s authentic about your company and attract talented people who will also be great fits. Here are a few thoughts on areas you might stress:

  1. Meaningful work and/or an inspiring vision: Sometimes the work itself is meaningful to a candidate. To engineers, that might mean being able to play a major role in developing new technology. To an interior designer in the hospitality industry, it could mean working on the launch of a boutique hotel. Other times, an inspiring vision is what creates the meaning, even for work that supports that vision indirectly. An ace accountant might prefer to work for a company with a vision of improving lives for children  than one with the vision of being the largest real estate investor in the strip center niche.
  2. Brand prestige or industry cachet: Think of this one as the cocktail party question: Where do you work? When an employee is asked that question, is the answer one that people recognize? If your company name happens to be a household word, that counts for something. So does being in an industry that’s getting a lot of buzz, like artificial intelligence, for instance. Claiming insider status can be a point of pride that’s valuable to the EVP.
  3. A culture of autonomy or teamwork: Recognize which style is more prevalent at your company and promote it as a strength. If employees consistently say the company feels like family and they value their experiences of working as a team, then that’s a strength to reflect in your EVP. On the other hand, if the company tends to run lean, maybe one benefit of that is employees having the autonomy to take on roles that might be beyond their job descriptions. There will always be pockets of both styles in any company, but be honest about which way your culture leans.
  4. Flexibility: Although a culture can provide flexibility in many different ways, most employees seem to value flexibility in terms of work accommodating their personal lives — whether that means being able to work from home when a child is sick or taking time out in the middle of the day to fit in a long run or fitness class. If your culture doesn’t support that sort of flexibility, look for other kinds. Is the culture flexible about allowing employees to make lateral moves into other departments or divisions? Is there flexibility in terms of a condensed work week? Do you offer unusual options and flexibility in your benefits?
  5. High stress/high rewards or laid back/life balance: An environment of high stress and long hours isn’t always a negative. Some people thrive in that environment, especially when they feel like they’re part of something big. Maybe your company is at the forefront of the Industrial Internet or a major player in Fashion Week or on the verge of finding the cure to cancer. On the other hand, maybe your culture is one where people put in a reasonable day at work and then get out the door on time to be with their families. Either way, that can be an appealing element of the culture described in your EVP.

How do you know what recruits will value about your EVP? Ask them. Don’t stop at doing focus groups and other research with existing employees. It’s easy enough to field questionnaires or focus groups with new hires from the past year or so. It’s worthwhile to explore the reasons they chose La-Z-Boy. Their answers might be different from the responses of employees who’ve been at the company for years.

Interested in developing or refining your EVP? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Can internal communications replace some of those dreaded conference calls?

Everybody loves to make fun of conference calls. A photo of conference call bingo has been floating around social media lately, and I particularly like the video pictured here of a real-life conference call with people sitting in a conference room together listening to hold music while other people walk in and announce “Beth (has joined the meeting.).” We hate conference calls but we can’t stop scheduling them.

And what are employees really doing during all those conference calls? According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, they’re doing other work, sending emails, online shopping, playing video games, exercising and taking other phone calls. Some report (and I apologize for putting this image in your mind) taking conference calls in the bathroom.

So if employees don’t like conference calls, and they’re not particularly engaged during them, should those of us in internal communications be offering an alternative? When work teams are located in different offices, or in other countries, an in-person meeting isn’t practical. But that hurdle of geography is indigenous to a global workplace, or even a national one.

At one point, it seemed that video conferencing would become the new conference call. Certainly being on camera would eliminate some of the temptation to be multi-tasking. And seeing the faces of other participants would shortcut some of those awkward start-stop interruptions and allow us to pick up on all those missed cues of body language. Although a number of Tribe’s clients have video conferencing capabilities, we don’t see it used very much. In fact, it seems to be avoided like the plague.

Theoretically, intranets could handle some of the informational exchange and collaborative work of conference calls. But in practice, they’re not replacing many of those calls clogging up employees’ calendars either.

So there’s always email. And an awful lot of business does get done through group emails. Yet employees consistently complain that they get too much email — which makes it an unlikely candidate for conference call replacement. 

What’s the answer? I don’t know. But if you do, I’d love to hear about it.

Want new ideas for internal communications other than a cure for the common conference call? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

What retail employees, airline attendants, hotel workers and other frontline people know that corporate doesn’t

Valuable customer insights go unrecognized in companies across almost every industry. Although large brands may expend considerable budgets on customer research and voice-of-customer initiatives, they may overlook the most direct source of knowledge regarding what customers want.

That source of knowledge is the frontline employee. The customer-facing employee can be a rich resource of ideas for small and large improvements.

In quick service restaurants, staff may notice a trend of customers mixing two packets of different sauces. That observation might lead to a product idea for a new sauce flavor. In the hospitality industry, hotel housekeepers might know that guests often remove a scratchy bedspread and toss it on the floor. That knowledge could influence the choice of fabrics in the next design prototype for room interiors.

The frontline employee also has firsthand knowledge of customer complaints. They see things corporate can’t, which not only stymies customer solutions but also frustrates these employees.

In Tribe’s research with non-desk employees, this frustration was a prevalent theme. They often see corporate as out of touch and ineffective at solving common issues. Respondents reported that corporate often doesn’t understand the realities of the business due to being so removed from customers.

In most companies, this valuable field intelligence is lost. Without a clear channel of communication between the front line and those back in the corporate office, none of this knowledge becomes actionable.

Establishing such a channel takes some doing. Communication to field employees generally flows in one direction only, cascading from managers to the front line. Although individual managers may be aware of these frontline insights, there are rarely established communications processes for sharing up the ladder.

An effective channel will be specific to the physical realities of those frontline employees. What works for hotel housekeepers may not work for garbage truck drivers. A solution appropriate for a high-end jewelry retailer may not suit furniture rental store employees.

Interested in collecting the field intelligence of your frontline? Tribe can help.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

What we know about building employee trust in the CEO

One of the best ways a CEO can build employee trust is to first demonstrate that he or she trusts employees. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review addresses this dynamic from the perspective of managers, but the same principle applies at a higher level in the corporate hierarchy and to the organization overall.

How does company leadership show trust in employees?

  1. Share information. Not just good news, but the bad news as well. In fact, sharing bad news honestly can go a long way towards increasing employee trust. Of course there will always be business information that’s not appropriate to share, and it’s fine to say that. Employees can appreciate that distinction. But if you talk about transparency, make sure you follow up by truly keeping employees in the loop on news you can share.
  2. Avoid creating a risk-averse culture. This is a big ship to turn around, if your culture is already rife with policies and attitudes intended to put as many controls in place as possible. It’s popular now for companies to promote the idea of failing fast, but there’s sometimes a contradiction presented by punitive policies. Giving employees a little more autonomy and decision-making power demonstrates trust in their abilities and their judgment. That’s a first step in having them return the favor.
  3. Promote visibility for individuals responsible for innovation. Look for examples of leaders within the company who are spearheading new product developments or initiatives and celebrate them. Mention them in town halls, encourage your communications staff to feature them in the internal publications or on the intranet. Most success stories will include bumps and challenges along the way. Telling those stories reinforces the notion that the company leadership trusted those employees enough to let them hit a dead end or two before they got it right.

Interested in building trust in leadership at your company? Tribe can help.