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

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

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.

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

15 Years of Internal Communications: What’s Changed and What Hasn’t

Tribe was founded as a creative branding boutique 15 years ago yesterday. And while our original focus was on traditional advertising, from the very beginning we were asked to take on internal communications projects for large companies. The industry has changed in many ways since 2002, and in others ways, it’s still exactly the same. Here are three observations:

  1. It starts in the C-suite: When CEOs believe communication with employees is important, they’ll create the budget to make it happen. Often we find some major organizational change — from the acquisition of another company to a shift in strategic priorities — will provide the trigger for stepping up internal communications. This is something we see more often now than we did 15 years ago. What hasn’t changed is the way an individual CEO will drive communications about vision and values — or not. If it’s not important at the top, it’s generally not seen as an important topic for the rest of the company.
  2. Technology has elevated our field. The advent of intranets was a major game changer, but the intranet game itself has changed dramatically over the years. Back in the day, UPS was our first client with an intranet (although they called it a portal and it was really just a collection of links). Then for years SharePoint was the only way to go and we used it for every site we built, from Porsche to PVH. Now, SaaS platforms make it much easier and more affordable — not to mention faster. We’ve been able to pull off sites in less than a month, without impacting the workload of the clients’ IT team.
  3. Print publications never died. Although digital communications fill the lion’s share of our clients’ communication channels nowadays, there’s still a place for print. In our early years at Tribe, we published a printed internal newsletter every month for Porsche. In black and white, because color was way too expensive. Today we do digital newsletters and magazines more often than print, but when there’s a large percentage of employees without dedicated computers, we still recommend printing. For one client, those printed magazines are mailed to each employee’s home. Expensive, yes, but it’s the only channel that goes directly from corporate to the folks in the manufacturing facilities.

One of the most interesting things about the internal communications field is that it’s changing all the time. New platforms, apps and technology provide nearly endless new possibilities for ways the company can communicate with employees. However, the most important element remains, whether you’re typing it up in black and white or shooting 3-D HD scented video to digital watches: it’s just human beings talking to human beings. Authenticity counts, regardless of the medium.

Interested in communicating more authentically to your employees? Tribe can help.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Humanizing the Big Cheese: Help Employees Connect with the CEO

hiresEmployees want to know their top leadership as individuals. In Tribe’s research with employees of companies with more than 1,000 employees across the U.S., 84 percent of respondents want more communication from corporate, but they also want to see these people face-to-face.

Cascading communications through direct managers isn’t enough. Qualitative responses from our study on employee preferences in internal communications indicate the desire for communications directly from C-level.

Comments and write-in responses included:

“More direct communications from HQ.”

 “It’s important to have some communication directly from corporate instead of my direct manager.”

 “We want to hear from you. Tell us what’s going on.”

Employees also want to put faces to titles, and to interact on a human level.

 “Being able to put a face with a name would help make things more personable.”

“Increase the in-person, live communication.”

“Speak face to face.” 

Most CEO’s and other top executives are not going to have time to meet every employee face-to-face. But efforts in that direction, such as store or plant visits can go a long way towards communicating that he or she believes its important to connect with frontline employees. Town Halls that are webcast are another, although not all employees will sit through an entire one.

Your CEO can only be in one place at a time, but technology can help scale those human interactions. When the CEO visits a plant, shoot video of the visit. Maybe include plant employees by creating a Q&A opportunity where they ask a question and the CEO answers. Or shoot photos of the CEO shaking hands or talking with various plant employees to use in a CEO blog, or on the intranet, or in a digital magazine or newsletter.

The point is to help employees put a face to the name and title. Although an in-person experience has the most impact, there are other ways to build that human connection between employees and the leadership team.

Interested in humanizing your CEO? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

Letter from the CEO: Tips to Get Employees to Actually Read It

Having the CEO or another leadership team member write a letter or email to employees is a huge opportunity to build engagement. But only if it’s done well. A 500-word missive that’s one long stuffy sentence after another is not engaging and will bore employees long before they get to that final paragraph. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when your communications plan includes leadership communications of that sort:

  1. Don’t ghostwrite it: Or at least don’t make it sound like someone ghostwrote it. If the exec doesn’t have the time or inclination to write the piece for himself or herself, do whatever you can to channel his or her voice. What are the words and phrases this person uses frequently? If they like something, are they more likely to describe it as really cool, awesome, outstanding, fabulous or terrific? Is there a word or phrase they use frequently to reinforce an idea,  like “absolutely” or “no doubt?” If you don’t have frequent contact with this particular leader, search online for videos of interviews or speaking engagements to pick up details of how they speak. Even better, get five minutes of their time to talk about what they want employees to get out of this communication.
  2. Show some personality: Tribe’s national research with employees indicates that they want a personal connection with their leadership teams. They want to feel like they know something beyond business facts about the person behind the title. Some more introverted leaders resist talking about themselves because they think it comes off as self-centered or bragging. Explain that it’s humanizing rather than hubris. If the big boss is training for a marathon or writing a detective novel on the side, that’s the kind of personal detail employees are craving.
  3. Cut roughly 20% of what you wrote: Or even 30%. Take a look at what you think is the final draft and figure out how to make it shorter. If it’s a letter, absolutely do not let it be more than one page, and try not to fill that page with ink. If it’s an email, three or four brief paragraphs is probably about as much as employees will read. For a blog, you can go a little longer, but still, short and sweet is more likely to be read.

Interested in improving your leadership communications? Tribe can help.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

3 Alternatives to the CEO Blog

It’s tough to convince CEOs to take the time it requires to write their own blogs. Even if they have the best intentions of writing their own material, their days are generally pretty full with running the company.

Ghostwriting blogs in a way that truly reflects the CEO’s thoughts and the nuances of their knowledge takes time as well. The CEO has to find room on the calendar for interviews with the ghostwriter, or to start a rough draft the ghostwriter can work from, or in some other way convey his or her relevant content that can then be crafted into maybe 300-500 words.

But who says it has to be a blog? Yes, employees crave communication from their leadership, and want to know the human beings behind the titles. But maybe your CEO or President would prefer another medium.

Here are three you might consider:

  1. Twitter: With only 140 characters, a tweet can provide meaningful communication with employees, as well as the rest of the world. A post might be as simple as “Honored to be speaking today in Houston at the #management conference.” It could be the link to a video of that speaking engagement with a quick caption. A link to an article about that conference. Even a food porn photo of the Texas barbecue served at the conference kickoff.
  2. Podcast: So much easier than a video, because it doesn’t matter if it’s a bad hair day. Many people are just more comfortable behind a microphone than in front of a camera, so making a podcast on a regular basis can be a much easier commitment than a video shoot. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, for example, started a habit of recording an audio message for employees each Monday morning.
  3. Instagram: This can be a powerful way to offer employees a glimpse of the CEO’s human side. Although it may not be the best way to communicate the company vision or announce a major change, Instagram is an easy way for top management to let employees get to know them better. Biz Stone, for instance, a co-founder of Twitter and now the CEO of Jelly Industries, posts videos of his young son on carnival rides and playing a toy piano, photos of family vacations, interesting graffiti and quotes by inspirational thinkers.

Interested in other ideas for authentic executive communications? Join us at the IABC Atlanta luncheon on Tuesday, October 27. I’ll be giving a talk titiled “The Horizontal Silo: How to Bridge the Disconnect Between the C-Suite and the Rest of the Company.” Would be great to meet you, and to hear your best practices in this area.

 

Elizabeth Cogswell Baskin

3 Worst Mistakes in Leadership Communications

Employees want to hear from the big cheese. In Tribe’s national research with employees of large companies, 72 percent want to hear directly from top management. Over 84 percent say they hear from corporate management “not enough.”

Unfortunately, when employees do hear from their leadership teams, the communications are not as authentic as one could hope. Of course, it’s far easier for everyone – not just the busy executives also the internal communications team – to have leadership simply sign off on communications that have been prepared by others.

But that’s missing a huge opportunity to engage employees with their leadership. Help your company management understand the impact they can have by speaking directly and authentically to employees.

At the very least, try to steer them away from these three common mistakes:

  1. Ghostwritten blogs: Employees aren’t fooled by the perfectly polished prose pretending to be something the CEO actually wrote. If your leadership team shows any inclination at all to pen their own blogs, reassure them that a few paragraphs they write themselves would be far preferable to three pages that have been manufactured for them. Remind them that blogs by their very nature are supposed to be human and imperfect.
  1. Scripted videos: Not only is a video of a talking head reading from a teleprompter incredibly boring, it also casts doubt on whether the speaker really means what he or she is saying. Video can be a powerful tool for leadership communications, when the executives are comfortable speaking to camera as if they were having a conversation. Give them talking points, not a script. Remind them that they can mess up as many times as they want and you can edit those parts out. Let them know that coming across as a real human being is more important than seeming rehearsed and flawless.
  1. Cascading only: Especially in companies with lots of non-desk employees, cascading information through direct managers can be an effective channel. But it’s a mistake to rely on cascading communications alone. Particularly in times of major company changes, employees want to hear directly from top management. Even if those executive communications are prepared by other people. Start there if you have to, but keep pushing for them to do at least some of the communicating themselves.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a town hall or a tweet, a letter or a podcast. Find a channel or two that are comfortable for your CEO, president and other company leadership. Which channel is not important. What is important is that employees experience leadership communicating with them directly and authentically.

Want to find more authentic ways for your leadership to communicate? Tribe can help.