Friday, September 27, 2013

A chemical-industry incident

I feel very lucky to have had a brief tour of duty in the chemical industry--not a business sector I would have sought out.  Over the time I met and worked with scientists, technicians, engineers and operators, I grew an immense respect for people who were doing something really difficult and more than a little risky.

One thing I quickly learned was that the same spectrum of opinions on chemical use and the environment that you find in the wider world also ran through the ranks and functions of the company.  Some just wanted to make their salary and go home, damn the consequences; others wanted to use their contribution to make the whole chemical supply chain more sustainable.  Others were conflicted, every day, about the unknowable impact of their actions.

Interestingly, at the major plant site for the company, there was some of the most enthusiasm for the business where there was arguably the greatest risk; in fact, areas at the site had designated a Superfund site for long-term remediation from prior activities.  Given the size of the facility and the throughput of ingredients and product in and out of its gates, the site had a stunning safety record.  Engineers and operators alike were generally proud of the place and of the successful commitment to continuous improvement.

On one occasion, Greenpeace came calling.  Over the years, a small town had grown up right around the plant, an oasis of economic opportunity in a marginal rural territory.  Greenpeace was banking on the belief that families and residents closest to the plant would be the most discomfited and distressed with the plant's existence and operations.

It sort of backfired.  Greenpeace could not organize an opposition to the facility among its neighbors, most of whom were or were related to plant employees.  And it wasn't just because people were guarding their feedbag; they also felt patronized by outsiders suggesting they didn't understand what they saw as a manageable, net-positive risk/reward calculation.

That calculation had been informed by, among other things, years and years of ongoing communication between the plant and the community, formal and informal, some in words and some in actions.  The communicators at the plant knew--and taught me--that you could only tell the truth to people and not try to blow rainbows at them or deny the risks.  There was no meaningful barrier between internal and external communication in such an environment.  People were willing to defend the parts of a business they felt were worth defending.

Employees with deep knowledge of the business are its best brand ambassadors and advocates and trusted spokespeople.  When communication with them is respectful, fair and substantive, they'll return the respect in serving as appropriate champions for the business.  By the way, I'm personally respectful of Greenpeace, too, but no advocates or activists can make progress until they take the time to become as smart as the people they're advocating for.

People want to be proud of what they do.  Does your employee communication get them there?

Image courtesy of supakitmod /

Monday, September 9, 2013

Feeling the FOG?

You walk to the front of the room.  The screen with your title slide is behind you, and in front of you are 350 people--and two cameras representing 1,500 more.  They have stopped their schedule to listen to you.  Some have their arms folded; some are whispering to each other; some are texting others using the company's messaging platform.

It could be a great time to be brief.

Two recent articles point out the value of candor and of brevity.  The first is a description of the work of Laura Rittenhouse, who wages an ongoing campaign against what she calls FOG: "fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities."  In one of her business services, she analyzes the corporate communications of leaders and publishes her Rittenhouse Rankings as a measure specifically of the candor she finds in them--or doesn't find.  For most professionals in corporate communications, the editing of FOGgy prose is all in a day's work; what's remarkable about the Rankings is how much content-free writing some of the country's largest companies are comfortable putting out there for view.

One on side: jargon, imprecision, loss of credibility, eye-rolling and disengagement.  On the other: candor, specificity, clarity, trust and motivation.  And one of those tends to take less time to deliver than the other.

The second article is by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, a think-tank for journalistic excellence.  Clark talks about the disproportional impact of the short sentence.  We all learned in high school comp class to "vary sentence length" as a matter of stylistic power, but it's a hard value to find in corporate America.  Tragically, one of the typical reactions to a difficult business situation or a tough choice is to grind out more and more words in the hope of talking someone's anxiety out of existence.  It rarely works.  More often, it looks like what it is: buying time and establishing dominance.  Because when you really know what you're talking about, and really have a strong leadership idea, and are more confident than fearful, you find it more compelling to use fewer words.

Which, of course, brings us back to . . . candor.  Plain speaking sounds true and commands attention.  Are you good at it?
Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom /

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Human Racehorses

I was at a professional event last month where I swear I heard one of the panelists describe herself as an executive in human racehorses.

It was some quirk of regional accent, I'm sure, but how perfect is that perceived malaprop?  One of the hallmarks of the evolution from "personnel" back in the day to "human resources" (and then, for others, on to "human capital" or just "people") was a movement away from placating and monitoring and toward increased productivity and professional development.  Along the way, things definitely got strident and sweaty.

I can't resist.  Here are some tips I found online for how to train racehorses.
  • "Train them for races by daily jogging.  Increase the speed and distance as the horse becomes conditioned and starts to improve its fitness level" . . . keep moving the cheese.
  • "The horse must be able to meet or exceed the minimum speed prescribed by the track the owner wishes it to compete at" . . . because racehorses have "owners."
  • "Have the horse practice running the track with other horses to increase speed through the internal competitive nature to be first" . . . pitting them against everyone else as a measure of success.
Communications that support those types of HR values will fall into patterns of top-down, comply-or-else, propagandistic cheering and saluting.  These are delivered with strong assumptions that employees have all the time and interest in the world to be fascinated by professional development and performance management and team dynamics and recruiting and onboarding and benefits management and cross-functional teaming.

But, really?  Have you taken a tour lately through the brain of today's worker?  It's a landscape of various elevations of anxiety.  Most people are uncertain their jobs are going to exist in a three-to-five year window of time, and they are unengaged because they cannot imagine how anything they could do on the job could increase their chance of remaining employed.  Turns out they're not really behaving like racehorses.

There's a New Employment Deal out there.  It's more crowd-sourced than hierarchical, it's got more realism and less loyalty, and it's smart about what workers today really want and need.  Frankly, it's fairer and much more adult (less equine).  Communicating in that new-deal environment is different in important ways: notably in content, style and channel.

Do your employees believe you're part of the New Employment Deal?  Do you know how to communicate differently in the new business landscape?
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

Monday, July 15, 2013

Coaching the frat boy

At one point, I had the chance to work with a senior executive who was a rising leader, affable, smart and organizationally savvy.  He also fit a profile that I will for shorthand label Frat Boy: outgoing almost to excess, happy to be outrageous, no enemy of beer and wine at company events, and largely unapologetic of any offense given.
Ed. note: The label is admittedly stereotypical and does not apply to all fraternity members. Some of my best friends were fraternity members who were mature.  But we all know who I'm talking about.
He was a natural leader in the sense that people liked to follow himeven follow him around, if only to see what would happen next.  As his communication advisor, I quickly learned that he provided any number of . . . challenges.  And as he became more involved in areas like talent management and workforce diversity, his limitations became alarmingly real.

In one promotee reception, he acknowledged each individual with a reference to their home countriessome of which he had visitedand a joke about their backgrounds, to reassure everyone that he understood their cultural traits.  Everyone forced a smile, but no one was laughing.  Another time, he started a media interview by praising the appearance of the female reporter and comparing her attractiveness to, let's just say, a comedienne not famed for her "attractiveness."  My team and I guessed that things like this used to be funny back in the old Rathskeller.  Now how to get him moved forward a few decades?

This is a situation drawn in broad strokes, but ever since I encountered it, I've been involved in smaller-scale versions of it again and again.  It's what happens when old insensitivities meet new contexts.  It's tempting to say this is chiefly an issue with white males, though my experience is that all kinds of people have sizeable blind spots that need to be filled in.

What do you do?  You find the right way to reflect back to leaders the effect of their words and actions so that they can freely choose how they'd prefer to present themselves going forward.  It takes trust and confidence on the part of both coach and client.

Happily, Frat Boy also had a strong, personal commitment to self-improvement.  Over time, he figured out how to self-regulate and get a feeling for his audience but not lose some of his natural roguishness.  It proved to be an extremely winning combination for him personally and professionally.

Executive presentation is a pillar of strong organizational communicationwhom do you know who could use some help?
Image courtesy of stockimages /

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Why read it when I can forward it?

An enterprising writer at Slate commissioned Chartbeat to do an analysis of how--and whether--site visitors read articles on his site.  Look at the good graphs that accompany the article to get your own sense of the results.

It wasn't very surprising to learn that people skim online content.  People have been skimming content ever since there was too much content; in a business, a whole lot of content can be continually provided by a matrix of leaders, managers, corporate communicators and thorough HR specialists.  Those explanatory memos you spend days circulating for review and revising?  Nobody's reading them--not all of them, anyway.  It's why experienced communicators help you drive your most important points into top-level content or summaries.  You don't thin out a forest by planting more trees.

The surprise was that, in social media at least, people are forwarding or linking to articles they haven't read in their entirety, or in some cases haven't read at all.  The headline or the concept alone seem to be enough to get people to click Share.  For this cohort, people seem to want to be seen as contributors more than they want to be seen as actually knowledgeable.

This may be (yet another) cause for hand-wringing among people of a certain generation.  My view is that businesses should understand it and put it to use.  Sharing is good.  It's that third-party endorsement that is still a precept of good marketing.  Here's the question: How can you provide Sharers with the type of content they need to be both knowledgeable enough and excited to Share?  Hint: It doesn't look like From / To memos with the Subject underlined.

At least start by thinking single screen, above the fold.  It isn't that people are too lazy to scroll; it's that you've made them too busy to scroll with all of the stuff you're sending them.

Have you taken a minute to think of concrete ways to analyze your cluttersphere and create measurably effective communications vehicles?
Image courtesy of vegadsl /

Friday, May 31, 2013

Thought leaders are people, too (or had better be)

Companiesbig ones, especiallylove to be seen as thought leaders.  Presumably the opposite of being a thought leader is being a laggard and having to catch up with everybody else's ideas.

Thought leadership is fine when it's solid, unique and insightful thinking.  But many are putting all kinds of ideas out there as a marketing tactic to seem influential.  There's a mass-market version of this in the endless parade of bullet lists of "5 things" or "9 things" that at least fulfill their promise to be a short read but not one that's long on value.

A new book by business writer John Butman, Breaking Out, points out that the "ideaplex" is getting awfully crowded, and even having a leading thought is not the same as being actually influential.  "Ideas Institutes" seem to pop up quickly and always seem to be more in service of the speakers' need to speak than of the attendees' need to know.  Behind every TED speaker is a business plan for an idea-based cottage industry, waiting to Break Out.  But who really matters, or makes a difference?

In the book, Butman analyzes some "idea entrepreneurs" who have succeeded in longer-term influence and how they got there.  One concept stood out for me:
"Idea entrepreneurs do something that seems simple, but is difficult: they humanize and animate their idea.  An idea is, after all, nonmaterial, nothing more than a pattern in our brains, an ideal of how things could be, a vision.  You cannot simply hand an idea to the next person as you would a sandwich.  People connect much more fully with an idea if they can come to know and understand it as they would come to know and understand a human being.
"To that end, the idea entrepreneur essentially becomes the idea."
In a business environment, we always want to know something important or interestingwhere's our company heading, what should we be working on next, how are our efforts paying offbut we pay a lot more attention when we feel we're getting to know someone important or interesting.  Intuitive leaders know to inject every message with some piece of who they are as a person, with passions and questions and skin in the game.  It can be risky, but the payoff is much bigger.

Do your next-generation thought leaders know how to practice the art of personalization in their business communication?
Image courtesy of chanpipat /

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Of course you meant well

DiversityInc is one of the best organizations out there in the area of advising businesses in diversity and inclusion issues.  They also love a good time: for example, their spring conference this week features an on-stage dialogue between Michael Eric Dyson and Ann Coulter.

One of their regular online features is "Things Not to Say" in which they list a few typical insensitive remarks made to people from a wide range of backgrounds.  Some of the remarks on their lists can feel a little over-the-top . . . until you consider that these lists are culled from the real-life experiences of people in the workplace.

Of course, YOU never say any of these things.  So have a look at the explanations of how to debunk these stereotypes . . . so you can help OTHERS.

There's a lot of work being done in diversity in businesses, and a lot of progress has been made.  Focus has shifted from egregious discrimination to what are called "microinequities," or the small, day-to-day ways that bias can be expressed consciously ormore oftenunconsciously.  Whom we talk with in the hallways, what topics we raise with whom, what assumptions we voice about others' interests or capabilities: all of these can be hurtful and limiting on an interpersonal level and disruptive at the level of business productivity.

So: read 'em and weep.  I have voiced versions of some of these and thought about saying others, and you will undoubtedly relate to a number of them as well.  With a disabled family member, I'm strong in the area of disabilities sensitivity; but having grown up in the Midwest, I'm still catching up on awareness of Asian culture and differences.  We all have strengths and weaknesses in this.  The good news is that our reptile brains are malleable and coachable, and that people will give us credit for owning up to our ignorance or lack of experience.

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid /