In rowing, there’s a lot of things that make a boat go faster. Obviously it helps if you have a Redgrave or a Pinsent gripping the oar. However, there’s more to it than supreme athleticism. It is also the cumulative effect of tiny tweaks to the rigging. It’s attention to detail. It’s timing. It’s spotting the weaknesses and early intervention before bad technique becomes a bad habit. And when everything comes together you’ll hear the boat sing.
Most important of all, it’s about achieving and maintaining balance. One miss-timed plant of the oar and you may as well have just dropped an anchor. This usually happens when a member of the crew has a rush of blood to the head and hurries the stroke.
The Internal Communications equivalent of catching a crab is diving in unprepared and through lack of planning, purpose or judgement undo lots of great work through an ill-timed, insensitive, rushed, poorly targeted, or poorly pitched communication which lands so badly that credibility and trust is lost.
I love a good sporting analogy and my favourite sport is rowing, ergo, I love a good rowing analogy.
Sadly I fear that only Latin scholars who row will appreciate what I just did there…
Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon was fired yesterday. It’s not difficult to see why. The company’s share price has fallen by 77% since it went public on the NASDAQ in 2011. Not many CEOs can survive such a horror show.
What makes this story so different is the manner in which staff were informed.
Such high level ‘departures’ are normally accompanied by the usual nonsense about leaving ‘by mutual consent in order to pursue other opportunities’. Nobody ever buys the line and yet the PRs still trot it out with alarming regularity.
How refreshing then to see staff being informed by the man himself, clearly in his own words, with an honesty, humility and good humour that serves to make his thank-you to the ‘People of Groupon’ all the more powerful and irresistible.
Here is the text of his email in full. It is worth reading. I can’t remember ever reading such a brilliant piece of leadership communication.
People of Groupon,
After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today. If you’re wondering why … you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that’s hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable.
You are doing amazing things at Groupon, and you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I’m getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance. The board is aligned behind the strategy we’ve shared over the last few months, and I’ve never seen you working together more effectively as a global company – it’s time to give Groupon a relief valve from the public noise.
For those who are concerned about me, please don’t be – I love Groupon, and I’m terribly proud of what we’ve created. I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey. If Groupon was Battletoads, it would be like I made it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on my first ever play through. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the company this far with all of you. I’ll now take some time to decompress (FYI I’m looking for a good fat camp to lose my Groupon 40, if anyone has a suggestion), and then maybe I’ll figure out how to channel this experience into something productive.
If there’s one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: have the courage to start with the customer. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!
I will miss you terribly.
Before today I knew nothing about Andrew Mason. I now feel I know a lot more than about him and what makes him tick than I could ever have learned from reading 100 stories about him in the business press.
And it seems to me that Groupon’s problems are not the result of poor leadership. As an occasional Grouponite myself, the fundamental business model is the real problem.
After all, there’s only so many cut price spa treatments, manicure sets and restorative scalp gels a man can take.
Good luck Andrew, I have no doubt this is not the last we’ll be seeing of you.
I have a tendency to be a bit wordy. I love the idiosyncrasies of our beautiful language and enjoy playing with them every time I indulge in a bit of creative writing. I love to use colourful words to paint a picture, dramatic words to hold centre stage, and captivating words to tell a story.
The only problem is I do most of my writing online and online readers have a very short attention span. According to research by Jakob Nielsen, on a typical web page, users have neither the time nor inclination to read more than 20% of the words on show. We skim read online a whole lot more than when we read a book. We like our words to be served up in bite-sized chunks. When Twitter first appeared 140 characters seemed ludicrously slim pickings to most of us and now they feel like a meaty feast.
And that’s always assuming you make it to the page in the first place. Google engineers have discovered that people will visit a web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor’s by more than 250 milliseconds. That’s quicker than the blink of an eye. Tests done at Amazon five years ago revealed that for every 100 milliseconds increase in page load time, sales decrease by 1%. In 2009, Forrester Research found that online shoppers expected pages to load in 2 seconds and at three seconds, a large share abandon the site.
Clearly we digital natives are an impatient bunch.
That’s why the single most important rule I subscribe to when writing at work is “If in doubt, take it out”.
We must respect people’s time by making sure our communications are relevant, timely and above all concise.
Rachel Miller (@AllthingsIC) asked an interesting question this morning after sharing the breaking news story on Sky News about the apparent leak of an internal memo from Barclays CEO Anthony Jenkins.
In an uncompromising email to Barclays staff Jenkins sets out clear expectations regarding their conduct and in essence challenges them to ‘shape up or ship out’:
“… there might be some who don’t feel they can fully buy in to an approach which so squarely links performance to the upholding of our values…
My message to those people is simple: Barclays is not the place for you. The rules have changed. You won’t feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won’t feel comfortable with you as colleagues.”
Rachel’s question was “would/ could” your leader communicate like that? Rather than get personal, I’d rather look at this through the ‘should’ lens and keep it hypothetical.
My answer is a big fat YES!
It is great to see strong leadership expressed in writing – articulating something leaders often want to say to people whose behaviour is at odds with company values but shy away from doing so en masse in the interests of diplomacy and avoiding conflict. To launch a Code of Conduct or set of ethical principles with such high level sponsorship and unequivocal support is a beautiful thing to behold. It’s bold, spirited and unambiguous. It’s impactful and will get everyone talking.
My only issue with the note is the apparent language around core values, which are sadly being chucked around like some kind of disposable toy. Core values are enduring truths about what is important to people within an organisation. They are not objectives. They are not aspirational. They do not seek to change behaviour. They cannot be invented. They already exist in every organisation. You don’t create them, you uncover them. Regular readers may recognise this sermon.
So for Barclays to switch from its current five core values (Keep it simple, Own it, Work together, Think smart, 100% energy) and replace them at the flick of a switch with “respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship” feels a bit contrived and lacking in credibility. It doesn’t help that 2 of the 5 new Barclays values are the same as Enron’s at the time their particular merde a frappé le ventilateur* (respect & integrity) over a decade ago.
A company’s Code of Conduct needs to be aligned to and consistent with its core values, however at the same time it must be recognised that is a wholly different beast. It can and should be a blueprint for desired behaviours and conduct and as such can be aspirational and can seek to change behaviours. If you contravene the Code of Conduct you can expect to be hauled through the disciplinary process. As such it needs to be prescriptive and give detailed examples of what you can and can’t do as an employee, both on and off duty.
Desired behaviours can be amended to shine the spotlight on a particular problem that needs fixing. Core values cannot, and sadly that for me takes the edge off an otherwise courageous piece of communication.
* ‘shit hit the fan’ sounds so much more acceptable in French
How hard should you ‘encourage’ people to complete your annual staff survey?
Over the years I have tried very hard. Intricate communications plans involving teaser campaigns, beautifully crafted invitations, videos, posters, screensavers, FAQs, emails, intranet, leaderboards, targeted communications to senior leadership, line managers and blanket emails to everyone in the company before, during and after the survey. Was it really necessary?
The higher the response rate the better quality the feedback and data – and a really high response rate is the sign of how engaged your workforce is right?
You’ll notice the use of quotation marks. It’s because I feel a sense of irony in using the word ‘encourage’. If the literal meaning of ‘encourage’ includes incentivising, cajoling, pleading, shaming and who knows, perhaps even bullying, the quotation marks would not have been necessary.
Looking back I have a sneaking suspicion I tried too hard.
I believe there is a sweet spot, probably somewhere around the 75% to 85% mark, where all those enthusiastic and willing to take the survey have done so.
In the same vein, I suspect that if you took a cut of the engagement score at the halfway point and compared it to the final score, it would be higher. This despite the belief in some quarters that “the least satisfied people, or those with specific issues, tend to respond first.”
I believe that the additional work required to secure the participation of people that don’t really want to is likely to result in a reduction in the quality and reliability of the data, and certainly in the engagement score (if that is important to you).
It’s human nature. If you are pushed into doing something you don’t really want to do your heart won’t be in it. You won’t do it properly – you’ll just be going through the motions. And if you are seriously miffed at being boxed into a corner, you may even decide to punish the person who has been ‘encouraging’ you through your survey responses.
Naturally I went looking for evidence to support my thinking on this. Whilst I believe gut instinct is a much under-rated attribute in business, I also value the importance of hard fact and empirical evidence. Guess what. I found nothing.
I found plenty of evidence of my earlier assertion that the higher the response rate the higher the levels of engagement and satisfaction. I found no real evidence to confirm my suspicion that you can overdo the ‘encouragement’.
The closest I came to it was a piece in HR Magazine a couple of months ago by Samantha Arnold from ETS:
“I have come across managers resorting to all sorts of tactics to make sure they achieve high response rates. The irony is that these managers are often the ones that have little interest in doing anything with the results… to avoid it becoming a sideshow, we have advised our clients not to share response rate scores with their managers”.
Another interesting angle I came across was:
“… the fact that in some organisations employees choose not to complete the survey is important feedback information in its own right. We often find in organisations where there has historically been a lack of commitment to feedback, poor communications and a lack of resulting action that survey completion rates are the lowest.”
So presumably trying too hard to push participation may mask this natural inclination among some to not bother taking the survey, again rendering the feedback and data less valuable because it is papering over the cracks.
It strikes me that all you need to do is make sure that every member of staff knows about the survey, understands the importance of taking the opportunity to give their feedback, and has the opportunity to participate. Thereafter, if they want to participate they do, if they don’t they don’t.
And that’s fine because you’ll be getting the most reliable, authentic and untarnished feedback possible, and you can be sure when you roll in to action to address areas of concern that you will be focusing on all the right things.
It’s not often I’m reduced to tears of laughter when I’m home alone. Manx Radio did it for me today with its valiant attempt to big up the nation’s Olympic Bell ringing extravaganza at 8:12am this morning.
Entitled “Work Entitled Work No 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes, the project aimed to set a new world record for the largest number of bells being rung simultaneously” in the project plan, creator Martin Creed came up with the idea, promising “a brilliant and amazing sound” and a “once-in a lifetime” performance.
Stay with me, there is an important Internal Communications lesson in here somewhere I promise.
Back to Manx Radio. They were running a story on the local efforts to join in with the UK, which seemed to consist mainly of a bell ringing at St George’s Church in the Island’s capital, Douglas.
I knew we were in for a bit of a treat when shortly before 8am the studio cut over to Marian Kenny, their reporter “on the ground” and she was asked how the crowds were doing down at St George’s. Her reply “well I’m here with the Vicar” set the scene for what turned into a delightful comic farce.
It turns out the church’s bell ringers were boycotting the event and the Vicar didn’t really want to be there either but was under orders from the bish. Minutes later one of the rogue campanologists screeched into the church car park having heard the vicar on the radio to make an urgent adjustment to the automated bell ringing system, without which would have rendered the scab vicar’s efforts impotent.
At 8:12 there was a 5 second countdown followed by…. deathly silence. Cutting back to the studio, our intrepid reporter asked if the bell could be heard from there. Following some frantic shuffling the presenter proudly announced he had opened the window and he could indeed hear the church bell. Huzzah! Lucky him. We couldn’t.
Meanwhile, all the listeners could hear was the tinkling of a little handheld bell Marian Kenny apparently uses to summon the kids to dinner. We were then treated to a bizarre musical medley as the venerable Andrew Brown chimed in with another hand held bell and the sound of the church’s tolling bell at last kicked in.
It was hardly the cacophony we’d all been waiting for.
I may be wrong but I suspect that the reaction anticipated by everyone involved in this noble project was chests swelling with national pride, not tears of laughter.
That’s when it struck me that you enter dangerous territory when instead of reporting on the news you try to invent it. Manx Radio’s valiant efforts to create an illusion of the Island’s support to the Olympic Bell crusade were doomed from the start.
If there is genuine interest you have a story. If there is little interest you have no story. If there is no interest when there should be, you have a story. If there is no interest and you pretend there is, you have a lesson.
There have been several occasions over the years where I have been asked and expected to create the illusion of popularity and engagement among staff with some sort of corporate initiative, when the reality was no such interest existed. Needless to say they ended in tears – maybe not in tears of laughter, but never in tears of happiness.
You can do an awful lot with communication. You can spark an interest, create understanding, and influence behaviour. You can make people smile, sympathise, empathise and rally around. There are some things you cannot do and creating faux news is one of them. You’ll get found out.
No matter how much you try to disguise a pig, it’s still a pig.