These Donuts are not sweet enough

donutI have set up Internal Communications functions at my last three companies from a standing start. Three companies that had a notion they needed to improve staff communication. Three companies that had not done this kind of thing before. Three companies that knew they had to do something and trusted me to show them how.

The early days are littered with quick wins and euphoric moments as you witness the impact on people of having an intranet for the first time. They embrace the new world of greater transparency, exposure, and awareness. They make better decisions. They pull in the same direction. They have a greater understanding of what the company expects from them and they have a greater emotional commitment to meeting these expectations.

Internal Communications is one of those endeavours that creates organisational value by stealth. Every day you chip away at the barriers to enriching the work experience of your colleagues. Slowly but surely you begin to adjust expectations and you create new norms – and as time passes some of your esteemed colleagues inevitably start to forget about the barren days of years gone by, when they were grateful for any scraps of information that fell off the top table.

It’s then that you may feel that the ‘quick wins and euphoric moments’ become less frequent; and it’s then that an inverse relationship between effort and reward begins to emerge. It becomes increasingly apparent that the harder you try, the more problems you bring down on yourself.

In every workplace across the globe there will be those who subscribe to the fact that the route to a comfortable and less distracted workplace existence is to do less.

If you hand out free donuts, there will always be someone who complains they don’t have enough sugar. I’ve worked with plenty of people over the years who would say if you didn’t hand them out in the first place, nobody could complain they were not sweet enough.

Don’t let inertia get in the way of your ambition. Forget about “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” – that just points to a complacency and arrogance that will be your downfall. Treat your moaning minnies as an opportunity not a threat, and embrace the challenge of converting them from the dark side – and always consider the possibility that they may be right. Maybe those donuts do need a bit more sugar!

Above all, keep ruffling those feathers and pushing those boundaries – you’ll be surprised how many more winning and euphoric moments are still out there waiting for you to grab them.

Christmas Party Crimes

Office Xmas Party Drunk“2014 has been a spectacular year for the business. That success has not come easily and I really appreciate your hard work and commitment. Because of your individual and collective efforts we now serve more customers than ever before – and they just keep coming!

As you know, next Friday is our annual Christmas party, and I am looking forward to seeing you all there, relaxing, celebrating and enjoying a much deserved night out with your friends and colleagues. Thanks again for your contribution to the company’s continued growth and unrivalled reputation.

Please note that fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, the use of illegal drugs, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks or harassment and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age or religion will not be tolerated at this year’s Christmas Party. Disciplinary action may be taken for unacceptable behaviour.”

Phew! Thank goodness for that last bit, I must remember not to fight or take drugs at the party this year. Silly me, there was I thinking that our Christmas Party had an exemption wrapped around it that means the laws of the land and the high standards of behaviour expected of me as an employee didn’t apply…

Ok, this is not real. I made it up. Apart from that final paragraph, which is actually based on recent advice published by the Institute of Internal Communication.

Every year the prospect of Christmas party crimes biting the hand of those tasked with organising them sends us scuttling off to the lawyers in search of sanctuary. Then, shock horror, the lawyers’ stamp their own particular brand of demoralising bumph on a communication that could and should have been positive and uplifting. They mean well and I love them dearly.

My own advice may not be to their liking, but seriously, the risk created by treating your people with a criminal lack of respect far outweighs the possibility that the legalese in your party invitation will actually protect the company if the wheel ever came off.

Employees typically have an employment contract of sorts with an attendant ‘code of conduct’ setting out what comprises potential disciplinary offences. Most cover the spectrum of ‘crimes’, ranging from minor infringements like using obscene language, to the more weighty matters like conviction for a serious criminal offence.

Let’s leave criminal damage, driving whilst under the influence of drink or drugs, violent conduct, and sexual assault to the experts; the local police. Any member of staff who behaves in a manner that leads to arrest and conviction of such an offence deserves what they get, and because they did this at or after a staff party does not necessarily make the employer complicit in that offence. That would be like saying that an employer should be held responsible for an employee who uses some of his wages to buy an Uzi to shoot down his noisy neighbours on his day off.

Absolution for the employer for Christmas party crimes is likely to be determined by their actions in planning and delivering a safe, responsible event, rather than issuing stale words of warning, which will have no effect on changing anyone’s behaviour.

We don’t feel the need to warn responsible adults about their conduct at weekends, or when they’re on holiday, or any other time when they are absent from the workplace. We rightly assume that as members of a civilised society, they understand the law and don’t need to be reminded not to break it.

We are all adults and we all know how to behave. If I fail to live up to my own standards of behaviour, Christmas party or not, I understand and accept the consequences.

Hear the boat sing

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…

Give them enough rope

nooseIf you give someone a length of rope, do you have a responsibility to stop them using it to hang themselves? Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

Now apply the same logic to the introduction of social functionality on the company intranet. Is the answer still no? Not so long ago I’d have said exactly that.

After all, if someone wants to be a knob in full view of the company, more fool them. Far better they expose their lack of judgement, poor behaviour or surly attitude out in the open so that it can be ‘managed’. Let’s face it, if they are silly enough to let themselves down in the full gaze of their peers on the intranet, you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be doing so in far less noticeable places, like down the pub, under the smoking shelter, and on Facebook. Only they will get away with it for much longer.

And then something happened to help me look at things a bit differently. Someone, partly in jest and partly in blissful ignorance posted a comment on an internal news story that made me feel a bit uneasy. The feeling morphed into discomfort when I overheard people around me suddenly turn into haters.

I quickly reached out to the guy and explained that his comment was not going down very well and invited him to post a quick follow-up comment both by way of apology and explanation. He was aghast that his question had been so badly misinterpreted.

Clearly our hapless commentator had meant well. In his mind all he had done was to ask an obvious and seemingly harmless question, and crowned it with a slightly clumsy attempt at humour.

During our conversation it became obvious that several exacerbating factors had combined to create a situation of epic misunderstanding.

  • He worked several hundred miles from the location of the incident.
  • English was not his native language.
  • He had no way of knowing that local emotions preceding the ‘incident’ were running sky high.
  • He had no way of knowing that emotionally, the most senior people in the company were also heavily invested in the story.

I felt sorry for the guy. Taken the wrong way, and certainly not the way he had intended, his comment could potentially turn into a career breaker. I felt sorry for me. I had told people who had never wanted me to open the floodgates of anarchy in the first place that such behaviour on a company intranet was the stuff of fiction.

That’s why these days I believe that as an intranet manager you do have to accept some degree of responsibility to the individual and to yourself if you have provided people with the opportunity to inadvertently hang themselves in public.

Speak from the heart

ImageAndrew 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.

Love,

Andrew
(above text unashamedly stolen from The Guardian)

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.

How long have I got?

kittenI 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.

Shape up or ship out

Shape up or ship out

Shape up or ship out

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