Marriage Guidance

Are you married? Did you get engaged first? I know a bit about marriage – eighteen years and still going strong may not make me an expert but I think it qualifies me to share a few insights.

What makes a successful marriage? Having a roof over your head? Having enough cash to pay the bills? A couple of nice holidays every year? Actually, no – meeting these basic needs has nothing to do with it. Sure, if these things are missing even the strongest of relationships will feel the strain, but these basic needs do not make a successful marriage.

So what does? In no particular order, here are my top ten tips for marital harmony.

Respect each other’s individuality Become too controlling
Allow each other freedom to breath Smother each other
Listen Shout
Treat each other as equals Try to be superior
Support each other Disrespect or undermine each other
Remember you are together by choice Take each other for granted
Have fun together Take yourself too seriously
Support your partner’s goals & aspirations Ignore each other’s dreams
Trust each other Be dishonest
Take personal responsibility Don’t wait for an apology

relateAre you an engaged employee? Are you married to your job? See where I’m going with this?

Not only do the language of employee engagement and the language of love share the same vocab, the list above suggests that the similarities extend beyond mere semantics.

Read it again and tell me which of the above tips does not translate immediately into the relationship between employer and employee.

That’s why pay and benefits don’t register on my employee engagement scale.

Jon Weedon
Corporate Agony Uncle

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.


(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

Money doesn’t always talk

It’s a question I hear often in the world I inhabit. Should you reward innovation with hard cash? And you know what? I don’t think you should.

I don’t mean that employees should not be rewarded for innovation. I’m just saying that the reward should comprise things like peer and management recognition, development opportunities, and where appropriate, participation in implementation of their big idea.

I’m not saying that you should not receive any financial benefit from innovating and sharing your ideas either. Just like you would with any other valued behaviours, core competencies and high performance, innovation can and should be measured and rewarded through existing bonus schemes and pay reviews. Just don’t treat it like a game show with lottery sized jackpots.

Innovation and ideation shouldn’t be an optional extra that attracts financial reward if you happen to come up with a corker. It should be a core competency that is ingrained in everyone’s psyche and embedded in every company’s reward structures, regardless of role and responsibility.

It should be incumbent on every paid employee to share their ideas on how to make their operation more efficient, more dependable, safer, slicker, and of course, more profitable.

Innovation and ideation is such a critical part of business you cannot afford to treat it as a bolt-on. Complacency, stagnation and ultimate extinction faces every company that doesn’t constantly seek ways of doing things better.

Here are my top five reasons why you shouldn’t treat innovation like a game show.

1 – Winners mean losers
When you turn innovation and ideation into a competition with cash prizes for the winners, what you actually create is a much larger pool of losers. You announce a competition, encourage everyone to enter, create buzz and anticipation before the big reveal. Then what? You’ve got one or two big winners and a lot of unlucky losers who discover that their hard work didn’t pay off. And unless you are a serial ideator (apologies, I think I just made that word up!) you’ll have probably played your trump card and you may well be less inclined or less able to enter next year’s innovation lottery.

2 – Lip service
People will soon realise that the ideas that win prizes are those that appeal to the judges. The judges are usually senior executives. So instead of pushing the boundaries of creativity they play it safe. They submit ideas designed to please management, which are likely to follow existing thinking and historical management approaches and habits. Doesn’t sound much like innovation to me.

Many years ago I won an international essay competition with a healthy cash prize presented by the UK Home Secretary. The judges were senior police officers. My approach to the essay was to research what I believed the prevailing thinking was on crime prevention and write based upon what I believed my paymasters wanted to read. The result was very safe, politically correct and credible. And of course beautifully written…

Looking back, the fact that I didn’t believe a word of it and I knew that it would change nothing other than reduce my overdraft is a shame. As an intellectual exercise it was top drawer. Did it change the face of community policing in the UK? Nope.

3 – Secrecy
In the quest for the big cash win, fearing its theft, the ideator (there’s that word again) will protect his or her idea from prying eyes. A shroud of secrecy will descend on the idea just when it should be benefiting from the wisdom of the crowd – which is the primary ailment you are trying to fix by offering the prize in the first place.

4 – Division
Innovation involves many people beyond the originator. Ideas improve as they evolve. Many people are likely to have a hand in turning an idea into a reality. So how do you divvy up a large cash award fairly, without causing disharmony? Who gets left out of the equation? Who gets the lion’s share? It’s a nailed on recipe for disharmony.

5 – It’s not about the money
All the evidence suggests that one’s personal need for idea validation and recognition is usually more important than financial reward. Ask Gallup. Ask Towers Watson. Ask the UK Government’s Engaging for Successteam. They’ll all tell you that financial reward sits further down the list of workplace motivational factors than recognition, trust and development opportunity.

The added bonus is the currency of recognition and trust are two forms of reward where companies can afford to print their own dollars – they cost nothing. There really is no excuse.

Have your say

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?

I’ve worked closely with four specialist employee survey providers over the last decade and have always been lead to believe that the more you can do to ‘encourage’ participation the better.

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.

Google not-so-safe search

Here’s the thing – I’ve been using Google for 15 years and until the other day I had never heard of Google Safe Search. I’ve either missed out on a lot of good stuff over the years or I’ve never searched for anything remotely iffy.

Then, the other day I googled “Bullshit bingo” in the hope of finding a couple of goofy examples of corporate jargon to cheer me up, and boom, there it was in all its glory – Google Safe Search.

“The word ‘bullshit’ has been filtered from search because Google Safe Search is active” was the proud and initially mildly irritating proclamation. However, my irritation soon turned to amusement.

Thanks to Safe Search, instead of finding examples of harmless and jocular corporate puffery I was served up a page jam packed with wicked pernicious bingo sites, all trying to tempt me to part with my hard earned moolah.  Provided of course I’m 18 or over…

Oh the irony of it.

Reflections on grief

In 2003, Detective Constable Stephen Oake was stabbed to death as he carried out an immigration raid in Manchester. His killer was arrested at the scene and subsequently locked up for life. One of the remarkable aspects of this tragedy was the incredibly dignified way his father dealt with the loss of his only son.

When ex Isle of Man Chief Constable Robin Oake faced journalists at the press conference following the murder, he was asked what he felt about the man who killed his son. His reply took everyone by surprise: “I don’t know the man or the circumstances but from my heart I forgive him.”  Mr Oake later went on to write a book called Father Forgive: The Forgotten ‘F’ Word

I knew nothing of this until I heard Mr Oake being interviewed on the Radio last week in connection with the killing of two police officers in Manchester the previous day. I was struck by his measured tone and dignity as he empathised with the families of the two murdered women. He spoke of the difficult journey ahead and the importance of forgiveness as part of the healing process.

ImageIn stark contrast, a week earlier the Hillsborough report was published and our newspapers and TV screens were dominated by stories of cover-up, culpability and injustice. One recurring sentiment expressed by friends and families of some of the 96 people who lost their lives 23 years ago was the need for justice.

They wanted those they considered responsible for the deaths of their loved ones to be brought to book. Not a single word was uttered about forgiveness.

So how is it that a man can pray for the killer of his only son and forgive him even before he’s been convicted, while hundreds of grieving relatives almost a quarter of a century on cannot see past blame and retribution?

It’s because the relatives of the 96 were denied the opportunity for closure due to misinformation, cover-up and not being listened to. They have never had the opportunity to forgive because instead of embarking on a search for the truth, those in positions of high power sought to evade any sense of personal or collective responsibility.

The irony is I don’t believe justice will ever be done. What happened at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 was the crashing together of a series of errors in human judgment that each in isolation would in all likelihood have been inconsequential. Decisions made by the FA, Sheffield United FC, stewards, police, the ambulance service and yes, dare I say it, some of the fans, all collided that day in a way that nobody could possibly have predicted.

There was nobody left holding a bloodstained knife. Nobody standing there with a smoking gun. No tangible killer to blame. The misinformation that followed and the desire by certain people to exonerate themselves rather than accept their contribution to the series of events that resulted in catastrophic loss of life is the real crime here.

I’m not sure if there is a communications lesson here or not.

There is most certainly evidence of the devastating damage to people’s lives that can be caused by those who we all rely on to act with honesty and integrity don’t.

And given the person being held up as the biggest villain of the piece is Kelvin MacKenzie, a lifelong professional communicator who was nowhere near Hillsborough that day, nor could he be held in any way responsible for the chain of events that led up to the tragedy, I think there probably is a communications lesson in here somewhere…

RIP Stephen Oake and the Liverpool 96.

Faux news

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.

Communication builds trust

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Since I first wrote about him in March 2010 I have followed his career with interest and I am a huge fan of his people-focused approach to running a business. The story of Zappos is the ultimate story of how corporate culture can drive commercial success.

Core value number 6 on a T shirtAt the heart of Zappos lie ten core values:

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

As an Internal Communicator, number six is obviously my favourite. Zappos believe that open, honest communication is the best foundation for any relationship. They even put it on a T shirt.

They don’t need to spell out if they mean internal or external communications, because for Zappos they are one and the same. Zappos employee communications are conducted in public, in full view of their customers and fans.

On 6 June 2012 Tony Hsieh sent an email to Zappos staff about a very significant corporate development. At the same time he sent a link to the email to his 2.4m followers on Twitter and posted it on

Most companies sending this kind of all-staff email hit the send button and sit back, hold their breath and wait for a disgruntled employee to leak it to the press. Not Zappos.

It’s an interesting email. Not just because it demonstrates Zappos fusion of internal and external communications. It also contains some lovely pointers towards a corporate culture that has become legendary in employee engagement circles and shows that none of the lustre has been lost by the constraints of plc ownership since Amazon paid $1.1bn for the company in 2009.

I love the fact that Zappos don’t call their Executive Management Team “EMT”, “SMT”, or “ExCo”. No, Zappos call it FACT, after Fred ‘no title’ Mossler , Arun Rajan (CTO), Chris Nielsen (COO & CFO), and Tony Hsieh (CEO – he’s the one with “Zappos” tattooed on his head).

Plc’s have to be very careful about making foward-looking statements outside of the regulatory financial reporting regime. Most companies opt for an easy life and keep schtum. Zappos “create fun and a little weirdness” (core value 3) to ensure their staff get the picture:

As many of you know, we already are operating two physical warehouse buildings and will soon be out of room in those buildings due to our growth. As we started looking into the possibility of opening up a third warehouse building in Kentucky to hold our inventory, we realized that Amazon was already running 69 warehouses around the world. I’ve been *reminded* by our lawyers that I’m not allowed to make forward-looking statements because Amazon is a publicly traded company, so let me phrase things this way: In the next 10 years, if Amazon continues its rapid growth rate, they will be running over 69 gazillion warehouses across the entire universe.”

Despite being CEO of the world’s largest online shoe retailer, I don’t believe Tony Hsieh sees himself as a shoe seller. I think he sees his job as the architect and curator of a unique company culture. A culture where employee empowerment and happiness creates a very powerful virtuous circle where happy staff equals happy customers and happy customers equals even happier staff. And on it goes, leaving investors, shareholders, founders and owners very happy bunnies.

Tony Hsieh is the kind of boss everyone wants. Tony Hsieh is also the kind of boss every shareholder wants.