Honesty is the Only Policy for Great Leaders

Early in my corporate communications career, when I was still learning what the job was really all about, I did something that probably seemed brash and in retrospect looks brilliant. I only wish I could say it was an original idea, but I was simply drawing from the best practices I read about in professional journals.

I suggested that the leaders of our business should communicate honestly.

No spin. No selective communication. Just tell employees the truth, even when it hurts.

They didn’t always take that advice, but most of the times they did. As a result, I believe employees grew to trust senior management more than they used to.

When a layoff loomed, business leaders explained why it was necessary and how it would work. When major changes were coming to manufacturing operations, leaders met with employees in face-to-face meetings to explain them. When business declined, senior management talked about the reasons why and the plan for turning it around. Employees asked tough questions. Leaders responded to them.

This seems like common sense, but even in today’s hyperconnected business environment, many leaders choose to mislead employees rather than to be honest with them. (Daily Voice, anyone?)

Still, many business leaders get it. Last month, Groupon founder and CEO Andrew Mason wrote a refreshingly honest memo to employees about why he was leaving the company. “I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family,” he wrote, using one of the most common cliches in business communication. He quickly added, “Just kidding – I was fired today.”

Mason went on to give the reasons for his firing. “As CEO, I am accountable,” he wrote. Then he set up his successor for success: “This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, leadership John Kotter tells of another CEO who departed with honest words. It wasn’t because of anything wrong Jack Ma had done as the leader of Chinese web company Alibaba, however. In this case, Ma was a popular and successful leader who knew employees would have a difficult time adjusting to a new CEO. Acknowledging this was not an act of inflated ego, Kotter says, but rather an honest assessment of the situation.

“We want the truth from our leaders,” Kotter writes. “But we have become cynics, accustomed to twisted messages from politicians and company marketing communications so wordsmithed that they lack meaning. These things do not inspire us, or pull us toward someone in a leadership position, with an attitude of wanting to help. They do the opposite. Great leaders have the ability to surprise and reassure people with their direct and honest communication. This is an essential part of what makes them great. And it is especially important in times of big change and uncertainty — such as CEO transitions — where it can smooth the way for the incoming leader.”

In good times and bad, honesty is the way to go. Great business leaders know this.



Daily Voice Layoffs: The Lowest of the Low

Every time I think I’ve seen the worst example of employee communication, another one comes along that lowers the bar to new depths.

Daily Voice is the new lowest of the low.

I read this incredible story on Ragan.com, which picked it up from the gossip website Gawker. Daily Voice, a network of micro news sites in the Northeast U.S., is going through some tough times like a lot of companies these days. But unlike most companies, Daily Voice chose to first tease employees with a Friday afternoon promise of “good news” about the company’s future, then engage in a Monday bloodbath of closures and layoffs.

Make no mistake: Daily Voice management flat-out lied to employees. “Monday morning we will share with you the news about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there,” wrote Chairman Carll Tucker. “The news is good—but you’ll need to sit tight while we finalize our plans. I am pumped about the prospect of working with you to build a great company.”

Management then scheduled individual meetings with employees that were in fact termination notices. Adding insult to injury, the company gave no severance packages.

I’m guessing this mess will stand for many years as the best example of how not to communicate and carry out a layoff. Critiquing it is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel.

So, how should a company share such bad news? I’ve written about layoff communications before, but let me give some tips germane to this example.

First, tell the truth. And don’t lie. These are two separate but equally important points. Hopefully, talk of a forthcoming layoff is not going to be a shocker to your employees because your leaders have regularly communicated how the company is doing and what is at stake. If a layoff is inevitable, explain the business reasons for it and be up front about the process. (This all requires planning, and a communication professional should be part of the layoff planning process.)

Never mislead employees. Never try to gloss over a terrible situation — and layoffs are terrible. There is no getting around it. But business leaders and communicators must be forthcoming and transparent, open and honest.

The best way to communicate that a layoff is coming is face to face. That’s not always possible, depending on how an organization is structured, but it is an option that should be discussed and considered before resorting to other communication methods. In a face-to-face setting, business leaders have a better opportunity to demonstrate sincerity and empathy (through tone of voice and body language) and employees have a chance to ask questions.

Employees should hear about their specific fates in one-on-one meetings with their managers. Without question, this is one of the most difficult things a manager ever has to do, but it is part of the job. Communicators can help prepare managers for these conversations by providing information, resources and even coaching.

Remember the survivors of a layoff. They are the often-forgotten victims of downsizing. A layoff is likely to leave them in sorrow over the loss of co-workers and their confidence in the company’s viability is likely to be shaken. While business leaders should eventually turn employees’ attention forward, there must be a period of time for grieving — yes, grieving. Don’t try to communicate optimism for the future and a forward-focus too soon after a layoff or the surviving employees may not get on board. Can you imagine anyone at Daily Voice today being as pumped up about the future as Chairman Carll Tucker? Not likely.

It’s amazing that in 2013 we hear stories as stupid as what has happened at Daily Voice. With a still-struggling economy and an increasingly competitive marketplace, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for other companies to get it wrong — or to do it right.



Yahoo CEO’s Nursery Embodies the Great Divide

First came news that Marissa Mayer, the hard-charging 37-year-old CEO of Yahoo!, banned telecommuting because she feels face time means greater speed and efficiency for the aging Internet icon.

That reversal in workplace policy was hard enough for many employees to swallow. It didn’t seem to matter to Mayer — who famously took the job when she was five months pregnant and then opted for only two weeks of maternity leave — that a lot of working moms depended on the flexible arrangement to help balance their work and personal lives.

Adding insult to injury, however, is the news that Mayer built a nursery for her little Yahooligan adjacent to her office so she could be closer to him while she works all those late hours.

That idea might have sounded great on paper, but even if she paid for the nursery out of her own pocket, Mayer fails to understand the demoralizing and divisive message it sends to employees of a company that is already struggling to survive. To wit: “You minions figure out that whole work-life balance thing for yourselves. As for me up here in the C-suite, I’ll solve the problem by spending some pocket change on a private nursery next to my office.”

At a time when employee engagement could make or break Yahoo!, Mayer’s ill-conceived action is not likely to inspire employees to be more productive or to feel much like working as a unified team. Instead, it’s likely to have a chilling effect on people whose passion and energy Mayer is going to need in the coming months.

Often, business leaders fail to consider the message their actions — not just their words — send to employees. This one will go down as Exhibit A for quite some time.

How to Find Fulfillment as a Communicator

When I think about the times I’ve felt most fulfilled in my work as a communicator, several situations come to mind. One was when I managed a small team who really seemed to click, thus producing some excellent work for our company. At that same time, I was producing a monthly employee publication that allowed us to try fresh creative things. At other times, I’ve been fulfilled by the things I was learning or the fact that I was growing in my profession.

Hands down, however, the times when I’ve felt most fulfilled is when I knew my work was strategic.

Strategic is one of those words that seems overused but is truly important if you want your work as a communicator to be meaningful — and if you want job security. There is a lot of discussion these days about being creative in our communications, which is also important. In fact, the two are not mutually exclusive; corporate communications can be strategic and also be engaging and even entertaining. But without a connection to our organizations’ strategic goals, our communications are ultimately a waste of resources.

Connecting communications to strategy starts at the outset of an assignment. Ask yourself:

  • What organizational goal are we helping to achieve?
  • What initiative or project are we helping to advance?
  • What are the messages we will communicate, how and to whom?
  • How will we know we’ve succeeded?

That last question is vitally important. Failing to answer it correctly can derail the entire communication plan, or set it off in the wrong direction. I’ve always believed that the measure of success for strategic communication equals the measure of success for the projects and initiatives our communication supports.

I was the sole employee communications resource in a manufacturing facility early in my career. One day a process engineer came to me and said he needed me to join a team that was working on an important project for the plant — a plan to become ISO certified. ISO certification would mean that the plant meets stringent standards for quality assurance and cost effectiveness. Our customers demanded it, so failure was not acceptable.

We could only achieve ISO certification if everyone in the plant — from the engineering staff to support functions to production employees — were prepared for the inspection that was part of the certification process. The need for effective communication throughout the project was obvious.

My goal for the communication plan was not simply to produce information about ISO certification. My goal was ISO certification itself. If my communications reached the right people with the right information through the right channels, the chances of successful certification were much greater than if communications were ineffective. Of course, communication was not the only factor, but as the process engineer made clear to me, it was a critical one.

The plant achieved ISO certification on our first try. Customers were happy and our manufacturing processes were better than before. Clearly, communication had made a difference. That project remains one of the most fulfilling of my career.

What is the real purpose of your communication? Is it tied to a strategic goal for your organization? If it is, you can bet your leaders will take notice.


Want to Quash the Rumor Mill? How About Joining the Conversation?

The age-old employee communication challenge for organizations has been how to contain the employee rumor mill. It’s an issue that predates formal employee communication programs and it’s even more vexing with the prevalence of social media.

These days, instead of gathering around the water cooler or hitting the local bar to gripe about their bosses or workplaces, employees often take to Facebook or Twitter, which of course gives greater reach to those complaints. Employees can do a lot more damage to organizations by hitting “send” than they ever could do over a beer.

As a result, many organizations have created social media policies that seek to restrict what employees say about them in social media. That seemed to put a little muscle behind employers’ expectations of their employees’ online activities. However, the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that there is a limit to which organizations can restrict employees’ free speech. (Hat tip to Les Potter, integrated marketing communications instructor at Towson University, who blogged about this issue at More With Les.)

According to The New York Times, which covered the rulings, the NLRB “says workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook. … ‘Many view social media as the new water cooler,’ said Mark G. Pearce, the board’s chairman, noting that federal law has long protected the right of employees to discuss work-related matters. ‘All we’re doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology.'”

Smart companies have learned that in order to rein in the wild-west atmosphere of social media, it’s important to engage with consumers and members of the news media covering their industries and organizations. However, it seems fewer companies have discovered how to engage with employees via social media. I’ve heard of some companies that try to do so, even creating Facebook groups where employees can share information and knowledge. But that’s still company-sanctioned media (like the newsletters and intranets of days gone by). What about engaging employees where they are? That would be risky, for sure, but could also go a long way toward taking some steam out of the rumor mill.

When it comes to the principles of effective employee communications, I’ve always believed there’s not a lot new under the sun. Communication should be two-way and symmetrical, meaning both the organization’s leaders and employees can initiate it. It should be open and transparent and it should focus on helping employees engage in the business. But when it comes to best practices, we still have a long way to go. Engaging with employees where they are — online — just might be the brave new world.


CEOs and Egos: Resisting the Urge to Speak Out

It takes a huge ego to be a CEO. That fact can serve a business executive well when it comes to making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. It can also be a curse when CEOs think people will believe anything they say and do anything they say to do.

Donald Trump will be the first to tell us, “I’m a really smart guy,” so he spouts off on everything from sex appeal to the president’s birthplace. Jack Welch accuses the U.S. president of cooking the books on unemployment numbers, but can’t prove it. Chick-Fil-A executive Dan Cathy uses his position to evangelize and to promote a conservative Christian political agenda.

Now several CEOs of privately held companies are threatening their employees with unemployment if they vote to re-elect President Obama. First it was David Siegel, a gazillionaire who is most famous for building the largest private residence in the United States. Then it was billionaires Charles and David Koch, who claim no party affiliation but sent employees a flyer with a list of candidates — all Republicans — who should get employees’ votes.

Most recently, the Nordstrom brothers have announced their support for gay marriage. Apparently they believe the world has been waiting with great anticipation for them to make their views known on this social issue.

As I’ve written before, CEOs need to learn to keep their mouths shut when it comes to making statements on highly polarizing social and political issues, unless those issues have a direct impact on their businesses. The risk of alienating a large segment of their companies’ markets is too great. The cost of putting out the fires that inevitably erupt as a result of their statements is too high. There is little to be gained except having their names in the news for a day or two, and even then there’s a good chance half the people tuning in will view the story negatively.

In addition, CEOs should consider the impact on employees. At a time when companies need employees to be fully engaged to help the business succeed, doing anything to add hostility and stress to the work environment is not a good idea. The CEOs who recently have spoken out on the presidential election might say they’re not trying to strong-arm their employees concerning a most sacred private decision, but perhaps they should ask employees how they feel. I’ll bet many employees wish the boss had kept his opinions to himself.

Yes, these CEOs have every right to speak out on politics, social and religious issues, and anything else about which they feel strongly. But that doesn’t make it a good business decision.

One could also argue that the economy is a legitimate issue on which CEOs should speak out, but there are better, less divisive ways to do it. John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents the CEOs of America’s largest corporations, recently called on both parties in Congress to compromise on tax cuts, spending cuts and revenues. He made a compelling case for legislators to work together, explaining that economic uncertainty is hampering hiring, investments and sales. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein added that a bipartisan deal would have a “huge” positive impact on the economy.

No threats. No intimidation. No mouthing off. Just a sensible, nonpartisan call for elected officials to work together to solve the nation’s economic problems.

It’s time for CEOs to realize most people don’t really care what they think about anything except the things that directly affect them, to wit: the Nordstroms should focus more on providing great customer service than speaking out on gay marriage.

And if CEOs just can’t resist the urge to say something, make sure it’s at least marginally relevant to employees’ well-being or customers’ concerns.

3 Reasons Why Good Writing Matters

I teach public relations courses as a university adjunct faculty member. Right now I’m grading papers written by students in Employee Communications. The good news is that the principles of effective employee communications seem to have sunk in. Sadly, I’m taking points off for poorly written sentences, spelling and punctuation errors and grammatical mistakes.

It pains me to see how few students — especially those in their third and fourth years of university studies — have mastered the most fundamental skill to our profession. Here are three simple reasons good writing matters:

  • Writing is essential to any job in the communication professions. A communicator not knowing how to write well is like an accountant not understanding the most basic mathematical functions or a carpenter not knowing what tool to use for the job.
  • Writing well requires discipline, and discipline is important in any job. I’m dating myself with this story, but when I was a mass communications student, word processors and computers were just coming into wide use. If we turned in a story in class and the professor found an error — any error, no matter how small — we were sent back to type it all over again on the typewriter. That kind of rigid discipline has made me a better writer and communicator.
  • Poor writing is often the result of carelessness. As an instructor, many of the mistakes I find could have been caught if the student had only proofread their work before sending it to me. As a communicator, if my client gets work riddled with errors, it calls into question the quality of the rest of my work.

I have heard the arguments that language is constantly evolving. I get that. However, the basic rules are there for good reasons. Grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax are necessary for a writer’s words to be clearly understood by the reader. I understand there are times when we can bend or even break the rules. For effect. Like this. However, most of the time — when writing a recommended communication response to an issue, for example, or when writing a press release — we must follow the rules. Doing so demonstrates a command of the language and makes our writing clear and crisp.

Some of my students might not like how many points I take off their otherwise fine papers, but I’ll bet they’re less likely to make those mistakes again.