Will Chick-fil-A CEO Ever Learn?

Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy just can’t keep his mouth shut about his conservative stance on hot-button issues. Last summer he spoke out against gay marriage. This week, he did it again, although there may be evidence that he’s slowly learning a lesson.

When the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled on several issues related to same-sex marriage, Cathy tweeted, “Sad day for our nation; founding fathers would be ashamed of our gen. to abandon wisdom of the ages re: cornerstone of strong societies.”

A short time later, the tweet was removed. Chick-fil-A released a statement that said, “He realized his views didn’t necessarily represent the views of all customers, restaurant owners and employees and didn’t want to distract them from providing a great restaurant experience.”

That is exactly the issue with CEOs using their positions to express political or religious views that have absolutely nothing to do with their business. That’s why CEOs should resist the urge to let their egos take control and keep their views to themselves.

Finally, it appears, some public relations professional at Chick-fil-A headquarters is giving the boss some good advice. It’s just too bad Cathy didn’t seek that advice before the fact.






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.

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.

Well-Timed Words: Free and Effective

When I worked as the employee communications specialist for an AT&T manufacturing plant in the 1990s, the general manager asked my help in communicating with employees about the need for heavy overtime hours around the Christmas/New Year holidays. While employees generally liked getting overtime, they were not thrilled about working so much at that time of year.

The general manager and I talked about the issue and focused his message around the business need while acknowledging the sacrifice of family time during holidays that are so focused on families. We decided it would be appropriate — and a nice touch — for the general manager to write a letter to the families of employees, explaining the reasons for the overtime but mostly thanking them for giving up their family members at Christmas. We worked hard to make sure the letter sounded sincere (because he was sincere in his sentiment) and gracious.

It worked. While there was still some understandable grumbling, the general consensus was that the letter was well-received and that families appreciated the gesture.

That story illustrates the importance of business leaders acknowledging the social contract that exists between employees and organizations. We often think first of the monetary contract and many business leaders believe money is the greatest motivator for employees. While money is important, it is not the only factor at work in the workplace.

Scott Keller, a director at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, co-wrote a book, “Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage.” In a blog for the Harvard Business Review, Keller says his research for the book found that the social contract — the understanding between employees and their employers that is predicated on meaningfulness of the work — is more powerful than the monetary contract. He mentions hand-written thank-you notes from the CEOs of Wells Fargo and PepsiCo as examples of social gestures that provide tremendous motivation to employees.

“Some managers might dismiss these as token gestures with at best a limited impact,” Keller writes. “In keeping with the significant body of evidence from the social sciences, employees on the receiving end would beg to differ. They say that the resulting boost in motivation and connection to the leader and the company can last for months if not years.”

And he quotes Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, on communication’s vital role in the social contract: “Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free — and worth a fortune.”

I often hear resistance from managers, supervisors and even business leaders when it comes to providing those well-timed, sincere words of praise. Old-school managers who weren’t raised in such an environment dismiss words of praise as soft psychobabble. “They get a paycheck, that should be enough,” they grumble. Others simply blame their own lack of interpersonal communication skills or discomfort. “I’m just not comfortable in one-on-one situations,” they say, or “I get nervous in front of groups.”

Well, guess what. Being a leader sometimes requires us to stretch our skills and to do things we’re not entirely comfortable doing. In this post-recession, 21st century work environment, it’s time for leaders — at all levels — to get over their fear of real, organic communication and see what good comes from such an inexpensive investment in employee motivation. This is “small-c communication” at its best, a way to help re-engage a disengaged workforce for the tremendous challenges that lie ahead for every organization in this economy.


Creating a Culture of Honesty

I once worked for a company in which a change was coming to the department where I worked. It was a change that would be disruptive, as most changes are, and that would require adaptation by every person in the department.

After the change was in place, I asked a co-worker what she thought of the change. “I hate it,” she said. “I don’t see how this is going to make anything better. In fact, it’s making things worse. But I guess there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

I was impressed with her candor and honesty — until we and others in our department found ourselves in a conversation with the vice president to whom our department reported. The vice president asked us what we thought of the change. Everyone, including the woman who told me how much she hated the change, told the vice president that they thought it would require a little adjustment, but they were sure it would be great in the long run.

That kind of dishonesty happens all the time in workplaces. And dishonesty is not too strong a word to describe it. Feeling and believing one thing, but saying another, is the definition of dishonesty. It keeps teams from performing at a high level and it leads to all kinds of disharmony among co-workers. A company simply can’t get things done if this lack of integrity exists.

To overcome this kind of disingenuous behavior requires something of everyone at every level of a team:

  • Company leaders must set the tone and the expectation of honesty and integrity. And they must do more than just talk about it, they must demonstrate it. Leaders have tremendous influence on the culture of an organization. They must ensure their words truly reflect what they believe and that their actions match their words.
  • Mid-level managers, including the vice president in this example, must create an environment in which it is safe for employees to be candid and open. Employees must know they can express their worries and concerns and ask questions without fear of retribution. Often, retribution is not overt, such as terminating someone for speaking their mind. More often, it’s subtle — making life difficult for the employees who speak honestly, shutting them out of opportunities, constantly criticizing their work. Sometimes employees who speak honestly are labeled “malcontents” or “troublemakers,” and indeed some employees take on that role. But in order for a team to deal effectively with change and to perform at a high level, employees must feel safe in expressing their ideas, opinions and questions.
  • Once a trusting, safe environment is established, employees have a responsibility to speak sincerely and honestly. They will “test the system” first to see if it truly is safe to speak up, and then they must be vulnerable enough to trust it. In a culture of integrity and honesty, employees are obligated to say what is on their minds. That’s when the best ideas come forward and assumptions are challenged, which leads to growth.