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.


Might As Well Laugh

Elbert Hubbard is an American author who’s credited with this quote: “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out of it alive.”

Given that none of us will survive this life, we might as well laugh as much as we can along the way.

That’s the idea behind my new humor blog called “j/k” (that’s digital shorthand for “just kidding”).

A lot of things happen to me that would really depress me if I didn’t laugh at them. I know this from experience because I’ve dealt with depression before. But as I’ve gotten older (I’m staring down 50 and trying hard not to blink), I’ve come to realize that looking for the funny in life isn’t just fun, but it also has likely extended my life by a few years.

Some of the things I’ll write at “j/k” are true. Some are partially true but embellished. Some are inspired by true events. Some are just utter and complete falsehoods. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what’s what, but I hope you won’t spend too much time on it. Instead, I hope my posts there lighten your load a bit.

I’ve already written about a visit to a really terrible winery and about the fact that my addiction to old TV sitcoms is beginning to affect my everyday conversations. I’ll also give you the Friday 5 — lists of useless information that you can’t live without. I invite my “Communication at Work” followers to check it out and let me know what you think. But don’t leave for long! I’ll still be here writing about communication in our work and personal lives.

Lance Armstrong’s PR Strategy

Lance Armstrong is expected to confess to Oprah Winfrey this week that he did, in fact, take performance-enhancing drugs for at least 15 years, including while winning seven Tour de France titles.

Sadly, observers and commentators already are painting Armstrong’s mea culpa as a public relations ploy. Even more sadly, they’re probably right.

New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica noted that “Lance once again thinks he is in control of this narrative. It’s not like he’s going to reveal any secrets here.”

I can hear the public relations consultants now: “Just spill your guts, Lance. Cry if you have to. Talk about how sorry you are and admit that you disgraced yourself and the sport. Say how sorry you are for dragging your critics through the mud. Then, sit back and wait because your fans and the sport will forgive you.”

That’s a pretty standard public relations strategy when your client is an egotistical, lying cheater. But it’s a terrible strategy if you’re a self-respecting public relations professional who has even a sliver of conscience.

It could be that the strategy will work. It has worked before. Bill Clinton, anybody? Charlie Sheen? Mel Gibson?

There are a few idealists around who still believe personal integrity, honor and professionalism are more important than money. We would advise our client in this situation to confess if you want to, but then get ready to pay your dues. Take the whipping like a man. Accept what’s coming to you, and do it with true humility. Right the wrongs without regard to what it might do to your brand. Don’t expect redemption. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

But it seems those idealists aren’t retained for very long.

Self-Employed? Ask Peers for Feedback

In March I will turn 50. That does some things to my psyche, as I’m sure it does for most anyone facing the half-century mark in their lives.

It causes me to be a little sad that in the rearview mirror of my life, youth appears farther and farther away. It also makes me more determined to make the most of every day because, in many ways, these are the best years of my life — I’m more experienced, still learning, but hopefully wiser than I was at 20 or 30.

Facing down 50 also has led me to reflect on some questions, one of which is how I will spend the remainder of my career. I feel strongly that there is much more I can do, and should be doing, and that I need to broaden my thinking about what I have to offer a client, an employer, my profession, or perhaps an entirely different one.

One of the shortcomings of being self-employed for nearly 13 years is that I miss out on annual performance reviews. I believe I respond well to feedback; I try to use it as an opportunity to improve myself and my work. I do ask for, and sometimes receive, feedback from clients, but it is not the same as a formal performance evaluation like most corporations have.

So I recently asked a small group of friends and colleagues who know me and my work well to provide me with some insights based on that knowledge. I asked them to tell me what they believe to be my strengths and my shortcomings, and to think about other professions or occupations for which they believe I’m well-suited. The latter question is intended to open my thinking about what is possible, given my strengths and shortcomings.

The feedback has been exceedingly helpful and more interesting than I expected it would be. There were some themes among the responses that surprised me. The thing I appreciate the most is that the people on my little assessment board were honest and candid. They did not hold back, and in some cases they gave me some feedback that was difficult to hear but also specific and helpful. That is the best kind of feedback.

I encourage you — especially if you are self-employed — to conduct your own assessment exercise. You will benefit greatly from it. But if you do conduct one, keep these things in mind:

  • Ask for feedback from people you know will be candid and not just those who will sing your praises. This might include asking people who are among your toughest critics or with whom you find yourself frequently disagreeing in conversations, Facebook discussions, etc.
  • Ask for feedback from people who represent various aspects of your life — personal and professional.
  • Be ready to accept the feedback as valid even if you don’t agree with it and even if it makes you a bit angry or uncomfortable. You are asking people for their perceptions and assessments. If you trust them enough to ask for their feedback, then trust that they speak their truth.
  • Even if you don’t apply every specific piece of feedback you receive, open yourself to using it to help think differently. My assessors gave me some surprising ideas about professions and occupations in which they think I would thrive. While I might not pursue some of the specific ones they mentioned, it has caused me to think differently about what I do.
  • Resist the temptation to defend yourself. I found myself getting a little defensive about some of my feedback, but upon reflection realized that my assessors were being true to my request. I dumped the defensiveness in order to experience growth.


2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for “Communication at Work.”

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 19,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 4 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.