Thursday, June 28, 2012

Difficult Conversations

As much as I love business — and the communications business in particular — communicating within your very own family of employees is not always as natural as doing it for a client.

Among the most difficult conversations are those in which sensitive matters are being addressed … for example: advising an employee you like that he or she will have to relinquish a leadership position in the company that has been held for a long time; arbitrating a discussion between two employees who have just had a nasty argument that threatens their smooth collaboration, and thereby critical operations of the firm; telling an employee that a client has just asked for his or her removal from the account team when the employee disagrees with the client’s reasoning and feels his position in the company is threatened. These are just a few examples, but the list goes on and on.

Good management is duty-bound to face these situations and deal with them, nerves and anxieties aside. The business will be stifled, if they don’t. There is no choice. But there is a choice with regard to how the meeting is conducted, particularly if we want the end result to be positive. It needs to be planned carefully; there is no room for anything haphazard here.

Because we’re always interested in strengthening the skillsets of Makovsky managers in this area, we invited Barry Collodi (, an esteemed consultant and psychologist focusing on employee training and communications, to train our own. Barry outlined a five-step process to employ in such meetings. I thought it was a logical, conscientious and very sensible approach.

• First, he advised managers to start with warm social conversation, but rapidly move into and clearly state the purpose of the meeting. Underscore and ensure the participant sees the benefits of the discussion.

• Secondly, don’t make the mistake so many managers make in this situation by not asking the employee’s point of view on the matter (i.e., thoughts, feelings, concerns). You may want to summarize what others have said, but at this point the manager should listen carefully and withhold his or her point of view.

• Next, Mr. Collodi says, the manager has to present his or her own views, but also state areas of agreement and disagreement. Be concise in the presentation and avoid proving or convincing.

• Fourth, acknowledge the interfering emotions involved and attempt to resolve the disagreements by exploring and clarifying the two positions. Try to agree on a “best solution.”

• Finally, try to work out a final resolution with some follow-up goals, action plans and milestones in mind.

Most managers, in my opinion, suffer varying degrees of anxiety before such meetings. Thus, they may want to take the Collodi system and do a run-through with a colleague. But the order that this five-step process provides should offer a calming effect, because it tells you how to get from here to there.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 25, 2012

Need: Board Proactivity on Culture

Andrew Goldberg, EVP of Makovsky's Corporate Advisors practice, led a Directors + Boards Magazine webinar last Thursday, for more than 100 directors and other relevant influencers, on boards' role in sustaining and strengthening corporate cultures. I interviewed Andrew for this blog, which touches in a summary fashion on several of the points made in that webinar.

Q: You recently gave a presentation on why boards of directors of public companies need to be more proactive in addressing culture problems at their firms. What led you to this conclusion?

A: Culture is shorthand for the embedded behavior, rules and relationships in a firm. A healthy culture is critical for innovation, market changing ideas and ethical practice. We have seen many firms crack up because of failing cultures—Kodak, RIM, and Lehman brothers, to name a few. When management isn’t paying attention to culture (not unusual), boards need to step in.

Q: Do you think what you are calling “culture issues” are happening more lately?

A: Perhaps. I do think a tough global economy winnows out firms that don’t have adaptive cultures. I also think that activist investors, attentive Wall Street analysts and a 24/7 news cycle bring culture failures to our attention more. But historically, dysfunctional firms don’t live long, and most firms that fail have dysfunctional cultures.

Q: What is a dysfunctional culture?

A: There are a variety of warning signs to describe cultural dysfunction. Let me flag three of the big ones. First is a CEO or top management team that is disconnected from the innovative thinkers in the company—in some companies, the CEO may not even know who they are. A second factor is where top management and employees are severely out of alignment as to who the best “go to” people are in an organization. It is difficult for a company to execute on strategies when there is a lack of respect or credibility in operational management. The final warning sign: a lack of creative collaboration—people working actively together to innovate.

Q: So when should boards step in?

A: Let’s remember that boards rely heavily on management for information. So in most cases, boards only know the culture is deteriorating when balance sheet performance erodes drastically. Of course, by then it may be too late for meaningful action.

Q: Does that mean boards face an uphill battle?

A: Not necessarily. Directors need to be proactive in conducting independent surveys and audits that gauge cultural health— there are a number of tools for this. But to do this type of independent assessment, Directors need to level with CEOs and say: “attention to culture, and having early warning is better for the company and you. We do this to benefit shareholders and management.”

Q: What is the likelihood that most companies will adopt this path?

A: It is hard to say. Based on Makovsky's experience working with boards and management in this area, it's a learning process for both. But it’s a powerful mechanism for staying competitive, and for convincing shareholders you are operating in their interests.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Price of a Name Change

Can a company change its name and thereby escape a tarnished reputation?
There are many reasons a company can, in good faith, change its name, for example: a reorganization, a radical change in product lines, updating an old-fashioned image, a name that no longer has anything to do with what the company does, a significant geographic change or a major change in its customer base.

But for every company that does change its name in the aforementioned circumstances, there are others that do not and focus, instead, on communicating what is new under the same banner, but with newly minted messages and, sometimes, new communications channels.

So what do you make of a company that has changed its name and logo four times in the last five years? As an outsider looking in, I raise an eyebrow. What are they running away from? Are there behavioral issues with which they no longer want to be identified?

In the case I am thinking of, Blackwater, all of the above suspicions are aroused because in a short period of time, as noted above, the company went from Blackwater USA and Blackwater Worldwide to Xe Services and now Academi.

We all remember the serious and ugly incidents in Iraq that cost Blackwater its license to operate there. The company’s reputation was tarnished as the story gained traction on front pages around the nation. That led to Xe Services. But a few years later, new CEO Ted Wright wanted a new, more “boring” image and changed the company’s name once again, this time to Academi.

Joe Louis, the famous boxer, once said, “You can run, but you can’t hide.” Frequent name changes may be as bad as not changing the name at all, even when it’s called for. In the case of Blackwater and its problematic military encounters, one can understand the motivation to change the name and, to some extent, the services. The change to Xe would have sufficed as long as it was given a proper launch and description with sustained positive promotion.

When you get right down to it, all of this is about behavior. If the company sustains best practices and irreproachable behavior going forward, despite the Blackwater heritage, it has the chance to stand out, whatever it calls itself.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 18, 2012

What Do Socrates and Lincoln Have In Common?

As we observe the pundits calling the next presidential election and listen to their comments about the strategies needed to win, let’s keep in mind that many experts do not always know any more than you or I do.

Sometimes, it takes time and perspective before the true impact of an idea or an action is fully realized. History shows us that this has been true for at least 2,500 years!

When Greek philosopher, Socrates, was charged with “corrupting youth,” his defense address failed to move the jury and he was sentenced to death by hemlock. Probably many Athenians thought he was just an eccentric…a flash in the pan. But today Socrates continues to be regarded as one of the giants in Western philosophy and a forefather of the scientific method.

One of my favorite examples of a speech that has stood the test of time is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, delivered in the middle of the Civil War in November, 1863. That speech is today regarded as one of the greatest and most poetic presidential talks of all time. But while it was admired by some at the time of delivery, it was not the showstopper then that it is today.

A contemporary reviewer of Lincoln’s talk from The Chicago Times said: “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.” Others were put off because it was so short; it was over in two minutes. In that period it was common for politicians to speak for an hour or more, so this brief statement was seen as strange, under the circumstances. Overall, my sense, based on what I have read, is that the reaction was tepid at best.

I recall from the book, Lincoln, by the late David Donald – the Lincoln expert from Harvard – that Lincoln was disappointed at the reaction and was the first president, according to the book, to employ public relations techniques on a presidential speech. He distributed the text of the speech to editorial pages of major newspapers around the nation and the subsequent positive media coverage helped change the public perception, so that it became a model of brilliant oratory.

While there is a lot to be said for the wisdom of crowds and their influence on public perception, neither crowds nor experts are always right. But not giving up when you believe in your product is key, if you are going to start a trend that influences opinion. Lincoln obviously understood this. That said, many times it is hard to clearly read history in the making rather than history after it has been made.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Waiting Tables Is More Than You Think It Is

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of foodservice professionals work part-time. Many of these people view waiting tables as a-tide-me-over job. The budding young actors who grab waiter gigs to get by until they land a role that pays. The college and high school kids who do it in the evenings or as summer work. The young careerists in creative fields in a full-time, but low pay, position who can make a little extra money with a part-time job at night.
Many folks, I’d bet, view temporary work as work taken less seriously … despite the fact that being a waiter or waitress requires a professional skill set, intensive interaction with customers and colleagues and grace under pressure. So the last place in the world I expected to see a somewhat philosophical message about waiting tables as a managerial and beneficial endeavor was in a teeny restaurant in a tiny little hamlet in Scotland called Dunkeld. I walked into “Spill The Beans Café” to have a quick coffee and pastry when I spotted this framed message on a table against the wall as you walk into the eight-table dining area. Waiting tables, it implies, is more than you think it is. The communication was compelling:

Waiting tables can be seen as a rite of passage job, something en route to something else or a non-job.

Ironically, waiting tables is highly skilled and demanding (if you don’t believe me, I am happy to invite you here for a shift).

Our training helps us understand the benefits of team work, how to work under pressure, dealing with the public and attention to detail.

If we get something wrong, please let us know so we can fix it and learn from the mistake.

Just as importantly if we get something right, please encourage us by letting us know.

We hope that we will raise the standard and keep people in the industry with pride.

If our staff go on to something else, we know we have helped develop people who can work hard and work well with others.

I can’t imagine that “Spill The Beans Café” had more than two waitresses. But it will most likely grow, because of the values in its statement: team work, training, hard work, quality control, the importance of client value, candor, selflessness, raising standards and helping others. I bet there are lots of larger restaurants right here in the U.S. that don’t do as good a job on this score as tiny, little “Spill The Beans.”

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 11, 2012

Compounding The Return On Your Content

Last month, a survey of 329 senior executives in North America — by digital consulting firm PulsePoint Group and the Economist Intelligence Unit — found that an astonishing 84% of senior execs in North America reported improved marketing/sales effectiveness as a result of investing marketing budgets into social media initiatives. Eighty-one percent said that a social media presence had helped their companies increase market share.
But the social world is a cacophony of voices. How do you differentiate yours? Through content marketing: by gathering and shaping content to every channel you want to use — both social and traditional.

I was struck recently by an article by Joe Chernov on the CMI website, in which he outlines ways to make content work harder. “Just as an individual sniper can take out an enemy’s weapons armory with one shot, a single piece of content also has a multiplying impact on an organization’s global marketing effort. “ What he says is important. Content should beget content.

Here’s just one example of how our firm has made that precept work for us.

Matt Wolfrom, who leads the Technology Practice at Makovsky + Company, and Matt Makovsky devised a marketing thesis tied to the breaking news of Facebook’s launch of a “brand timeline.” Their thought leadership piece ultimately became a business development marketing machine for the agency.

Targeted to heritage-brand CMOs, an abridged version of the original draft became a bylined article in the “CMO Strategy” section of Advertising Age. A long-form thought-leadership version became the topic of a My Three Cents blog, which was syndicated to Forbes and other outlets. The Ad Age piece was further socialized with tweets and retweets by both the publication and personal account holders. The article was reshaped into a mailing to the top 1000 CMOs of heritage brands and other CMOs, clients and prospects. Ultimately nearly every tech executive of note had a copy of that article. The original white paper — and its many spin-offs — ultimately led to two partnership opportunities for the agency.

Not to shape, reshape and make the most of content is to ignore a critical corporate asset.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Turning On Made Easy

In the good old days, you walked into your hotel room and turned on the light via the switch near the door. Usually that meant that the light in the ceiling went on. You next walked over to the night table and turned the switch on the lamp near the bed. And voilà, there was plenty of light.

Well, things have totally changed. The idea of simply turning on a light with switches in the traditional, logical places is a thing of the past.

Today, when you walk into your room in a deluxe hotel, the light switches and the lights themselves are rarely in the same places. You are never quite sure which light is where and how you’re supposed to turn it on. A carefully constructed communications diagram is desperately needed to direct guests to the right switch.

Let me give you one scenario. Enter the hotel room. Place the “key” (in the shape of a credit card) in a slot on a wall near the entrance. No one has told you to do this…you figure it out because, if you go directly to the lamp near the bed, the light will not turn on via the switch. The credit card near the slot will turn on most of the lights, but not all. There are a slew of switches on the wall with no indication of which switch is for which lamp or other light. In fact, the switch could be on the wall or in a push button on the base of the lamp or a switch encased in plastic on the wire hanging from the lamp. The light for the bathroom may be nowhere near the bathroom, but even if it is, you have to figure out if the bathroom-only switch will work without the master key being inserted, particularly if you get up in the middle of the night and you have no need for the master switch.

Ok. Ok. I’m sure you’re tired of reading this chatter. I suppose the hotels think this new approach is cool, as it is electronic and “remote.” But why not a bellman explanation when he takes you to your room…or a lighting diagram…or just a booklet titled, “How to Master the Lights”!

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 04, 2012

Unleashing A Hero

Sometimes it only takes one statement to influence someone’s success or failure. 

On Friday night, June 1, Johan Santana, the New York Mets pitcher, was on his way to pitching the first no-hitter in this baseball franchise’s 50-year history.  It was the eighth inning, and Santana had already exceeded his 115 pitch count, indicating that he was most likely tiring.

Furthermore, he had been out the previous season with shoulder surgery, and the Mets management did not want to risk excessive use.  Yet no one wanted to take  this opportunity away from Santana, thereby denying the Mets fans something we all have been waiting 50 years for.

So Manager Terry Collins took a trip out to the pitching mound to ask Santana how he felt and whether he wanted to stay in there.  Santana insisted that he wanted to  finish the game.  And then Terry Collins dispensed a motivational gem; he said to Santana:  “You are my hero!” 

Even if Santana was tiring, communicating that inspirational line alone was enough to move Santana to victory.  In that comment, Collins freed himself from the responsibility of removing a potentially tired pitcher, and made possible a potentially great moment in sports history…a great moment for Santana and a great moment for Mets fans everywhere.

The ninth inning was a nail-biter.  Pent up emotion caused eyes to well up and bodies to tremble.  Perhaps the 50-year drought would end.  We waited – out after out.  And then the third out came.  Collins’ timing was impeccable.  Santana was indeed the hero his manager believed him to be. 

Labels: , ,