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A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News provides a fascinating window into how Facebook educates its rapidly expanding global workforce about the company’s celebrated culture. According to the article, Facebook uses a very high-touch strategy led by “landing teams” of trained HQ staff who parachute into new offices for assignments, which often last at least one year. Their mission: to carry and recreate the distinctive Facebook cultural DNA to the new troops. The landing team use a range of activities and tools to tell their story – including the Facebook “hackathon” event, which is designed to demonstrate the value of risk-taking and collaboration and spread some of that start-up pixie dust. Even the office set up is designed to replicate the look and feel of headquarters. Part of the team’s role includes recruiting new staff. During their assignments these ambassadors are expected to do their regular jobs. That’s an impressive commitment, and a good formula to get the best ambassadors.
This story is interesting on many fronts, not the least of which is the priority placed on ensuring new staff understand and embrace the company’s identity and values across diverse global locations. But perhaps the most important lesson here is the focus on sustained, face-to-face teaching – or call it mentoring. Culture has always been a strange animal for organizations, with the orientation and education work typically shared across a motley mix of teams (notably HR, marketing and internal communications). Often orientation is packaged as one-day firehose of materials and briefings – ranging from legal requirements to cafeteria menus – with culture delegated to some seminal historical documents and reinforced by vague, trite collateral in the facilities. The missing ingredient is often the hallway conversations – usually informal but sometimes led by assigned mentors – that carries the real stories, and implicit norms, that are true representations of the company culture.
The Facebook approach works well on several levels:
- It focuses on the real culture that staff already live and breathe, not some boardroom aspiration or stale bullet points in an elevator;
- It uses committed, passionate workers who have a range of jobs, not “trained staff” from support departments who are more likely to use canned materials and messages;
- It suggests that conveying information on topics like values and mores involves as much show as tell, and more emotion than fact;
- It rightfully assumes that teaching new staff about culture – and making sure they understand and embrace the values and norms – is not a one-shot deal, but a long-term commitment; and,
- It recognizes that even in dynamic, innovative global companies like Facebook a shared, coherent cultural experience is important to workplace morale and productivity.
I’ll admit that the Facebook approach may not work for all organizations – who after all have their own distinctive DNA – but it’s worth asking whether more traditional approaches work anymore.
I came across a post that purports to be from an Apple front-line employee this week. It’s always interesting to get insider views from major companies – particularly ones like Apple which like to carefully manage their public image and fiercely guard their corporate secrets. I have no idea if this account is legitimate, but assuming it is there are several insights that I gained from the post:
- First and foremost, Apple seems to be as prickly and protective about company secrets with its employees as with consumers and news media. Based on this account Apple store employees appear to get little or no warning of major announcements – presumably to avoid leaks.
- Along the same lines, Apple management clearly enforces strict rules on everything from sales restrictions to product information. So the casual, cool atmosphere of stores apparently doesn’t preclude fairly strict protocol on staff behavior.
- Apple seems to make special effort to involve staff in product launches (once the information is public) through special briefing sessions, store events and training.
- Though this employee feels pressured to sell – something true of any retail environment – he/she acknowledges the effort Apple makes to support and encourage staff in their efforts. Some of the activities are what you would expect from an uber-hip company like Apple – a masseuse on site, ordering in food, etc. It also appears staff get bonuses for the brutal hours during product launches.
- For better or for worse, Apple seems to be doing a good job promoting their culture and credo (what the staffer calls a cult) through collateral, training sessions and management reminders. This writer isn’t quite sure they like the taste of the cool-aid.
- The staffer mentions the lure of becoming one of Apple’s famed “genius” staff, which suggests there is opportunity for advancement…and presumably commensurate benefits in reaching that position.
Overall, this seems like a fairly exciting workplace with pros and cons. It’s interesting to note the staffer barely mentions things that are often hailed as Apple’s workplace assets – including free/cheap use of products, pride in working for a global leader and an atmosphere of innovation. That’s a good reminder that all jobs are ultimately judged through our personal perspective and day-to-day activities.
There is strong consensus across the PR industry for an approach to crisis management that emphasizes proactive outreach, transparency, visible resolution and executive presence. But not all companies subscribe to that strategy. Witness the recent crisis involving Rolls-Royce – whose fiery engine failure on a Qantas jumbo jet forced the airplane to make an emergency landing.
In the face of intensive global media coverage – and speculation on the cause of the engine failure – Rolls limited its initial response to two terse written statements (buried in its website) which essentially said it was looking into the problem. The tone and content of the statements is very much “stiff upper lip”: factual, low-key and devoid of any emotion or empathy. Written by and for engineers. Almost as a after-thought – literally the last sentence of the statement – the Rolls memos assure readers that safety remains the company’s highest priority.
The muted response from Rolls is in stark contrast to both Qantas and Airbus – who built the A380 jet involved in the emergency. As reported by the Wall Street Journal in this article, the Qantas CEO followed the standard airline playbook by being front-and-center in several news conferences and discussing progress in the investigation. Airbus, for its part, put the ball squarely back in Rolls’ court and said it was delaying further A380 deliveries until the engine problem was fully addressed. At the same time, Airbus continues to promote its products and track record through a considerable marketing effort.
Some experts quoted in the media suggest the key to a positive resolution for Rolls is finding an explanation and quick solution to the engine problem, rather than a vigorous public outreach. Rolls’ brand reputation, they posit, is based more on quality and customer service than on any public profile. Other observers say Rolls prefers a robust behind-the-scenes approach that focuses on identifying and fixing problems (and working with partners) rather than providing a stream of public commentary. In other words, the quality of the products and customer service will ultimately protect the brand equity. As one pundit puts it: they have been here before and their approach is “this will pass.” One interesting theory is that Rolls executives became even more gun-shy about public announcements in the wake of the universal criticism of BP executive Tony Heyward. Finally, it’s worth noting there is a fundamental difference between Rolls and Qantas, in that the former sells to companies while the airline interacts directly with customers. It’s a natural tendency for B2B companies to focus on direct communication with their corporate customers than through the public.
Has the Rolls approach worked? It may be too soon to tell, but on one short-term metric – share price – they have failed. Reports this week in several major news outlets – including this one – suggest uncertainty from the crisis has wiped out 10% of Rolls’ share price, or about $1.5 billion of the company’s value.
Though there is merit on focusing on thorough investigation and resolution during a crisis rather than self-serving media activities, Rolls fails to recognize that the debate on its brand and products is now occurring in the public arena. The company’s reluctance to engage in dialogue is creating a vacuum others are only too happy to fill. It is also naive to hide behind the cloak of engineering prowess and focus on direct outreach to corporate customers, since B2C companies like Qantas will certainly consider consumer opinion and brand reputation when selecting their equipment partners. Another lesson some companies have learned the hard way in recent years is that brand reputation is ephemeral – even one with a rich history like Rolls-Royce.
Ultimately, Rolls’ unwillingness to share information and engage in conversation suggests a sense of arrogance and stubbornness that is totally out of sync with prevailing trends on communication and consumer interaction. It will be interesting to see how this all turns out for the major players.