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Keeping employees informed of their company’s financial performance would seem a given. With the explosion of available data online and the increasing mobility of Internet access – which makes financial information readily available – it’s critical that companies proactively keep their employees informed on their quarterly results and investor profile (if they are public.)
For one thing, many employees are themselves shareholders in the company (many through retirement plans) and have a vested interest in the earnings reports. Beyond that, ensuring employees understand company performance, and implications for the business, is important to help them connect the dots between their individual performance and company results. Updating staff on earnings also helps reinforce how the company is tracking against its strategy and business priorities (which themselves need to be explained and repeated) and provides important context for company decisions and policies.
Yet for all that rationale, a surprising number of companies seem to put little or no effort into driving internal financial literacy. [My observation is anecdotal – I can’t find any solid research to back this up.] It’s true that financial information is both complex and sensitive – and not necessarily considered sexy content – and has not historically been part of the communication menu for many organizations. A common challenge is balancing employee interest and understanding on financial issues (which can be very low) with the need for leaders to be transparent and credible. Despite these inherent challenges, companies should err on the side of disclosure; I would argue it’s better for employees to complain they are bored or don’t fully understand financial information than accuse their leaders of not being candid or forthright.
Recycling external earnings content – an apparent easy fix – isn’t enough. Too often companies use materials and tactics aimed at investor audiences and simply share those unchanged with employees. This approach is shortsighted and often ineffective. The internal strategy and content should be customized for employees. Putting thought and effort into regular updates – using some of the best practices listed below – can help companies foster leadership credibility and increase financial literacy among employees. In the long run, this should help increase staff understanding, effort and engagement.
- Be accurate and consistent: The most important factor in updating employees on financial performance is the imperative to be accurate and use consistent figures and messages across all audiences. This isn’t just good communication, but in many jurisdictions it’s a legal priority.
- Avoid the hype: Many employees are cynical and skeptical of financial updates because they are too often overly positive and wrapped in hype – particularly if the messages are geared to investors. Resist the temptation to hold back information when the news is bad, or employees may jump to their own conclusions. To be credible, the updates must be regular, balanced and candid. Leaders can be optimistic and positive, but the core information should be direct and devoid of cheerleading.
- Story behind the numbers: While it’s important to share some of the core financial information with employees, it’s far more useful to share the story behind the numbers – What happened to the key metrics? What drove the results? What does it mean to the business/strategy? What is the internal context for these results (e.g. internal cost-cutting.)? What does it mean for investors/Wall Street or private owners? What does the team need to do as a result? More importantly, show employees how their daily work contributes to companywide growth.
- Provide context: Use quarterly updates – and ongoing staff and department meetings – to share business and industry trends and put them in perspective. This will provide important background for the financial/earnings outreach.
- Segmented cascade: Though it’s appropriate to have a CEO lead the communication effort with the broad workforce (perhaps a company memo, blog post and/or short video statement) that should be complemented by more targeted outreach by functional and regional leaders who can make the information more relevant by adding targeted results for their teams. This approach can/should be used down to the level of manager, who may have information on a factory or facility level that can provide additional detail for employees. This effort should be supported with solid direction and support from Communications (e.g. cascade toolkit) and be coordinated to avoid massive duplication.
- Know your audience: Content should ideally be tailored to the interests, routine and requirements of the various employee segments. Leaders shouldn’t “talk down” to their employees assuming they can’t understand basic financial concepts, but conversely they should consider that many front-line employees aren’t interested in, or familiar with, the nuances of financial results. A good approach is creating core messaging/content that appeals to the majority of employees and adding complementary content for specific internal segments. Senior leaders typically can be expected to receive and understand a fairly detailed and sophisticated earnings update.
- Avoid jargon: Building on the point above, it’s important any financial information for employees be simple, clear and devoid of unnecessary jargon. Terminology that’s important to an analyst is not relevant to most employees.
- Dialogue: In order to spur conversation and provide an opportunity for explanation and discussion, it can be useful to have senior leaders (perhaps the CEO and/or CFO) participate in an online panel/webcast or video interview where the “story behind the numbers” can be explored and employee questions can be addressed. This is particularly true is the financial results are a surprise or disappointing. Latent employee questions or concerns can proactively be addressed in these sessions. The content of these calls can also be promoted and archived after the fact. Similarly, any internal social platforms (Yammer, leadership blogs) should be featured during the financial updates to foster discussion.
- Be timely: It’s good form to inform your employees at the same time – if regulations allow – as the financial update is shared externally. A delay will erode credibility and usefulness of the update.
- Think visual: Some of the most effective examples of financial communication feature simple, compelling visuals (graphs, scorecards, info graphics) to represent key concepts and results. This approach ensures the information is presented in a clear, consistent fashion without being boring.
- Bring the outside in: Though it’s important the outreach to employees be tailored for them, companies should also leverage/promote their key investor events internally through news features, social media updates, links and/or posting on the intranet (e.g. investor days, shareholder meetings, annual reports.)
- Voice of the customer: It can be useful to include comments from investors, customers and/or analysts in the financial updates to provide a third-party perspective on the performance. This can help company leaders to emphasize certain themes or messages with employees.
- Humanize the numbers: Examples and anecdotes that illustrate the company’s performance – for example stories of employees or teams achieving savings or big customer wins – can help humanize the financial results and make the information more relevant and interesting to employees. Having these employees tell their own story is even more compelling.
- Education through repetition: Employees can/should be educated on key terms (EBITDA, cash flow) through simple examples and repetition of these definitions across all references and materials. A glossary of terms should also be easily available (e.g. intranet) and promoted with employees.
- Use sound bites: The use of short summary headlines with links (like Twitter updates used externally) can be an effective way to get out updates to a broad employee audience in a convenient, timely fashion. This allows interested staff to obtain more detail but ensure all staff has some awareness of the key results.
- Think pull vs. push: Though leaders should proactively share (or push) custom highlights of quarterly performance, a good approach to promote transparency is to make more detailed information available to all staff – usually through the intranet and/or press materials. Along these lines, all regional and functional updates (be they presentations and/or memos) should be posted on the intranet for easy access to all employees.
- Communication beyond/after the quarter: Companies should consider reinforcing the key financial concepts, targets and even results beyond quarterly updates via bulletin board scorecards, digital posters or other collateral to reinforce this information beyond the quarterly updates. Use of compelling visuals can help drive awareness, understanding and engagement on these topics.
- Educate staff on disclosure rules and best practices: All updates on financial performance with company staff should include reference to the legal requirements and limitations to ensure employees don’t breach any SEC regulations or company rules (e.g. disclosure of confidential information, media contact). This information should also be easily accessible on a permanent basis on the intranet.
- Foster an ownership mentality: Employees should not be a passive audience when it comes to financial updates. Encourage staff to adjust their priorities and activities given the company’s overall business situation. Invite their input on process improvements, cost-cutting and new business sources. Recognize and reward ideas that lead to greater efficiency and growth.
The recent decision by Marissa Mayer to abolish telecommuting at Yahoo has sparked a firestorm of criticism and debate in social media platforms and executive suites, and put a spotlight on the increasingly accepted practice of virtual work. You can review a good summary of the polemic here. Certainly, at first glance the policy change seems to go against prevailing workplace trends and HR logic – where maximized work-life balance fosters more happy, productive employees. Telecommuting is a growing trend and seems a boon to both employees and companies alike (statistics I’ve seen suggest productivity increases with flexible work arrangements.)
This response - from none other than Richard Branson – is fairly typical of the strong negative reactions to the Yahoo move, which suggest the blunt directive is anachronistic and short-sighted. Some of the criticisms have even questioned Mayer’s feminist bona-fides – such as Maureen Dowd’s column suggesting Mayer’s gilded work arrangement may be clouding her understanding of the needs of other working women. It should be noted not all the comments were negative. Several like this one featured Yahoo insiders who praised the move, suggesting there were too many slackers taking advantage of the loose workplace rules. Other commentators argued that the company’s growth and survival trumps any workplace conveniences.
One of the realities that I found missing in some of the comments is that in all flexible workplaces – in particular those promoting working from home – there’s always been an implied, or formal contract, featuring one or all of the following requirements:
- There’s no blanket policy – Each job/role should be evaluated if and how it lends itself to telecommuting, and in many cases senior leaders or group leaders understand their roles preclude being based off-site for extended periods of time.
- Productivity trumps convenience – If a case can be made the efficiency and output of employees is suffering due to telecommuting, then the policy should be revisited.
- It’s not all of nothing – Most people I’ve worked with over the years operated in a blended routine that includes both virtual work (from the home or other outposts) and occasional face-to-face interaction, such as quarterly meetings or special retreats.
- Circumstances change…and so may your job – Employees must recognize that workplace policies are fluid and can (and must) change to ensure they remain viable and relevant in the context of the company’s evolving performance and objectives. The fact that telecommuting is a policy now is not a guarantee or excuse for keeping it in perpetuity.
In defense of Yahoo’s blanket ban on working from home, many of the negative comments seem to conveniently ignore the company is on a steady downhill towards irrelevance and possible oblivion. Yahoo’s leaders made a strong case that business as usual wasn’t working and dramatic change was required not just to boost productivity, but also collaboration and innovation – both of which benefit greatly from sustained in-person interaction. Furthermore, company leaders are leaving the door open to further adjustments, saying this is the right solution for right now.
As I thought further about this issue, however, I looked at my own situation, where work with global partners via Skype or other interactive platforms is the norm, and productivity rarely seems compromised by the lack of face-to-face interaction. In fact, the inherent flexibility of a virtual team has often been a boon to our performance – with more than one Skype call featuring folks at the breakfast table or quietly baby-sitting their children. Is it helpful to have in-person meetings on occasion? Certainly. But does that prelude a balanced model where virtual work is allowed for more routine work and collaboration. It should not.
In the final analysis, I believe Mayer could have taken a more nuanced, incremental approach, starting with a more disciplined policy and closer monitoring to weed out the worst abusers, but she likely felt that lacked the urgency the dire situation required. Ultimately, I think her blunt approach will backfire – if she doesn’t retreat from the decision altogether. (They left the door open for future changes in the policy, so this is perhaps the most likely outcome.) The unintentional message it sends to employees and prospects is that they can’t be trusted and don’t merit the same flexibility and options that are given to most other technology companies – particularly those based in Silicon Valley. After all, though productivity is certainly paramount it cannot be achieved without employee engagement and goodwill. Given this context, Mayer may win the immediate battle for innovation, but lose the longer war for talent.
Over the years, I’ve had many clients and peers ask me about the best strategy for true, lasting employee engagement…the holy grail of internal communications. Like many, I’d tell them about the importance of two-way communication, robust workplace programs, strong leadership and a vibrant culture. But often I’d also relay my “Amazon” story – which was based on my short but formative consulting stint with the internet giant when it was still a brash start-up.
My Amazon story was about the incredible energy, drive and productivity of their Seattle team despite tough odds, persistent criticism from pundits and brutal, round-the-clock working conditions (this was not a place to ask about office hours.) Sure these guys worked in a funky renovated hospital and defined the casual workplace, but they worked incredibly hard and seemed driven by a greater cause, a belief they were inventing a new business and creating a better customer experience. In hindsight, there were right, and they continue to blaze a path in the evolving world of internet commerce.
The lasting lesson for me – and the point of telling my story to clients – is that doing all the right things is usually not enough to get employees to operate at the highest level, and that the most successful companies are the ones where employees believe their work has higher meaning beyond the obvious imperatives – fill a customer need, sell services or products, make money and please investors. All of us want to do something that really matters, or at least appears to be useful, relevant and timely.
As it happens, I’ve had the opportunity to put this theory in practice in a recent client engagement. This company was in the midst of a classic “transformation” exercise designed to improve efficiency and profits. In short, they needed a major reboot. After months of relying largely on logical arguments and data – the usual practical, empirical rationale for change and list of potential benefits – we started to focus more on the meaning of the company and its unique heritage. Luckily for us, this client was a legitimate pioneer in its industry (helicopter services) and had a very compelling, unique story to tell about getting customers to/from the most remote places on earth safely and on time. In short, this company was cool, did something very special – even dramatic – and had a lineage going back to the creation of helicopter flight. Not surprisingly, this storyline – translated into various media and injected into the brand identity – has resonated much more than the balance sheets and market studies that were initially the focus.
I’m glad to say the smart folks at McKinsey have landed on the same conclusion. This recent article makes a compelling case for why this quest for meaning is critical for tangible and lasting employee engagement. The article acknowledges one of the challenges inherent in this aspiration– some companies will naturally have an easier time identifying and promoting their distinctive pixie dust; either because they are pioneers, uber-cool, game-changers, or have an obvious altruistic bent that fuels that sense of “meaning”. Think Google, Kiva, Facebook, Body Shop or Apple. Much tougher to imagine, and implement, if you work for a company that produces ball-bearings or book shelves.
But the McKinsey folks argue there are strategic steps and tactical tools that can allow even the most mundane, uncool business to foster a sense of meaning among their employees. I particularly like their concept of holistic storytelling, which suggests companies go beyond the typical turnaround or “good to great” narrative – which is inherently focused on company benefits – to encompass other impacts:
Our research shows that four other sources give individuals a sense of meaning, including their ability to have an impact on:
- society—for example, making a better society, building the community, or stewarding resources
- the customer—for instance, making life easier and providing a superior service or product
- the working team—for instance, a sense of belonging, a caring environment, or working together efficiently and effectively
- themselves—examples include personal development, a higher paycheck or bonus, and a sense of empowerment
Ideas like this can provide communication professionals with additional justification, and potential approaches, to foster engagement that comes from deep employee alignment and commitment. When employees are in the zone, as McKinsey says, there is nothing they can’t achieve. It’s our job to help them do that.
In the wake of their unequivocal electoral defeat in November, the GOP party has been doing some chaotic soul-searching to figure out what went wrong, and how they can get back in the White House.
Well, it appears the brighter Republican minds have determined that they had a “messaging” problem in the election, rather than any demographic or policy dissonance between the American electorate and the Republican platform. More specifically, some argued it was who delivers the message and how it’s delivered that matters most; the underlying GOP messages themselves retain their probity and relevance. To use the words of one attendant at the RNC debrief: “we don’t need a new pair of shoes, we just need to shine our shoes.” More recently, following the inauguration of President Obama, Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders reaffirmed this assessment, saying their party needed to change the way it communicates, not its ideas, to win back the White House.
As a communication professional, I would be the last person to deny that language and messaging can make a difference in public perception, attitudes and behavior. And I support the theory that the GOP election campaign was littered with examples of messaging (scripted and unintentional) that influenced the polls and ultimately fueled their electoral defeat. But the GOP post-mortem analysis seems far too simplistic and self-serving. In fact, it reflects a particular obsession in politics with adjusting words and labels to be more palatable and resonant – packaging which often comes with limited connection to, or impact on, the underlying policy reality. This game of focus-group window-dressing and euphemisms has become so common and predictable in Washington it’s something of a bad cliché. “Hey, we need a user-friendly label for this new tax law that plays well in the middle-class….”
In PR we often run into clients or prospects that ask us to “message” them out of a crisis or bad reputation. And just as often I tell them that communication alone can’t fix a bad decision or policy. But they still try.
I’ll leave it to others to determine whether American voters really buy into the GOP platform – the actual policies, values and laws that they promote and implement. But I would argue the Republican messages were only one part of a broader construct that shaped their public profile – which includes their actions and ideas, not just their words. And though brands and labels do matter, they can’t exist (or be changed) in a vacuum. Messaging without supporting evidence and ongoing corroboration – particular in a political context – is little more than dubious propaganda. I also believe that most American consumers/voters are smarter than political leaders (and their armies of consultants and lobbyists) give them credit for, and will see through the most blatant messaging overhauls.
As luck would have it, I’ve been reading the results of Edelman’s excellent annual survey on trust. The survey suggests that trust of leaders and organizations is critical to influencing audience opinions and behavior (whether it be purchase, engagement or advocacy.) I think most of us would agree with that basic premise. But the study further argues that to build and sustain trust companies/leaders must focus on five key areas:
- Stakeholders want to see ENGAGEMENT behaviors like frequent, transparent communications and obvious care for employees and customers. There’s great faith built on the back of dialogue and interaction.
- They expect clear exhibition of INTEGRITY of business practices and responsible actions about issues. Again, transparency is key, since it’s inadvisable to go around bragging how high your integrity is.
- Quality PRODUCTS AND SERVICES seem like cost-of-entry, but this is a powerful way to build trust, especially with your innovation in evidence.
- Once upon a time, brands could truly differentiate themselves by addressing a greater PURPOSE than mere profit and valuation results. Purpose initiatives are more powerful than ever for bonding and setting oneself apart… but now it’s expected, if not demanded, that businesses work to protect the environment, address societal needs and impact their community.
- The fundamentals of the enterprise – OPERATIONS – are an important basis for trust; these include having highly regarded leadership, ranking among top companies and posting strong financial returns. And while you’re not likely to generate great increases in trust with these, if you fail, trust will plummet, and you’ll have much bigger issues to address.
I recognize the Edelman study focuses on companies and executives, rather than politicians or political parties. (On a side note, the survey shows that government lags business, media and NGOs in trust ratings, with the gap between government and business growing.) But I think the findings are quite relevant to this issue. It suggests that some of the old chestnuts of PR like “walk the talk” and “show me don’t just tell me” are still valid. In order to drive and sustain tangible changes in public attitudes and behavior, words (spoken or written) aren’t enough. It’s time politicians and executives commit to a more mature, comprehensive approach – where their actions, ideas and messages are real and aligned – to build credibility and support. I’ll be watching with interest how the GOP does with its “words first” approach.
I wasn’t surprised at all by the results of the US presidential election. Despite Republican conspiracy theories about the polls, I believed most were an accurate reflection of the mood of the electorate – or as accurate as polling can be. And I expected a majority of Americans would gravitate to a moderate position on key issues, and be scared off by some of the extreme, simplistic positions promoted by Republican candidates. What did really surprise me, however, was that Romney and his ardent supporters on Fox News seemed genuinely shocked, even flabbergasted, that Obama had won – and decisively at that.
I suggest the main cause of this surprise was the insular, persistent echo chamber constructed by conservative media pundits, the powerful PACs and the Romney campaign that promoted its own narrative at any cost. As a detached observer (I’m Canadian and therefore cannot vote in U.S. elections) it struck me that the conservative media machine was doing a great job telling their own supporters what they wanted to hear, but in the process they built a parallel universe that filtered out or discounted information that didn’t fit their narrative. They appeared to lose touch with the concerns, doubts and opinions of many voters. Witness the histrionic focus on conspiracy theories around the Benghazi attack in the days prior to the vote while most of the country, rightly, seemed far more concerned about the Sandy disaster.
Perhaps more surprising is that the Romney team went along for the ride. In short, they guzzled their own delusional cool-aid. In the process of pushing their message – again and again – and listening primarily to their fans (and billionaire supporters) while avoiding critics, the Romney team seemed to lose the pulse of the broader electorate. They forgot that the essence of a productive communication process is a dialogue, where listening is a key ingredient in delivering a relevant and credible message.
I’ve seen this same insularity and hubris in corporate settings. Some CEOs forcefully promote and execute their agenda with little care or understanding for their employees’ concerns and questions. They pay limited attention to employee feedback, and rely more on informal sources – often senior staff reluctant to share bad news – which fosters an artificial decision-making cocoon that becomes detached from the reality on the front-lines. As a CEO, losing touch with your audience increases the chance your outreach and policies will be duds, and that your employees will ignore, or worse reject, the top-down dictums.
The lesson here for communication professionals is that it’s fine to have an agenda and narrative you want to promote – even a partisan one – but doing so without careful, constant consideration for your audience and a realistic, open perspective is a recipe for disaster. In this case, electoral disaster. Despite the propensity to rely increasingly on partisan hype – a wall-of-sound of repetitive, shrill advertising and commentary – all the wishing and punditry in the world can’t change the reality on the ground. It’s understandable the Romney team didn’t want to show their true hand, but they certainly should have known their realistic prospects, and spent more time listening to the voters rather than their own hype.
In recent weeks I’ve been involved in several projects that revolve around that challenging, nebulous communication exercise called the “vision thing.” More specifically, I’ve worked with clients to help develop, or uncover, and articulate their corporate mission…or vision…or purpose.
As you can surmise by my last sentence, these type of engagements are often rife with confusing, overlapping terminology and unclear intent. In fact, the very labels used in this type of work usually spark negative reactions, if not yawns, for many employees. Still, this is critical work that can help to direct business decisions and boost employee morale, engagement and productivity.
On the surface, helping a company to crystallize its purpose – or reason for being in business – seems obvious. In fact, shouldn’t a company already know who it wants to be, and what it wants to stand for in the marketplace? In theory yes, but the reality is many organizations don’t have a credible, relevant purpose – or mission statement – that captures their core aspirations and corporate DNA. Even fewer of them have defined their identity and core values. Much of the work I’ve seen in this area is generic, trite and lacks relevance or credibility with both customers and employees. Think of the clichéd values on the wall (sometimes as many as 12!) or the vacuous mission statement with no apparent link to daily operations or goals.
With this context in mind, I’ve developed a short checklist to help organizations develop and execute a valid mission statement:
- Use words wisely – Knowing that many employees (and indeed professionals) are fuzzy about what these words mean and often tune them out, start by carefully selecting and clearly defining the labels you will use. Perhaps the most frequent confusion I’ve seen centers around purpose – which identifies a company’s fundamental reason for being, and captures key customer benefits and/or market differentiators – and strategy – which is a plan of action, or roadmap, to achieve the purpose.
- Connect the dots – A purpose will only make sense, and drive real change, if it’s part of a strategic framework that clearly outlines the various elements of an organization’s strategic plan. There is the purpose, or aspiration, which is linked to the strategy, or roadmap to achieve the purpose. Beyond that, there are typically related elements such as: core values that define the “how”, or desired behaviors; market differentiators; cultural tenets; and so on. Whatever the elements are – since these will differ based on circumstance and industry – their relationship and relevance should be clearly and consistently communicated.
- Don’t forget the brand – Linked to the point above, a purpose should also inform a company’s brand positioning. That means marketing messages and themes should reinforce, if not specifically mention, the key elements of the purpose. Many companies spend considerable time developing their brand essence or positioning, as well as related tag lines or campaign slogans. This marketing approach certainly has merit, but the process – and implicit messages – must be aligned both with the purpose and related themes the company is promoting with employees.
- Be credible – Having a purpose that is a stretch, or aspiration, is fine. In fact, the purpose can be so ambitious the company may never fully achieve it. But the purpose has to be realistic and based on true marketplace advantages and cultural differentiators.
- Walk the talk – As noted above, the key to a viable, relevant purpose is having a robust plan of action – or strategy – that firmly anchors the purpose to the company’s business operations. Everything the company does – all the way down to capital investments, performance reviews and team priorities – should be linked to achieving the purpose. In short, it can’t just be an idea or concept.
- Tell a story – Though in theory a purpose should serve to direct and motivate staff, too often they fail to engage and drive any meaningful action. There is huge opportunity to leverage the inherent passion and pride in a purpose through compelling, consistent communication across all audiences. Companies that do this well use all the tools and sophistication of marketing and storytelling to bring their purpose to life and illustrate best practices and positive outcomes.
- Be disciplined – A purpose isn’t going to do much good if there’s no discipline behind it. It should serve as the North Star for a company, and a litmus test for investment of time and resources. If an activity or investment doesn’t support the purpose, don’t do it.
- Think long term – Many companies often make a big splash to announce their new purpose (or new strategy) but often fail to follow-up with updates and illustrations that provide a sense of progress and success. Though short-term priorities and even strategies will change over time, a purpose should have a long shelf life. The key to sustaining relevance, therefore, is to give stakeholders are sense of if/how the purpose is being achieved, and what impact that is having on the company’s success.