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CommaKazi Speek

A blog (weblog) containing harsh realities, bitter truths and other reasons to smile

Thursday, June 30, 2005

How to Communicate with Employees

The 2005 International Conference of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) provided a forum for discussion of a critical issue for business: how to communicate effectively with employees.

The most rousing presentation of the IABC conference set off some of the most passionate discussions about effective employee communication. On Tuesday, TJ Larkin, a consultant and researcher in internal communications, discussed the topic, "Intranet, Paper or Face-to-Face: What Each Channel Does Best."

More than a decade ago, Larkin caused a stir among corporations with his best-selling book, "Communicating Change: Winning Employee Support for New Business Goals." Larkin's book advocated focusing attention on employees' direct supervisors to ensure that key messages would be supported by employees. He quoted research indicating that employees place the most trust in their direct supervisors when they want the "real facts."

Based on discussions following Larkin's latest presentation to the IABC, he is still causing a stir--and, according to two well-known and respected communications consultants, is still off-track.

Following Larkin's IABC presentation, I posted an effusive blog entry that accurately reported the audience's reaction to the presentation: a standing ovation. IABC Fellow Shel Holtz, ABC, posted his own detailed "deconstruction" of Larkin's findings on his blog. In Shel's deconstruction, he mentioned a point made against Larkin's book premise by Angela Sinickas, ABC, a well-respected consultant, presenter and authority on the topic of communication measurement.

As luck would have it, today I had the opportunity to ask the opinion of a well-known CEO, Mark Hurd of Hewlett-Packard. Hurd answered questions following his speech upon receiving the IABC’s 2005 EXCEL Award, the highest award given by IABC to a non-member. Later, I ran into Angela at the airport, and she graciously provided some insight as well.

I'll cover Hurd's speech more thoroughly on the IABC Cafe Press Corps blog in coming days, but I want to relay his answer to the question of employee communication here.

I told Hurd about the discussion underway regarding the role of CEO communication versus supervisor communication, and asked for his view on what works in his organization. This is a fairly accurate quote from him.

"I don't think that a CEO can replace the relationship of employees and their front-line supervisors," Hurd said. "But the CEO can provide a context relative to the whole company, to try to create clarity around the mission." He later provided a supporting comment while answering a separate question when he said, "When I promote, demote, recognize and reward people, I tell 30,000 people what I value." That is the essence of the CEO's influence.

When I asked Angela later at the airport about her opinion of Larkin's work, she pointed out a couple of "fallacious arguments" in Larkin's presentation. "He is a good speaker, who carries an audience along on a wave of sound bites," she said. "They may sound good, but they may not be factual."

Some points mentioned by Angela:
  • Larkin mentioned that "he has never seen any studies correlating CEO communications with employee trust." Angela has "seen many" that show a close correlation between CEO communication and employee trust in the CEO and organization.

  • Angela gave an example of one manufacturing client where measurements showed that the most trusted individual by employees was the plant manager. In fact, many supervisors within that company were new. "They were an employee's coworker the year before," she said. "Just because they were promoted, now the employee would want to hear what they think? I don't think so."

It's the age-old point, Angela added: You have to pick the right communication vehicle for the audience and the message.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Underestimating Tony Blair?

Is Tony Blair an underrated global leader? I felt like I received a well-deserved slap of reality this morning as I heard the perpective of a close Blair advisor. But after speaking later with some fellow communication professionals, I'm not so sure.

I certainly felt the shallowness of my US-centric political knowledge as I listened to an address by Lord Philip Gould, a leading European strategist in politics and public affairs, and long-time advisor to Prime Minister Blair. Gould addressed 1,500+ professional communicators at the 2005 International Conference of the International Association of Business Communicators.

The war in Iraq and global issues of debt relief and the environment get regular press coverage in the U.S. But I've read that coverage as an American, who sees the U.S. leading the charge, with other nations playing supportive roles. I know that Blair, at great political risk, has been a staunch supporter of the decision to overthrough the Iraqi dictatorial government. I haven't followed his efforts regarding the environment and debt reduction for nations.

As Lord Gould presented his talk titled, "The Leadership Lessons of Tony Blair," my appreciation of the prime minister increased. Gould stated that he was presenting lessons learned from Blair's approach to leadership. Don't ask me to list them all, because he talked too quickly. I really needed a PowerPoint slide! (Put that bat down, James Carville.)

I know that Lord Gould mentioned:

  • Substance (Have something to say)
  • Character (Make tough decisions and keep going through criticism)
  • Flexibility (Don't fight pointless battles--give-and-take as appropriate)
He also mentioned Strategy (Strategic Vision) and Purpose, but I don't know whether they were lessons learned, or portions of the three earlier bullets. All of these leadership points were linked by Gould to examples of how Blair has positively impacted the government and people of Britain.

But I don't know whether to believe Lord Gould's perspective on leadership, or his assertion that Blair's leadership style is the root of excitement brewing over his pending headship of the Group of Eight nations, set to meet next week in Britain.

Blair "fits comfortably into the world as it is, but is committed to changing it," Gould said. A couple of IABC members seated at the table with me said afterward that Blair didn't lead the charge on debt relief and the environment--he was reacting to a groundswell of support within the UK on those topics.

So just like the keynote speakers from the previous evening, Mary Matalin and James Carville, I was left with doubts as to which portions of the talk were fact, and which were spin.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

So Advanced, I'm Simple

That takeoff of a past advertising slogan described my situation (and mental state) aboard US Airways Flight 1609, headed toward Washington, DC.
I held a PC with more computing power than the units that helped put a man onto the Moon--but was totally frustrated by the time needed to boot up, pass all security checks and then wait for an endless number of applications to load.
We always tell people to "keep it simple." I see a discussion coming with IT staffs everywhere.
The way that we have to dummy down and slow down technology in the name of security or software product features can be frustrating. It's one unfortunate price that we pay because we live in a world where highly intelligent people spend their time trying to find ways to screw up other peoples' networks and devices--or steal their confidential information for financial gain.
The first of my sign-in hurdles was the company laptop encryption security log-in screen. The purpose of this screen is to prevent unauthorized users from using the laptop. Great concept, except that the Technical Services Center was so tired of fielding calls from frantic users who lost the login id and password, that they've taped both to the laptop. That's like me telling a burglar not to enter my home, but leaving the front-door key in the lock. I am interested in the security set-up for our Internet Cafe and WIFI hotspot.
Anyway, I entered the encryption key and had to wait for the next security check to load: the Windows log-in security screen. After another short boot-up wait, I was able to enter my company network and password, and then wait longer for my "personalized settings" to load. I wanted to check saved email off-line, but discovered that this laptop isn't configured to allow that. I heard a voice (I think it was the person sitting next to me) say, "Forget about it. Keep it simple and relax."
It will be extremely difficult to relax during the next few days. We have a terrific conference about to launch, and I am excited about providing commentary and feedback regarding experiences of people around me.
I'll be more relaxed and ready to write after I finish the accreditation exam tomorrow morning. I already have a restaurant recommendation for people looking for a moderately priced "where the townies eat" experience. And it's just a short walk from the Hyatt.
[ Technorati tag: iabc-international-conference-2005 ]

Friday, June 24, 2005

Ready to go

Finalized my itinerary for the 2005 IABC International Conference, and that has pumped me up! So much to see, hear and experience--then I have to try to express some of the more meaningful pieces to you in manageable bits. I can't wait!

If you are attending the IABC Conference, safe travels, and I'll see you there. If you can't get to the conference, comment on this blog to tell me what you want to know.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

On Second Thought

My initial blog entry for today was going to be a summary of my planning for the upcoming IABC International Conference. Exciting coverage of the clothes I'm planning to wear and the fact that I'm bringing my digital camera (to supplement my written conference coverage and to be ready in case I spot President Bush or Ben Bradlee).

Gratefully, I reread the draft post from the perspective of someone who is not me, and realized that I had fallen into a common trap. Some of the worst columns, advertising and lectures come from the minds of people who write for themselves, rather than for their audience.

It was a good reminder as I prepare to blog at the conference. My intention is to provide content that will be interesting and useful to a general audience. Stay tuned and let me know when I stay on track, or get lost and step in something repugnant to us all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

That Awkward Silence--Part 2

At times, troubling events affect me like allergy shots--building my immunity over time to forestall more intense reactions from subsequent events. ("Been there, done that, let's get on with life.") At other times, the troubling events are more like an allergic reaction to bee stings, where my sensitivity actually increases over time from repeated exposures. Friday's events surrounding the departure of my supervisor, the CIO, was more like a bad bee sting--and the swelling hasn't yet gone down.

As I wrote yesterday, I hate being the bearer of bad news that I can't communicate. Bearing the bad news until someone else (usually someone with more authority) lets it out is, very often, unbearable.

My discomfort with these announcements traces back to when I was an associate editor on a trade magazine for the hardware industry (that's "hardware" as in nails and cordless screwdrivers, not computers or printers). The editor at that time was a well-connected figure in the industry, regularly invited to participate in seminars, roundtables and golf outings at conventions and conferences. When the long-time publisher of the trade magazine died, he was replaced by someone who didn't care for the editor's work ethic--so after some time, the new publisher decided to fire the editor.

The publisher decided that he would build support and relieve anxiety among the remaining magazine staff by gathering us together to break the news...before telling the editor (who was on vacation at the time). Build support? Relieve anxiety? Exactly the opposite occurred, as we left the meeting and had to figure out how to act when the editor got the news.

I remember feeling like a traitor the morning that the editor returned to work, try to interact with him as he cheerfully talked about his vacation, and asked me what was new around the office. "Oh nothing much, same old stuff." I wanted to tell him that he was about to be fired, but I didn't want to risk souring relations with the new publisher. I disliked them both about equally at that time.

Later that day, the editor, visibly upset, called us into his office. "I've been fired," he said. "We know," I said, in one of my moments of personal transparency and ultimate stupidity. "Y-you knew? And you didn't tell me??"

Awkward silence. Repeated only a few times since, the latest being last Friday morning.

It still stings.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

That Awkward Silence

Not even spies and politicians like to keep secrets, so why would a professional communicator like me? That was the spot I was in last Friday when I and the CIO's other direct reports were pulled into a conference room and told that the CIO had just been terminated.

"We're writing an email now that will go out later today," the company president said. "Until then, don't say anything to anyone."

I left that meeting with a heavy heart and even heavier weight of responsibility. Although we regularly work to earn a seat at the table where important decisions are being made, we don't often talk about times like last Friday, when you can't do the thing that you do best: communicate. Sure, by being present at the meeting, I could convince the president and HR executive that we needed to schedule an all-IT meeting to be held later that day, and to quickly compile a list of Q&As. Things that should have been considered and planned long before Friday--but weren't.

As I walked quietly back to my desk, I was screaming inside! I listened to the usual chatter floating through the department. It was the calm before the storm. Just as I sent the first draft of Q&As to the printer, I heard the "ping" that signaled a new email arriving in my mailbox. It was the announcement of the CIO's departure. Chatter within the department died almost instantly. It was the calm within the "eye of the storm." Soon, the whispers began and reached the throbbing effect of a tree infested by cicadas. The whispers didn't make me as uncomfortable as the sporadic laughter that followed.

This wasn't the first time that I experienced the awkward silence of bad news. Tomorrow I'll write about the time when my boss learned about his termination AFTER his staff, and then confronted us!

Until then, do you have your own examples to share?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Of Pets & Blogs

Lessons I try to teach my children often help me as well. To combat requests for pet dogs, gerbils, fish and other creatures, I talk to my kids about responsibility; usually that disorients them until I can escape the room. Responsibility and possible disorientation hold true for blogs as much as for pet algae eaters.

It's easy to look at someone's blog and think, "I should get one of those." But before you leap into blog "ownership," you should answer the same questions that you would ask your child before bringing home a baby Welsh Corgi or other pet:

· Have you considered the long-term impact of this new "member of the family"?

· Who is going to care for it? What care does it need?

· Who is going to clean up its "messes"?

· Can you train it?

Let's look at each question.

Have you considered the long-term impact of this new "member of the family"? A new pet is cute and fun--for about two days. Then the reality of the commitment begins to sink in. The same is true of a blog. I kept pulling up my first blog post just to look at it. Now I'm disciplining myself to prepare a new blog entry every business day--fitting it into my other responsibilities. In other words, it's work!

Who is going to care for it? What care does it need? When I asked my kids who would clean the gerbil cage and pick up the dog poop, they shouted, "I will, I will." Now I have to threaten them before they clean the cage and give the gerbils fresh food and water. I hope the Geneva Convention doesn't cover house pets, because Salt and Pepper have a pretty strong case against us. Blogs have their own needs--fresh information on a regular basis and attention to comments from readers.

Who is going to clean up its "messes"? No example necessary for the pet side of this example. On the blog side, we can face ethical and legal ramifications from a post or a reply. For example, when I mentioned last Friday that my CIO had been let go, and how communications could have been handled better (more proactively), an email friend cautioned me. "Blogs are unknown territory in terms of legal ramifications, influence, etc. [Remember] that a lot of the people posting are self-employed consultants who don't have to answer to an organization. That allows them to be riskier/edgier in terms of content."

Good advice that leads to the final question: Can you train it? Any dog owner knows that the "training" you go through is more to teach you how to behave, not your dog. I'm still new at blogging, so time will tell. I wouldn't walk my pet too near the edge, and I have to watch where this blog goes as well. I like being close to the edge, but I don't like falling off without a golden parachute (which I don't have currently).

Friday, June 17, 2005

Crisis? What Crisis?

My IABC IT colleagues and I recently have been discussing communication challenges. I'm dealing with one of the bigger ones today (challenges, not IABC colleagues).

I was greeted at the start of the business day by a request to gather with the CIO's other direct reports in a conference room. There, the CIO's boss (company president) and the CIO's counterpart on the operation side of the business announced that the CIO was no longer a company employee. Good morning!

I went into crisis communications mode, and was glad that I did. The president hadn't considered meeting with the IT staff, and the counterpart was going to be gone on vacation all of next week! Tactfully, I suggested that we schedule a "town hall" meeting for later today, and that we begin to craft Q&As. I've tried to stay hooked into the communication planning, although some noticeable glitches have occurred.

· HR and the executives didn't bother to have me review the notice that went out company-wide, announcing the CIO's departure. So I groaned when I spotted the two misspellings and other grammatical errors. Professional? Yuo bett!

· Although the executives supported the idea of an IT town hall meeting, they were in a hurry to get to another meeting. So we didn't talk about the dozen IT employees in our four other locations who wouldn't attend the meeting. An IT supervisor took the initiative to set-up an audio-conference, which will provide some access--to ear pain from line static, if our Polycom is true to form.

Oh well, just about meeting time. Here we go...again!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Get Ready to Pop Off

If this blog appeared in a pop-up window, would you:

-Read it

-Delete it

-Never see it because your security software blocks all pop-up messages?

Earlier today, I participated in a webinar hosted by Astaro titled, "Astaro Security Gateway." That's "Gateway" as in, "Gatekeeper," as in "You Shall Not Pass!"

The webinar demonstrated how Astaro's product protects networks from computer viruses, Trojans, phishing scams and SO MUCH MORE. In fact, it even can search out and remove individual words from messages, so employees aren't offended by vulgar terms like those found on so many blogs today. (Prevent us from using the word, "excrement," and half of the blogs I read would look like electronic Swiss cheese.)

What do you think about pop-ups? Ever seen one used effectively to communicate a message?

I asked the Astaro presenter whether he would advise website developers to forget about pop-up windows because security solutions like Astaro's blocks them. His answer? "Unfortunately - website developer would never listen."

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

What to Expect

When you read my blogs from the IABC International Conference later this month, you should get a flavor of the event atmosphere, presenters, conference content and attendee reactions as seen through my filter. I'm not going to be controversial or outrageous just to attract readers--but my balanced view of things will uncover things that will make you smile, and things that will make you cringe. Guaranteed.

That's because the IABC Conference is planned and run by human beings, and human beings make mistakes. Errors in planning or arrangements, when presentations go awry, or errors in judgment, when otherwise good people goof up. Couldn't happen in a conference run by professional communicators? Uh, sure can. I've been there a lot--and benefited from it. I've learned the most about myself when I've had to see and correct my mistakes. As a professional communicator, I've learned great lessons when my messages were misunderstood or soundly thumped by others. Didn't always mean that my message was wrong, or that their opinion was right. It meant that my communication wasn't effective--for them.

I'm excited about spending four days with a hotel full of people who live and breathe communication. Who continually try to improve their process for determining and crafting effective communication strategies and messages. Opinions, advice and insightful revelations will be bouncing off the walls. I plan to grab as many as my brain and laptop can gather, sift the useful grains from the chaff, then put them on the blog for your review, reflection and comment.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

First Stop: The Accreditation Exam

Think of me at 8 a.m. Sunday, June 26 as you prepare to leave for the IABC International Conference. Actually, pray for me if you're of a spiritual persuasion (as I am)--because I'll be starting the IABC Accreditation Exam. Not that I need supernatural intervention; I'm just hedging my bet.

If you've come to expect to see those "ABC" initials following the names of IABC conference and seminar speakers--but haven't thought of pursuing accreditation yourself--consider this an invitation to join the accreditation party. My invitation came via a colleague in the Chicago Chapter of IABC, who told me about a wonderful mentoring program there for accreditation candidates. I joined a small group of candidates and accredited professionals, who shared experience, strength and hope as we completed our professional portfolios and prepared for the exam.

Unlike other professional certification and accreditation programs of which I'm familiar, the IABC accreditation exam is not "pass/fail." It has four sections, and offers the opportunity to re-take any section that a candidate doesn't pass on the first try. I'm taking that opportunity at the International Conference. (Doesn't that sound nicer than, "I didn't pass the entire exam on the first try"?)

Many people need to re-take one or more sections of the exam, according to my IABC accreditation mentors (hello, Joanne and Mary). Their encouragement is one of many examples of how the mentoring process benefits accreditation candidates. I've already volunteered to help the next group of Chicago Chapter accreditation candidates. Of course, I want to be an ABC when I offer my advice to them!

I already can rattle off several personal and professional rewards that have come from my work on accreditation. If you want more encouragement, send me an email or find me at the International Conference--after the exam.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Not Ready Yet

Where is the time going? Less than two weeks from the start of the IABC International Conference, and I feel VERY unprepared. Sure, I have the basics covered (my flights, hotel and All-Inclusive Registration), but I have a lot of work left to do.

I volunteered to blog about the conference sessions and events that I attend. So I need to decide which sessions and events to cover. The choices are wonderful, but I've already found two cases where sessions that I want to attend are scheduled at the same time.

1. Tuesday Business Breakfasts: I have to choose between "Cutting-edge practices in communication planning and management" (where the "best and the brightest [will] share cutting-edge trends and practices") and "The future of organizational communication," where I will catch a glimpse of the future. Tough choice!

2. Wednesday morning sessions: This is truly unfair: how can I pick only one of the following concurrent sessions?
AS.2: Influencing employee attitudes (Strategy & Counsel) Presenter / James Lukaszewski, ABC, APR / New York, USA
AS.3: Strategic communication planning (Business Management) Presenter / David Moorcroft / Ontario, Canada
AS.4: The new role of print publications: Using print to engage, teach and motivate employees (Employee Communication) Presenter / Steve Crescenzo / Illinois, USA
AS.5: The site is right: The best of the web and intranets, 2005 (Future Trends) Presenters / Shel Holtz, ABC / California, USA Toby Ward / Ontario, Canada
AS.6: Driving business performance through employee engagement (Strategy & Counsel) Presenter / Susan M. Suver / New York, USA
AS.7: Using research to manage change at Arizona State University (Public Relations) Presenter / Wilma Mathews, ABC / Arizona, USA

Clone me…quickly!

Tomorrow, I'm going to discuss the real reason for my anxiety about conference preparation: the IABC accreditation exam.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Getting Ready

I volunteered to blog during the upcoming IABC International Conference for the following reasons:
  • - It would help me to focus during the conference

  • - It would broaden my networking efforts

  • - It would force me to dive into this blogging thing

  • - Warren asked for volunteers, and it seemed like a good idea at the time

Getting started with something often is the biggest hurdle to jump, and that is true in this case. I've had to find a way to blog (Blogger.com) and then create this site. Although the process was painless and relatively quick (no more than an hour from start to typing this message), it does take some learning.

I'm looking forward to sharing more with you, and learning how best to use this communication channel.