The Value of Bad News

Business, Business Communications, Communications, Leadership

An interesting article caught my eye recently on the importance of listening. It specifically looks at senior leadership and the challenges of remaining connected to the full organization while creating an environment that fosters sharing and listening across levels. The article is titled Are You Really Listening? via Harvard Business Review (limited number of articles per month free or for subscribers) and is worth a read in full.

For years, CEOs and other senior leaders (corporate, agency, and nonprofit) have often struggled alone in managing the pressures they face. Despite being in charge of hundreds or even thousands of employees, it can be a very lonely role. The expectation exists to be confident and strong in their decision making, to always have a handle on what’s coming next. Studies have shown that many CEOs don’t feel that they can have someone internally with whom they can be truly open and honest in working through ideas or challenges they face.

Because of these pressures and challenges, it is easy to become disconnected from those with lines of sight to the day-to-day operations. It’s also common for information moving up the chain to be revised at each step to appear more positive. Managers and directors along the way don’t want to be the bearer of bad news either so senior leaders may be receiving filtered information that paints things in the manner that staff “believe” leadership wants.

“At the core of the challenge is a paradox in the life of senior leaders, particularly CEOs: They generally have access to more lines of communication than anybody else has, but the information that flows to them is suspect and compromised. Warning signals are tamped down. Key facts are omitted. Data sets are given a positive spin.”

Are You Really Listening? – Harvard Business Review

There are a number of great takeaways within the article and Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer provide quality insights so I won’t repeat those but one aspect that I’d like to expand on is the importance of accepting, and actually encouraging, staff to share bad news.

In my career, this has been one of the major challenges that most organizations face. It’s hard to share bad news, really hard. Every employee wants to perform well and succeed so sharing news like “the promotion isn’t working” or “customers don’t want our new solution” with your boss can be a scary proposition. The first time I ever made a mistake at work, which turned out to be a relatively easy to fix once I summoned the courage to raise it, I was absolutely sure I was going to be fired and finding a new line of work. Yet I’m still here 25 years later thanks to a great boss that probably saw the fear on my face and calmly talked through a couple options to get things back on track.

To empower staff to share information openly, consider the following:

Directly communicate the importance of unfiltered updates– The best way to convey your need for essential, open information is to state it early for all employees. The information coming in from all sources in the organization must work together to provide the organization with the flow of real-world feedback needed to succeed. As a manager or leader, you can’t do your best work without the support of employees in their roles. Be sure every employee knows that as well.

Walk the talk in supporting culture- It is easy to say “come to me with anything” but without a system in place and backing from the top of the organization that statement rings hollow. The first time any employee comes to you with a concern or bad news, how you react will set the tone for the future interaction with them and anyone else that knows of the issue. A disappointed look, frustration, or anger will carry more weight than any policy they’ve read. You begin building trust from day one and you continue to earn it over and over with each update, good or bad.

Create regular touchpoints to listen and clarify- Establishing a regular cadence of updates from all levels of the team allows senior leaders to have timely, open updates. Putting the pieces together from all sources of information throughout the organization is the responsibility of leadership. To do that, they need full access to information but that also requires focused listening.  A meeting can shift into something that just has to be done and then on to the next one, particularly for remarkably busy individuals. Don’t make that mistake and slip into turning a valuable commitment into a missed opportunity. To gain the strategic value from listening, you must be fully present to hear what is being said and take the opportunity to clarify and ask questions. Actively listening provides employees with the confidence that they are valued and trusted while senior staff get the insights they need to effectively set the right strategic direction for all.

Overcoming Obstacles and Inspiration

Business Communications, Communications, Life

In 2020, one positive that came from such an unusual year with more time at home was a re-birth of time spent reading by so many of us. While I didn’t get through as many books as I personally hoped, (it was still an odd year with plenty of other things to deal with) finding ways to learn through traditional business education or inspiration to think was a critical way for so many to keep some balance in an upside-down world.

I recently completed Fear Is A Choice which is the story of James Conner and all he learned in facing cancer as a young athlete. Initially, I wanted to read this book mainly as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan but as I read I found much more. Conner recounts his experience as a college player with dreams of the NFL, through diagnosis and treatment, to ultimately learning to embrace the new role he carries as a face for thousands of others facing cancer.

Through his personal journey, Conner gained wisdom beyond his years and I found myself thinking about how many of his messages are true values that can apply to our professional lives in addition to being great advice for daily life.

A few highlights included:

  • The more you are able to recognize the people who are walking beside you, in whatever capacity they can, the more grateful you will become for the allies you have, and the stronger you will feel.

    This was included appropriately enough within a chapter titled “Recognize Your Team” which we overlook far too often during tough parts of our professional journeys. When you consider this in the context of a career, it’s a pretty powerful concept. In a year when so many faced significant career change, think about those that have made an impact on your professional journey and how much it means when someone really believes in you, and walks with you during the challenging days. Take the opportunity to look around from time-to-time and do all you can to walk beside others whenever you can too.
  • You are in your position, living out your story for a reason. You were uniquely created to do something with the exact circumstances you’re facing. Your story exists for you… Don’t wish yourself into someone else’s life. Don’t wish yourself out of your own story.

    Over the course of your career, there will be success and failure. Everyone will be faced with both and often times the grass always looks greener on the other side, but the obstacles hold the potential to be the moments that transform us.

    For young professionals, please know that while you may not be where you want today, don’t run from or rush your story- it’s meant for you. For my fellow gray-haired friends, your story continues to grow and may even change dramatically from where you’ve been and that can be THRILLING.

  • Your courage to engage life with passion and chase your dreams despite setbacks sends a message to others. By coming out the other side of a challenging time stronger than ever, you are carrying a little bit of their fear and discouragement; you are making their load a little lighter because they know you’ve already walked this road.

    It’s been a year— we’re all working through things together and every time you do something brave you inspire the next person behind you. At a time when inspiration is needed, the work you choose and how you react to challenges can be more meaningful to others than you may ever know.

Welcoming a New Year. What Lies Ahead?

Communications, Growth, Life

I’ve always been centered on goals. Even as a kid I set goals like a maniac. Everything was centered around competition and achievement, mainly with myself. It went well beyond basics like grades in classes and included daily goals in terms of my athletics. Make the shot 80 percent of the time, the ball hits specifically here 10 times in a row, one more set of steps or weights to break your record. This kind of goal-setting and competitive view is hard-wired into me.

Like many people this time of year, we look back at the year and what we’ve achieved and what lies ahead. I also expect that for many goal-setters, this year creates a whole new experience in this assessment process. Over the years, many of my professional goals have centered around titles and milestones.

For 2021, I certainly have some concrete goals as a new business owner that are specific and centered in traditional metrics but more involve others than ever before. More are focused on the impact that I, and each of us, can have on each other. It’s been a hard year for everyone. It’s been a hard year for Minnesota. It’s been a hard year for many I know personally.

As I look at how I can be better, professionally and personally, some non-traditional goals include:

  • Connect with partners, former colleagues, and others I can help weekly: This can be a simple call. A Zoom coffee chat. Mainly though, I can’t wait for in-person conversations and spending time hearing more from others again on how they are working to adapt to our current world. It’s easy to do but it’s also easy to ignore. We collectively become so busy and it’s easy to lose track of people that we value as colleagues, mentors, and friends.
  • Identify and work on behalf of organizations that transform my community: One of the core goals I have in working independently is to have the chance to help others. This year has pushed so many people from “getting by” to struggling or true crisis. I hope that one of the long-lasting positives we can take from our loss-filled, strained year is a caring for others. This important part of us has always existed but came to the surface again as we work through a pandemic, the tipping point of social justice issues, and economic struggles.
  • Spend time in thought on what’s next for the industry and how communications must evolve: When my father passed away, I received a publication from the Society of Real Estate Appraisers (he was an appraiser and Realtor) which included comments from him on adapting at a time of great change in that industry. It included “…use your time learning new skills, finishing educational hours, researching or relaxing at the beach.” This came to mind this year as there was more unstructured time in most of our lives than we’ve ever had before. We must collectively continue to think and plan for what may come but also allow moments to breathe and just think.

What did you learn in 2020 that you’ll bring forward into your goals? How can we strive to do better in 2021 as we all seek to create a better year and a better world?

I wish you all a Happy New Year and a transformational 2021!

The Slime Gets Everyone Dirty

Communications, Public Relations, Writing

I was excited recently when I happened to see a link to an article from The Economist on PR. I knew it would obviously be a bit on the sensational side given the title of “Slime-Slinging” that screams link bait but I really love the writing in the publication. The article takes a look at the recent mess that is the Google vs. Facebook debacle and was interesting indeed but I was again irritated by the painting of all PR people as the evil slimy underbelly portion of the “new” media environment.

I think at the core my real problem is that despite the vast majority of PR people operating in an ethical manner it’s seemingly always a fun story to write about the bottom of the barrel. However, if we’re going to get at these issues honestly then let’s really do it.

There are bad PR people who operate very questionably and will sell their ethics

Or maybe they never had ethical standards in the first place. Yes, it’s sad but true and I will concede this but I’ve been working in the communications industry 15 years now and would say that there have only been a handful out of a thousand plus I’ve known who truly missed Morality 101. It’s really unfortunate when things like this happen and chasing a story or the almighty dollar becomes a priority and someone is willing to throw their reputation and career out the window. However, most communications pros understand that all you have at the end of the day is your credibility and integrity. If I am going to work in this industry I must always remain honest, upfront, and seek to provide good counsel to clients, employers, as well as bloggers and journalists. Most of us understand this point.

There are journalists that aren’t saints either

Again, the very, very vast majority of journalists I’ve worked with over the years are honest, credible, good professionals. Yet if we really want to open this discussion up and have a conversation on what our new media environment looks like with the rise of blogs, social media, and citizen journalism we need to acknowledge that there are a few journalists that don’t like playing by the rules either. It happens.  In truth this particular sentence in The Economist bothers me a lot on the hypocrisy scale, “The PR flacks who did Facebook’s dirty work were two ex-journalists who had only recently gone over to the dark side.” Really, just recently went to the dark side? Clearly nobody could’ve been an ethical question mark until crossing into the PR world right? The fact that these journalists weren’t trained in PR ethics is part of the problem as they likely believed the myth that any journalist makes a good PR pro. It showed they don’t know where the line is in working credibly with a client or they didn’t care. It’s the people, not the job.

There are bad bloggers, writers, and social media snake oil salespeople

Anytime there’s a new market it takes a few years to settle in and become a functioning (or at least semi-functioning) environment. It has been a pretty long-standing joke with many in the social media community around how thousands instantly became self-appointed “gurus”, “ninjas”, or “rockstars” in the online community. Opening up to new viewpoints and ideas has been one of the truly great benefits of all these new channels. The ability to connect with smart people professionally or personally regardless of location has transformed how we collectively communicate but it also requires that everyone looks with a critical eye on who is worthy of trust. Because someone has a great looking blog or a large follower base on Twitter shouldn’t grant them a free pass to report or publish anything under the sun as gospel truth.

The Burson Marsteller, Facebook, Google mess is an example of what happens when people lose sight of their ethics. Let’s not look at this only as a PR problem though. It’s a credibility problem, one that impacts all of us working in communications regardless of what “side” you’re on.  The day I compromise my morals and can’t look my colleagues in the eye or can’t tell my daughter that I’m proud of what I do is the day I need to leave.

I think a real discussion of the issues facing PR, media, and bloggers would be outstanding and I’d greatly appreciate viewpoints and representation from all of them here.

How can we collectively work to boost credible collaboration so all of us aren’t smeared with the same slime generated by a few?

*initially posted on http://www.prevolutionblog.com

Don’t Fear the Financials

Business, Business Communications, Communications, Finance

finance, financial PR, annual reports, PR mathOne of the great misconceptions about the communications industry is that it is just a creative industry. Only right-brain people need apply and it’s all about being a “people person” and connecting.  Those are fine traits but communications professionals must be balanced and there remains an inherent fear in a lot of PR or communications people to tackle math and financials.

The truth is that it isn’t that hard to pick up a decent level of financial understanding and I have great faith in my communications colleagues. It’s just a matter of practice and taking the time to work through a few examples. Being able to read an annual report effectively is an important start so you can understand the current state of your company, clients, or competitors. By just walking through a few tutorials, you can understand all the basics needed to find important information about a company in those seemingly confusing sections. As a starting point, check out this How to Read an Annual Report post which provides a nice step-by-step process and examples.

From there, communications pros that are a bit shy about annual reports, 10k filings, and regulatory documents might be pleasantly surprised what intelligence and research is already out there about companies that will help improve their own work. After getting a few of those basics down, try checking out a site like Investopedia to work through the next steps like economic indicators, analyzing earnings (earnings calls are another great source of information for communicators by the way), and mergers and acquisitions. Or check out a book like Finance and Accounting for Nonfinancial Managers by William Droms and work through it at your own pace.

This isn’t to say you need to be a CPA to be an outstanding communicator but it also doesn’t hurt, especially when working with business leadership who are responsible for every number reported in that annual report. As with anything else, adding another strength to your creative communications toolbox is a good thing and these tools and resources can be helpful for anyone starting out learning more about finance.

What has your experience been working with finance departments or leadership? Is the relationship challenging or have you found tips to bring together the creative and concrete parts of your organization?