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.

Learning More About Moral Leadership

Leadership

Really interesting and important research from The HOW Institute for Society as shared by the World Economic Forum on the true desire for moral leadership. This is not a call for just CEOs and formal leaders, but those of all levels that influence and lead others. It’s always been relevant but in greater focus now given well, everything the last year or so has thrown at us.

It’s fascinating to see some of the many findings that are far from complex in concept- as an example, “79% of respondents agree that their organizations would make better business decisions if they followed a golden rule: treat others as you would have them treat you.” This is what most of us learned at home before even starting school. Treat your teams with compassion, treat each other as humans and not just workers, and know that everyone is working to balance many roles in their lives. These are real factors in how teams perform and overlooking the human piece in leading an organization will ultimately leave you short of optimal results.

One of my favorite pieces in the report:

These leaders are not simply well-behaved, they stimulate action by anchoring their daily work – and the work of those around them – in a principled vision of what is good for the world. Moral leaders are advocates who see the humanity in everyone and take the time to build unique and deep relationships. They see people not as means, but as ends in themselves. They listen and learn from those they lead and are often more inclusive.

Read the full report from The HOW Institute for Society and consider how you can continually learn and improve your own moral leadership skills and enjoy better performance.

Reflecting, Remembering and Learning

Leadership, Life

American Flag, September 11, 9/11, AmericaThere will be a ton of posts today talking about the impact of September 11 on our world. I’m going to go a bit off script of this blog and the communications focus today as well though I will note only that the lessons learned about belief, honor, and doing what’s right apply to everyone in whatever you do.

In 2001 we collectively saw the most horrendous moment in many of our lifetimes, especially for those of us that hadn’t lived through Vietnam or World War II. An attack on U.S. soil was something that seemed unimaginable. I, like so many others, began my morning at work before any news of the Towers came in. I heard on the radio first that a plane had crashed into the first tower. I assumed it to be a tragic accident. I went online and looked to find more but sites were overloaded and locked up. Our office turned on a television in a conference room and we began to realize the magnitude of what really happened.

In the days and weeks that followed, our world truly changed forever as we heard stories of immeasurable loss that have stayed with me for a decade now. I can’t imagine the fear of not knowing if a loved one made it out or not. The hurt of so many children who lost their parents in an instant. The feelings of those on the planes and realizing what was happening.

However, today as I look at the events of 9/11 I also see many things that we should honor and remember.

  • Sacrifice- I recall the images of amazing people from FDNY, NYPD, emergency responders and citizens moving toward the Towers while others were trying to get out. Hearing their stories and the story of those on Flight 93 including a Minnesota native, Tom Burnett Jr., who gave their lives to try to prevent that day from being even more deadly all deserve our respect.
  • Belief- There was an unwavering belief from all those noted above and involved that they could make a difference and help. Sometimes the worst and hardest moments in our lives bring out the best in us. On that day, there was no question and no hesitation from people all across our country but just a desire to do whatever they could to help others. There was also a belief that America was worth defending and fighting for.
  • Unity- In an era where politicians can’t wait to take credit for the good and blame the bad on others, Americans came together and ignored our differences and a spirit of unity and teamwork developed and we were all united. An attack on one of us was an attack on all of us and it was a great feeling to see people here in the Midwest and all over supporting our citizens on the East Coast.

After ten years and time to reflect it’s still painful to think of that day and what it meant. My daughter will never know a world without the underlying threat of terrorism and I have to explain why anyone would ever do such a thing. I think of all those who lost family and friends that awful day. I think of many friends and people I love in New York and am so thankful they’re here today but know I can never fully understand the meaning of this day in their lives.

However, I am proud that New York and the United States got back up and rebuilt and we go on. We remember, we hurt, but we also hope for a brighter future and that our children will never know another day like that Tuesday morning where our world changed.

Five Ideas to Repair the Credibility of PR

Business, Communications, Leadership, Public Relations

Photo courtesy of DoktorSpinn under Creative Commons.There’s an issue that has always been a challenge for a lot of good PR people and it rears its ugly head a few times each year.  How can PR improve its own reputation?  I had a couple of reminders on the need for this work recently from very different sources.

First off I saw an interesting post from Keith Trivitt on PR Breakfast Club titled Ethical vs. Unethical: A Lot Rides on Only 2 Letters that highlighted yet another case where PR ethics were called into question around paid toy pitches that were framed as “expert” opinion.  Of course the problem is the expert was a front.  Transparency? Nah, why bother.  Focus on the audience? Crazy.

The second time the issue of our professional credibility came up was a chat I had with the stylist cutting my hair.  She asked what I did and I explained a bit about my varied communications work. She was surprised by the variety of efforts I mentioned.  She shared that she essentially thought of PR as promoting celebrities. Ugh.  She asked more about if PR could actually drive customers to a business like hers.  I explained that it sure better or you’re wasting your money and your PR person isn’t doing their job.

The professional of public relations has been relegated to the world of used car sales credibility for too long.  What can we do to improve the reputation of our field? Here are a few starters:

  • Highlight broader knowledge: The discipline of PR isn’t just media relations, it never has been.  Working with the media is an important skill but so is understanding product positioning, recognizing the importance and value of strong corporate reputation, and how online engagement has changed the dynamics of customer interaction.  Many PR professionals are handling all this and more everyday and their credibility is undermined by the type of PR people who believe the only credentials our profession requires are a good smile and the ability to raise a martini glass.
  • Industry advocacy: Our industry needs to continue to work on its own image.  At a national level, PRSA has been working to highlight the importance of ethical behavior and has a code of ethics for its members.  However, I think the industry needs to go further to push forward on what essentially equates to a campaign for itself to fight the stereotype of PR that continues to be pushed out by idiotic representations like The Spin Crowd.
  • Greater transparency:  Many of the problems surrounding the industry stem from questions around the motives of professionals and what is happening behind the scenes.  The toy review case mentioned earlier is a great example of what happens when your strategy is “let’s hope nobody notices or finds out.”  If that concept is ever raised in a meeting you know where its going to end up.  The need for transparency is well documented and is more important now than it ever has been as we live in an era where nearly everything can be tracked digitally.  If you aren’t comfortable with your name appearing next to your work on a billboard it’s a sign that you might want to rethink the idea.
  • Training: These issues can be very muddy to discern, especially when you’ve not faced them in the past, and greater training and education would benefit the industry in the long run.  Again, greater emphasis on real-world ethical case studies via PRSA programming could go a long way to providing guidance.  As could commitments from many of the larger agencies in the field.  A high percentage of younger pros get their first shot in PR from agencies and there are certainly some agencies out there that are part of the problem but many could also have a tremendous impact on industry reputation by including ethical decision-making as a key point of ongoing training.  By investing time on employees early on, they also protect their own reputation to avoid train wrecks that hurt the business like the FTC issues for Reverb and the industry.
  • Accountability: We are all responsible for this.  If you care about your own future in this industry and want to be able to hold your head high saying you work in public relations, you need to take steps to hold yourself as well as the companies and clients you serve to higher standards.  Take time to think about these issues and question those that would push you to compromise your values.  It’s ultimately your reputation and name on the line.

What else can we do to improve the expectations within our profession?  How can we take some time to repair our own image?   Add your ideas and share them with others so we can all feel good about the amazing work being done in our field and its future.

Kids Teaching the Workplace: Three Tips to Getting Along

Business Communications, Communications, Leadership, Life

It’s that time of year again where students of all ages head back to school.  From kindergarten to grad school, brilliant minds are being molded and shaped. So why are office dynamics still so challenging? Why is it that seemingly grown adults still get caught in “I don’t like so and so from marketing, they just have it out for me.”

I wish I had the one solution…I’d be an instant “business guru” making $50k a day on the corporate speaking circuit. (*Note here- I may not be a guru but if you like this post, I’m significantly cheaper that the $50k crowd. Call me.)  Thus, like any good communications professional, I went to my best source.  I asked my wonderful, brilliant daughter to share how people should work to get along.  Her points are brilliantly simple and truly do remind me of the principle of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  Really, after years of study we should all know this but here goes.

1) We get along because we’re one class.  We’re a team.

An honest point and realistic understanding that, unless you’re the CEO, you aren’t going to have the ability to build your team *exactly* as you might like.  Fact is you’re always going to have different personalities, styles, and talents on any team.  It’s not always fun to work with, or for, people who you may not love but the sooner you can accept that life isn’t always a bed of roses the better.  You’ve got your team, the key is to best fit in and make the team better in any way you can.

2) If we disagree, we still get along.

Really? Kids at five and six get this, why don’t we?  Disagreement happens and in the grown-up world it can actually be a good thing.  In my experience, if you never disagree it means that you’re probably not trying hard enough and thinking about ideas that will really make a difference.

There are ways to disagree professionally.  It shouldn’t be a personal issue when someone questions an idea or a particular effort.  Give feedback that will move you toward the ultimate good of the company and accept feedback or questions that do the same.

3)  If we have problems, we talk to the person first.  Then you go to a teacher after you try to work it out.

Seriously, if everyone did this there’d be so much less drama at the office.  It is so much more effective to go to “Bob” in accounting if you’re having an issue than complaining to your boss about Bob. Nobody (CEO’s, Presidents, Exec Directors) likes a crybaby.  If you haven’t even made an effort to professionally resolve a potential issue with a colleague before raising the issue with your boss and making it a high corporate priority you very much risk damaging your own reputation as much or more than that of the person you’re discussing.  Obviously there will be times in your career when higher-level intervention is needed and there are cases when a co-worker is seriously inappropriate and in need of an attitude adjustment.  Just be sure you’ve done all you can reasonably can do to solve the issue directly first before pointing fingers.

I had a blast hearing how simple this all seems to a child.  What else have you learned and what other tips do you have to avoid needless office headaches?