Tag : leadership communications

Storytelling needs a narrative

I’m kind of sick of everyone in business talking about storytelling.  It’s become a buzzword that people don’t truly understand or know how to use.

If you’re in marketing or corporate communications you’ve been in that strategy meeting where someone inevitably says, “We need to do more  storytelling.”

But most leaders, marketers and communicators don’t really know what to say when they’re told to “tell a story.”

“About what? To what end?,” many wonder. Others push back, “Oh, I don’t like telling stories about myself.”

Here’s my take.  Before telling useful stories,  organizations need a narrative, the reason for being.  The uber purpose.  The big picture context.  Then it becomes much easier for people to share anecdotes and stories that support  that narrative. More importantly, it helps the people —  citizens, employees, customers  — understand what’s important and  how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

A narrative is like a clothesline,  and you hang your policies from it, says David Gergen, communications adviser to four U.S. presidents. Similarly, companies hang its products and services from the clothesline.

Narratives are simple explanations.  You shouldn’t need training for people in the organization to “get it.” (A communications executive of a global company told me that his company has a narrative, but I’d have to read the PowerPoint deck to really understand it.  Sounds like there’s more work to do.)

Here are a few examples:

  • The narrative of the United States has been about exploring.  For Israel it’s protecting and defending.
  • For Nike it’s about serving and honoring the inner athlete.  Patagonia is about doing no harm to the environment.
  • Southwest Airlines’ makes it simple and fun to fly. FedEx absolutely, positively delivers the best customer experience.
  • My company’s narrative is about creating clarity from complexity.  The Rebels at Work movement is helping corporate rebels inside large organizations be more successful in creating positive change. An executive coach friend is about helping strong leaders become better people.

These narratives can be like North Stars — a fixed point in the sky that can be used to guide decisions, serve as a organizing prompt for telling relevant stories, open up thinking about new products or ways to work.

Narratives can also be a quest.  I like John Hagel’s view in this Forbes article:

Story chronicles the path and progress of a limited set of protagonists – from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a story arc.  Narratives, in contrast, are designed for a growing number of protagonists — many of whom are yet to be defined — who share a common quest or journey that is yet to be fully resolved or completed.

How do we find our narrative?

To help companies find their narrative, I invite people to think of their organization as a cause or movement and speed write a rallying cry, starting with a verb.  Or  quickly write many responses to the “I believe that ….” prompt about their organization or company. No over-thinking, self-editing or  corporate speak.  Just ideas, beliefs and aspiration, from the gut.

I’ve also been suggesting to marketing and corporate communications executives that they NOT make this a formal process.  Take some narrative possibilities and insert them into casual business conversations. Then into some presentations as a way of setting context to your ideas.  See how people react. Ask them, “Does this help you better understand our strategy?  Do you see how this new product line fits with our overall business?  Can you imagine how this policy falls outside of our focus?  Is this something you’d like to be part of?”

See how well the narrative serves you. If it works,  quietly seed it so it can grow and serve others without bringing in committees, copywriters, lawyers or naysayers.  Insert it into the CEO’s talking points.  Use it to frame the next acquisition or product launch.  If it helps, then make it better known and  part of the company’s leadership strategy.

And if it doesn’t resonate? Keep experimenting.

Finding a narrative gives your organization meaning.

And meaning changes everything.


Additional reading:

“Still Waiting for the Narrator in Chief: Why the president lost his ability to tell a story,” by Matt Bai, New York Times Sunday Magazine, 11/4/2012.

“The Pull Narrative: In Search of Persistent Context” by John Hagel









Will Obama fairness message stick?

Note: Every four years I start following political communications strategies they way some people follow sports.  Like sports, political strategies can be focused, executed with creativity and discipline, and inspire the fans. Similarly they can be a train wreck. 

I think President Obama is onto a potentially powerful message strategy in his campaign speeches. Now, he needs to support that platform  with emotional stories, and convey the three essential messages more clearly and consistently.

The platform is essentially about fairness.

In America we’ve always been greater together than on our own. We succeed when we’re all rising. This  big, inclusive, generous, bold, ambitious vision of America is what’s at stake, is what we’re fighting for.

  1. Every American gets a fair shot if they’re willing to work hard to get ahead.
  2. Every American needs to do their fair share.
  3. Every American plays by the same set of rules.

Our brains react to five threats or rewards: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Choosing fairness is both an American value and connects with the 99 percent who are outraged at the inequities of the one percenters, which both Romney and Gingrich are.

Scientists have also found that fairness can be linked to achievement.  “Fairness between strangers at the individual level is what allows social organisms to thrive, and to out-compete more selfish societies, ” according to a Fast Co. article last year about a study done by evolutionary scientist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia.

While I think most voters want the “certainty” brain circuits lit in this election — more jobs, stable housing prices, assurances about no new taxes, withdrawal from Middle East — those are things that no politician should promise as he or she has so little control over those outcomes.

But fairness? Fairness provides an opportunity for all boats to rise. And who doesn’t want a better country for themselves AND their family, friends, neighbors and countrymen?

If I were running the Obama campaign I would support the platform by:

  • Share stories of Americans — famous and everyday — who have gotten a fair shot, succeeded, and give back.  Make the message real, emotional and aspirational through individuals’ stories.  Even the President’s own.
  • Highlight people who are doing their fair share — and then some. Social entrepreneurs. Small business owners committed to their employees and their communities. Community college teachers. Hospice nurses.  Tireless community volunteers.  Generous individual donors to vital non-profits. You can whine about how unfair life is, or you can do. Celebrate the doers.
  • Give concrete examples of distorted rules that need to be changed to level the playing field. Specifics make a message real.

During his first term President Obama has not emotionally connected as well as he could with Americans, and what he most believes in seems kind of vague to the average Joe and Jane. People don’t want wonk-ish  explanations. They want to be inspired.

While I am comforted to know that a leader has the intellectual chops to lead amid complexity, most people want a president who “gets them” — feels their pain, their hopes — and has the conviction to make things happen to address those pains and hopes.

Conviction is emotional, passionate, fierce and focused.

Obama potentially can deliver on this. Romney, not so much. Gingrich, potentially.

Let the election communications strategies begin in earnest!

Open a can of worms

“How do you think the elephant got in the room?” my friend Maria DeCarvalho asked as we were talking about a messy corporate situation.  “Someone lets them in when they’re small.  Most of us see them but don’t have the courage to recognize a potential problem and get rid of it before it grows into an elephant.”

A  frank and generous executive coach, Maria believes that knowing how to have difficult conversations is an essential leadership skill — and one that few of us have ever been taught.

Rather than ignore signs of disagreement, negativity or skepticism, she encourages people to learn how to open  a can of worms. “You find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long.”

Here’s Maria’s recent blog post explaining how to open up a can of worms. More of her sage advice can be found on her blog.

People are always communicating. Always.

I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of conversations or meetings in which you’ve noticed others roll their eyes, cross their arms, raise their eyebrows, press their lips together, pull out their smartphones, look down or away, exchange quick glances across a table, or just sit there and not say anything.

These messages are as clear and real as if they had been put into words.  In fact, they can be the most important part of the conversation because people are telegraphing how they actually feel.

The trouble, of course, is that it can be awkward and uncomfortable to acknowledge these signals because they seem negative and a little slippery.  They are often subtle, and sometimes they go by quickly.  Who wants to open up a can of worms?

You do.  You’re going to find that once the worms are out of the can and on the table they don’t hang around very long at all.

So, grab your can opener and use these two simple steps to increase the honesty and comfort of conversations in which these behaviors are occurring:

1.  Stop thinking about signals like arm-crossing and long silence as criticism or rudeness and start calling them information. The people who are giving you these signals are letting you know how they feel.

2. Do a quick, friendly check in, just as you do when you are using your listening skills:

  • Bob, you look a little skeptical. What are you thinking?
  • Ted and Sarah?  Is there something you’re worried about that it would help us to know?
  • Garry, I’m sensing there’s something about this that you don’t like.  Where are you on this idea?
  • Anna, I’m sitting here wondering if you’ve sort of checked out of the conversation.  Is there something that’s not working for you?

Notice that each one of my suggestions ends with a  NOW WHAT? request for something back from the person.  That reduces awkwardness and helps move the conversation along.

CEO Barbara DeBuono: Leading with questions

Executives can lay out a goal and what they think needs to be done to achieve that goal.  People then (hopefully) follow orders and business moves ahead.

This traditional leadership approach cultivates a follower culture. Yet, follower cultures don’t cultivate creativity, innovation, transparency or engagement.

Barbara DeBuono, CEO of Orbis International, takes a different approach, one that more and more highly-effective leaders are adopting: she poses important, provocative questions and then facilitates and guides meaningful conversations. Conversations where people figure out together the ways they believe the organization can best achieve the goal.

She explained the approach to The New York times’ Adam Bryant in the “Corner Office” column:

I asked a group of people at Orbis, “Do you think we’re a high performing organization?” and then I shut my mouth. I wanted them to give me the answer.

I also asked them, “What do you think a high performing organization would look like?”

The next question I ask: “Do you want to be one? And if so, what is a high performing organization? Let’s discuss what it is.

Barbara explains that taking this kind of honest, open conversational approach gets people to drop their defenses, opens up honest conversations about difficult issues, and creates a new energy level among people. “I definitely see a spring in people’s step,” she remarked.

I’m noticing that those who lead effectively:

  • Ask important questions
  • Make it safe for people to have real conversations about the issues
  • Listen intently
  • Trust that the group will discover how to move things forward

The end of employee communications as we know it

Will companies need employee communications departments three or five years from now? I think not.

Just as Twitter is changing how news and information is gathered and shared. So will social communication change business communication, eliminating the need for a centralized employee communications function.

In an interview this week NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen said, “Because of Twitter, the news system is tending toward a state where every user is a node in the news gathering network. And a distributor. That’s a very different system.”

Employee communications will quickly evolve into a very different system as well. With every employee a node in the company information network. Whether it’s Twitter, a private company social network or some other social form of communications, people will want to find out what’s going on in the company — not just from executives and department heads but from one another.

A Fortune 100 company called this morning to talk about new skills and competencies for corporate communications professionals. There are many, which I’ll try to address in another post.  But this got me to thinking that perhaps we need to elevate the conversation to what communications skills and competencies executives need in this evolving world.

Soon — or maybe it’s already here — executives will need to be direct communicators, like all team members. How they participate will determine the effectiveness of workplace communications and how well they attract talent.   Not the Intranet, the employee newsletter, the beautiful posters or the occasional and well-scripted town hall meeting.

While this transition like all transitions will be full of uncertainty, I hope it is not full of fear. Leaders with a clear sense of purpose and passion for their employees, customers and community  have all they need to be superb communicators. Just be yourself. And help people see the way forward.

Why executives need social media

While social media continues to transform our society, executives remain unconvinced that it’s relevant to their work.  I disagree and here are some concrete reasons why I believe  social media is a basic leadership competency. This is a hot topic so if you have additional thoughts please share them.

Manifesting leadership behavior

Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, authors of the Harvard Business Review article “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership,” have researched and found social leadership competencies and behaviors, as noted above and explained more fully in their article.  I would contend that there are uses of social communications that help to manifest these behaviors, especially in large, geographically dispersed organizations where leaders can’t have as much face to face time with their people.

Using Twitter or responding to posts on the company Facebook page can also humanize an executive and recognize  an individual employees, making them feel more valued.

During an interview today a middle manager told me that one of the best days in her position was when the CEO sent a personal note, congratulating her on turning around what had been one of the most poorly performing units of the organization. “That note made me feel so valued,” she explained of the incident that happened a few years ago.  “Today recognizing me on our Facebook page or a Tweet would do the same. Why don’t executives do this more?”

Social media surprise: increase in employee satisfaction

One of the surprises of FedEx’s use of social media for customer service is not that customer sentiment has improved, but that that their employee satisfaction scores have risen. Their front line service reps like their jobs more because they are receiving public recognition on Twitter from those customers that they so diligently help. They feel valued. (Disclaimer: FedEx is one of my clients.)

Note the word “feel.”  To lead people, you must make them feel valued And social media provides a way to do this. Mother Teresa once said, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” Do you know how easy it easy to share short kind words via a blog response, “Nice job,”  a simple re-tweet (RT) of a colleague’s Tweet, or just clicking “Like” on a Facebook comment. Short and kind goes a long way and it’s easy.

Five practical reasons executives need social media

Put socially intelligent leadership strategy aside. Here are five practical reasons for executives to be using social media.

Support company initiatives: As companies launch Facebook pages for employee engagement or internal communities in lieu of newsletters and Intranets, executives should want to be part of these efforts. If  something is important to the company, executives need to show up to make people believe it’s important.

Taking the pulse, being engaged: Similarly, how can you  take the pulse of your people and company if you’re not hanging out where they’re talking, which more and more is online? Showing up and posting responses or comments shows that you’re listening and care about people’s ideas.  Visible listening on these social channels sends a message that you value what your people. It also show’s leadership is engaged.  There are so many programs today aimed at “employee engagement.”  What about leadership engagement going the other way to employees and customers?

Appeal to Gen Y talent: If you really want to attract and hold onto valuable GenY talent, using social media sends a signal that you’re progressive and a company with a desirable collaborative culture. It’s not just the PR department Tweeting, there’s a company culture of open collaborating, sharing and recognizing people’s ideas.

Manage the company’s reputation:  Being involved in key social channels can help you build reputation equity, show you’re an innovative company with diverse people with diverse ideas, attract talent, and help customers see how passionate and dedicated you are to being the best in the industry.  Perceptions today are more influenced by people seeing an ongoing persona of an executive and getting to know who they are as a person from what they share in social media — this social communications sharing is far more influential than  any one or two media articles or handful of speeches.

Speeches at conferences: Today at conferences people live Tweet the speakers and refer to them by their Twitter handles. Oops, what if you’re speaking and you have no Twitter handle? It’s not a big deal. But it’s sort of like showing up to speak and forgetting to wear socks.

Changing your behavior to inspire theirs

Today you can be a highly effective leader and have no social communications competence, sort of like in the late 1980s/early 90’s when executives had no email addresses.  But if you really want to connect to your customers and people, you need to change to how they work, learn, share, and live.  The conservative Mayo Clinic recently said that “the social media revolution is the most far-reaching communications development since Guttenberg’s printing press.”

But it’s more than about communications.  This is about leadership, and changing your management behavior to make people feel valued, recognized, and a part of a movement, which is your company’s mission.

I asked the middle manager about her advice to executives, and she recommend that they all think on this Maya Angelou quote: 

“I have learned that people will forget what you have said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Lessons in leadership: where are you coming from?

Writer, educator and activist Parker Palmer has for years been helping leaders, teachers, and medical professionals connect with their inner values and learn how to rely on that soulful wisdom to guide their professional lives.  Listening to our inner teacher, he writes in “A Hidden Wholeness,” prevents burn out and helps us stay passionate and engaged in work and relationships that are meaningful.

“When we live behind a wall, people close to us become wary of the gap between our onstage performance and backstage reality. Distrusting our duplicity and seeking to protect themselves, they hold us at arm’s length.”

It was interesting to read the interview with Niki Leondakis, COO of the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group, in the Sunday New York Times “Corner Office” column about her leadership approach, which is grounded in standing for our values as leaders.  It is very much in synch with Palmer’s insights.

So what advice would you give to new managers?

“I would talk to a young manager about who they are, what they believe in, and find the foundation or platform, if you will, to communicate consistently to the people you work with so they know what you stand for and what you believe in.

“When they experience that from you, they understand the place that it’s coming from. Otherwise, they fill in their own blanks.”

At a business dinner party two years ago I met Ed Godin, senior VP of HR at Brightcove. Ed opened up the dinner by asking everyone what their “power alleys” were — what we felt were our real gifts and talents.  The question wasn’t about titles or companies or any of those superficial things we so often use to introduce ourselves. It was a great conversation starter because it helped us to quickly begin to know each other for one another.

Understanding our real talents and inner beliefs helpfully guides our individual behavior as leaders. But as Niki Leondakis explains, articulating those beliefs also helps us with people we work with and for.  When you know what’s really motivating a person, you don’t fill in your own blanks, or get frustrated by actions that seem to be grounded in nothing but company politics.

Sort of like that old adage, “the truth can set you free.” When we know what we all value, we can get  on with collaborating and working in a way that is true to who we are. And maybe even have some fun doing so.

The 10 forgotten marketing & communications skills


Business is communications, not the use of devices or channels, as important as they are. Here are 10 skills of the best leaders and marketers, often forgotten when hiring internal resources or outside consultants and agencies.

  1. Move over James Lipton: conducting interviews that uncover interesting, entertaining and enlightening ideas
  2. Texas girls do it best: politely hijacking the conversation, steering it to where you want it to go while making others feel really good about where you’re taking it. (My hypothesis is that Texas women excel at this.)
  3. Tackling the taboos: provoking healthy debate on “off limit” issues that need to be addressed, especially to overcome obstacles
  4. I believe!: performing vs. presenting in order to open minds and help people see the possibilities
  5. YouTube tribal chant: telling stories with video moves people rationally and emotionally, but too many of us have been exclusively trained in words
  6. Change the context, win the game: resetting context to help people see a situation through a different lens. One of the most powerful selling strategies.
  7. Reading between the lines: extracting meaning from what’s being talked about, in person and amid the millions of online/mobile “conversations”
  8. Mind your manners: practicing small kindnesses that make a big difference in getting great work done and  attracting people with well directed energy and talent
  9. The Jon Stewart revolution: creating stories that people love to share
  10. The innovator’s real dilemma: asking questions that get to the “aha”

Odd CEO behavior

This week Beth Israel Deaconess CEO Paul Levy did something unusual for a CEO. When faced with layoffs he asked his employees for ideas on what the hospital could do to protect lower wage earning employees– the hard working transporters, food service workers, housekeepers.

That’s right, asked an auditorium full of employees for their ideas. Talk about respecting your people and valuing their counsel.

And, boy, did he get ideas.  A floor or nurses unanimously volunteered to give up their pay raise. A finance guy suggested working a day less a week. The ideas kept coming after the meeting — almost 100 emails an hour to the CEO.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen wrote a beautiful column today about Levy’s bold leadership step, “A head with a heart.” Don’t miss it. Levy is an example of leadership for a new era, where CEOs trust, embrace and collaborate with employees to together do what’s best for all. Where participation creates solutions far more creative and accepting than those in the old command-and-control model.

“Paul Levy is trying something revolutionary, radical, maybe even impossible. He is trying to convince the people who work for him that the E in CEO can sometimes stand for empathy.”

Humanizing diplomatic communications

What was remarkable about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Asia last week was that it showed an innovative approach to diplomatic relations and communications. Rather than just the formal meetings with dignitaries Clinton showed a much more human communications style, both in style and actions, making time to speak at universities to talk with female students, to appear on a popular television show,  to go to church.

Clinton told reporters that she is determined to make a connection to people “in a way that is not traditional, not confined by the ministerial greeting and the staged handshake photo…I see our job right now, given where we are in the world and what we’ve inherited, as repairing relations, not only with people.”


Better yet, the previously overly cautious, overly messaged Clinton, has seen the light about the value of straight talk.

Mark Landler of The New York Times reported on Saturday: “Mrs. Clinton raised eyebrows among journalists and analysts with a frank assessment of how a succession struggle in North Korea could undermine talks over its nuclear program. She said she was baffled by the reaction.”

“Maybe this is unusual because you are suppose to be so careful that we spend hours avoiding stating the obvious,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I think it’s worth, perhaps, being more straightforward, trying to engage countries on the basis of the reality that exists.”

This straightforward, human approach to communications is what all people are craving — in foreign relations, in government, at school, in business. In fact, one of the effects of social media has been to amplify this desire.

Gary Hamel recently posted “25 Stretch Goals for Management” on the Harvard Business Publishing blog —  summarizing a two day summit of business leaders tackling the topic of how to reinvent management.  My favorite goal, which underscores Clinton’s recent style, is #24:

Humanize the language and practice of business. Tomorrow’s management systems must give as much credence to such timeless ideals as beauty, justice and community as they do to the traditional goals of efficiency, advantage and profit.”

Mrs. Clinton has come so far in changing her leadership communications style over the past two years to be more real, more human, more direct.  Now let’s help our business leaders do the same so they can be more inspiring leaders vs. merely effective managers.

Recession communications: 8 strategies

Yesterday I talked with a CEO client, one of the smartest, most positive and respected executives I’ve ever worked with. He, like most CEOs today, are creating plans to slash expenses, people and programs. “I’ve been through a number of recessions, but nothing like this,” he explained, with not a trace of optimism.

The greatest challenge is treating people who are losing their jobs humanely and with dignity. The second challenge is keeping remaining employees engaged during such uncertain times. A Gallup poll shows that companies with engaged employees grow earnings 2.6 times faster than those that don’t. In this economy, that may mean that companies with engaged employees make it, and those without  will not.

Here are eight communications suggestions for these difficult times:

  1. Create  online alumni communities ASAP — a place to help find new jobs,  provide encouragement and support, get financial advice on how to keep life together, etc. You can be up and running with  Ning community in less than 30 minutes for less than $30 a month.
  2. Don’t paint a rosy picture on a bleak landscape: people know things are bad, don’t pretend they are not.  Be clear about your business situation and what you believe the company needs to do to survive and come out stronger.  For every action, help people understand the why behind it. You’ll earn more trust by being real vs. trying to put a “good spin” on a difficult situation, that will continue to be fraught with uncertainty for at least another four fiscal quarters, if you can trust the economists.
  3. It’s not about transparency, it’s about fairness and caring: Employees must feel that you care about their personal well-being. A recent Harvard study found that “even well-meaning organizations can destroy trust if they are perceived as being fair but callous.”  Get out of the office and into the field with your employees so that you can both experience their worlds and show that you care and that all the HR  “employees first” mantras are more than just rah rah.
  4. Tie every decision to your corporate values: take out those values and use them as the guide for making decisions and communicating.  If you really believe the values, they will guide executive decisions in a way that will resonate with all your stakeholders, particularly employees.  In making announcements, explain to people how the decision supports the organization’s values.  And if the values are not helping to guide decisions,  you know that the vision/value exercise was a failure.
  5. Start with managerial incompetence: the largest driver of employee trust, according to the Harvard study, is managerial competence. In looking where to reduce staff, don’t simply cut by salary range or management level. Make sure you keep the A players, and excuse the mediocre. This will earn trust and motivate employees.
  6. Put Enterprise 2.0 tools in place to make it easier to work: with fewer people needing to do more work, make it a priority to provide company-wide 2.0 tools (wikis, blogs, communities, forums) that make it easier for people to find help and resources within the company, collaborate, solve problems small and large, and connect as people with other people.  Most of these tools are inexpensive, easy to install and require little training.
  7. Sit in the chair: last year a communications manager of a large retailer put two chairs in the company lobby and made herself available to employees who wanted to sit and talk. The response was overwhelming. (Read more here.) Sometimes small gestures go a long way, especially in such stressful times.
  8. One point at a time: My tennis partner, a financial CEO,  and I were recently getting crushed in a match. He came over and gave me this advice: “Take it one point at a time.” We did, and we came back and won.  In such stressful, uncertain periods this same advice may be good for business as well.

Tony Snow: communicator extraordinaire


Tony Snow, former White House press secretary who died Saturday, was a true communications professional, devoted to helping people understand even the most complex issues. I will always remember what I learned from him:

  • Communications is about making meaning and helping people understand. People may come to a different conclusion and not agree with you, but they will never see your view or agree if they don’t understand the context and relevance of the issue in the first place. Tony was first and foremost a meaning maker, not a political spin doctor.
  • Be helpful and open. Tony wanted to be helpful to the press — more so than any other press secretary in recent years. Most others have been defensive and annoyed with the media questions. Not Tony. He answered questions vs. dancing around and throwing empty answers back. He was positive, optimistic, and seemed to genuinely like and respect the media — despite differing points of view. I think he knew that that democracy is based on debating and discussing, not issuing statements and refusing to engage in dialog.
  • Living in a world of optimism and possibilities is a good life. Though ill for many years, Tony’s optimism and energy was a constant reminder of how rich life can be. University of Chicago educator Robert Hutchins once said, ‘The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.” Tony was the antithesis — engaged, passionate and constantly nourishing.

Who are the up and coming Tony Snows and Tim Russerts? We need them now….

Another communications misstep from Chrysler’s Nardelli

Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli ‘s poor communications judgment and skills hurt Home Depot’s reputation. But communications still doesn’t seem to be a priority for him. Rather than having corporate communications report to him, last month he put the organization under the human resources department, and the VP of communications resigned. ( I don’t blame him.)

This move signals that Nardelli doesn’t value communications — or thinks that he knows enough not to need a direct report in that function. Leadership is communications. Inspiring employees to act on ideas. Instilling confidence in partners. Building trust with the media and customers. Listening to disgruntled employees dealers and customers to get to root causes.

As Chrysler tries to make a comeback communication — not advertising — will be crucial. Methinks Nardelli is living in a bubble and when the bubble bursts he will again have egg all over his face.

A hospital CEO's contrarian point of view

Nothing gets people talking (and thinking) like a contrarian or counterintuitive point of view. A good example can be seen in a post today over at the Running a Hospital blog by Paul Levy, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. There’s a local hospital in financial trouble that none of the Boston-area hospital groups have the money to acquire and fix. Levy suggests an alternative — that the Service Employees International Union take over the hospital as they have a strong interest in hospital management and lots of cash.

“So why not approach SEIU with a proposal to have the union purchase, own and operate Carney Hospital? Let the union show how it can handle the full panoply of issues of running a hospital and demonstrate how it can profitably operate a neighborhood facility without the kind of state aid that has been pouring into Carney for all these years. Let the union negotiate contracts with the insurance companies, encourage access for low-income patients, maintain high regulatory standards for patient care, and do all the other things required of hospital management, while, of course, providing excellent working conditions for staff members and physicians.”

An innovative idea or a friendly smack at the unions who so often complain about how hospitals are managed? Hard to say, but Paul’s post will certainly be the topic of conversations in the Boston healthcare community this weekend. And there’s nothing healthier for any industry than frank, open conversations about contrarian ideas. That’s where change so often begins.

Thanks to Howard Kain, managing principal of the healthcare group at PNC for turning me on to Running a Hospital, a great example of CEO blogging — and in a highly-regulated, conservative industry like hospital management no less!

The emotional detachment problem: CEOs, sales, marketing messages and Democrats

Who are many CEOs and sales executives most similar to?

a) Al Gore

b) Bob Kerry

c) Bob Dole

The answer is all of the above. The reason is that most CEOs and sales executives, like unsuccessful political candidates, present litanies of facts, figures, and rational reasoning to try to persuade people, and they overlook (or dismiss) the power of emotions.

They rely on dispassionate logic. Yet, neuroscientists and psychologists have proven that the more “rational” a message, the less likely it is to trigger the emotional circuits in our brains that activate behavior and decisions.

The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of a Nation by psychologist and political scientist Dr. Drew Westen is a fascinating read about the science and practice of persuasion in American politics, particularly about how the Democrats, with the exception of Bill Clinton, have blown it so many times by relying on dispassionate reasoning and policy discussions rather than connecting with people on an emotional level.

People decide by how they feel about you. (Or your company or party.) Republicans and many consumer products marketers are masters at this; most Democrats, business-to-business and professional services are not.

Aside from being a political junkie from a communication strategy perspective, I found the book interesting because the principles of political persuasion are the same for business, and are becoming even more relevant in our video, podcasting, blogging world. Most companies obsessively talk about their products, capabilities, roadmaps, strategy du jour ( Six Sigma, anyone?), and obvious trends (“we’re all about helping customers reduce risk and cut costs.”). But they fail to first connect with people, be they customers or employees, in an emotional way that engenders feelings of competency, trust, and liking.

In my book Beyond Buzz, chapter 3 (“Make Meaning Not Buzz”) explores why emotion is the superhighway to making meaning and understanding. Westen’s exploration of scientific research goes much deeper in showing why the mind is hardwired to tune into emotionally compelling appeals vs. rational reasons, and offers strategies on how to appeal to that neural network of often unconscious decision making.

Here are some takeaways from the book that I found especially interesting for those of us in in business.

On getting attention

“We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger or contempt. We are not moved by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance.”

On driving behavior

“Emotion is one of the most potent sources of motivation that drives human behavior. It is no accident that the words motivation and emotion share the same Latin root, movere, which means to move.”

Thinking beyond the message itself

“The implications of these findings suggest that the choice of words, images, wounds, music, backdrop, tone of voice and a host of other factors is as likely to be as significant to the electoral success of a campaign as content.”

The right feelings vs. the best argument

“As decades of survey research demonstrate, people are driven in the voting booth by their feelings, and these feelings reflect the extent to which they believe a party of candidate is attending to their interests and values.”

“The data form political science is crystal clear: people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate who presents the best argument

Beware messaging by focus group

“Virtually every word that came out of his mouth [Gore, 200 presidential campaign] had been market-tested using focus groups and hand-dials indicating when listeners liked and didn’t like what he ways saying in practice debates. Unfortunately, the more his words seemed market-tested, the less genuine they seemed. And the less genuine he seemed, the less likable

The appeal of being clear

“Political scientist Larry Bartels found, as expected, that voters prefer candidates whose values and policies match their own preferences. But he also found that voters prefer candidates who are clear on what they believe, even if it is not what they believe.

4 questions that matter in deciding

“Voters tend to ask four questions that determine who they will vote for…Candidates who focus their campaigns on the top of this hierarchy and work their way down generally win.

  1. How do I feel about the candidate’s party and its principles?
  2. How does this candidate make me feel?
  3. How do I feel about this candidate’s personal characteristics, particularly his or her integrity, leadership, and compassion?
  4. How do I feel about this candidate’s stands on issues that matter to me?

Now, take a look at the sales deck your sales reps are using, the speech your CEO recently gave to employees or partners, the marketing messaging “playbook,” the “look and feel” of your company’s PowerPoint style .

  • How do they make people feel about your company?
  • Do they tell a compelling story in words and images – or are they a rationale laundry list of capabilities, products, competitive advantages and other dispassionate facts and figures?
  • Do people like telling your story? Or are they dispassionate and not genuinely engaged with the ideas?

Don’t forget employee engagement

While there’s a lot of interest in customer engagement, don’t forget employee engagement. And it seems most companies have. A Towers Perrin study found that just 21 percent of all US employees are fully engaged; most are frustrated and skeptical about their senior leadership, which correlates to operating profit and income, according to two recent studies.

The bottom line upsides of an engaged work force:

  • 3.7 percent increase in operating margins and a 2.1 percent boost in net profit margins, according to an I. M Dulye & Co study of 41 international companies with 360,000 employees.
  • 19.2 percent increase in operating income and 13.7 percent increase in net income, according to a Towers Perrin study across 50 global companies.
  • 19 percent improvement in annual operating profit, 18 percent improvement in productivity and 400 percent reduction in errors at Rolls Royce Engine after committing to an employee engagement program. “It’s been like a tidal wave,” said Raj Sharma, president of the division. “Employees couldn’t believe that we’d listen to their suggestions, that decisions would involve them. And business performance is the only motivation to do this.”
  • There’s a direct link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, and between customer satisfaction and financial performance, according to a study by Prof. James Oakley of Ohio State University.

What three things matter the most in engaging employees, aside from the obvious Sr. leadership commitment to involving employees? Says Julie Gebauer of Towers Perrin:

1. Rational understanding of the company’s goals and values

2. Emotional attachment to the organization

3. Willingness to go above and beyond specific job tasks

Whose job is it anyway? HR? Corporate Communications? Marketing? Probably not HR. None of four HR functions — selection, development, performance management and compensation — was found to influence employee engagement according to a study by Northwestern University Forum for People Perfrmance Management and Measurement.

Steve Jobs on staying hungry, staying foolish

Guy Kawasaki recently posted an excerpt of Beyond Buzz, the nine themes people like to talk about and hear about — on his blog. (Thanks Guy!) I’ve heard from many, many folks about one of the nine themes that they think is especially valuable: aspirational stories.

So here’s one of my favorite examples of an aspirational story: Steve Jobs, a college drop out, giving the commencement address at Stanford University. He talks about connecting the dots, love and loss, death and the value of staying hungry, and staying foolish. Enjoy.

Make your CEO more interesting: Top 10 lists

How to help your CEO talk in a more interesting way? Ask her/him to create a Top 10 list with ideas, beliefs and advice that’s related to one of your business issues and relevant to the audience. Check out the Top 10 lists from Sun co-founder and chairman Scott McNealy. I especially like this advice for getting CEOs to pay more attention to security

Scott gives Chief Privacy Officers some tips on how they can get CEO’s to up-level privacy and security challenges.

Top 10 Ways to Make Privacy the Boss’s Concern
10. Show the boss their daughter’s MySpace page
9. Tell the boss the auditor lost personal data (on a stolen laptop)
8. Install a hum generator in office handset
7. Pre-text the boss’s phone bill
6. Update the boss’s Wikipedia posting
5. Publish recent NetFlix orders
4. Post college report card, assuming the boss graduated
3. Reroute the boss’s home security cameras to YouTube
2. Remove all sticky notes, with passwords, from computer screen
1. Spend $1000 to do a security check on the boss

Drucker’s good questions

Peter Drucker sure had a way with questions. Today during an online tribute to Drucker, 600 of us Drucker-philes—including speakers Tom Peters, Marshall Goldsmith, Frances Hesslebein, and David Maister
were reminded of the simple brilliance of questions like “What needs to
be done?” “Why are we here?” “How can we do things better?” And of
course Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions:

  1. What is the mission?
  2. Who is the customer?
  3. What does the customer value?
  4. What are our results?
  5. What is our plan?

“The leader of the past knew how to tell. The leader of the future will
know how to ask,” Drucker said.(Marketers, take special note. We can do
better than asking, “What’s the ROI on that program?” )

very best advice is often common sense. But sometimes we need a push, a
reminder. Those who ask the best questions — and who listen most
intently — win.

best questions take us off the beaten trail, they are bank shots to
uncovering unexpected beliefs, desires and ideas. They are bold,
heartfelt questions. That’s Step 1.

Step 2 is being brave enough to not dumb down or bury the bold, heartfelt answers…

— Another favorite Drucker quote: “I don’t predict. I just look out
the window and see what’s visible but not yet seen.” Asking the right
questions can be a real eye opener.

Women Running Countries: Giant ears vs. big mouths?

Women stepping up to run countries were in the news today.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old Harvard-trained economist, is being inaugurated as the president of Liberia, the first woman president in Africa. Michele Bachelet, a doctor and former political prisoner, was yesterday elected as Chile’s first woman president. German Chancellor Angela Merkel just finished a visit to the White House. And Finland’s first female president, Tarja Halonen yesterday failed to win enough votes to secure re-election, forcing a runoff against a conservative challenger.

Why is it that women are succeeding as CEO’s of countries, but not of businesses?

I believe it’s because people today are screaming to be heard and to be understood, and women use a conversational communications style that recognizes those voices.

Look no further than the online world for evidence of wanted to be heard and involved. An estimated 50,000 new blogs start every day. Millions share product reviews and recommendations online. Communities are thriving. MoveOn.org has changed political advocacy, making it easy for people to be heard and get involved.

Women‘s communications styles tend to be more engaging, involving, and conversational than men. Most men talk more than they listen, not recognizing other people’s voices. Women, it seems, may have the inside track on knowing how to genuinely connect with people.

In her fascinating book, “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation,” Deborah Tannen explains that men are more comfortable using “report-talk” while women use “rapport-talk.”

“For most women the language of conversation is primarily a language of rapport: a way of establishing connections and negotiating relationships,” she writes. “For most men, talk is primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order.”

In Alice Walker’s novel “The Temple of My Familiar,” the main character falls in love with a man because she sees in him “a giant ear.”

Maybe women are succeeding because they are giant ears, and people prefer to be led by big ears instead of big mouths.