In May, our little company reached a noteworthy milestone: 20 years in business. Since 65% of new businesses fail in the first ten years, we were feeling kind of proud.
We had plans for a year of celebration including an anniversary page on our website and a memorable get together with the clients, partners and friends who had helped build our business along the way. And then Covid altered our plans. Considerably.
Just like any business story, ours was shaped by successes and failures, marked by amazing good luck and work-to-exhaustion cycles. We met the most remarkable people and learned so much from clients and partners. It’s been an honor to earn their trust as we’ve partnered to create engaging communications and build performance.
So instead of a socially-distanced slice of cake and a glass of wine, we’re sharing three principles we’ve adopted in our first 20 years. They apply to building to building a business or navigating your career. Thank you to everyone who’s taught us these lessons along the way.
1. Get prepared to be lucky.
Business success is sometimes equal parts of hard work and good luck. But luck is not sustainable. You have to be prepared. That means identifying gaps, finding partners who can do what you can’t do, and having the emotional intelligence to lead others. Do the work of being prepared.
2. Follow the strategy and be accountable.
A goal without a plan is a wish. As a new business, our goal was to stay in business. We became more sophisticated over time. Part of that is not being in love with your own ideas, focusing relentlessly on delivering the strategy, and making adjustments. When you write down an aspirational business plan, don’t put it in the drawer. Review it, update it, and hold yourself accountable for results.
3. Find a fan. Be a fan.
No matter what you role, everyone needs a fan. Everyone needs someone to believe in them, to cheer them on, to drop a positive word of encouragement when things seem bleak. Find that person for you and be that person for someone else.
The term bridezilla is not flattering but can be accurate.
Recently Courtney Duffy, a grad student at Dartmouth, booked a JetBlue weekend flight to her friend Alex’s wedding. (She was one of the bridesmaids). When the bride found out Courtney couldn’t stay through Monday, she emailed her and asked her to step aside and to mail her the garment so a replacement bridesmaid could wear it.
Courtney posted the exchange on Twitter with a plea to JetBlue to refund her airfare. They did that and more. In four hours, they posted this on Twitter:
“Hey Courtney, we’ve been thinking. The jumpsuit may have been borrowed, but we’ll bring the (Jet)Blue. When you’re ready to patch things up, we’d like to help make your old friendship feel like a new. A future girls’ weekend is on us.”
The story just begs for a follow up. Will Courtney and Alex reconnect as BFFs? Can they find a replacement bridesmaid in time (and can she fit in Alex’s jumpsuit)?
The clear winner is JetBlue. Here’s why:
They monitored social media channels and responded quickly
They delivered on the customer’s request for a refund
They showed the brands’ personality. Encouraging the former pals to reunite for a girls’ weekend is an unexpected and positive twist to the story.
The go-fast, digital era we’re living in requires businesses to pay attention to social media channels and act quickly. It’s a PR game changer. JetBlue was able to respond within a few hours to Courtney’s challenge and sweeten the deal. That nimble response reveals their social media team is empowered to act. In many businesses, in the time it took for internal approvals, the opportunity would have vanished, and so would the PR benefit.
I was watching a movie the other night (Jurassic Park III, underrated movie in my opinion) and there was a conversation between two of the main characters that stood out for me.
Billy “You have to believe me, this was a stupid decision, but I did it with the best intentions.”
Dr. Grant “With the best intentions? Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.”
Now in this case, Dr. Grant was talking about building a dinosaur theme park that ended up getting hundreds of people killed. On a smaller scale, businesses sometimes make decisions that end up backfiring with undesired consequences.
Business Insider published an article recently highlighting a perfect example of this. United Airlines announced they were making a change to their employee incentive program. Rather than using the existing quarterly performance and attendance-based bonus program they were moving to a lottery- based bonus program. Eligible employees would be entered into drawings for various prizes if the company hit performance goals during that quarter. The news did not go over well. Very shortly, United President Scott Kirby announced that they would be “pressing pause” on the new system after negative feedback from employees.
“Our intention was to introduce a better, more exciting program, but we misjudged how these changes would be received by many of you. So, we are pressing the pause button on these changes to review your feedback and consider the right way to move ahead.”
There was an obvious disconnect between the decision makers at United and their employees. In retrospect, this is something that could have easily been avoided. When introducing a new internal program, particularly one that employees are passionate about, be sure to understand what your employees value and take steps to prepare them for the change. Seeking input and instituting change management best practices will help ensure that new initiatives are launched successfully.
Conducting an employee survey is a low cost effective method to gather information on employee priorities and areas that need work. Conduct an employee survey annually or use spot surveys for immediate input before launching a new program.
Before rolling out new programs, test the concept through focus groups. This will give you a good idea of how new programs will be received and identify any potential problems before launch.
Institute a Soft Launch or Pilot Program
Test the concept in one functional area or with a user group over a specified period of time. This will give the pilot group time to ask questions and give feedback before the full program launch so the program can be tweaked before full launch.
Sometimes an idea looks great of paper but simply doesn’t work in practice. Being prepared will make the entire process easier. Get out in front of any potential problems and create a plan that simplifies the information with a clear and consistent message. How does your company communicate new programs? Please share your ideas and stories with me: firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the most fascinating podcasts I listen to is NPR’s How I Built This. The people behind some of the world’s best known brands give an insider’s view of the process of moving from idea to ignition.
In every case, there is not a clear path to success. John Mackey from Whole Foods endured a devastating loss when a flood demolished his store (he had no insurance). Blake Mycoskie, one of the pioneers of social entrepreneurship, received more orders for TOMS shoes than he had inventory. He hired a team of interns to personally contact every customer to let them know there would be an 8-week delay. They only lost one sale.
If you’re not telling your company’s origin story, you’re missing and opportunity to inform, inspire and involve customers and employees.
Stories create memorable bonds. It doesn’t need to be a rags-to-riches chronicle to captivate. Sometimes a failure story teaches a greater lesson. A well-crafted origin story becomes a shared experience, a powerful way to connect your most important stakeholders to your brand. For employees, origin stories help to build appreciation for the past while ensuring their contributions are part of the ongoing narrative.
Here’s how to get started:
Connect visually. Your origin story is your business family tree. Share photos, documents, company meeting videos and artifacts.
Align with the business core values. Show how the values that grew the business are still relevant today. While businesses always evolve, the things that were important then are still important now.
Keep it interesting. Every great business story starts with an inspiring journey and experiences challenges along the way. Don’t just provide a timeline of dates.
Solicit stories. Ask your employees to share stories from their first days with the business. Who inspired them? What was the weirdest tradition?
Tell the truth. Be authentic and don’t embellish the facts. That’s a fast lane to losing credibility. If the founder was a grumpy old so-and-so, say that. It adds more personality to the story.
Erin Andrews’ civil suit against the owner and former operator of the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt, and the resulting award of $55 million, should set off alarm bells for every business. In raw, gut wrenching testimony, Andrews recounted the emotional impact of being videotaped in her hotel room by a stalker. While the verdict assigned 51% of the penalty on her stalker, the hotel was found to be at fault and liable for 49% of the amount.
The verdict may be reduced or overturned on appeal, but the reputation damage is done. Guests don’t make the distinction between a company-owned or franchised business. They know the brand. In this case, they know that Andrews’ privacy, safety and security was violated at a Marriott hotel.
The individual who videotaped Andrews has already been convicted. The heart of this case was Andrews’ contention that hotel personnel gave out her room number to the stalker and did not tell her that he had asked to be put in a room next to hers.
That sounds like a training issue.
Well trained hotel personnel know to never say a guest’s room number out loud. They do not honor requests for rooms adjacent to members outside their travel party. Was the hotel employee who provided information to the stalker trained? We’ll never know. But the monetary penalty for the error is evident and the impact to the brand’s reputation is evolving.
Employee training in any business is an investment, not an expense. When employees are well trained, they perform with skill and confidence. They treat customers well and create an experience that builds brand love. Productivity and efficiency improve and turnover declines. Sure, training requires time away from operations, but that’s time well spent when employees understand their role. Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do.
Companies that support employee training and development make an investment in business success.
“Please take some time to familiarize yourself with the contents and policies of our Employee Handbook and feel free to contact your HR representative if you have any questions.”
Does that sound familiar? Probably not, because in all honesty, who actually reads through their entire Employee Handbook?
Most of the time your Employee Handbook is distributed, put in a drawer and then thrown away when the next handbook is distributed. They are often an afterthought to both employees and employers that are only brought out in when someone wants to check company policies.
I recently read an article about one such extreme situation. The company, Quicken Loans, was summoned to the National Labor Relations Board offices this past December. The case against them alleged that the Detroit-based company had violated the First Amendment rights of employees and their protections under the National Labor Relations Act to discuss salary and benefits information. The allegation claimed that company policies in their Employee Handbook restricted discussions to the formation of a labor union.
Whether or not Quicken Loans is found in violation, this is a perfect case of why it is important to know what is in your Employee Handbook and why companies need to periodically update and revise it. Attorney Daniel Schudroff made a great comparison when he said “It’s like taking your car to the shop every six months for a checkup, the preventative maintenance could save an employer a costly event.”
Want to learn something during your internship? Add one employee handbook, five blog posts, one print check, two client meetings, and the launch of a start-up. That should do the trick.
Throughout my seven week internship with Insight Strategic Communications I had the opportunity to work on projects that ultimately gave me a better understanding of brands, employee ownership, and proofing with the audience in mind.
The word “brand” was not new to my vocabulary; however, throughout the course of my internship, I gained a better understanding of the definition. I had never realized how many factors went into creating and maintaining a brand and how many different types of rules and standards must be considered when developing products—things such as font, color, positioning, and tone. As a communications consulting firm, we have to be aware of a client’s brand as we write, proof, and create content for them.
I spent a bulk of my time writing and proofing content and materials for our new company Nest Egg Communications—a communications agency that provides communications toolkits for employee owned companies. At the start of my internship I had no idea what an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) was, let alone what it meant in terms of business. I now know that ESOPs give employees a way to share in the wealth they create, no matter what job they hold.
I had the opportunity to refine and practice my writing and proofing skills while also learning to consider the audience and how the message might be perceived. Before I started reading something I would ask “who is the audience?” This was new for me, I had always edited content by determining if it was perceived well by me; but, what I gained from my experience is that the writing is ineffective if the intended audience can’t understand the message.
With this internship being my first real-world job, I was both nervous and excited; I was eager to learn but also afraid I didn’t know enough going in. However, through lots of questions and experiences I now know that not only can I meet expectations and do the work, but with some more practice I can thrive in the communications field and create great work.
Chances are that if you are reading this blog, you’ve probably already investigated how to engage millenials in the workplace. When we think about engaging millenials, we usually illicit mental images of young folks looking bored or struggling in a corporate conference room. What we definitely don’t think of is football players. In this case, we’ll look at the San Francisco 49ers, the franchise who is making a huge commitment toward its most important personnel, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Not only is the NFL big business, but there might not be another industry that’s more dependent on millenials to drive the success of the company. The playing staffs of NFL team are comprised almost solely by millenials — broadly defined as those aged 18-34. The Smart Phone Age.
What’s eye-catching here aren’t just the techniques the 49ers are using to accommodate this new generation of players, but the open-mindedness and courage the front office and coaching staff has in breaking down historically successful protocols in its business. After all, the 49ers are one of the winningest teams in the NFL, colleting five Super Bowl titles from 1981 to 1994. Regardless, Head Coach Jim Tomsula has changed the team’s meeting schedules to adapt to millenial’s shorter attention spans and propensities to multi-task.
“The [experts] are telling me about attention spans and optimal learning,” Tomulsa told the WSJ. “I’m thinking, ‘My gosh, we sit in two-hour meetings. You are telling me after 27 minutes no one’s getting anything?’ ”
But as opposed to some business leaders, inside the NFL and out, the 49ers felt it was prudent for their coaching and support staff to adapt to the player’s habits, not the other way around. In this effort, they’ve stopped handing out paper schedules, and now all meetings are sent straight to a player’s online calendar. Instead of the old two-hour meetings, they’re now segmented into 30-minute blocks, with 10 minutes in between for free time.
Some business leaders feel it’s important for millenials to adapt to the working environment of their generation, one that didn’t grow up with smartphones and advanced computing. But at what cost? The goal of any business leader should be to create a working environment in which employees can produce to their maximum potential. And not only that, but great leaders understand that the most important employees to cater to aren’t the ones with corner offices — they’re the ones who are on the front line of the business. Sadly, it’s these employees who are often the lowest paid, and thus the most neglected.
Everyone from psychologists to elementary school teachers can tell you that the impact technology has made on the human race is real. It’s not a far-flung theory, and it’s not a simple case of young people being lazy. Not only are attention spans getting shorter, but higher rates of ambidexterity are occurring, which is thought to be caused by children now typing, texting, and playing games with both hands on touch screens.
“Our whole lives, we’ve gone with a paper and pad,” Tomsula said in the WSJ. “Next week, a young person’s phone will be outdated. We decided we have to be on top of that.”
I’m sitting with friends in a mostly-empty Phillips Arena to watch the Atlanta Hawks play the Boston Celtics. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. We weren’t really there to watch the game. We were there to get autographs from players, to hang out in freely-upgraded seats near the court (to try to mask the poor attendance to television viewers), and to troll the opponents as they walked to and from the locker room. Tickets were only $10, so it was a pretty cheap way to waste a Friday night in high school. The Hawks lost by 20. But to look on the bright side, Hawks employees gave us a box of inflatable thunder sticks (inflatable noisemakers) to take home. By the end of the season, the Hawks had won 13 games, and we’d won four boxes of thunder sticks and several items of game worn memorabilia — five shoes, two headbands, and a sock.
The NBA is a glamorous TV product that is played by some of the best athletes on the planet. But in Atlanta, the team was so bad that most of the “crowd” (and I use that term loosely) had to find ways outside the court’s lines to entertain themselves. If you did focus on the game, it was ugly. Not only did the team rack up poor results, but the quality of the play was terrible. Lots of standing around. Lots of one-on-one offense. And lots of complaining by players and coaches, which lead to the same by the fans.
Skip ahead to today, where the Hawks have the best record in the Eastern Conference and are the only team to have punched their ticket for the playoffs with a hefty 18 games still remaining in the regular season. They produced four all-stars — a club record. They’ve had a 19 game winning streak, tied for the sixth longest in NBA history. I never would have believed such success was possible 10 years ago.
The credit has to go to Head Coach Mike Budenholzer and the players who have adopted his “team first” mentality. His leadership is a perfect example to any leader in any walk of life on how to turn a team into something greater than the sum of its parts. The newly found success of the team is rooted in this philosophy. For example, instead of letting players pick their lockers, or ordering them numerically or alphabetically, “Coach Bud” strategically sat each player next to one teammate they could influence and one who could influence them. He instituted team dinners after road games. The examples go on, but maybe nothing signifies the adoption of his methods more than this excerpt reported by SI.com’s Lee Jenkins:
“Everyone is part of the shot,” [shooting guard Kyle] Korver says. “Everyone matters, and if you feel like you matter, you take ownership.”
That’s engagement, folks. Engagement isn’t about how fun your job is or how often you talk to your boss. It’s about your employees knowing that they matter. Employees who feel valued are more productive and happy people. This is what every boss should aim for, not just the ones on the hardcourt.
If you’re a business owner or you lead a team, take notes from Coach Bud. Think about the little things. Heck, even team meals and seating arrangements apply to many offices. Engage your team and you might discover that you have more all-stars than you thought.
Almost a year ago, Major League Soccer announced its landmark decision that saw Atlanta, Ga., a city that hardly screams “soccer passion,” as the host of its next expansion franchise. With the new club starting from scratch, I wrote last year that this would be a case study for any business owner interested in brand building.
The club, led by Owner Arthur Blank and General Manager Darren Eagles (who has experience in the English Premier League), has enlisted the help of the city’s main soccer support group, Terminus Legion, to involve the fans in the club’s formative stage. It’s a wise move, which I’ll explain later, but first here’s some background on what’s happened.
Terminus Legion conducted a multi-stage poll that was open to the public for voting on the team name. The group posted regular updates, were quick to respond to voters with questions (I was one), and finally posted a comprehensive results summary. From the onset, Terminus Legion made it clear that their poll was not the end all be all, but would give the owners and club leaders a thorough insight into what the fans wanted or didn’t want. In short, the club created an open channel for dialogue with the public.
The fact that the club is not just open for fan input, but actively soliciting it is a great omen. They are engaging a market to which they will be selling a product. Getting the market involved with the vision and direction of the club will give the fans ownership and a vested interest. Fans that feel this way will do more than just buy tickets — they will actively market the club 24/7 talking with their friends and colleagues.
Engaging someone else, whether it’s a colleague, a business partner, or even your sales target empowers those people. It gives them a sense of purpose. It inspires them. It makes them proud. And in the end, from a business owner’s perspective, it increases profits. Colleagues that are engaged with their work are going to be more productive. Period.
The Atlanta MLS team continues to be a great case study for business owners. How this team — in essence, its own company — operates is more public than what we’d normally get to see. Not only that, but you’re seeing it run by one of the most successful businessman in recent years. Be ready to take notes along with me, because class is in session.