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.
A recent conversation with a smart, successful corporate leader has me still shaking my head. He was reflecting on the lack of urgency and so-so performance of some of their teams. “They just don’t get it,” he said. “I don’t know how we can get through to them.” It doesn’t take the investigative powers of Sherlock Holmes to identify a disconnect between the business strategy and employee performance. The failure here is not on the part of the employees, it’s the communications strategy. Sustained communications remind everyone of what you’re trying to achieve together. Here are three frequent internal communication fails and how to fix them:
No consistent communications Without communications, employees create their own narrative. No matter what channel works best for your business, choose a communications timetable and stick to it. Ad hoc doesn’t work. The message doesn’t need to be long, or over-produced. Sometimes an update, or a checklist or outlook for the next 30 days is enough. When weeks and months go by without a message from the leader, don’t expect employees to think things are OK.
No clarity on the big picture According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was focused on the same goals? A survey by Weber Shandwick found that only four in 10 employees can describe what their employer does and only 37% know the company’s goals. Ugh! Leaders must be relentless in connecting people to purpose by clearly communicating the company purpose, mission and goals. Just when you’re sick of talking about it, you’re reaching someone for the first time.
Relying on email as your go-to channel We’ve been talking about the death of email as an effective internal communications tool forever, but the dominance of millennials in the workplace should finally do it in. Every generation has a communication preference and the future is digital. If you’re relying on email to communicate with employees, you’ve got a problem. Add other channels to your communications mix and consider cloud-based products like Slack, GSuite or Microsoft teams.
When iTunes debuted 18 years ago, it was a radical concept. Don’t buy the whole album; pay 99 cents for
the one song you like. Get a thousand songs in your pocket!
Apple made the announcement this month that it would move to
three individual dedicated apps for music, podcasts and TV. Users can maintain
their iTunes libraries and choose to subscribe to Apple Music. Pundits agreed
it was the right move, even though it’s the end of an era.
Think about your business communications: what channels or practices do you need to put
the brakes on?
Sometimes we stick with a communications process or channel
because it’s comfortable. It’s worked in
the past. It’s a no brainer to produce
it. But it takes a bit of courage to
realize that what worked before isn’t working now or is not sustainable in the
future. Change can be unsettling, but
it’s also troubling to find out your newsletter or intranet or CEO blog is
ineffective because it has no audience.
We recently prepared a presentation for a client that had more than 100 slides…for a one hour meeting. Do the math: If you calculate time for introductions and leave even five minutes at the end for questions, that’s a pace of two slides per minute during the presentation. A blistering pace.
Then consider the content on the slides: lots of words, tables, and occasional graphics. Typeface size was 18 to 28 point. You get the picture. The intent was to hammer home thousands of ideas and facts. The client could not be swayed. They needed every one of these slides to deliver a successful presentation. They just wanted us to “make it pretty.”
I wish I could say we used our magical powers of persuasion to enlighten them to use a strategically messaged, visually compelling presentation. Didn’t happen. I did wonder what it was like in the room for the audience… and the presenter. I imagine they were both exhausted when it was over.
Presenters often start with a bunch of slides and try to cram them into a narrative—and it shows. The most effective presentations look simple because they were planned that way.
When your objective is to communicate, educate or influence, the most important work starts with the result in mind:
What is the point you’re trying to make or what must the audience learn?
Why is it important to the audience?
What story can you use to bring the material to life?
What do you want them to do with the information?
Every presentation should tell a story or take the audience on a journey. This applies even if you’re sharing quarterly returns (some of the most important stories). Once you identify your objective, develop the slides that are clear and compelling. Be concise. Use as little text as possible. Because you don’t want them to be reading your slides, you want them to be listening to you.
Then practice, practice, practice. The more comfortable you are with the information, the less you’ll need to rely on slides. Your audience will be grateful.
In the wake of widespread media reports of sexual harassment, what is your business doing ensure a safe and accountable workplace? Consider this: the #MeToo hashtag was shared more than 1 million times in just 48 hours after being posted to social media. The public debate continues as others are empowered to share their stories.
This is not a new issue. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 94% of U.S. companies have harassment and/or bullying policies that outline conduct that is prohibited. But if you think having a policy is enough, think again. A 2016 EEOC study of workplace harassment revealed that policies alone do not encourage appropriate behavior. The study reported that approximately 90% of survey participants who experienced sexual harassment never file a complaint.
This is a unique, timely moment to be very clear about workplace harassment. It benefits everyone to make this a priority in your business. When employees experience a safe and welcoming workplace, they perform at their best and drive business performance. As you review this issue internally, consider these communication best practices.
Review and update the existing Harassment Policy
Start by examining the current policy. When was the last time it was reviewed and updated? If it’s been more than five years, it’s too old. The policy should, at a minimum, list examples of prohibited conduct, detail the process for reporting objectionable conduct, and be signed by the current CEO. Then ensure that the policy, and the reporting process, is accessible. Bottom line: let employees know where to go for help.
Time for leaders to speak out
Every leader must be accountable. Let employees hear directly from the C-Suite that harassment will not be tolerated. Human Resources can support this endeavor, but can’t shoulder it alone. Executives must step up and commit that when allegations are brought, they will be investigated immediately and that appropriate actions will follow. Convey that retaliation is prohibited since many cases are unreported due to fears of job loss or reprisals.
Train. Train. Train.
Most companies provide online harassment training, but do you mandate that training is completed? Is harassment addressed in new employee orientation? Training will ensure a better understanding of the behaviors that comprise harassment. Additionally, the HR team must be prepared and ready to conduct prompt, objective and thorough investigations.
Amplify the message through internal communications
If an employee experiences sexual harassment–or witnesses it–do they know what steps to take? Make it easy for individuals to report. Use multiple channels to share the harassment policy and reporting procedure. Talk about it in town halls, blogs, create a video from the CEO and put a link to the policy on the home page of your company intranet. Make it loud so that everyone understands that harassment is unacceptable in your company culture.
“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.”
It’s Open Enrollment season and that sound you’re hearing is not a cheery holiday carol, but the collective shriek of millions who are reviewing their medical benefit costs for 2016.
According to the Healthcare Cost Institute, a non-partisan non-profit entity, health care spending among those with employer-sponsored insurance increased 10 % from 2011-2014. The Milliman Medical Index (MMI) calculates the annual cost of healthcare for a typical family of four with employer-provided PPO insurance coverage. According to Milliman, this year’s Index is $24,671, an increase of 6.3% over 2014. Employers still pay the majority, but as cost sharing for medical benefits continues to climb, employees may be paying over 40% of the tab.
For internal communicators, there is no way to spin this. Businesses must manage their benefits costs, and since medical service is becoming more expensive, cost sharing is the prevailing technique to manage the company budget. But there is a way to make it less painful for employees and the business. There are 11 months leading up to Open Enrollment. Each month is an opportunity to inform and educate about the value of your company’s benefit plan. The good news is you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.
Start with a survey—Let’s get really basic: Do your employees know what benefits you offer? Design a simple survey (easy to develop on Google or through providers like Survey Monkey). Determine the awareness of all your benefits. Include Employee Assistance Programs, discounted purchase programs and retirement plans. Anything and everything. You’ll have a good foundation for the second step of this plan: education.
Develop a 12-month communication plan—Many companies cover all their benefits communications once a year to meet compliance requirements. Think about this from the employee’s perspective. No information for 11 months, then lots of information when decisions must be made immediately. It can be overwhelming. Use multiple channels to promote your benefits programs: news items, Lunch and Learns, posters. Consider highlighting one personal employee story every month. A consistent flow of communications about your benefits will increase understanding and engagement.
Be transparent—No one likes higher fees. However, if employees understand what’s driving cost increases, when the prices go up they’ll be more prepared. The time to share this information is mid-year, so the foundation is prepared for Open Enrollment. Telling that story during Open Enrollment is ineffective because your employees will be focused on their out of pocket costs. Get out in front of the issue.
Want more benefits communications ideas? Let connect.
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.
Anyone who has ever been on a job hunt is familiar with sifting through hundreds, if not thousands, of job descriptions looking for the perfect match. Every day, job applicants around the world go into an interview thinking they are a perfect fit for a role, only to find that the position isn’t exactly what was described. From the hiring employer’s perspective, it’s a waste of time to use years-old job description sheets for positions that are new or have had a recent change in role or scope. It’s a waste of time and energy for both parties, but for the employer there’s also a financial cost, which twists the knife. Yet this continues to happen. Why?
The answer is simple. It’s boring! It’s a tedious exercise that needs to be given careful consideration and planning. Taking these steps on the front end will reduce the length of the hiring process and increase the retention rate of new employees. But it’s understandably difficult to afford so much time to a task so dull and time consuming.
I’ve talked to some managers about this, and while they understand it makes sense to revise and update job descriptions, they say it’s not totally necessary because “I have more pressing matters to focus on, and I can use interviews to make sure I hire the right candidates.” There’s no doubt that interviewing job candidates is a skill that will help you select the best option — the manager is right about that. But this rationale doesn’t account for the possibility that the manager will probably have to block off more time for more interviews. Using inaccurate job descriptions increases the chances of you bringing in the wrong candidates, costing you time and money.
Here’s an analogy. On your way home from work, your significant other asks you to stop by the store to pick up some bread. You pick up a loaf and bring it home. As it turns out, your SO failed to be clear that dinner rolls would have been ideal. The loaf of bread will work, but it’s not the best choice. If you need dinner rolls again tomorrow, you’re going to go back to the store to pick them up instead of using slices of bread again. The slices of bread will be…. reassigned, as they say, to lunch duty.
The best solution for updating job descriptions might be hiring outside consultants like us here at Insight to help you take it off your plate. We have experience creating and amending job descriptions for publically traded companies. If you feel you could use some help, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s also the story about how Faulkner walked into the writing class he was supposed to be teaching at the University of Mississippi and asked everyone who wanted to learn to write to raise their hands. He said, “Go home and write,” then turned around and walked out the door.
Maybe that attitude works for geniuses like Faulkner, but for the rest of us, generating leads through content marketing or explaining a new incentive or benefit plan to employees, some guidelines for keeping writing simple, clear and effective would be helpful.
The good news: there’s a lot of information out there about how to write well. The bad news: see the previous sentence. So whom do you trust for writing advice? People who know. For the brief list of “rules” below, I’ve combined overlapping advice from Hemingway, Orwell, and Strunk and White from their The Elements of Style (remember that from college English?)
It seems to me that the basics of good writing are as applicable to an employee benefits brochure as they are to a novel or short story. Great writers connect with their audiences and convey their meaning as simply as possible.
So here goes:
1) Use the simplest language possible:
Leave out unnecessary words.
When common, ordinary words will do the job, don’t use fancy ones. (That includes jargon.)
When possible, keep sentences and paragraphs short.
2) Write vigorously:
Use active instead of passive voice when possible.
Choose powerful verbs over weak ones like forms of “to be.”
Let nouns and verbs carry your meaning. Avoid decorating your prose with adverbs and adjectives unless they add depth and weight to your message.
3) Be positive, not negative: say what something is, not what it is not. For example, say, “The procedure will be relatively comfortable,” instead of “pain-free.” Your audience will unconsciously focus on the most potent word in the sentence, which is “pain” and the rest will lose power.
4) Have a design for what you’re going to say. Most of the time for business communications, that’s an outline or a communications plan. Know your audience, your purpose, and the value of what you have to say for that audience before outlining your key points.
5) Revise, revise, revise.
Fortunately, most of us aren’t required to write even one page of masterpiece, but the writing we do is no less important. Effective writing can impact employee morale and the company’s bottom line. At Insight Strategic Communications, we offer deep experience in internal communications and can help you with everything from your communications planning to execution. Call us and let’s talk about how we can help you. Contact Maureen at email@example.com Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.